Growing German Pressure on Austria

Austria Table of Contents

In June 1934, Hitler and Mussolini had their first meeting. Mussolini defended his support of Dollfuss, while Hitler denied any intent to annex Austria but made clear his desire to see Austria in Germany's sphere of influence. Austrian Nazis, however, were embarked on a more radical course. They conspired to seize top government officials and force the appointment of a Nazi-dominated government.

The Dollfuss government learned of these plans before the putsch began on July 25 but did not make adequate preparations. Although the army and the Heimwehr remained loyal and the coup failed, Dollfuss was killed. Strong international indignation over the putsch forced Hitler to rein in the Austrian Nazis, but Hitler's goal remained the eventual annexation (Anschluss) of Austria.

Dollfuss was succeeded as chancellor by Kurt von Schuschnigg, another of Seipel's CSP protégés. Schuschnigg's political survival directly depended on Italian support for an independent Austria, but by 1935 Mussolini was already moving toward accommodation with Hitler and began to advise Schuschnigg to do the same. Schuschnigg was in fact prepared to make concessions to Germany, if Hitler in turn would make a clear statement recognizing Austrian independence.

Schuschnigg, however, did not understand the degree to which even moderate nationalists, whose support he needed, were already operating as fronts for Hitler and the Nazis. Thus, in the agreement signed with Germany on July 11, 1936, Hitler gave Austria essentially worthless pledges of Austrian independence and sovereignty, while Schuschnigg agreed to bring into his government members of the "National Opposition," who, unbeknownst to him, were taking their orders from Berlin.

The 1936 agreement furthered Germany's desire to isolate Austria diplomatically and encouraged other European countries to view Austrian-German relations as a purely internal affair of the German people. Bereft of external support and in no position to resist German pressure, Schuschnigg agreed to meet Hitler in Berchtesgaden on February 12, 1938. Hitler used the meeting to intimidate the Austrians with an implicit threat of military invasion, and Schuschnigg accepted a list of demands designed to strengthen the political position of the Austrian Nazis. Although the list did not include the legalization of Austria's Nazi Party, the Nazis and their sympathizers began to come into the open.

On his return to Vienna, Schuschnigg began secret plans for one last desperate bid to preserve Austrian sovereignty: a plebiscite designed to secure a yes vote "for a free and German, independent and social, for a Christian and united Austria, for peace and work and equality of all who declare themselves for Nation and Fatherland." Representatives of the SDAP agreed to call a plebiscite in exchange for various concessions.

Hitler recognized that the plebiscite would be a new obstacle to Anschluss and symbolic defeat for Nazi Germany, so he quickly moved against it. The German army began preparing for an invasion on March 10, and Nazi sympathizers in the Austrian cabinet demanded that the plebiscite be postponed. Schuschnigg agreed to cancel it altogether and then acceded to demands for his resignation. Nonetheless, on March 12, Hitler sent the German army into Austria.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress