Austria Table of Contents

Absorption of Austria into the Third Reich

Most Austrian proponents of the Anschluss had foreseen a gradual coordination and merger of the two German states that would preserve some semblance of Austrian identity. But, influenced by the tumultuous welcome he received on his arrival, Hitler made an impromptu decision for quick and total absorption of Austria into the Third Reich.

The Anschluss violated various international agreements, but the European powers offered only perfunctory opposition. Italy had acquiesced to the invasion beforehand, and in return Hitler later agreed to allow Italy to retain the South Tirol despite his aggressive policies elsewhere to bring all German populations into the Third Reich. Britain was following a policy of appeasement in 1938 and was unwilling to risk war over Austria's independence, while France, traditionally the strongest foe of German unification, was incapable of unilateral military action.

To provide a legal facade for the Anschluss, Hitler arranged a plebiscite for April 10, 1938. The Nazis portrayed the plebiscite as a vote on pan-Germanism and claimed a 99.7 percent vote in favor of the Anschluss. Although the outcome was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi intimidation, the Anschluss enjoyed broad popular support. Nevertheless, the positive vote reflected the Austrians' desire for change far more than it did widespread support for Hitler and Nazism. Unification offered a way out of the political turmoil of the First Republic, and ties with the larger German economy promised economic revitalization. Many Austrians probably also harbored unrealistic notions of Austria's position within the Third Reich, expecting an arrangement similar to the Dual Monarchy in which Austria and Germany would be equal partners. And the full dimensions of Nazi barbarism were not yet apparent. Underlying these factors, however, was the widespread appeal of pan-Germanism that cut across political lines. Austrians had traditionally thought of themselves as Germans, and the Austrian nationalism cultivated by Dollfuss and Schuschnigg had not taken root. Although the SDAP had moderated its long-standing support for unification when Hitler came to power in Germany, Karl Renner urged a yes vote in the Nazi-organized plebiscite. Once unification was a fact, other Socialist leaders felt that the Nazi regime was not sufficient reason to reject the fulfillment of what they viewed as a progressive goal of German nationalism.

Hitler moved quickly to suppress what little independent identity and national unity Austria had. The name Austria was banned, provinces were freed of central administration from Vienna, and provincial loyalty and identification were cultivated. In addition, Austrian Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who might have become effective national leaders were transferred to relatively unimportant jobs in the administration of the Third Reich or, after World War II began, were sent to administer the occupied territories. Thus, a disproportionate number of Austrians came to be in charge of the bureaucracy overseeing the implementation of the Nazis' extermination of the Jews and other peoples and groups deemed undesirable.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress