From New World Encyclopedia

German troops march into Austria March 12, 1938.

The Anschluss[1] (German: connection, or political union), also known as the Anschluss Österreichs, was the 1938 annexation of Austria into Greater Germany by the Nazi regime.

The events of March 12, 1938, marked the culmination of historical cross-national pressures to unify the German populations of Austria and Germany under one nation. However, the 1938 Anschluss, regardless of its popularity, was forcibly enacted by Germany. Earlier, Hitlerian Germany had provided support for the Austrian National Socialist Party in its bid to seize power from Austria's Austrofascist leadership. Fully devoted to remaining independent but amidst growing pressures, the chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, tried to hold a plebiscite.

Although he expected Austria to vote in favor of maintaining autonomy, a well-planned internal overthrow by the Austrian Nazi Party of Austria's state institutions in Vienna took place on March 11, prior to the vote. With power quickly transferred over to Germany, the Wehrmacht troops entered Austria to enforce the Anschluss. The Nazis held a plebiscite within the following month, where they received 99.73 percent of the vote. No fighting ever took place and the strongest voices against the annexation, particularly Fascist Italy, France and the United Kingdom—the Stresa Front—were either powerless to stop it, or, in case of Italy, appeased. The Allies were, on paper, committed to upholding the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which specifically prohibited the union of Austria and Germany.

Nevertheless, the Anschluss was among the first major steps in Adolf Hitler's long-desired creation of an empire, including German-speaking lands and territories Germany had lost after World War I. Already prior to the 1938 annexation, the Rhineland was retaken and the Saar region was returned to Germany after 15 years of occupation. After the Anschluss, the predominantly German Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia was taken, with the rest of the country becoming a protectorate to Germany in 1939. That same year, Memelland was returned from Lithuania, the final event and antecedent before the invasion of Poland, prompting World War II.

Austria ceased to exist as a fully independent nation until 1955. A preliminary Austrian government was reinstated on April 27, 1945, and was legally recognized by the Allies in the following months.

Situation before the Anschluss

The dissolution of Austria-Hungary
Border of Austria-Hungary in 1914
Borders in 1914
Borders in 1920
██ Empire of Austria in 1914 ██ Kingdom of Hungary in 1914 ██ Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1914

The idea of grouping all Germans into one state had been the subject of inconclusive debate since the end of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. Prior to 1866, it was generally thought that the unification of the Germans could only succeed under Austrian leadership, but the rise of Prussia was largely unpredicted. This created a rivalry between the two that made unification through a Großdeutschland solution impossible. Also, due to the multi-ethnic composition of the Austro-Hungarian Empire centralized in Vienna, many rejected this notion; it was unthinkable that Austria would give up her "non-German" territories, let alone submit to Prussia. Nevertheless, a series of wars, including the Austro-Prussian War, led to the expulsion of Austria from German affairs, allowing for the creation of the Norddeutsche Bund (North German Confederation) and consolidated the German states through Prussia, enabling the creation of a German Empire in 1871. Otto von Bismarck played a fundamental role in this process, with the end result representing a Kleindeutsche solution that did not include the German-speaking parts of Austria-Hungary. When the latter broke up in 1918, many German-speaking Austrians hoped to join with Germany in the realignment of Europe, but the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the Treaty of Saint-Germain of 1919 explicitly vetoed the inclusion of Austria within a German state, because France and Britain feared the power of a larger Germany, and had already begun to disempower the current one. Also Austrian particularism, especially among the nobility, played an important role, as Austria was Roman Catholic, while Germany was dominated, especially in government, more by Protestants.

In the early 1930s, popular support for union with Germany remained overwhelming, and the Austrian government looked to a possible customs union with Germany in 1931. However Hitler's and the Nazis' rise to power in Germany left the Austrian government with little enthusiasm for such formal ties. Hitler, born in Austria, had promoted an "all-German Reich" from the early beginnings of his leadership in the NSDAP and had publicly stated as early as 1924 in Mein Kampf that he would attempt a union, by force if necessary.

Austria shared the economic turbulence of post-1929 Europe with a high unemployment rate and unstable commerce and industry. Similar to its northern and southern neighbors these uncertain conditions made the young democracy vulnerable. The First Republic, dominated from the late 1920s by the Catholic nationalist Christian Social Party (CS), gradually disintegrated from 1933 (including the dissolution of parliament and a ban of the Austrian National Socialists) to 1934 (with the Austrian Civil War in February and ban of all remaining parties except the CS). This evolved into a pseudo-fascist, corporatist model of one-party government which combined the CS and the paramilitary Heimwehr with absolute state domination of labor relations and no freedom of the press. Power was centralized in the office of the Chancellor who was empowered to rule by decree. The predominance of the Christian Social Party (whose economic policies were based on the papal encyclical Rerum novarum) was a purely Austrian phenomenon based on Austria's national identity, which had strong Catholic elements which were incorporated into the movement by way of clerical authoritarian tendencies which are certainly not to be found in Nazism. Both Engelbert Dollfuss and his successor Kurt Schuschnigg turned to Austria's other fascist neighbor, Italy, for inspiration and support. Indeed, the statist corporatism often referred to as Austrofascism bore more resemblance to Italian Fascism than German National Socialism. Benito Mussolini was able to support the independent aspirations of the Austrian dictatorship until his need for German support in Ethiopia forced him into a client relationship with Berlin that began with the 1937 Berlin-Rome Axis.

When Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated by Austrian Nazis on 25 July 1934 in a failed coup, the second civil war within only one year followed, lasting until August 1934. Afterwards, many leading Austrian Nazis fled to Germany and continued to coordinate their actions from there while the remaining Austrian Nazis started to make use of terrorist attacks against the Austrian governmental institutions (causing a death toll of more than 800 between 1934 and 1938). Dollfuss' successor Schuschnigg, who followed the political course of Dollfuss, took drastic actions against the Nazis, including rounding up of Nazis (but also Social Democrats) in internment camps.

The Anschluss of 1938

Hitler's first moves

In early 1938, Hitler had consolidated his power in Germany and was ready to reach out to fulfill his long-planned expansion. After a lengthy period of pressure by Germany, Hitler met Schuschnigg on February 12, 1938 in Berchtesgaden (Bavaria), instructing him to lift the ban of political parties, reinstate full party freedoms, release all imprisoned members of the Nazi party and let them participate in the government. Otherwise, he would take military action. Schuschnigg complied with Hitler's demands, appointing Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a Nazi lawyer, as Interior Minister and another Nazi, Edmund Glaise-Horstenau, as Minister, even without a portfolio.[2]

Before the February meeting, Schuschnigg was already under considerable pressure from Germany, which demanded the removal of the chief of staff of the Austrian Army, Alfred Jansa, from his position in January 1938. Jansa and his staff had developed a scenario for Austria's defense against a German attack, a situation Hitler wanted to avoid at all costs. Schuschnigg subsequently complied with the demand.[3]

During the following weeks, Schuschnigg realized that his newly appointed ministers were working to take over his authority. Schuschnigg tried to gather support throughout Austria and inflame patriotism among the people. For the first time since February 12, 1934 (the time of the Austrian Civil War), socialists and communists could legally appear in public again. The communists announced their unconditional support for the Austrian government, understandable in light of Nazi pressure on Austria. The socialists demanded further concessions from Schuschnigg before they were willing to side with him.

Schuschnigg announces a referendum

On March 9, as a last resort to preserve Austria's independence, Schuschnigg scheduled a plebiscite on the independence of Austria for March 13. To secure a large majority in the referendum, Schuschnigg set the minimum voting age at 24 in order to exclude younger voters who largely sympathized with Nazi ideology. Holding a referendum was a highly risky gamble for Schuschnigg, and, on the next day, it became apparent that Hitler would not simply stand by while Austria declared its independence by public vote. Hitler declared that the plebiscite would be subject to major fraud and that Germany would not accept it. In addition, the German Ministry of Propaganda issued press reports that riots had broken out in Austria and that large parts of the Austrian population were calling for German troops to restore order. Schuschnigg immediately publicly replied that the reports of riots were nothing but lies.

Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg on March 11, demanding that he hand over all power to the Austrian National Socialists or face an invasion. The ultimatum was set to expire at noon, but was extended by two hours. However, without waiting for an answer, Hitler had already signed the order to send troops into Austria at one o'clock, issuing it to Hermann Göring only hours later.

Schuschnigg desperately sought support for Austrian independence in the hours following the ultimatum, but, realizing that neither France nor the United Kingdom were willing to take steps, he resigned as Chancellor that evening. In the radio broadcast in which he announced his resignation, he argued that he accepted the changes and allowed the Nazis to take over the government in order to avoid bloodshed. Meanwhile, Austrian President Wilhelm Miklas refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart Chancellor and asked other Austrian politicians such as Michael Skubl and Sigismund Schilhawsky to assume the office. However, the Nazis were well organized. Within hours they managed to take control of many parts of Vienna, including the Ministry of Internal Affairs (controlling the Police). As Miklas continued to refuse to appoint a Nazi government and Seyss-Inquart still could not send a telegram in the name of the Austrian government demanding German troops to restore order, Hitler became furious. At about 10 P.M., well after Hitler had signed and issued the order for the invasion, Göring and Hitler gave up on waiting and published a forged telegram containing a request by the Austrian Government for German troops to enter Austria. Around midnight, after nearly all critical offices and buildings had fallen into Nazi hands in Vienna and the main political party members of the old government had been arrested, Miklas finally conceded, appointing Seyss-Inquart Chancellor.[4]

German troops march into Austria

On the morning of March 12, the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the German-Austrian border. They did not face resistance by the Austrian Army. On the contrary, the German troops were greeted by cheering Austrians. Although the invading forces were badly organized and coordination between the units was poor, it mattered little because no fighting took place. It did, however, serve as a warning to German commanders in future military operations, such as the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Hitler's car crossed the border in the afternoon at Braunau am Inn, his birthplace. In the evening, he arrived at Linz and was given an enthusiastic welcome in the city hall. The atmosphere was so intense that Göring, in a telephone call that evening, stated: "There is unbelievable jubilation in Austria. We ourselves did not think that sympathies would be so intense."

Hitler's further travel through Austria changed into a triumphal tour that climaxed in Vienna, when around 200,000 Austrians gathered on the Heldenplatz (Square of Heroes) to hear Hitler proclaim the Austrian Anschluss (Video: Hitler proclaims Austria's inclusion in the Reich (2MB)). Hitler later commented: "Certain foreign newspapers have said that we fell on Austria with brutal methods. I can only say: even in death they cannot stop lying. I have in the course of my political struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed the former frontier (into Austria) there met me such a stream of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators."[5]

The Anschluss was given immediate effect by legislative act on 13 March, subject to ratification by a plebiscite. Austria became the province of Ostmark, and Seyss-Inquart was appointed Governor. The plebiscite was held on 10 April and officially recorded a support of 99.73 percent of the voters.[6] While historians concur that the result itself was not manipulated, the voting process was neither free nor secret. Officials were present directly beside the voting booths and received the voting ballot by hand (in contrast to a secret vote where the voting ballot is inserted into a closed box). In addition, Hitler's brutal methods to emasculate any opposition had been immediately implemented in the weeks preceding the referendum. Even before the first German soldier crossed the border, Heinrich Himmler and a few SS officers landed in Vienna to arrest prominent representatives of the First Republic such as Richard Schmitz, Leopold Figl, Friedrich Hillegeist and Franz Olah. During the weeks following the Anschluss (and before the plebiscite), Social Democrats, Communists, and other potential political dissenters, as well as Jews, were rounded up and either imprisoned or sent to concentration camps. Within only a few days of 12 March, 70,000 people had been arrested. The referendum itself was subject to large-scale propaganda and to the abrogation of the voting rights of around 400,000 people (nearly 10% of the eligible voting population), mainly former members of left-wing parties and Jews.[7] Interestingly, in some remote areas of Austria the referendum on the independence of Austria on March 13, was held despite the Wehrmacht's presence in Austria (it took up to 3 days to occupy every part of Austria). For instance, in the village of Innervillgraten a majority of 95 percent, voted for Austria's independence.[8]

Austria remained part of the Third Reich until the end of World War II when a preliminary Austrian Government declared the Anschluss "null und nichtig" (null and void) on April 27, 1945. After the war, then allied-occupied Austria was recognized and treated as a separate country, but was not restored to sovereignty until the Austrian State Treaty and Austrian Declaration of Neutrality, both of 1955, largely due to the rapid development of the Cold War and disputes between the Soviet Union and its former allies over its foreign policy.

Reactions and consequences of the Anschluss

The picture of Austria in the first days of its existence in the Third Reich is one of contradictions: at one and the same time, Hitler's terror regime began to tighten its grip in every area of society, beginning with mass arrests and thousands of Austrians attempting to flee in every direction; yet Austrians could be seen cheering and welcoming German troops entering Austrian territory. Many Austrian political figures did not hesitate to announce their support of the Anschluss and their relief that it happened without violence.

Cardinal Theodor Innitzer (a political figure of the CS) declared as early as March 12: "The Viennese Catholics should thank the Lord for the bloodless way this great political change has occurred, and they should pray for a great future for Austria. Needless to say, everyone should obey the orders of the new institutions." The other Austrian bishops followed suit some days later. Vatican Radio, however, immediately broadcast a vehement denunciation of the German action, and Cardinal Pacelli, the Vatican Secretary of State, ordered Innitzer to report to Rome. Before meeting with the pope, Innitzer met with Pacelli, who had been outraged by Innitzer's statement. He made it clear that Innitzer needed to retract; he was made to sign a new statement, issued on behalf of all the Austrian bishops, which provided: “The solemn declaration of the Austrian bishops … was clearly not intended to be an approval of something that was not and is not compatible with God's law”. The Vatican newspaper also reported that the bishop's earlier statement had been issued without the approval from Rome.

Robert Kauer, President of the Protestants in Austria, greeted Hitler on March 13, as "saviour of the 350,000 German Protestants in Austria and liberator from a five-year hardship." Even Karl Renner, the most famous Social Democrat of the First Republic, announced his support for the Anschluss and appealed to all Austrians to vote in favor of it on April 10.[9]

The international response to the expansion of Germany may be described as moderate. in London The Times commented that 200 years ago Scotland had joined England as well and that this event would not really differ much. On March 14, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain noted in the House of Commons:

His Majesty's Government have throughout been in the closest touch with the situation. The Foreign Secretary saw the German Foreign Minister on the 10th of March and addressed to him a grave warning on the Austrian situation and upon what appeared to be the policy of the German Government in regard to it…. Late on the 11th of March our Ambassador in Berlin registered a protest in strong terms with the German Government against such use of coercion, backed by force, against an independent State in order to create a situation incompatible with its national independence.

However the speech concluded:

I imagine that according to the temperament of the individual the events which are in our minds to-day will be the cause of regret, of sorrow, perhaps of indignation. They cannot be regarded by His Majesty's Government with indifference or equanimity. They are bound to have effects which cannot yet be measured. The immediate result must be to intensify the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in Europe. Unfortunately, while the policy of appeasement would lead to a relaxation of the economic pressure under which many countries are suffering to-day, what has just occurred must inevitably retard economic recovery and, indeed, increased care will be required to ensure that marked deterioration does not set in. This is not a moment for hasty decisions or for careless words. We must consider the new situation quickly, but with cool judgement…. As regards our defence programmes, we have always made it clear that they were flexible and that they would have to be reviewed from time to time in the light of any development in the international situation. It would be idle to pretend that recent events do not constitute a change of the kind that we had in mind. Accordingly we have decided to make a fresh review, and in due course we shall announce what further steps we may think it necessary to take.[10]

The modest response to the Anschluss was the first major consequence of the strategy of appeasement which characterized British foreign policy in the pre-war period. The international reaction to the events of March 12, 1938 led Hitler to conclude that he could use even more aggressive tactics in his roadmap to expand the Third Reich, as he would later in annexing the Sudetenland. The relatively bloodless Anschluss helped pave the way for the Treaty of Munich in September 1938 and the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1939, because it reinforced appeasement as the right way for Britain to deal with Hitler's Germany.

Legacy of the 1938 Anschluss

The appeal of Nazism to Austrians

Despite the subversion of Austrian political processes by Hitler's sympathizers and associates, Austrian acceptance of direct government by Hitler's Germany is a very different phenomenon from the administration of other collaborationist countries.

With the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy in 1918, popular opinion was for unification with Germany, fueled by the concept of Grossdeutschland. Although forbidden by the Treaty of St. Germain, to which the newly formed Austrian republic was obliged, the idea nonetheless held some appeal for Austrians. This was in stark contrast to the general concept of self-determination which governed the Versailles talks, as was the inclusion of the Sudetenland, a German-populated area of the former Austro-Hungarian province of Bohemia (whose population favored joining German-speaking Austria), in the newly formed Czechoslovak republic, giving rise to revisionist sentiment. This laid the grounds for the general willingness of the populations of both Austria and the Sudetenland for inclusion into the Third Reich, as well as the relative acceptance of the Western Governments, who made little protest until March 1939, when the irredentist argument lost its value following the annexation of the rest of Czech-speaking Bohemia, as well as Moravia and Czech Silesia.

The small Republic of Austria was seen by many of its citizens as economically nonviable, a feeling that was exacerbated by the Depression of the 1930s. In contrast, the Nazi dictatorship appeared to have found a solution to the economic crisis of the 1930s. Furthermore, the break-up had thrown Austria into a crisis of identity, and many Austrians, of both the left and the right, felt that Austria should be part of a larger German nation.

Politically, Austria had not had the time to develop a strongly democratic society to resist the onslaught of totalitarianism. The final version of the First Republic's constitution had only lasted from 1929 to 1933. The First Republic was ridden by violent strife between the different political camps; the Christian Social Party were complicit in the murder of large numbers of adherents of the decidedly left-wing Social Democratic Party by the police during the July Revolt of 1927. In fact, with the end of democracy in 1933 and the establishment of Austrofascism, Austria had already purged its democratic institutions and instituted a dictatorship long before the Anschluss. There is thus little to distinguish radically the institutions of, at least the post-1934 Austrian government, before or after March 12, 1938.

Austrian Jews

The members of the leading Christian Social Party were fervent Catholics, but not particularly anti-Semitic. For instance, Jews were not prohibited from exercising any profession, in sharp contrast to the Third Reich. Many prominent Austrian scientists, professors, and lawyers at the time were Jewish; in fact Vienna, with its Jewish population of about 200,000, was considered a safe haven from 1933 to 1938 by many Jews who fled Nazi Germany. However, the Nazis' anti-Semitism found fertile soil in Austria. Anti-Semitic elements had emerged as a force in Austrian politics in the late nineteenth century, with the rise in prominence of figures such as Georg Ritter von Schönerer and Karl Lueger (who had influenced the young Hitler) and, in the 1930s, anti-Semitism was rampant, as Jews were a convenient scapegoat for economic problems.

In addition to the economic appeal of the Anschluss, the popular underpinning of Nazi politics as a total art form (the refinement of film propaganda exemplified by Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will and mythological aestheticism of a broadly-conceived national destiny of the German people within a "Thousand-Year Reich") gave the Nazis a massive advantage in advancing their claims to power. Moreover Austrofascism was less grand in its appeal than the choice between Stalin and Hitler to which many European intellectuals of the time believed themselves reduced by the end of the decade. Austria had effectively no alternative view of its historical mission when the choice was upon it. In spite of Dollfuss' and Schuschnigg's hostility to Nazi political ambitions, the Nazis succeeded in convincing many Austrians to accept what they viewed as the historical destiny of the German people rather than continue as part of a distinct sovereign.

The Second Republic

The Moscow Declaration

The Moscow Declaration of 1943, signed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom included a "Declaration on Austria," which stated the following:

The governments of the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States of America are agreed that Austria, the first free country to fall a victim to Hitlerite aggression, shall be liberated from German domination.

They regard the annexation imposed on Austria by Germany on 15 March 1938, as null and void. They consider themselves as in no way bound by any charges affected in Austria since that date. They declare that they wish to see re-established a free and independent Austria and thereby to open the way for the Austrian people themselves, as well as those neighbouring States which will be faced with similar problems, to find that political and economic security which is the only basis for lasting peace.

Austria is reminded, however that she has a responsibility, which she cannot evade, for participation in the war at the side of Hitlerite Germany, and that in the final settlement account will inevitably be taken of her own contribution to her liberation.[11]

To judge from the last paragraph and subsequent determinations at the Nuremberg Trials, the Declaration was intended to serve as propaganda aimed at stirring Austrian resistance (although there are Austrians counted as Righteous Among the Nations, there never was an effective Austrian armed resistance of the sort found in other countries under German occupation) more than anything else, although the exact text of the declaration is said to have a somewhat complex drafting history.[12] At Nuremberg Arthur Seyss-Inquart[13] and Franz von Papen,[14] in particular, were both indicted under count one (conspiracy to commit crimes against peace) specifically for their activities in support of the Austrian Nazi Party and the Anschluss, but neither was convicted of this count. In acquitting von Papen, the court noted that his actions were in its view political immoralities but not crimes under its charter. Seyss-Inquart was convicted of other serious war crimes, most of which took place in Poland and the Netherlands, and was sentenced to death.

Austrian identity and the "victim theory"

After World War II, many Austrians sought comfort in the myth of Austria as "the Nazis' first victim." Although the Nazi party was promptly banned, Austria did not have the same thorough process of de-Nazification at the top of government which was imposed on Germany for a time. Lacking outside pressure for political reform, factions of Austrian society tried for a long time to advance the view that the Anschluss was only an annexation at the point of a bayonet.

Policy of neutrality

This view of the events of 1938 had deep roots in the ten years of Allied occupation and the struggle to regain Austrian sovereignty. The "victim theory" played an essential role in the negotiations on the Austrian State Treaty with the Soviets, and by pointing to the Moscow Declaration, Austrian politicians heavily relied on it to achieve a solution for Austria different from the Germany's division into East and West. The State Treaty, alongside with the subsequent Austrian declaration of permanent neutrality, marked important milestones for the solidification of Austria's independent national identity during the course of following decades.

As Austrian politicians of the Left and Right attempted to reconcile their differences in order to avoid the violent conflict that had dominated the First Republic, discussions of both Austrian-Nazism and Austria's role during the Nazi-era were largely avoided. Still, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) had advanced, and still advances, the argument that the establishment of the Dollfuss dictatorship was necessary in order to maintain Austrian independence; while the Austrian Social Democratic Party, (SPÖ), argues that the Dollfuss dictatorship stripped the country of the democratic resources necessary to repel Hitler; yet it ignores the fact that Hitler himself was indigenous to Austria.

Confronting the past

For decades, the victim theory established in the Austrian mind remained largely undisputed. The Austrian public was only rarely forced to confront the legacy of the Third Reich (most notably during the events of 1965 concerning Taras Borodajkewycz, a professor of economic history notorious for anti-Semitic remarks, when Ernst Kirchweger, a concentration camp survivor, was killed by a right-wing protester during riots). It was not until the 1980s that Austrians were finally massively confronted with their past. The main catalyst for the start of a Vergangenheitsbewältigung was the so-called Waldheim affair. The Austrian reply to allegations during the 1986 Presidential election campaign that successful candidate and former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had been a member of the Nazi party and of the infamous Sturmabteilung (SA) (he was later absolved of direct involvement in war crimes) was that scrutiny was an unwelcome intervention in the country's internal affairs. Despite the politicians' reactions to international criticism of Waldheim, the Waldheim affair started the first serious major discussion on Austria's past and the Anschluss.

Another main factor in Austria coming to terms with the past in the 1980s was Jörg Haider and the rise of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). The party had combined elements of the pan-German right with free-market liberalism since its founding in 1955, but after Haider had ascended to the party chairmanship in 1986, the liberal elements became increasingly marginalized while Haider began to openly use nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric. He was often criticized for tactics such as the völkisch (ethnic) definition of national interest ("Austria for Austrians") and his apologism for Austria's past, notably calling members of the Waffen-SS "men of honor." Following an enormous electoral rise in the 1990s, peaking in the legislative election of 1999, the FPÖ, now purged of its liberal elements, entered a coalition with the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) led by Wolfgang Schüssel, that met with international condemnation in 2000. This coalition triggered the regular Donnerstagsdemonstrationen (Thursday demonstrations) in protest against the government, which took place on the Heldenplatz, where Hitler had greeted the masses during the Anschluss. Haider's tactics and rhetoric, which were often criticized as sympathetic to Nazism, again forced Austrians to reconsider their relationship to the past.

But it is not Jörg Haider alone who has made questionable remarks on Austria's past. His coalition partner and current Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in an interview with the Jerusalem Post as late as 2000 stated that Austria was the first victim of Hitler-Germany.[15]


Attacking the simplism of victim theory and the time of the Austrofascism, Thomas Bernhard's last play, Heldenplatz, was highly controversial even before it appeared on stage in 1988, 50 years after Hitler's visit. Bernhard's achievement was to make the elimination of references to Hitler's reception in Vienna emblematic of Austrian attempts to claim their history and culture under questionable criteria. Many politicians from all political factions called Bernhard a Nestbeschmutzer (a person who damages the reputation of his country) and openly demanded that the play should not be staged in Vienna's Burgtheater. Kurt Waldheim, who was at that time still Austrian president called the play a crude insult to the Austrian people.[16]

The Historical Commission and outstanding legal issues

In the context of the postwar Federal Republic of Germany, the Vergangenheitsbewältigung ("struggle to come to terms with the past") has been partially institutionalized, variably in literary, cultural, political, and educational contexts (its development and difficulties have not been trivial; see, for example, the Historikerstreit). Austria formed a Historikerkommission[17] ("Historian's Commission" or "Historical Commission") in 1998 with a mandate to review Austria's role in the Nazi expropriation of Jewish property from a scholarly rather than legal perspective, partly in response to continuing criticism of its handling of property claims. Its membership was based on recommendations from various quarters, including Simon Wiesenthal and Yad Vashem. The Commission delivered its report in 2003.[18] Noted Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg refused to participate in the Commission and in an interview stated his strenuous objections in reference to larger questions about Austrian culpability and liability, comparing what he believed to be relative inattention to the settlement governing the Swiss bank holdings of those who died or were displaced by the Holocaust:

I personally would like to know why the WJC World Jewish Congress has hardly put any pressure on Austria, even as leading Nazis and SS leaders were Austrians, Hitler included... Immediately after the war, the US wanted to make the Russians withdraw from Austria, and the Russians wanted to keep Austria neutral, therefore there was a common interest to grant Austria victim status. And later Austria could cry poor - though its per capita income is as high as Germany's. And, most importantly, the Austrian PR machinery works better. Austria has the opera ball, the imperial castle, Mozartkugeln [a chocolate]. Americans like that. And Austrians invest and export relatively little to the US, therefore they are less vulnerable to blackmail. In the meantime, they set up a commission in Austria to clarify what happened to Jewish property. Victor Klima, the former chancellor, has asked me to join. My father fought for Austria in the First World War and in 1939 he was kicked out of Austria. After the war they offered him ten dollars per month as compensation. For this reason I told Klima, no thank you, this makes me sick.[19]

The Simon Wiesenthal Center continues to criticize Austria (as recently as June 2005) for its alleged historical and ongoing unwillingness aggressively to pursue investigations and trials against Nazis for war crimes and crimes against humanity from the 1970s onwards. Its 2001 report offered the following characterization:

Given the extensive participation of numerous Austrians, including at the highest levels, in the implementation of the Final Solution and other Nazi crimes, Austria should have been a leader in the prosecution of Holocaust perpetrators over the course of the past four decades, as has been the case in Germany. Unfortunately relatively little has been achieved by the Austrian authorities in this regard and in fact, with the exception of the case of Dr. Heinrich Gross which was suspended this year under highly suspicious circumstances (he claimed to be medically unfit, but outside the court proved to be healthy) not a single Nazi war crimes prosecution has been conducted in Austria since the mid-seventies.[20]

In 2003, the Center launched a worldwide effort named "Operation: Last Chance" in order to collect further information about those Nazis still alive that are potentially subject to prosecution. Although reports issued shortly thereafter credited Austria for initiating large-scale investigations, there has been one case where criticism of Austrian authorities arose recently: The Center has put 92-year old Croatian Milivoj Asner on its 2005 top ten list. Asner fled to Austria in 2004 after Croatia announced it would start investigations in the case of war crimes he may have been involved in. In response to objections about Asner's continued freedom, Austria's federal government has deferred to either extradition requests from Croatia or prosecutorial actions from Klagenfurt, neither of which appears forthcoming (as of June 2005).[21] Extradition is not an option since Asner also holds Austrian citizenship, having lived in the country from 1946 to 1991.[22]


  1. Until the German spelling reform of 1996, Anschluss was written Anschluß in the countries subject to the reform. (See also the article on ß.) In English-language typography and style conventions, "ß" was often transliterated as "ss," although the spelling in German is a valid, if not predominant, option, but mainly before 1996 (when the English spelling became a correct German spelling).
  2. 1938: Austria, MSN Encarta. accessed 10 June 2005.
  3. "Österreichs Weg zum Anschluss im März 1938," Wiener Zeitung, 25 May 1998 (detailed article the on the events of the Anschluss, in German).
  4. Österreichs Weg zum Anschluss im März 1938, Wiener Zeitung, 25 May 1998
  5. Anschluss, Spartacus Schoolnet (reactions on the Anschluss).
  6. "Die propagandistische Vorbereitung der Volksabstimmung," Austrian Resistance Archive, Vienna, 1988, accessed 10 June 2005.
  7. Die propagandistische Vorbereitung der Volksabstimmung, Austrian Resistance Archive, Vienna, 1988, accessed 10 June 2005.
  8. See note 2 above.
  9. See note 2 above.
  10. Neville Chamberlain, Statement of the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, 14 March 1938.
  11. Moscow Conference: Joint Four-Nation Declaration, October 1943 (full text of the Moscow Memorandum).
  12. Gerald Stourzh, Waldheim's Austria, The New York Review of Books 34 (3) (February 1987).
  13. Judgment, The Defendants: Seyss-Inquart, The Nizkor Project.
  14. The Defendants: Von Papen, The Nizkor Project.
  15. Short note on Schüssel's interview in the Jerusalem Post (in German), Salzburger Nachrichten, 11 November 2000.
  16. Thomas Bernhard, Books and Writers (article on Bernhard with a short section on Heldenplatz).
  17. Austrian Historical Commission.
  18. Press statement on the report of the Austrian Historical Commission Austrian Press and Information Service, 28 February 2003
  19. Hilberg interview with the Berliner Zeitung, as quoted by Norman Finkelstein's web site.
  20. Efraim Zuroff, Worldwide Investigation and Prosecution of Nazi War Criminals, 2001–2002, Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jerusalem (April 2002).
  21. Take action against Nazi war criminal Milivoj Asner, World Jewish Congress, 19 November 2004.
  22. Mutmaßlicher Kriegsverbrecher Asner wird nicht an Zagreb ausgeliefert, Der Standard, September 23, 2005.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees


  • Bukey, Evan Burr (1986). Hitler's Hometown: Linz, Austria, 1908-1945. Indiana University Press ISBN 0253328330.
  • Parkinson, F. (ed.) (1989). Conquering the Past: Austrian Nazism Yesterday and Today. Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814320546.
  • Pauley, Bruce F. (1981). Hitler and the Forgotten Nazis: A History of Austrian National Socialism. University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 0807814563.
  • Scheuch, Manfred (2005). Der Weg zum Heldenplatz: eine Geschichte der österreichischen Diktatur. 1933-1938. ISBN 3825877124.
  • Schuschnigg, Kurt (1971). The brutal takeover: The Austrian ex-Chancellor's account of the Anschluss of Austria by Hitler. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. ISBN 0297003216.
  • Stuckel, Eva-Maria (2001). Österreich, Monarchie, Operette, und Anschluss: Antisemtismus, Faschismus, und Nationalsozialismus im Fadenkreuz von Ingeborg Bachman und Elias Canetti.

Electronic articles and journals

External links

All links retrieved July 31, 2023.


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