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.
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.
This is an edited extract from TREASON: Claus von Stauffenberg and the Plot to Kill Hitler