The concept of joining Austria and Germany was not a new idea though, and certainly not one that originated in Nazi Germany. It was instead something that was quite popular at various points in the past, and during this episode we will look at the roots of Pan-Germanism as a movement in the months and years immediately following the end of the First World War, and also why those Pan-Germanist dreams were not fulfilled after 1918. The movement would then have an interesting evolution as its strongest supporters in 1919 would be its strongest opponents in 1938, and shift that we will touch on both in this episode and in episode 58.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 57 - Anschluss Part 1 - The Dreams of Greater Germany. This week a big thank you goes out to Thomas, Leonard, Jason, Mark, Ryan, Steve, Doug, and Kristopher for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, and to all of those individuals who have decided to support the podcast via Apple Subscriptions. In both cases you can gain access to ad-free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Member only episodes released once a month, like the current deep dive into the Royal Navy during the interwar years. If that sounds interesting head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more. Also, as this is the first episode of a new season I would just like to ask you to consider reviewing the podcast on your podcast platform of choice should it allow reviews, they are the best way to expand the reach of the podcast. Also don’t forget you can find the podcast on Twitter, Discord, and Facebook, with links to all of those over on historyofthesecondworldwar.com. This week we begin our episode, and I swear there will be a series of episodes that does not start here at some point, with the end of the First World War. The end of the war had been traumatic for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it had fallen apart and the pieces that were left in its wake were left to find their own way. In some areas of the former empire the path was clear, an independence that they had been striving for generations, sometimes for centuries, but in Vienna and what would become Austria the question was a bit more confusing and challenging. What did it mean to be Austrian? This was question that many felt did not have a definitive answer and one that would be debated within Austria during the interwar years. Which then brings us to the Anschluss, or the joining of Austria with Germany, which would finally occur in March 1938 when Germany would invade the smaller nation and absorb it into the German Reich. The concept of joining Austria and Germany was not a new idea though, and certainly not one that originated in Nazi Germany. It was instead something that was quite popular at various points in the past, and during this episode we will look at the roots of Pan-Germanism as a movement in the months and years immediately following the end of the First World War, and also why those Pan-Germanist dreams were not fulfilled after 1918. The movement would then have an interesting evolution as its strongest supporters in 1919 would be its strongest opponents in 1938, and shift that we will touch on both in this episode and in episode 58.
After the First World War the new Austrian nation had serious problems. There were economic problems, with the surviving rump state being shorn of many of its territories that had provided it with economic stability. There were geographical problems, with the territory controlled by Austria being surrounded by far larger neighbors. Along with these very real problems there was also the matter of how the Austrians saw themselves. For centuries they had been the leaders of one of the largest European states, a huge empire that controlled the course of central Europe, with the loss of the war and much of their territory they were suddenly staring down the possibility of being reduced to a secondary power, which is never a transition that any national group wants to go through. In the hopes of finding solutions for these problems the idea of joining Austria to Germany was supported by the most powerful political group in Austria, the Social Democrats. They would be in power after the war and they would support both the independence of the various areas of the old empire that were breaking away as well as joining what was left of Austria with Germany. Beyond just making Austria stronger, they also hoped that this would bring on the possibility of a wider Socialist revolution in the new larger Germany. During the last months of 1918 and the first of 1919 the German and Austrian Socialists were the strongest and largest political groups in their respective nations, and the socialist groups in both nations hoped that by combining they would have greater power within the resulting much larger country. Or as the Austrian Socialist leader Otto Bauer would say “In Germany, completely liberated from all difficulties of the national struggle, we would participate in the great decisive class struggles of the proletariat.” The Austrians would move forward with the process, and on November 12, 1918, just a day after the armistice was signed on the Western Front, the new Austrian Provisional National Assembly would sign an Anschluss resolution, which declared that Austria was now a part of Germany. There was but one problem, and that was the fact that the war was not yet over, and after signing the armistice German leaders were very hesitant to make any official agreements with Austria out of concern that this would prompt the Allies to demand greater territorial concessions elsewhere, which would negate any of the benefits of joining with Austria. This meant that when news of the Austrian revolution reached Berlin, there was not an instant reciprocating agreement which would have finalized the joining of the two nations, instead there was no small amount of dithering and delay.
By the start of 1919 the delays continued, and there were concerns among many that the moment had been missed. One German supporter of Anschluss, Count von Wedel, would record on January 5, 1919 that “The agitation against the Anschluss has grown like an avalanche. The interpretation of the German government’s attitude as cool and of North German public opinion as considering a Catholic increase undesirable, receives credence everywhere. The adherents of the Anschluss are discouraged and decline rapidly; even Socialist circles are growing weak. If we do not move soon, Anschluss will by only an academic demand in the realization of which nobody believes, and a cause to which only few will seriously dedicate themselves.” There would still be some official progress though, and on February 27, Austrian and German representatives would meet to work out further details on how the union would work. This would result in the March 2nd agreement which would finalize the broad outline of how Austria would join the German Reich as a separate member state. The overall structure of this relationship would have been similar to the ones between the national government and the states of Bavaria and Saxony. While the agreements had been made, it would remain secret, due once more to concerns about the ongoing peace process, with another great concern being the idea that if the two nations joined before the peace treaty was signed, Austrian war debts and reparations might be transferred to Germany, which was not at all the desired outcome. Because they could not actually sign the agreement and make the Anschluss official during March 1919, it was mostly just an agreement that they would do so in the future. After the agreement had been signed, plans were made to start working through all of the various details that would need to be coordinated when it actually happened, including topics like economic integration, currency changes, and a whole host of smaller details.
While there was some uncertainty among the German and Austrian governments about the best course of action, and some fear of ramifications from other nations should an Anschluss occur, in Paris the representatives at the Paris Peace Conference were making sure that it would not be allowed to happen. They could do this through the treaty that they were drafting, which would eventually be known as the Versailles Treaty, which would officially end the First World War. The three most important nations involved: Britain, France, and the United States, all had slightly different views on the possible Anschluss. The British and Americans were not necessarily against such a development, but they did believe that it should probably wait until the final peace treaty had been signed, just to avoid any further complications. The French on the other hand could not have been more vehemently against the joining of the two nations. Or to quote a French memorandum on the topic “The French government demands that under present conditions the union of German Austria with Germany be forbidden in the preliminaries of the peace.” The French would even resist the idea of the application of a plebiscite to determine the future course of Austria, stating “Pan-Germanism of which all the leaders of the present German government have been active agents for five years has always maintained that Germany, even if defeated, would emerge from the war bigger and stronger, due to the annexation of German Austria. Do we want to give a basis to this hope and assure German imperialism the revanche which it cynically anticipates? to act thus would mean giving an immoral reward to the enemy countries which are responsible for the war.” Italy would throw its support, for what it was worth, behind the French sentiment out of fear that Germany would be better placed to make territorial demands on the Tyrol region. There were also other nations that weighed in on the topic, with some neighboring states fearing the expansion of German power in the Balkans, while others with large German populations, like Switzerland, fearing a push for joining with Germany from their own citizens. The eventual outcome of all of these conversations and concerns would be Article 80 of the treaty, which would say “Germany acknowledges and will strictly respect the independence of Austria within the frontiers to be fixed in a treaty between that state and the principal Allies and Associated powers; she agrees that this independence shall be inalienable except with the consent of the Council of the League of Nations.” With this article, and the signing of the Treaty by the German government, the dreams of Anschluss in the years after the First World War were officially dead.
While there would be no quick movement to join the two nations after 1918, that did not mean that those who supported the change gave up on trying to make it happen. The most popular and vocal group that would support the Anschluss during the 1920s and 1930s would be the Osterreichisch-Beutscher Volksbund, or just Volksbund. This group was founded in Germany during the period when immediate unification was being pursued, but when it became clear that it was not going to happen the Volksbund began to pursue it as a longer term goal. Within Germany the group would focus on simply increasing the support for the Anschluss among German citizens, which involved the exact kind of activities you might expect: public events, printed propaganda, political lobbying, and similar activities. The peak membership for the group would only be about 21,000 but its reach would be far greater, and interestingly enough even in the very divided realm of German politics it would prove to be a cause that served as a point of unification and cooperation. Those who supported the Weimar Republic, and those who were against it on the political right, found that they could work together with each other as they both tried to achieve the Anschluss. In the early and mid-1920s it was in fact almost a political impossibility to actively advocate against the Anschluss, as it was seen as anti-German. As the years passed by, and still nothing was achieved, the movement in Germany began to lose steam, partially thanks to economic issues in Austria, which caused concern among many Germans who were having their own economic problems in the mid 1920s. These concerns became more acute as the German economy began to recover at a faster rate in the last years of the 1920s, while the Austrian economy lagged behind.
While the Volksbund movement in Germany would always be a relatively small movement with at most a couple tens of thousands of members, the movement in Austria would be on a completely different scale. The Austrian Volksbund would be founded in 1925, and over the next six years it would grow its membership to almost 1.8 million. They would pursue many of the same goals as the German Volksbund, and in many of the same ways, but in Austria the movement would be much more politically powerful. Those 1.8 million members translated to around a third of the total population of Austria in the early 1930s. Another similarity between the two Volksbund organizations was that in Austria the membership would cross what seemed to be almost unassailable divisions that were present within Austrian politics. They would be supported not just by the situation at the time, with many seeing it as essential that the Anschluss happen if Austria wanted to survive, but they also looked to the past. The 1920s was a period where many histories of Austria would be written, and some of them were written around the idea of finding historical justifications for the Pan-Germanism movement. The historians that would create these histories, men like Otto H. Stowasser and Karl Lechner called back to the Imperial past of the two nations, back to the Holy Roman Empire days when the areas that would become Germany and Austria were firmly intertwined. Or as Gernot Heiss would say in their 1993 article Pan-Germans, Better Germans, Austrians “In the view of nearly all the historians who taught at Austrian universities–inasmuch as they voiced their opinion on the topic, which, in fact, most did in one way or another–Austria was “a state against its own will”.” Such inspiration from history was not a justification used by all of the proponents of Anschluss, because by pulling from history it was very easy to fall into a glorification of the Imperial and Monarchist past. Therefore groups like the Austrian socialists would reject such nations, just one example of the political disagreements that would always be fighting against the unifying nature of the Pan-Germanic movement.
While the Volksbund and support for the Anschluss was a unifying force, and in fact almost every major political party in both nations would officially support the movement, this could not solve all of the divisions present in the two societies. The problems would be apparent anytime the conversations moved into any kind of detailed planning about what the resulting state should look like and what the movement as a whole symbolized. For example, for German supporters of the Weimar Republic, they saw their support for the Volksbund as a way to counter the claims of their political opponents that they were in some way anti-Germany. The Republicans saw the Volksbund as a way to further strengthen German democracy and also just German self-determination in general, something that had been robbed from Germany by the Versailles treaty. Support for the Volksbund among the conservative and more radical right wing parties in Germany was also strong. However, there were often concerns in these groups that the Volksbund as a whole was simply a plot by the Left to increase their power. Even with these concerns, support for the union of the two nations was strong, just for different reasons. For German nationalists, an expansion beyond the truncated German territory of Versailles was always going to be appealing. They would also use the Volksbund as a method of spreading their particular brand of what it meant to be German, which often had a strong racial and anti-semitic component. These different viewpoints would cause support for the Volksbund to ebb and flow among various groups during the 1920s and early 1930s.
One high point of support for the Volksbund would come in August 1925 when several hundred members of the German side of the Volksbund would travel to Austria to hold a rally which was joined by Austrian members as well, to add extra emphasis the rally was held in the City Hall in Vienna, an important symbolic milestone for the two groups. Then in 1926 a new high point would be reached for the Democratic Socialist parties in both nations as members of the Schutzbund and Reichsbanner would meet in Germany for the Reichsbanner anniversary celebrations. Both of these groups, the paramilitary forces of their respective parties, did nothing to dispel the idea that the Volksbund was really just a leftist front. The two Socialist organizations would in general foster close relations during the 1920s with the leaders in both given honorary positions in the other. But much like other movements between the two nations they were not identical, with the Reichsbanner allowing non-socialist members including Catholics, while the Schutzbund was made up entirely of socialists and had a harsh political rivalry with the Austrian Catholic party. Just like with other differences between the two nations, these problems caused friction, and probably reduced the overall support for cooperation between the groups, but was never strong enough to cause that cooperation to cease entirely.
Along with the presence of the Volksbund on both sides of the border, there was another shared political party, the Nationalist Socialists. In both nations the two Nazi parties were on similar paths until the Beer Hall Putsch, which put the German Nazi party into a sharp decline in the years after 1923, a decline that would not be suffered by the Austrians. The parties would diverge slightly in the last half of the 1920s, which was a time when Hitler was asserting his sole leadership in Germany, while at the same time the Austrians favored a more democratic approach to leadership selection. There would also be a philosophical divide between the two groups, with the Austrian Nazis hewing closer to the socialist principles that Hitler purposefully purged from his party. All of this would be resolved in 1930 when leaders loyal to Hitler were able to take charge of the Austrian Nazi party. This would prove to be a bad move for the electoral performance of the party, with many rivals claiming that the Austrian Nazi party was just an imported group that was controlled from Germany. It did not help that with the new leadership the Austrian Party inherited many of the platform policies from Germany, which did not always play well in Austria. There would be a bit of a turn around over the next few years, if only because the depression would be catastrophic for the Austrian economy. This pushed many people into a search for more radical political options, even from groups that were by almost any measure also quite radical, like the Heimwehr paramilitery group. With a shift to the far more harmonious policy with the German party the Austrian Nazi party became another strong supporter of Anschluss, a viewpoint that would have received less support among the party under its previous Austrian focused leaders.
The Great Depression would also be a turning point for the Volksbund movement, just like it was with so many other things. Unemployment was a huge problem in Austria, and it caused many to look to the Anschluss as a possible way out of the economic issues that they were experiencing. Then came the Lausanne Conference in 1932, which a conference that was once again a re-examination of the Versailles Treaty and German reparations. As part of the agreements made at the conference, the British and French once again insisted that both Germany and Austria extend their agreement to not push for an Anschluss from the previously agreed year of 1942 all the way out to 1952. This would prove to be a divisive issue in the politics of both nations, but it would still be agreed to by the Germans and Austrian governments of 1932. In both cases this was seen as a fantastic opportunity for the Nazi party. In Germany the support for the Nazi party was already on the rise, and they would use the opportunity of the Lausanne conference to take over a leadership position within the Volksbund movement. This position was simply solidified when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933. At that point the Volksbund was decisively shifted from a group that was participated in by a variety of political groups to one that was dominated by Nazi members and Nazi leaders. Even before other political groups were outlawed in Germany, their participation in the Volksbund was greatly reduced, including the resignation of Paul Lobe, who had been the Volksbund chairman since it was founded. Very quickly the Volksbund became a group that supported and advocated not just for Anschluss, but an Anschluss that was structured within the context of Nazi racial theory, with the best example being the new Membership requirements “Every German of Aryan descent who avows himself to the grossdeutsch idea can become a member regardless of citizenship.” Shortly after this change was made the Volksbund executive committee, still with a majority of non-Nazi members, voted to simply dissolve the group. In Austria changes were also being made, with a shift away from supporting a full union with Germany and instead throwing their support behind simply maintaining good relations with their larger northern neighbor. The Austrian Volksbund would then be taken over by the Austrian fascists under Dollfuss in early 1934, who were even more passionately opposed to the Anschluss.
At the same time that the Volksbund and Anschluss movement in Austria were changing during the early 1930s there was also a growing level of political conflict and violence within Austria as well. The first years of the 1930s were very rough in Austria, with hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs, and this caused a rise in support for radical political groups. This included the Heimwehr, founded in 1927, which was a war veterans organization which took its inspiration from Fascist groups in other nations and which would provide support for various conservative groups in the first years of the 1930s. There was also growing support for a variety of Conservative, Fascist, and Communist groups within Austria as the more centrist Social Democrats and Catholic party saw their support erode. The Communists would even launch actions to overthrow the government in both 1919 and 1927. The action in 1927 resulted in the burning of the Palace of Justine and hundreds of people either injured or killed. Just like in other nations, this increase in violence from the left was answered by an increasingly militant right. There was also a growing push against the left from the government and the police, who were generally far more accepting of anybody other than the Communists. The general geography of these movements was that Communist and Socialist support was concentrated in Vienna, but in the rest of the nation it was quite weak. This resulted in a very divided country not just politically but also between Vienna and other areas. In May 1932 a new government would be put together with Engelbert Dollfuss, the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry at its head and backed by a coalition of Center and Right parties that gave it a majority of precisely 1 vote. Then in March 1933 there were issues within the parliament with an argument around voting procedures, with the most important outcome being that Dollfuss personally assumed dictatorial powers by proroguing parliament and ruling by decree. The new government was backed by the Heimwehr and many other groups, but the exact nature of this new government is something that is still up for debate, with some claiming that it was simply authoritarian, while others claim that it was in fact fascist. The official story was that Dollfuss and the new government were the only things that were preventing fascism from taking over Austria. Historians seem to mostly agree that fascism is a term that properly describes Dollfuss and his regime, with Aristotle Kallis using the phrase “preventive fascism” to describe the fact that even if Dollfuss was originally aiming for a non-fascist regime to fight fascism, it would itself slip into fascism. There would be an almost immediate crackdown against other political groups. The Nazi party would be outlawed in June, the Socialist national day of celebration for the founding of the Austrian Republic was also cancelled, with those who still tried to celebrate being arrested. This and other measures by the government led to a Socialist backed uprising which was put down by the government after over 2 weeks of fighting all over the country. This was followed by the Social Democrat party also being outlawed. All political activity was then concentrated in the new Fatherland Front, or Patriotic Front, which Dollfuss controlled. In January 1934 he would describe the party like this ‘The Patriotic Front does not represent a single movement or a single party, it is an active movement of reconstruction. Freed from the party restrictions of former times, we want to unite all men, irrespective of party, who recognize Austria as their Fatherland, in order to renovate this country constitutionally, socially, and economically.’ A key part of Dollfuss’ justification for the final and complete removal of democratic processes was that it in some way freed the people of Austria from a problem that they had been having. Here is Dollfuss again from April 1934 ‘We want true, honourable and healthy liberty. […] If today we talk of freedom in Austria this is not merely a claim to the independence of our country, it means also working to free ourselves inwardly, to free our nation from the hampering restrictions of an earlier period, so that we may all cooperate effectively to build up a happier Austria.”
The suppression of the Socialist movement in Austria was largely successful and when Dollfuss was murdered in July 1934 it would not be the Socialists that were responsible, but instead the Austrian Nazi party. Over 150 members of the Austrian Nazis would assault the Federal Chancellery on July 25, 1934, and they would shoot Dollfuss. This was all part of a plan to overthrow the government after months of lower key violence around Austria. Dollfuss would die just a few hours later, but the government would continue under the leadership of Kurt Schuschnigg, and it would be Schuschnigg that would lead the Austrian regime during the middle 4 years of the 1930s. Next episode we will look at events in Germany during the mid 1930s as plans for the forceful Anschluss were formulated and the groundwork was laid for the events that would occur in 1938.