Recently, a dear friend of my wife’s on Facebook sent me a link to a picture/internet meme in which an elderly Austrian lady purported to be speaking of her nation’s plight in 1938, as it was forcibly annexed into the Third Reich. One of the key points in the discussion was that the Austrians were not invaded by the Nazis, but willingly gave up their independence to an opposing army, and then voted enthusiastically to be politically absorbed into one of the most evil regimes in history. My friend was curious as to the truth of this situation, did the Austrians really decide en masse to become Nazis? If so, why? As is often the case with internet memes (left and right) this view of history contains some highly oversimplified facts, with a fair amount of current political arguments in an attempt to create an equivalency between the political differences of our time and the horrors of the past.
The reality in this case is far more problematic. Austria’s unique case as either “first victim” of Nazism, or “willing accomplice” in the horrors of the Third Reich, is a complicated situation that continues to cause conflict among academic historians in the present day. Austria’s situation is particularly strange as Hitler himself, as well as a number of key Nazis made notorious by later atrocities were Austrian, either by birth or nationality. Hence, in attempting to answer this question, I am going to delve into a bit of a historical briar patch. I am taking my basic materials from William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which provides a much broader (and at times exhausting) account of the events leading up to the annexation of Austria. If, dear readers, you wish to delve further into this mess, you may start there profitably. For those of you who don’t fancy the extended version of history, I will provide you with this more digested version, though I warn you in advance, this will be a longish post, because you never ask a Historian for a short answer:
In 1938 Austria had been under a pseudo-fascist Authoritarian regime (not unusual for Europe in the 1930′s, East of France the only democracy in Europe in the late 30′s was Czechoslovakia) since 1933, when a man by the name of Engelbert Dolfuss, over threw the shaky constitutional government in Austria. The Dolfuss regime was different from Nazism as it was basically a highly authoritarian (anti-liberal/anti-socialist and anti-nazi) government rooted heavily in tradition and Catholicism (Austria is overwhelmingly Catholic).
The Dolfuss regime rejected Nazism mostly because they wished to preserve Austrian independence (The Nazis saw the unification of Austria with Germany as an integral part of creating a “Greater Germany”, an idea that first really popped up in 1919 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided at the end of World War I, as all that remained of “Austria” was a tiny area with a German-speaking majority.) Anyway, the idea of unification with Germany had been floated around since at least 1919 (it was formally forbidden in the Treaty of Versailles) and still had some popularity among a number of Austrians. The Dolfuss regime represented a different (and also significant) segment of Austrians who saw their nation’s culture and history as being distinct from their northern neighbor and did not want to be swallowed up in a Greater Germany. However, the Dolfuss regime was far from democratic, there were no free elections, parties in general were banned, and stepping out of line was a good way to end up in jail (but notably not in a concentration camp.)
As Dolfuss and his Fatherland Front vehemently opposed unification with Germany, they needed a powerful backer to ensure their continued independence (Austria was tiny, neutral and its army was nothing compared to the Wehrmacht.) Therefore they looked to their south, to Facsist Italy, where Mussolini was not yet friendly toward Hitler. Hence despite the Nazis coming to power in 1933 in Germany, and executing a number of expansionist moves prior to 1938, they made no open moves toward Austria, in order to stay on Mussolini’s good side. This did not stop them from covert acts of terrorism within Austria, including the assassination of Dolfuss by an underground Austrian Nazi in 1934. Dolfuss was succeeded in office by his deputy Kurt Schuschnigg.
Things took a turn for the worse for Austria in late 1937-early 1938 when Mussolini, angry at Britain and France for their censure of his invasion and conquest of Ethiopia (there were sanctions of some sort voted in the League of Nations, they were about as effective as you can imagine) turned to a sympathetic Hitler to form a new bloc against the western allies. All of the sudden support for an independent Austria became inconvenient for “Il Duce” who, following a few meetings with Hitler, gave his agreement to do nothing in the event of a Nazi annexation of Austria.
That said, the German Army was not quite ready for open war with the allies in 1938, and Hitler felt confident that annexation of Austria could be gained through bluster and fraud, instead of armed force (He read Chamberlain of Britain and Daladier of France all too well, and realized they had no stomach for a fight.) So, with Mussolini’s blessing, the Nazis set their underground cells in Austria into motion, spreading terror and disorder throughout the country, and making Austria generally ungovernable. Hitler claimed that the unrest in Austria was the work of Communists, and that it was intolerable for the Third Reich to accept such a situation on its borders. As such, if Schuschnigg and his government were unable to control the situation themselves, the Germans would step in and do it for them. Schuschnigg and his government were no fools, and realized that this was all a ruse, so they appealed to their former benefactor Mussolini for support. The found a frosty reception in Rome and realized that they would be forced to enter into discussions with Berlin.
As would be repeated in the next year in Czechoslovakia, negotiations with the Third Reich by an inferior power basically involved Hitler, Goring and other cronies berating and threatening Schuschnigg while casually observing how close the Wehrmacht’s Panzer divisions were to the Austro-German border, and how little time would be required to set them into motion. Exhausted and facing the all-too-clear situation of being abandoned to the Germans, Schussnigg capitulated, “inviting” the German forces to enter Austria and restore order, and appointing the head of the Austrian Nazi Party, Arthur Seyss-Inquart as his deputy. In short order, the Austrian Nazi Party was decriminalized, and Stormtroopers were on the streets enforcing the new political order (with all the tender brutality they were renowned for), as German soldiers patrolled the streets. Schuschnigg and his supporters were soon under house arrest, and Seyss-Inquart was pushing for annexation. In order for the whole thing to look legitimate and democratic, a plebescite (a general election) was called for, in which Austrians were invited to vote for or against annexation. Having been subjected to a taste of how Nazis did electoral politics (opposing parties get stomped to death while the police look on approvingly) the enthusiastic yes vote on the plebescite is not surprising (people tend to either stay home, or vote the “right way” when encouraged by literal jackbooted-thugs).
So, in short, yes Austrians did welcome in the Germans, and voted away their own independence, leading them into a future where they both participated in, and suffered from some of the worst that humanity has ever seen fit to inflict upon itself. That said, the Austrian case is of a rather specific nature, once one delves beyond the superficial, it bears little resemblance to current American partisan politics. We should be careful when attempting to demonize our opponents by likening them to absolute evil, it makes the processes of normal republican democracy impossible (for any deal is literally a “deal with the devil”) and cheapens the horrors and suffering of the past.