Adolf Hitler's accession to power in 1933 put great pressure on Austria's social, political, and economic stability. Hitler was determined to bring the land of his birth into a greater German Reich. He undoubtedly realized that the annexation of Austria would have international repercussions, and thus he worked to achieve the annexiation indirectly. Because the Austrian Nazis took their orders from Hitler, a political victory by that party in Austria would bring about the de facto union of the two states. To achieve this end, Hitler's government began spending considerable sums on propaganda in Austria, including leaflets and radio broadcasts from stations in Bavaria. Berlin also applied major economic pressure, cutting off German tourism (an important source of revenue in Austria) by imposing severe limits on the amount of currency that might be taken out of Germany to that state. Meanwhile, the worldwide economic depression hit the Austrian economy hard.
With armed groups forming in Austria and the threat looming of civil war between the militias of the Christian Socialists and the Social Democrats, Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, himself a nominal Christian Socialist, on 12 February 1934 moved against the Social Democrats, outlawing the party, arresting its leaders, and proclaiming martial law. In March the Austrian Parliament—without opportunity to debate and with more than half its members, including Social Democrats, absent—approved a new constitution submitted to it by Dollfuss. It established an authoritarian corporate state that abolished both universal suffrage and political representation of the people.
On 25 July 1934, a small group of Austrian Nazis seized the government radio station and announced that the government had fallen. Another group seized the chancellery, mortally wounding Dollfuss, who had refused to flee, and holding other cabinet ministers captive. The plot was poorly organized, however, and soon collapsed. Within a few days, the Austrian government had put it down without outside assistance, and on 29 July a new cabinet was formed under Kurt Schuschnigg, a Christian Socialist colleague of Dollfuss. A dozen leaders of the putsch were eventually executed, and hundreds more were sentenced to prison.
The events in Austria had repercussions abroad. Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who considered Austria under his sway, ordered troops to the Brenner Pass. Hitler had initially expressed pleasure at the putsch, but when news arrived of its failure he washed his hands of it. There was in fact little he could have done, as Germany—still largely unarmed—was in no position to oppose Italy. Hitler expressed regret at the Dollfuss murder, recalled his ambassador (who had promised the putschists asylum), and assured the world that Germany had no role in the failed coup. The attempted Nazi takeover of Austria was clearly a setback for Hitler. Nevertheless, the coup attempt had made emphatically clear Austria's dependence on outside support for the maintenance of its independence.
Schuschnigg attempted to continue the Dollfuss agenda, especially the cultivation of relationships with Italy and Hungary. He also endeavored to improve relations with Hitler, but at the same time he contemplated the restoration of the Austrian ruling house of the Hapsburgs, which Hitler vehemently opposed. By 1938, the international situation had dramatically changed for Austria, as Mussolini had become a confederate of Hitler in the Axis alliance. In consequence Schuschnigg, while he pursued an alliance with Czechoslovakia, had little choice but to mend fences with Hitler. On 12 February 1938, he traveled to Berchtesgaden at Hitler's insistence to meet with the German leader. Under heavy pressure, Schuschnigg agreed to appoint Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart as minister of the interior and other Austrian Nazis as ministers of justice and foreign affairs.
On 9 March, however, in an attempt to maintain his nation's independence, Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite on the issue of Anschluss to be held in only four days, hoping that the short interval would not allow the Nazis to mobilize effectively. Hitler was determined that no plebiscite be held, and on 11 March Seyss-Inquart presented Schuschnigg with an ultimatum, demanding his resignation and postponement of the vote under threat of invasion by German troops, which were already mobilized on the border. Schuschnigg gave in, canceling the plebiscite and resigning. Seyss-Inquart then took power and invited in the German troops (which had actually already crossed the frontier) "to preserve order."
Had it been ordered to fight, the small Austrian army might have given a good account of itself. Germany would have won, of course, but its military was hardly ready for war and a battle might have dispelled some rampant myths about the German military. Indeed, hundreds of German tanks and vehicles of the German Eighth Army broke down on the drive toward Vienna.
On 12 March, Hitler returned to his boyhood home of Linz, Austria, and on the next day Berlin declared Austria to be part of the Reich. On 14 March, perhaps a million Austrians gave Hitler an enthusiastic welcome to Vienna. France and Britain lodged formal protests with Berlin, but that was the extent of their reaction.
The consummation of Anschluss greatly strengthened Germany's position in Central Europe. Germany was now in direct contact with Italy, Yugoslavia, and Hungary, and it controlled virtually all of the communications of southeastern Europe. Czechoslovakia was almost isolated, and its trade outlets were at the mercy of Germany. Militarily, Germany outflanked the powerful western Czech defenses. It was thus not surprising that, despite Hitler's pledges to respect the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, he should next seek to bring that state under his control.
The Austrian army was soon absorbed into the Wehrmacht and the Waffen-Schutzstaffel (Waffen-SS). Austria eventually contributed three army corps and additional military assets (a total of some 800,000 military personnel) to the Axis effort, and the country suffered roughly 400,000 military and civilian casualties during the war.
A great many Austrians enthusiastically supported the Nazi cause. Although Austrians comprised but 6 percent of the population of Hitler's Reich, they furnished 14 percent of SS members and 40 percent of those involved in the Nazi extermination efforts. Anti-Semitism was rife in Austria, and actions against the Jews (who had been prominent in the professions in Vienna, in particular) were applauded by a significant sector of the population, unlike in Berlin.
Austrians who had welcomed the incorporation of their country into the Reich soon discovered to their dismay that German interests dominated much of Austria's economy and that the inhabitants of the Ostmark (as Austria was now known, its medieval name having been revived) were often treated more as a conquered people subject to intense scrutiny and discrimination. This says nothing of the experiences endured by minorities and Jews who came in for special, and horrific, treatment.
Resistance groups formed around the old political factions—socialists, monarchists, nationalists—and soon developed contact with the Allies. In-country resistance and the work of Austrians abroad limited the extent to which Austria remained identified with Nazi Germany. In the 1943 Moscow Declaration, the Allies recognized Austria as the first victim of Hitler's aggression, a view that Austrian politicians did their utmost after the war to nurture.
Austria experienced air attacks beginning in 1943, and the attacks escalated as the Allies moved eastward in 1944. When Germany's military situation crumbled in the spring of 1945, Allied armies converged on Austria. The Red Army entered Austria at the end of March and liberated Vienna in mid-April. At the end of April, a provisional government established under Soviet direction nullified the Anschluss. The Allied powers—the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France—each set up occupation zones in Austria and pursued their own interests in the icy atmosphere that followed Germany's surrender. In October 1945, the Allies formally recognized Austria's provisional government. The Allied military occupation of Austria did not end until the Treaty of Belvedere in 1955. Jessica Woyan, David Coffey, and Spencer C. Tucker
Bukey, Evan Burr. Hitler's Austria: Popular Sentiment in the Nazi Era, 1938–1945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.; Keyserling, Robert H. Austria in World War II: An Anglo-American Dilemma. Toronto: McGill-Queens University Press, 1988.; Maass, Walter B. Assassination in Vienna. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972.
Jessica Woyan, David Coffey, and Spencer C. Tucker