When the Anschluss occurred, there would be no fighting.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 60 - Anschluss Part 4 - Operation Otto. “TOP SECRET 1. If other measures prove unsuccessful, I intend to invade Austria with armed forces to establish constitutional conditions and to prevent further outrages against the pro-German population. 2. The whole operation will be directed by myself. 3. The forces of the Army and Air Force detailed for this operation must be ready for invasion on March 12, 1938, at the latest by 12:00 hours. 4. The behaviour of the troops must give the impression that we do not want to wage war against our Austrian brothers. Therefore any provocation is to be avoided. If, however, resistance is offered it must be broken ruthlessly by force of arms” These were the orders given to the German military for the invasion of Austria, just a few days before the operation was to take place. At Army Headquarters frantic preparations would be completed as orders were drawn up and distributed for an operations that just a few days earlier had never been properly considered or prepared for. The operation would be put under the command of General Feder von Bock and his 8th Army, and it would include the usage of the 2nd Panzer Division, which I believe is the first time that a Panzer division would be used in something close to a combat operation. The short time frame was forced upon the German Generals by the fact that in Austria Chancellor Schuschnigg had ordered that a plebiscite would be held on the 13th, a plebiscite that the German leaders felt would not see a favorable result, at least from their perspective. Along with all of the military preparations, political preparations were also being made. Hitler would write a letter to Mussolini on March 11th to fully inform him about what was about to happen, and to make it clear that he had no quarrel with Italy and had no ambitions on any Italian territory.
In Austria Schuschnigg would be officially informed on March 11th at 5:30 Am, so a day before the Germans planned to invade, that the Germans were preparing for the operation. The information on German plans came from two sources, the first was the Austrian Consul General in Munich who had sent the message ‘Leo is ready to travel’ which was the pre-arranged signal to be sent if a German invasion seemed imminent. The other direct indicator of the coming invasion came from the German troops that were massing near the Austrian border, along with their very noticeable troop movements. A third indicator of the possibility of invasion would be far more direct and would arrive shortly after Franz von Papen would fly out of Vienna bound for Berlin. It would be in the form of a letter from Hitler that Minister of the Interior Seyss-Inquart and Vice-Chancellor Edmund Glaise-Horstenau were ordered to deliver to Schuschnigg. Both Seyss-Inquart and Glaise-Horstenau were loyal Nazi party members and their goals were to see that German plans for the absorbtion of Austria were fulfilled. The letter that they were given was an ultimatum with one simple demand, a two week postponement of the plebiscite that was scheduled for the 13th. This seems like a simple demand, postponing the vote for a relatively short period of time, but it was both politically and personally difficult for Schuschnigg to agree. He had placed any hopes for his future as Chancellor of Austria, and most of the hopes of navigating Austria away from a union with Germany on the results of the plebiscite, believing that it would show that the Austrian people were firmly against such a union. During the morning hours Austrian reservists were mobilized, and arms were distributed to the reservists, border guards, and the police. These were steps in preparation for a possible military confrontation, but while they were ongoing discussions were still continuing. Schuschnigg would meet with Seyss-Inquart and Glaise-Horstenau 2PM to try and find some path forward that did not involve postponing the vote. When this proved to be impossible, at 2:30PM news was sent out that the plebiscite was canceled. Seyss-Inquart and Glaise-Horstenau, who were at this point very poorly informed of Germany’s actual plans, believed that when they obtained Schuschnigg’s agreement for the postponement they had achieved a great victory and all of the problems had now been solved.
It was with this sense of victory that Seyss-Inquart would telephone Berlin, and specifically Goering, to tell him that Schuschnigg had given into the demands. What we know of this phone call and its aftermath comes almost completely from Goering’s testimony at Nuremburg, which is of course not completely reliable. But I will just give you his quote here ‘At this moment, I had an instinctive feeling that the situation had begun to slide and that here at last was that opportunity - so long and passionately awaited - to bring about a complete and clear-cut solution. And, from this time onwards, I must take the responsibility for what now happened 100 per cent on my shoulders, for it was not so much the Fuhrer as I myself who set the pace here and forced things to a decision even against his doubts.’ We almost certainly need to consider this portrayal of events as deeply suspect, with Goering probably himself far too much credit for steering events. But we do know that Goering would continue to push towards a military invasion of Austria, an outcome that Hitler was certainly in no way against. Roughly 15 minutes after the first phone call Goering would call Seyss-Inquart and deliver the message that ‘Berlin cannot accept the decision of Chancellor Schuschnigg’s in any form. In view of his breach of the Berchtesgaden Agreement, Schuschnigg no longer enjoys our confidence …. The national (i.e. pan-German) Ministers in Austria are to hand in their resignations at once to the Chancellor and to demand that he resigns as well.’ This was then relayed by Seyss-Inquart to Schuschnigg, the new demand was for his resignation which would result in the full replacement of the government. Schuschnigg would for the second time that day choose the path of least resistance, and he would make it known to President Miklas that he was prepared to resign. The problem would be finding someone to replace him. Miklas asked all of the likely candidates, to find one that was ready and willing to take over the position of Chancellor, but no one was. The hope was to find somebody who would still support Miklas’ and Schuschnigg’s basic desire for the continuation of Austrian independence, but as each hour passed it seemed more and more unlikely that such a person would be found.
The answer would come, once again, in the form of another demand from Berlin. Goering would once again relay the message to Seyss-Inquart that a new demand was being made, and it was that Seyss-Inquart should be placed in the position of Chancellor. The threat for non-compliance with this demand was simply that German troops would invade. This would be delivered to the Austrian Cabinet by General Muff, the German military attache in Vienna: ‘If by 7:30PM Field-Marshal Goring has not received the report that Seyss-Inquart had become Chancellor, 200,000 men standing in readiness at the border will march in.’ Asking for the resignation of a government official who was willing to do so, and demanding that somebody specific be placed in the highest position of the cabinet were two very different requests and Miklas simply refused to make such appointments, and he would continue to refuse under the threat of invasion. During these critical hours, with Schuschnigg still acting as Chancellor just out of simple lack of options, the Austrian government would receive clear messages from other European powers. Italy, France, and Britain were all unwilling to provide meaningful help or assistance, Austria was on its own. The Austrian Cabinet was left in an impossible situation, they could either resist against the Germans, a fight they were certain to lose without massive help from other nations, or they could accept the inevitable. They would once again choose the path of least resistance, and Schuschnigg would provide a written order to the Austrian forces to withdraw from all border areas and to offer no resistance to German troops if and when they came over the border.
All of this was happening kind of behind closed doors and beyond the reserve mobilization orders it would not be until 7PM that most of the people of Vienna and Austria would have any real idea what was happening. It was at that time that there was a radio broadcast that announced that the plebiscite was postponed and that the cabinet had resigned. This caused some amount of chaos, especially in the border provinces close to Germany were Nazi influence was at its strongest. In those areas local government was taken over and local police and security forces were removed. Then at 7:30PM rumors would quickly spread around Vienna that the Germans had already invaded. This prompted Schuschnigg to make a national radio address, during this address he would give some detail about what was happening. He discussed the events that had occurred, and made it clear that Austria was yielding to German threats of invasion. He would also inform the nation that he had ordered the Austrian Army to withdraw without providing any resistance. This seems like a bit of an odd and very open message, but it was given under the belief that German forces were already in the country and would soon be in control of the capital. In fact it would not be until 8:45Pm that the final order for the invasion would be signed. This order was only given after Seyss-Inquart had phoned Berlin to inform them of the contents of the speech. At that time Hitler would sign Instruction Number 2 for Operation Otto. This stated that the German demands had not been met and so the military was being sent in. A bit after midnight Miklas finally gave into the previous demands and placed Seyss-Inquart in the Chancellorship, allowing him to form his own government. Once against Seyss-Inquart believed he had achieved a great victory, and he would telephone Berlin to tell them that he was now in control and the invasion was no longer necessary. The message he received in response, after 2:30AM, was that the invasion was now unstoppable, the orders had already been distributed and could not be recalled. While those conversations were occurring there was absolute bedlam on the borders between Austria and Czechoslovakia and Hungary. People were frantically trying to flee the country in the last hours before the invasion. Schuschnigg would refuse to flee, even after the desperate pleas of those around him, because of this refusal Schuschnigg would spend 7 years in various German prisons and concentration camps.
The order to not offer any resistance to a German invasion was a fortuitous one for the Wehrmacht. The power of the German forces would have almost certainly have guaranteed victory, but they were far from perfectly prepared. The leading units did not even have maps of the areas they were advancing into, with one officer being provided with nothing but a tourist guide. The fuel columns for the leading vehicles were completely improvised, and heavily relied on trucks borrowing along the route and refilling at civilian petrol stations. There were also problems with the weather, with snow and ice being present on some of the roads which played havoc with some of the tracked vehicles, particularly the older tanks. While just trying to get out of Germany a bit under a third of the tanks had to be left behind due to mechanical issues, and while in Austria a further two third would fall victim to similar problems. But while the advance was slower than expected, and perhaps slightly less triumphant, it began and continued while encountering no resistance from Austrian forces. At the front of the invasion was the 2nd Panzer Division, who crossed the border at around 9AM on March 12th. Many of the units had traveled hundreds of miles over the previous days to reach their jumping off points, so some level of delay is perhaps understandable. When they reached the border the barriers were even raised for them. In the air Luftwaffe planes, hundreds of them, took off from airfields in Germany, primarily in Bavaria, and they would then land on Austrian air fields, at times dropping propaganda leaflets on the way. While many of the early flights were military aircraft prepped at least for the possibility of action, just a few hours later this would change and there would be many direct flights to Vienna to deliver German officials who were assigned the task of getting control of the Austrian government and preparing for the full transition to German control.
Along with the military units that were advancing into Austria, at 4PM they would be joined by Hitler and his entourage in a group of Mercedes cars that would cross the bridge at Braunau am Inn. General Heinz Guderian would state that he felt that Hitler was “deeply moved, the tears were running down his cheeks.” The only that that slowed down the convoy were the crowds that gathered as soon as news began to spread that the German Chancellor was in Austria. They would make it to the city of Linz late in the evening, where they planned to meet Seyss-Inquart and other Austrian Nazi leaders. Within the city 100,000 people would come out to greet the convoy. Hitler and the others would be forced to stay in Linz for the entirety of March 13th, instead of heading to Vienna as planned. This was because Himmler, who was in charge of security arrangements, simply was not satisfied with arrangements in Vienna. The day would still contain several meetings as well as a trip to the village of Leonding, where Hitler had spent some time in his youth and where his parents were buried. He would also meet several friends from his school days when he visited the school he attended as a child. The reception that he received in Austria, and in his home town, shifted the conversation about the future of Austria. The exact plans for what would happen to Austria, and exactly how independent it would be were still up in the air when the invasion happened. There were many options, from something close to independence to a far more integrated solution much like Bavaria or Saxony. However, after he entered Austria, and then after the day spent in Linz the fate of Austria seems to have been sealed in Hitler’s mind, it would be fully annexed and made into just another German province. While Hitler was having a bit of fun in Austria, back in Berlin Goering and Neurath were forced to bear the brunt of criticism and questions from foreign delegations. Neurath would stick to the story that many Austrians had demanded a new government, and Germany was simply helping them to achieve it. He would also claim that the Wehrmacht was assisting the Austrian government to avoid bloodshed during the period of transition. In general, foreign reaction was muted, with many foreign governments and newspapers seeing the Anschluss as something that could not be stopped, especially after the announcements from Vienna that there would be no resistance to the invasion. Back in Linz Hitler would finally be able to leave for Vienna at 11AM on the 14th, for what would turn into a 6 hour trip to the cpaital through absolutely perfect spring weather.
After the hero’s welcome that Hitler and his entourage received in other areas of Austria, his arrival in the capital was no different. Or to quote a Daily Telegraph correspondent “To say that the crowds which greeted him along the Ringstrasse were delirious with joy is an understatement.” After arriving in the city and making his way through the crowds Hitler would speak from the Hofburg, which had previously been the imperial palace of the Hapsburgs. During the speech he would announce that Austria would be brought into Germany as a new province known as Ostmakr. There would be two laws drawn up to make this official, the one in Austria was the Law for the Reunification of Austria with the German Reich. It was signed by Seyss-Inquart in his position of Chancellor, but Miklas would refuse to sign. This was simply fighting against the unbreakable tide and eventually he would convinced to declare himself ‘hindered in the exercise of his office’ which allowed his power to fall to Seyss-Inquart who would then sign the law that made the union official.
With the transition to Germany complete, social changes happened rapidly, and almost immediately arrests began, with 76,000 people arrested in Vienna within just a few weeks. As with the early arrests in Germany back in 1933, many of these arrests were strictly temporary but they would still leave their mark. Along with these arrests there were wholesale purges of the civil service and military to remove as much power as possible from those who might still wish to officially resist the new reality. There were also far more violent actions taken in the streets, both officially supported and spontaneous. With the Austrian Nazi party now in official control of the government there was nothing to prevent violence which might have been previously curtailed by the police. There was enough violence, especially against Austrian Jews, that it bordered on being classified as a pogrom. Many were beaten, robbed, and murdered. To quote from the New York Times “In Austria, overnight, Vienna’s 290,000 Jews were made free game for mobs, despoiled of their property, deprived of police protection, ejected from employment, and barred from sources of relief.” And this was even before the official persecution began. A new Office for Jewish Emigration was created when controlled who could and could not leave the country. AS in Germany in earlier years this group would allow Jewish individuals to leave Austria, but only if and when they essentially handed over every bit of money and property that they had. It was just officially licensed extortion, with almost 100,000 Austrians still opting to go through the process out of fear for their life and family. Those that were left behind faced constant threats and abuse, for example there was a lengthy period of time where Jewish men and women would be forcefully removed from their homes and forced to do cleaning tasks around the city while being surrounded by angry mobs. Unfortunately for all of the Austrian Jews, it was only going to get worse.
There were many international reactions to the events in Austria, as there obviously would be anytime there was a large adjustment in borders in Central Europe. While many would mention concerns, there was little chance of any other nation actually doing anything about it. Recognizing Austria as a lost cause, there was far greater concern that other areas not being given the same treatment, especially Czechoslovakia. There was simply no support for any real action, outside of a few political leaders and groups here and there. Some level of official response was required through, and many would officially protest to Berlin as we discussed earlier. For example the British Cabinet would prepare a response on March 14th, and then when Chamberlain would address the Commons later in the day he would speak extensively about it. Here are two quotes “The House may desire me to repeat what our position in regard to Austria was. We were under no commitment to take action vis-à-vis Austria, but we were pledged to consultation with the French and Italian Governments in the event of action being taken which affected Austrian independence and integrity, for which provision was made by the relevant articles of the Peace Treaties.” “This is not a moment for hasty decisions or for careless words. We must consider the new situation quickly, but with cool judgment. I am confident that we shall be supported in asking that no one, whatever his preconceived notions may be, will regard himself as excluded from any extension of the national effort which may be called for. As regards our defence programmes, we have always made it clear that they were flexible, and that they would have to be reviewed from time to time in the light of any development in the international situation. It would be idle to pretend that recent events do not constitute a change of the kind that we had in mind. Accordingly we have decided to make a fresh review, and in due course we shall announce what further steps we may think it necessary to take.”
Four weeks after German troops moved in a vote would be held that would solidify the fact that Austria was now simply another German province. A remarkable 99.73% of the vote would be in favor of the shift, with that number of course being heavily influenced by the typical Nazi methods of drumming up the proper voting results. This will obviously be a topic we will discuss in the very far future, but I did just want to mention a piece from the Declaration of Independence of the Second Republic which would be published on April 27, 1945 ‘It would describe the Anschluss as ‘instituted by military threat from outside and the terrorism amounting to high treason exercised by a Nazi-Fascist minority, cunningly wrested from a helpless government, ultimately via military and warlike occupation of the country, imposed on the people of Austria, themselves reduced to helplessness.’ From the point of Anschluss until the end of the war Austria essentially just functioned as another area of Germany, the first expansion of German territory since the end of the First World War, but it would not be the last.