During February 1938 relations between Austria and Germany begin to spiral out of control.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 59 - Anschluss Part 3 - The February 1938 Meeting. This week a big thank you goes out to Scotty and Nicholas for choosing to support this podcast on Patreon, where they get access to ad free versions of all of the podcast’s episodes plus special Patreon only episodes roughly once a month. Head on over to historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members to find out more information. Relations between Germany and Austria after 1933 were not always bad, and there was not always the impending threat of Germany forcefully absorbing the smaller nation. In fact, in July 1936 they would sign an agreement which stated that Germany would recognize the full sovereignty of the Federal State of Austria, which was in line with what Hitler had stated during May 1935. The threat was always simmering under the surface though, even if it was not always close to happening, because all that stood in Germany’s way, really, was the reactions of other nations and from those within Germany. There was little possibility that if Germany really wanted to invade that Austria could stop them, or as Goering would say to the Director of Security in Upper Austria Count Peter Revertera in November 1937 ‘Do you really think that if the Fuhrer wanted to force the Anschluss, Austria would be able to defend herself? I may as well tell you that this union will be carried out no matter what happens, for the Fuhrer is determined at all costs to settle the question, and nobody could protest. Austria would be the cultural and artistic center of the whole Reich, though the political leadership would obviously remain in Berlin.’ The Count would then write that “Goring then went on to explain to me that history would pass severe judgment on all those who felt compelled to oppose the future of the two German peoples.” The concern that this possibility would turn into real action would be one that would drive domestic Austrian politics and relations with Germany during the mid and late 1930s. In this episode we will look at some of the changes made to Austrian society during the Dollfuss and Schuchnigg regime before discussing a meeting that took place between Hitler and Schuchnigg in February 1938, which would set in motion the events that would eventually lead to the Anschluss later in the year.
During their years in power, the Dollfuss government began to make changes to some pieces of Austrian society, and one of the best examples was in the area of education. In 1935 Schuchnigg would state that “the road to the new state begins in schools.” Obviously a period of just 4 years was not enough for all of these changes to be completed, but they were enough for them to get started. Over the course of more than a year the various school regulations were changed to allow for the shift, and new textbooks were started, although they would take some time to create. The overall goal was to move towards closer agreement with the new government, in a very similar way that the Nazi takeover of Germany and the Fascist take over of Italy were precursors to wide ranging reforms of the education curriculum. The first major change was made in June 1933 when an agreement was signed with the Catholic Church that allowed the church to regain much of the power that it had previous held over the creation of school policy in Austria. Much of this had been lost during the decade after the First World War, during which Catholic power was greatly reduced by the left leaning Austrian governments. The key part of the agreement was that the Austrian schools would not teach anything that either directly contradicted or undermined the Catholic religion in any way. Another major change was around how certain topics were taught in schools. History was taught in a very specific way, first to fall into line with the agreements with the Catholic church, but also to glorify Austrian, and specifically Austrian history, to reinforce the idea that Austria should be an independent state, this was designed to counteract the previous focus on the German nature and German identity of Austria. Patriotic education was also added which was justified by the following “patriotic education should awaken in students a love of their Austrian fatherland and lead them to willing and dutiful integration into the state community and to respect and follow the constitution and laws.” A third change was the introduction of pre-military training for all boys, while girls were enrolled in physical education to prepare them to be fit and healthy mothers.
Even beyond education, the Catholic church was a major part of the new government, Dollfuss would even directly state this in September 1933 “We will build up a Catholic German state, which will be thoroughly Austrian.” This was a radical change from the previous government under the Social Democrats, which in no way outlawed or removed the church from Austrian society, but enacted many reforms that stripped it of much of its official power. When the Fatherland Front became the sold political party of Austria, it brought with it a Catholicism that was trumpeted as a bulwark against the anti-religious views from both the far left and far right. It also dovetailed nicely with other government policies around large families and the glorification of motherhood, just as we have discussed previously on the podcast with Germany, Italy, and Spain. In Austria the concerns were seen as even more acute, with Austria having the lowest birthrate in Europe after the First World WAr, due to a host of problems including the harsh economic conditions of the new nation. To counteract this stipends and financial rewards were provided to families with more than four children and some social changes that had occurred in the 1920s were attacked, including the rise of the number of women in the work force. These efforts ran into one very real problem though, there simply were not enough men to go around. The areas that made up the new nation of Austria suffered heavily in the First World War when it came to casualties at the front, and this meant that there were thousands of women that simply could not marry because no man was available. Or as was reported in one Austrian newspaper in 1936 “From a purely statistical point of view; 200,000 women [in Vienna alone] are forced to earn their living; in reality there are many more…Despite all efforts to direct women back to the home it remains a stark fact that hundreds of thousands of women in Austria must work outside the home.” These type of gender role based shifts were officially supported by the government and the Church, as part of the general program to push Austrian society as a whole towards a more traditional and conservative point.
Another topic I wanted to discuss around Austrian society was around public libraries. Now, I will be honest here, there is not some sort of grand segue to this, I just fell down a bit of a research rabbit hole one weekend and I think this topic is interesting. Also, if you are in an area with public libraries, support your public libraries, they are great and this podcast would not be the same without mine. Anyway, in Austria in the 1930s public libraries were not free, but they were public in that they were open to anybody that could afford the relatively small fees that they charged. They were often ran by various groups, either political or religious, which did have a tendency to shift what they offered to their patrons. One of these groups, which opened many libraries, were the various leftist parties, these were referred to as Worker’s Libraries, which have a German name I am not going to attempt. These were generally even more open, but they were then outlawed by the Dollfuss government when the Social Democrat party was outlawed. This resulted in the government taking possession of all of the libraries and all of the books, over 300,000 of them. When they reopened their books were altered slightly, with around 1/4 of them removed due to their contents. Dr. Karl Lugmayer was put in charge of providing oversight to the libraries, both those directly controlled by the government and other groups, he would say that “Book selection will be tolerant, although in the beginning it must be applied a little more strictly if it is to be helpful in quieting the political uneasiness…there will be no Bolshevist literature in circulation, nothing anti-religious.” At the same time there was a sharp reduction in how much the libraries were used, although it is possible that it was not due strictly to the fact that some books were removed, as other libraries around the world had similar problems in the mid 1930s. While there were restrictions put in place by the new government, it stopped short of destroying or burning books which were outlawed, which would happen in Germany. So there is your public library update, which I acknowledge is a bit random and not really connected.
During the 1930s and in the run up to the eventual Anschluss one of the hidden changes in European politics was the relationship between Germany, Italy, and Austria. In the years after the First World War Italy had been a big supporters of Austrian independence and a backer for its continuation. This was due to Italian concerns that a stronger Austria, or the presence of Germany on its northern borders would put some of the territory gained by Italy after the First World War at risk. This was a well understood relationship between all three nations, but then Italy and Germany, and particularly their leaders grew closer together, removing that block from German expansion. Along with this shift, within Austria there were also attempts by Schuschnigg to reach out to prominent leaders of the Austrian Nazi party, in the hopes that they could be brought into support of the government. The hope was that this would make the government stronger, while also making relations with Germany far better, which was always a concern. But then the exact opposite would happen, when it became clear to Schuschnigg and the government that many of the Austrian Nazi leaders were far too radical, or as they would say “bomb throwing”, with the result being that many were arrested. The removal of several prominent Austrian Nazis allowed one of their seemingly more moderate members to take center stage. The leading person that would take advantage of this was Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Seyss-Inquart, a young Viennese lawyer, would be a critical player in the last months of independent Austria. This is because Schuschnigg chose to begin working with Seyss-Inquart in order to come to an agreement, under the assumption that such an agreement would make things easier during the inevitable conversations with Hitler, a conversation that Schuschnigg had been invited to on January 26th. There were two major problems with the idea of working with Seyss-Inquart, the first was that it was based on the assumption that Seyss-Inquart was a loyal Austrian who wanted to continue Austrian independence. The second was that the conversations between Schuschnigg and Seyss-Inquart, which were designed to be secret, would remain private. In the case of Seyss-Inquart’s loyalty, it was questionable at best, and even if he saw himself as an Austrian patriot his actions would have results that were far from patriotic. Part of these actions were to make the negotiations far from secret, and the agreement that was reached, called the Little Programme, would be well known to Hitler before any conversations with Schuschnigg took place. The program had 10 items that the government was willing to concede the Seyss-Inquart and the Austrian Nazis, most of these were quite small and pretty minor. But some of them were more important, for example the 7th would state ‘there are certainly some important basic concepts of a non-party-bound National Socialism which can be organically incorporated into the political ideology of the new Austria.’ The negotiations which saw the creation of the program were actually going quite slowly before the invitation to meet with Hitler arrived. This caused Schuschnigg to push for their completion, he would later say ‘When the invitation (to Berchtesgaden) become imminent, I pressed for the conclusion of these domestic political talks, in order to get a basis for negotiations at Berchtesgaden, or rather, in order to be able to show Hitler that we have already of our own accord made the maximum internal concessions possible and were therefore not able to pay any higher price.’ They would be completed less than a day before Schuschnigg traveled to Germany which gave him what he wanted, just enough time to transmit them to Germany to prepare Hitler and others for the meeting.
The meeting between Schuschnigg and Hitler would occur on February 12th, he was accompanied by the State Secretary of the Foreign Minister and his adjutant. Before leaving Vienna he had even made it a point to mention to the Mayor of Vienna that he should take control of the government is Schuschnigg did not return. While this made the expectations for the meeting seem pretty negative, Franz von Papen had informed Schuschnigg that “The worst that can happen, is that after the meeting we are exactly where we are to-day. The Führer told me so himself.” One thing that has to be noted when discussing the meeting that was to follow is that we are pretty limited when it comes to the information that we have about it. This is because the two men, Schuschnigg and Hitler did not require an interpreter this reduced the number of men that were required to attend down to really just Hitler and Schuschnigg. This means that we only have Schuschnigg’s notes on the discussions that would occur. We are left with a one sided portrayal of events, but most of what Schuschnigg discusses in his notes about the meeting do quite closely mirror the types of behavior and discussions that are far better documents during the Munich Crisis a few months later. In both meetings Hitler would take a very similar stance, whereby he would take an agreement that had already been made, and then demand much more. For this meeting the previous agreement had been provided by Seyss-Inquart, and Hitler seized upon these positions as his basis for negotiations and pushed much further in his demands. The entire conversation would see Hitler move over to the attack almost immediately. Hitler would say ‘Austria has anyway never done anything which was of help to the German Reich. Her whole history is one uninterrupted act of treason to the race. That was just as true in the past as it is today.’ With Schuschnigg responding ‘As we Austria see it, the whole of our history is a very essential and valuable part of German history which just cannot be wish away from the overall German picture.’ One of the common situations in these types of meetings would be Hitler complaining but not really making concrete demands as he did not want to confine himself to concrete action items. This would cause Schuschnigg to eventually say ‘We simply have to go on living alongside one another, the little state next to the big one. We have no other choice. And that is why I ask you to tell me what your concrete complaints are.’ But Hitler would continue to dodge providing a simple list, stating ‘I am telling you that I intend to clear up the whole of this so-called Austrian question-one way or the other.’ Eventually the meeting would just end without a real conclusion. Instead Schuschnigg would later be handed a document with 10 points that he was expected to sign, but what it contained was simply the Little Programme, which had been the previous agreement, but greatly inflated. For example, there was a demand that a pro-Nazi War Minister and Minister of the Interior be brought into the Austrian cabinet.
After a short break during which the documents were given to Schuschnigg, another meeting was held, and the conversation would not be greatly different than before, there were more demands and more arguing. The demand that Schuschnigg appoint a Minister of the Interior from the Nazi party, with Seyss-Inquart being directly recommended, was a direct mirror of Hitler’s demand back in 1933 that he be allowed to place his own choice as Minister of the Interior when the Nazi party was outnumbered in the cabinet. The reasoning was the same, it would give Seyss-Inquart a huge amount of power around public security and all of the police in Austria. Papen, who was present, would try and convince Schuschnigg to give in to the demands, saying that “from that time on Germany would remain loyal to this agreement and that there would be no further difficulties for Austria.” The initial goal of Hitler was to get Schuschnigg to sign the document immediately, which he would eventually do, but only after making it very clear that the signature was basically worthless, as such a document had to be signed by the Austrian president, who was back in Vienna. Hitler was displeased by this, to say the least, which would prompt Hitler to begin obliquely threatening an invasion, which also activated a bit of theater that he had setup beforehand. Before this second meeting had begun he had told General Keitel, head of the OKW, that he would be called in during the meeting. And Hitler would do this, which would cause Schuschnigg to say “I am fully aware that you can invade Austria, but Herr Reichskanzler, whether we like it or not, that would mean bloodshed. We are not alone in this world, and such a step would probably mean war.” After then signing the document Schuschnigg declined to stay for dinner, and left. The entire Keitel situation was a big bluff, with Hitler staging his appearance like he was willing and able to order an immediate invasion of Austria, but nothing of the sort was planned. And instead he had told Keitel that he was simply to show up int he meeting, and he would not even have to say a word. Even though the document was signed, because Schuschnigg’s signature was worthless, the Austrian government was given 3 days to officially sign it. The next three days were full of argument, but eventually they would given into the demands. Seyss-Inquart was given the position of Minister of the Interior as part of a much wider shake up of the Cabinet. Schuschnigg was allowed to bring in people he could trust, and a Social Democrat leader was even brought on as State Secretary of Labor. It was the closest thing to a government of national unification that Austria would have during the interwar, but it was too late and would not last long.
After the meeting and the acquiesce of the Austrian government Hitler was very pleased and the situation seemed to be developing nicely. But publicly he was back to his public declarations of peace, stating before the Reichstag on February 20th that “I express…before the German people my sincere thanks to the Austrian Chancellor for his great understanding and the warm-hearted willingness with which he accepted my invitation and worked with me, so that we might discover a way of serving the best interest of the two countries.” Within Austria, at least from the perspective of Schuschnigg and the government, things were deteriorating rapidly. Seyss-Inquart, as Minister of the Interior, was having Hitler’s intended impact on the society, the police force became borderline non-functional when it came to keeping the peace. In the areas of strong Nazi support near the German border, there was essentially a state of Civil War, with little ability of the central government to exercise any control. Schuschnigg finally began to understand the problems he was facing, and would write that “Every concession on our part brought an avalanche of new and impossible demands.” He felt that he had to move forward with the last play of the dice. On March 9th, while addressing a large crowd in Innsbruck Schuschnigg would announce that on March 13th, the entirety of Austria would hold a plebiscite. The question to be asked was in the people supported Austrian independence. The wording was important though with the people being asked if they supported “a free and German, independent and social, Christian and united Austria; for freedom and work, and for the equality of all who declare for race and fatherland.” This put the Germans in a bit of a hard spot, for a long time they had been advocating for a plebiscite regarding a union with Germany, all the way back to 1919. But now it was different because instead of a straight forward question about joining with Germany, it was instead asking a question that was worded in a way that for a person to vote no they would basically have to reject so much of what people felt the nation stood for. To even further move the balance towards his desired result Schuschnigg would essentially exactly what the German Nazis had done in all German elections after they had taken power. The voting rolls were not updated, and had not been since 1930, which reduced the number of young people who could vote, which would hurt Nazi support. Then voting stations were only supplied with ballots that had a Yes vote preprinted on them, with any no votes having to be placed on paper provided by the voter. Seyss-Inquart was able to push back against some of this blatant manipulation, but it did little to address the larger concern that the Nazi leaders, in Germany and Austria, felt that the vote would be rigged and was incredibly unlikely to go in their favor.
Around the time that the plebiscite was in the planning stages, Seyss-Inquart was starting to get some cold feet and had started to work closer with the government in planning and supporting the plebiscite. He had moved so far in that direction that there were other, more pro-German Austrian Nazi leaders that had started to move around Seyss-Inquart and work directly with the Germans. This meant that when the plebiscite was announced the German leaders were already informed, but not from Seyss-Inquart, which did nothing to help his credibility in the eyes of the German leaders. News of the plebiscite pushed the possibility of German military intervention in Austria up to another level. The precise plans for such an action were, amorphous at best, in fact the German military leadership was quite unprepared. Hitler would order Keitel to present the military’s plans for the invasion, with Keitel going to General Beck, Chief of the Army General Staff, and saying “The Führer requires you to report to him immediately on the dispositions made for the Wehrmacht to enter Austria.” The only thing that had been prepared was back in June 1937, at which point some basic outlines of planes had been drawn up for Plan Otto with the scenario being not the annexation of Austria into Germany but instead the prevention of the restoration of a Habsburg restoration. This was obviously a very different scenario than what the Germans would be walking into in 1938. With such disappointing preparations for an invasion Beck was forced to report that the Army was not prepared for the operation, with Hitler ordering him to begin work on them immediately. The requirement was that they should be structured so that the troops would be in position to create the impression that they could act as peaceful liberators, not brutal invaders, the planning had to be ready for the invasion to begin no later than midday on March 12th.