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.’