Monday, 9 March 2015


In 1938, threatened with a Nazi takeover, and without international support, Austrian chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg called for a national plebiscite on the nation’s future. It was to be held on Sunday 13 March. He expected a vote to keep Austria independent, and there can be little doubt he would have received overwhelming support.

Kurt von Schuschnigg, Chancellor of Austria

Hitler learned of the proposal on Wednesday 9 March – just four days before the plebiscite. He was furious about this ‘dirty trick’. The last thing he wanted was a popular expression of support for Austrian independence. He summoned his advisers (many of whom were out of the country). He sent a message to Mussolini asking for his support. Despite the lack of any plan of attack, Hitler sent tanks and troops rolling towards the border.

Before dawn, on Friday 11 March, the Germans closed the border with Austria.

Hitler delivered an ultimatum: postpone the plebiscite for three weeks, or the Wehrmacht will invade. Early that afternoon, the Austrians agreed. Then the Germans sent a further ultimatum demanding the resignation of Schuschnigg and his entire government, and the appointment of Dr Arthur Seyss-Inquart (the Nazi leader in Austria) as Federal Chancellor, otherwise the German Wehrmacht would march in that very evening.

Shortly after four in the afternoon, the Austrian government resigned.

Dr Arthur Seyss-Inquart

But President Miklas did not wish to appoint a Nazi as Chancellor. Göring bellowed at Seyss-Inquart over the telephone to go with the German military attaché and threaten Miklas with immediate invasion by the troops massing along the Austrian border.

The German radio delivered a stream of hysterical propaganda. There had been a bloody communist revolt, the reports asserted, which the Austrian government was powerless to control. There were hundreds of casualties. In reality, everything was calm except for Nazis beginning to show themselves on the streets.

At about eight that evening, from the room where Dollfuss had bled to death, Schuschnigg broadcast to the nation:
The German government today handed to President Miklas an ultimatum with a time limit attached, ordering him to nominate as Chancellor a person to be designated by the German government and to appoint members of a cabinet on the orders of the German government; otherwise German troops would invade Austria. I declare before the world that the reports issued about Austria concerning disorders created by the workers and the shedding of streams of blood, and the allegations that the situation has got out of control of the government were lies from A to Z. President Miklas asks me to tell the people of Austria that we have yielded to force.

Shortly before midnight, President Miklas appointed Seyss-Inquart chancellor.

President Miklas

 Göring now told Seyss-Inquart to request the assistance of German troops to restore order in Austria. Seyss-Inquart, still not aware of the part he was required to play, protested: ‘Well, that’s one thing I need not do because everything is quiet here in Austria, so far.’

The Germans ignored him, announcing that he had invited German troops to enter the country.

At dawn on 12 March 1938, at many points along the frontier, German troops crossed into Austria.

Austrian officials raise barriers to let German troops cross the frontier

Soldiers drove past cheering crowds throwing out Nazi salutes.

German troops march into Austria

That day Hitler drove across the Austrian border to his home town, Linz. In Vienna, the SS arrested Schuschnigg – he was not freed for more than seven years, by which time many proud European cities were smoking ruins. He was fortunate to survive.

Seyss-Inquart was chancellor of Austria for less than two days. The new Austrian government passed a law that made Austria ‘a province of the German Reich’. On Monday 14 March, Hitler made his triumphant entry into Vienna. The Anschluss ('union') was complete.

Hitler's entry into Vienna - 14 March 1938

Even as the celebrations took place, the new regime began its mass arrests, and the former Austrian Minister for War was assassinated.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Reoccupation of the Rhineland

On the morning of 7 March 1936, Hitler’s foreign minister, Konstantin von Neurath, convened a meeting of the French, British, Italian and Belgian ambassadors. He proposed a twenty-five-year non-aggression pact, including demilitarisation on both banks of the Rhine and limitations on air forces of all parties.

At noon that day, Hitler announced that Germany would reoccupy the Rhineland – the area west of the Rhine and bordering France and the low countries which had been demilitarised since the Versailles Treaty. By then, German columns were already streaming across the border of the zone. Hitler bamboozled the western leaders by announcing that the occupation was purely symbolic.

German troops march into the Rhineland

Hitler’s generals knew Germany was not ready for military confrontation with the major powers. Had there been the slightest show of force from Britain or France, they would have forced Hitler to withdraw. In the end, apart from solemn hand wringing and protests from the Western Powers, nothing was done.

Hitler commenced fortifying this area, leaving him free to pursue other adventures to the east – and providing him a focal point for attack more than 150 kilometres closer to Paris. It was from the Rhineland that the German attack on France would develop most powerfully in 1940.

Hitler had shown that the western powers would not stand against determined action. He greatly enhanced his prestige and that of the Nazi regime. To the world he proclaimed: ‘All Germany’s territorial ambitions have now been satisfied.’

Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Reichstag Fire

Berliners watch the Reichstag burn

President Hindenburg finally agreed to install Adolf Hitler as chancellor on 30 January 1933 as part of a coalition – in the hope that Hitler might be able to garner a majority in the fractious and divided Reichstag (parliament). The coalition ministry contained only two other Nazis – Wilhelm Frick and Hermann Göring.

In response to the appointment, the Nazis staged torchlight processions – trumpeting the dawn of a new age for Germany.

Hitler failed to negotiate parliamentary support. On 1 February Hindenburg dissolved the Reichstag and ordered elections for 5 March.

On 27 February 1933, the immense Reichstag building, the focal point of Berlin’s imperial district, was set on fire and destroyed. Only the shell remained. It was a shocking act of terrorism.

In the midst of the public alarm that followed, Hitler presented President Hindenburg with an emergency decree, drafted by non-Nazi public servants, ‘for the protection of the people and the state’.

The decree abrogated basic civil rights. Hitler said that with this decree he could ‘try enemies of the state legally and deal with them in a way that will put an end to conspiracies once and for all.’

In the final week of the campaign, the Nazis rode the panic about the fire shamelessly – loudly blaming the Communist Party and whipping up hysteria about the communist menace. Today, there is widespread suspicion that the Nazis burnt the Reichstag.

Hermann Göring was Prussian minister for the interior – giving him control of security for almost two thirds of Germany. Immediately he installed Nazis in key positions. He ordered police not to interfere with Nazi brownshirts (the Sturmabteilung – storm troopers, or SA, which constituted the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party) but to shoot at communists. He also established a force of 50,000 auxiliary police – mostly brawling thugs of the Nazi SA and SS (the Schutzstaffel, or ‘guard detachment’ – or blackshirts – at this stage a small elite force theoretically part of the SA) – who simply pulled a white armband over their brown or black shirts to become the law.

On 5 March, having rigged the result, the Nazis increased their vote to 43.9 per cent (the highest they had ever received). It was still short of a majority, but the Nazis had enough coalition support for Hitler to remain as chancellor. There would be no need for more free elections.

The alleged perpetrators of the Reichstag fire were tried before judges of Germany's highest court - the Reichsgericht. Marinus van der Lubbe was convicted and executed. However, the four co-accused - Ernst Torgler, Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoi Popov and Vasil Tanev - all officials of the Communist Party - were acquitted. Those acquittals prompted a furious Adolf Hitler to establish a 'People's Court' which would deal with so-called 'political' crimes.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

The White Rose

Sophia Magdalena Scholl

9 May 1921 – 22 February 1943

Hans Fritz Scholl

22 September 1918 – 22 February 1943

Christoph Hermann Probst

6 November 1918 – 22 February 1943

Hans Scholl was a medical student. 

His sister Sophie was horrified by her boyfriend Fritz Hartnagel’s accounts of atrocities committed by Nazis on the eastern front.

She was a committed Christian, and her religious beliefs were an important motivation in her opposition to the Nazi regime.

Between June 1942 and February 1943, together with a group of their friends, they distributed anti war leaflets which also opposed Nazi rule. They called themselves 'The White Rose'.

On 18 February 1943 – shortly after the collapse at Stalingrad - Hans and Sophie Scholl brought a suitcase full of leaflets to the University of Munich and distributed them around the corridors for students to find at the change of lectures. Realising they had some left, they returned and climbed the stairs to the top of the atrium. Sophie spilled the remaining leaflets into the void.

The university porter saw this and came after them shouting ‘You’re under arrest!’ and rather than run, they decided to submit.

Sophie and Hans were interrogated by the Gestapo. 

Christoph Probst was a medical student and a member of the White Rose resistance group.

He was married with three children.

When Hans and Sophie Scholl were arrested, Hans carried a draft of a further leaflet designed by Christoph Probst. The leaflet referred to Hitler as a ‘military conman’ and said that the war must be lost so that Germany could live on. 

The handwriting matched the letters Probst had sent Hans Scholl.

Christoph Probst was arrested by the Gestapo on 19 February 1943 as he was on his way to visit his newborn daughter Katja and his wife, who was unwell following childbirth. He underwent extensive interrogation. 

All three were charged with treason, while the People’s Court hurried down to Munich to try them.
At their trial on 22 February 1943 the Scholls' parents Robert and Magdalene were not permitted entry. When they tried to enter the courtroom. Magdalene said to the guard: ‘But I'm the mother of two of the accused!’ The guard responded: ‘You should have brought them up better.’

Robert Scholl forced his way into the courtroom and told the court that he was there to defend his children. He was seized and forcibly escorted outside. The entire courtroom heard him shout: ‘One day there will be another kind of justice! One day they will go down in history!’

Sophie told Roland Freisler:

Somebody, after all, had to make a start. What we wrote and said is also believed by many others. They just don't dare express themselves as we did.

Later she said to him:

            You know the war is lost. Why don’t you have the courage to face it?

Freisler sentenced all three defendants to death - and the sentence was carried out that day.

Sophie walked to the guillotine a few hours later, with great courage. Confronting death, she said:

How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

Christoph Probst was also guillotined that day, before his family knew that he had even been arrested.

He never saw Katja.

Helmuth von Moltke smuggled a copy of the offending pamphlet to the Allies, who distributed millions of them over Germany.