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Austria's role

Birgit Görtz / nh
March 12, 2013

75 years after the so-called Anschluss, when Austria was unified with Nazi Germany, Austrians still debate their country’s responsibility. But there is a growing desire to close the chapter for good.

Hitler standing in his car, driving through crowds in Vienna
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On March 11th, 1938, at 7:47 p.m, Austria's Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg held his last speech on public radio as head of government. He ended it with the words "God save Austria."

Adolf Hitler had blackmailed Austria: Either the Austrian government resigned, or German troops would invade the country. Austria's President Wilhelm Miklas and Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg knew that resistance was pointless.

Schuschnigg's speech caused an outbreak of panic. Just minutes after it ended, British journalist George Eric Rowe Gedye witnessed large crowds on the platforms at one of Vienna's main train stations. Thousands of Austrians were trying to catch the night express train to Prague that left at 11:15 the same night. "'Save yourselves if you can,' was the common reaction to the farewell address, but there was no reasonable chance of rescue any more." Trains and flights were full, and the roads were jammed. The smarter option was to walk towards the Czech border and try and cross it on foot. But there were only few physically strong enough to take the strain.

Hitler speaking from the Heldenplatz (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Hitler's speech in Vienna was enthusiastically received by 250,000 peopleImage: Getty Images

The following day, March 12 1938, marked the end of the Austrian state. At eight o'clock in the morning, the troops of the German Wehrmacht's Eighth Army marched into Austria. Just before 4 p.m. the same day, Adolf Hitler's car crossed the border near Braunau am Inn, the town where he was born in 1889. The population didn't put up any resistance - they cheered.

Voluntary, forced voluntary, or forced accession?

Since the end of the Second World War, historians, politicians and the public in Austria and abroad have debated the same questions: Was the "Anschluss" - the union of Austria and the German Reich - voluntary or forced? Were the Austrians victims or collaborators?

At the time, Ari Rath, a Vienna-born Jew, was 13 years old. He still vividly remembers March 12. "My brother and I went to see my grandmother. We wanted to make sure everything was OK. We weren't surprised to see swastika flags on the houses. But what shocked us was that Vienna's entire police force was equipped with swastika armbands. We knew that that must have been prepared beforehand." And it certainly was.

Ari Rath, a Vienna-born Jew, fled to Palestine aged 13Image: Leonhard Hilzensauer

One month before the Anschluss, on February 12, Hitler had dictated an agreement to Austria's Chancellor Schuschnigg at a meeting on the Obersalzberg, a mountainside retreat on the border between Austria and Germany. The agreement stipulated that Hitler's close follower Arthur Seyss-Inquart was to become Austria's minister for domestic affairs, giving him control over the Austrian police. In addition, Hitler forced the Austrians to lift the existing ban on his party, the NSDAP, in their country. That cleared the way to prepare the Anschluss from below, because Austrian Nazis had long infiltrated Austria's executive and administrative bodies.

Cheering crowds in Vienna

One day after the Wehrmacht invaded Austria, on March 13, the Reichsgesetzblatt (the National Law Gazette) that was published in Berlin, published a new "law on the reunification of Austria with the German Reich," signed by the Führer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Two days later, Hitler made a public appearance on Vienna's central Heldenplatz (Heroes' Square) in front of a cheering crowd of 250,000. Hitler praised the German-Austrian unity of shared destiny, and the two countries' shared history and mission. He used the Nazi term "Ostmark," or eastern march (or border region), for the newly incorporated territory.

Ruins of buildings in Vienna
Vienna was left badly damaged by the warImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"From now on, the German Reich's oldest Ostmark will be the newest bastion of the German nation and the German Reich." The two countries' common enemy, Hitler said, was the Communist East. The last words of his speech were drowned by frenetic applause that lasted for minutes. "As Führer and Chancellor of the German nation and Reich I proclaim the entry of my birth country into the German Reich."

The sovereign Austrian state became the Ostmark of the German Reich through a plebiscite, rather than through parliamentary vote. On April 10th, 99.7 percent of eligible Austrian voters gave their support. This overwhelming result was achieved with the typical Nazi strategy, which was a combination of manipulation, propaganda, and terror. It's important to note, however, that Austrian patriotism was little developed after the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire in 1918. At the time, large parts of the Austrian population desired unity with the German Reich. 

Genesis of the victim theory

Even before the war ended, the Allied Forces made investigations into Austria's role during Nazi times. In October 1943, the foreign ministers of the US, Great Britain and the USSR met in Moscow. They published the first so-called Moscow Declaration, which said "Austria [is] the first victim of Hitlerite aggression." This paragraph would later serve as the basis of the so-called "victim theory" and became one of the founding principles of state in post-war Austria.

The fact that the declaration did not end with that paragraph, however, was later often overlooked - whether deliberately or not. In their declaration, the Allies called on the Austrian population to rise up against the Nazi regime, and they held Austria liable for collaborating in the war with Nazi Germany. "It was an important lifeline for constructing Austrian identity after the war to push all responsibility and burden onto the Federal Republic of Germany so that Austria could develop a national identity of its own," says Oliver Rathkolb, a professor of contemporary history at Vienna University.

Growing out of the comfortable role of victims

That perspective has changed since the late 1970s. Austrian historians agree today that the Anschluss found broad support in the population at the time and that a large proportion of Austrians were collaborators and co-perpetrators, says Rathkolb. "Much has been written and said about the brutal excesses committed against Jews following the Anschluss. But what's changed is public perception of the Anschluss."

Rathkolb is concerned at surveys which show that young people want to close this chapter of historyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The political elite have changed their attitude - with the exception of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ), as Rathkolb stresses. He expects the FPÖ to keep a low profile on the 75th anniversary of the Anschluss. In the past, FPÖ politicians have regularly made headlines with racist, homophobic and anti-Islam statements.

New generation – new approaches

Rathkolb says he's concerned about the results of recent surveys conducted in Austria and Germany: although people are critical of National Socialism and anti-Semitism, "in both countries, the youngest generations show a strong desire to close the chapter for good." He concludes that society needs a fresh debate about history every ten years, so that the next generation gets a fresh chance to deal with history. He says the 75th anniversary is a good opportunity to re-launch a public debate about Austria's role, with the goal of preventing the re-emergence of the Austria-as-victim myth.

Ari Rath is convinced that Austria will commemorate March 12 in an appropriate way in 2013. He has made peace with his home country that he left when he was 13 years old. "It took a long time before I was ready to take on Austrian citizenship again." But now, he says, he has "one foot in Vienna" again.