Austria at the Time of National Socialism

Austria at the Time of National Socialism

Austria at the time of National Socialism describes in particular the period of Austrian history from March 12, 1938 when the German annexation of Austria made Austria part of the German Third Reich until the end of World War II in spring 1945.

Early history

In 1918, at the end of World War I, with the breakup of the multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire, and with the abolition of the Habsburg monarchy, there were three major political groups competing with one another in the young republic of Austria: the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SDAP), Christian Social Party (CS), and the nationalist Great German Union ("Großdeutsche Vereinigung"), which became the Greater German People's Party ("Großdeutsche Volkspartei", or GVP) in 1920. At the time, smaller parties such as the Communist Party of Austria ("Kommunistische Partei Österreichs", or KPÖ) and the Austrian National Socialists ("Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei", or DNSAP) were neither present in the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) nor the Nationalrat (National Council).

SDAP, GVP, and DNSAP were clearly, although for different reasons, in favour a union of German Austria with the German state, which was also a republic by that time (Weimar Republic). The CS also tended to favour the union, but differed at first on a different subject - they were split on the idea of continuing the monarchy instead of a republic. Whereas only the KPÖ decidedly spoke against the annexation in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, the monarchists originally spoke up against the annexation and later turned to favor it, after the Bavarian Soviet Republic had failed, and Germany had a conservative government. The Treaty of Saint-Germain, signed September 10, 1919 by Karl Renner (SDAP), first chancellor of the republic, clearly forbade any union with Germany, abolished the monarchy, and clearly stated the Republic of Austria as an independent country.

First Republic

Life and politics in the early years were marked by serious economic problems (the loss of industrial areas and natural resources in the now independent Czechoslovakia, hyperinflation) and a constantly increasing tension between the different political groups. From 1918 to 1920 the government was led by the Social Democratic Party and later by the Christian Social Party in coalition with the German nationalists.

On May 31, 1922, prelate Ignaz Seipel became Chancellor of the Christian Social government. He succeeded in improving the economic situation with the financial help of the League of Nations (monetary reform). Ideologically, Seipel was clearly anti-communist and did everything in his power to reduce, as far as possible, the influence of the Social Democrats - both sides saw this as a conflict between two social classes.

One significance of the first republic was a very weak affiliation to the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force from the very beginning. The military of Austria was restricted to 30,000 men by the allies and the police force was poorly equipped. Already by 1918 the first homeguards were established like the Kärntner Abwehrkampf. In 1920 in Tirol the first Heimwehr was put in duty under the command of Richard Steidle with the help of the Bavarian organisation Escherich. Soon other states followed. In 1923 members of the Monarchist “Ostara” shot a worker dead and the Social Democrats founded their own protective organization. Other paramilitary groups were the formed from former active soldiers and members of the Roman Catholic Church. The “Vaterländische Schutzbund” (Protectors of the Fatherland) were National Socialists though their swastikas were at first not taken seriously. Later they started the Austrian SA.

The “German Workers Party” had already been founded in Bohemia as early as 1903. It was then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. It supported German nationalism and anti-clericalism but at first was not particularly anti-Semitic. This party stood mainly for making Austrians German. In 1909 lawyer, Walter Riehl joined the party and he became leader in 1918. Soon after that the name was changed to the German National Socialist Workers Party. After the fall of the monarchy, the party split into a Czechoslovakian party and an Austrian party under Riehl. From 1920 onwards this Austrian party cooperated closely with the German Workers Party or German National Socialist workers party formed in Munich which Adolf Hitler led after 1921. In 1923 Riehl’s party had about 23,000 members and was a marginal factor in Austrian politics. In 1924 there was another split and Karl Schulz led a splinter group. The two opposed each other. In 1926 Richard Suchenwirth founded the Austrian branch of Hitler’s German National Socialist party in Vienna. Around that time Benito Mussolini formed his Fascist dictatorship in Italy and became an important ally of the far right.

The Austrian National Socialists linked to Hitler (Nazis) got only 779 votes in the 1927 General Election. The strongest grouping besides the Social Democrats was the Unity Coalition led by the Christian Social Party but including German Nationalists and the groups of Riehl and Schulz. In the course of these years there were frequent serious acts of violence between the various armed factions and people were regularly killed. In the General Election of 1930, the Social Democrats were the largest single party. The Christian Social Party came second but stayed in office in a coalition with smaller parties. The Austrian National Socialists linked to Hitler (Nazis) got only 3.6% of the votes and failed to enter Parliament. In the following years the Nazis gained votes at the expense of the various German national groups which also wanted unity with Germany. After 1930 Hitler’s party doubled its membership every year because of the economic crisis. One of their slogans was, "500,000 Unemployed – 400,000 Jews – Simple way out; vote National Socialist".

Dictatorship, civil war and banning the National Socialists

The Christian Social Party had ruled from 1932 and Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuß had led them from 1932. The Social Democrats were no longer their only threat. The previous chancellor and priest Ignaz Seipel had worked towards an authoritarian state. Seipel based this on the Papal Encyclicals, Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Abolition of the parliamentary system was necessary for this. A crisis in the Austrian parliament on the May 4, 1933 gave Dollfuß the opportunity he wanted.

Later in May 1933 the Christian Social Union was converted to the Patriotic Front. The Patriotic Front was a political organisation, supposedly above partisan considerations, Roman Catholic and vehemently anti-Marxist. It purported to represent all Austrians who were true to their native land. Within a week the Austrian Communist Party was banned, and before the end of the month the republican paramilitary organisation and Freethinkers Organisations were banned along with numerous other groups. Nazis failed to get more than 25% of the votes in local elections in most areas. In Zwettl and Innsbruck however they got more than 40%, and they tried to lever this into a basis for agitation against the ruling Patriotic Front. Nazi supporters generated a wave of terrorism which crested in early June with four deaths and 48 people injured.

In Germany Hitler became Chancellor early in 1933. The Social Democrats deleted any intention to cooperate with Germany from its party programme. Nazis had fled to Bavaria after their party was banned in Austria and founded there the Austrian Legion. The Nazis there had military style camps and military training. Nazi terrorism in Austria got financial, logistic and material support from Germany. The German Government subjected Austria to systematic agitation. After the expulsion of the Bavarian Minister of Justice in May 1933 German citizens were required to pay a thousand marks to the German Government before travelling to Austria. The Austrian Nazi Party was banned in June after a hand grenade attack in Krems. Nazi terrorism abated after that though five more people were killed and 52 injured by the end of the year.

On February 12, 1934 there was a violent confrontation in Linz with serious consequences. Members of a paramilitary group acting to assist the police wanted to enter a building belonging to the Social Democrats or a party member’s home. They wanted to find any weapons belonging to the Social Democrat paramilitary which had by then been banned. Violence spread to the whole country and developed into civil war. The police and their paramilitary supporters together with the army won the confrontation by the February 14. There were many arrests. Constitutional courts were abolished, trade unions and the Social Democrat Party were banned, and the death penalty was reintroduced. After political opposition had been suppressed the Austrian Republic was transformed into the Austrofast "Ständestaat". The authoritarian "Maiverfassung" (May Constitution) was proclaimed on May 1. Note: the 1st of May was traditionally an important day for Austrian, especially Viennese, Social Democrats. Choosing this day must have been seen as a deliberate humiliation.

Attempted Nazi coup and growing German influence

From the start of 1934 there was a new wave of Nazi terrorist attacks in Austria. This time government institutions were targeted far more than individuals. In the first half of 1934, 17 people were killed and 171 injured. On July 25 the Nazis attempted a coup under SS (leadership?). About 150 SS personnel forced their way into the Chancellor’s office in Vienna. Dollfuß was shot and died a few hours later from his wounds. Another group occupied the building of the Austrian National Radio and forced a statement that the Government of Dollfuß had fallen and Anton Rintelen was the new head of government. Anton Rintelen belonged to the Christian Social Party but is suspected of Nazi sympathy. This false report was intended to start a Nazi uprising throughout the country but it was only partially successful.

There was considerable fighting in parts of Carinthia, Styria and Upper Austria and limited resistance in Salzburg. In Carinthia and Styria the fighting lasted from the 27th to the 30th of July. Members of the so-called “Austrian legion” tried to push out from Bavaria over the "Mühlviertel", a part of Upper Austria, and towards Linz. They were forced back to the frontier at Kollerschlag. On July 26 a German courier was arrested at the Kollerschlag pass in Upper Austria. He had with him documented instructions for the revolt. This so-called Kollerschlag Document demonstrated the connection of the July revolt to Bavaria clearly. The army, the gendarmery and the police put down revolt with heavy casualties. On the government side there were 107 deaths and 500 injuries. On the rebel side there were 140 deaths and 600 injuries. 13 rebels were executed and 4,000 people were imprisoned without trial. Many thousand supporters of the Nazi party were arrested. Up to 4000 fled over the border to Germany and Yugoslavia. Kurt Schuschnigg became the new Chancellor.

In Bavaria many sections of the Austrian legion were officially closed. In reality they were only pushed further north and renamed, “North-West Assistance”. Fascist Italy was more closely tied to the regime in Vienna and sent troops to the Austrian border at Brenner to deter German troops from a possible invasion of Austria. The German government stated that it had nothing to do with the revolt. Germany only admitted that it was trying to subvert the Austrian political system through trusted people. They continued to support the illegal Nazi party but sympathizers who did not belong to the party were more significant. This included among others Taras Borodajkewycz, Edmund Glaise-Horstenau, Franz Langoth, Walther Pembauer and Arthur Seyß-Inquart.

Italy began its conquest of Abyssinia (the Second Italo-Abyssinian War) in October 1935. After that Mussolini was an internationally isolated and strengthened relation with Hitler. The ruling Austrian Patriotic Front lost an important ally. Despite the murder of Engelbert Dollfuß, his successor Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had to improve relations with the German government. Like his predecessor he wanted to maintain the independence of Austria. He saw Austria as the second German state and the better state as it was founded on Roman Catholicism.

In July 1936 Schuschnigg accepted the July Agreement with Germany. Imprisoned Nazis were released and some Nazi newspapers, which had been banned, were allowed into Austria. The Nazi Party remained banned. Schuschnigg undertook further to allow two people whom the Nazis trusted into the Government. Edmund Glaise-Horstenau became Minister for National Affairs and Guido Schmidt became Secretary of State in the Foreign Ministry. Arthur Seyß-Inquart was taken into the legislative Council of State. Germany rescinded the requirement for a payment of a thousand marks for entry into Austria. The transformation of the Austrofascist State through Nazis was furthered more in 1937 when it became possible for them to join the Patriotic Front. Throughout Austria political units were set up and some were led by Nazis. This was a legal disguise for the reorganization.

From 1937 it was clear that the Germans considered it only a matter of time before Austria was annexed. Hitler was born an Austrian. On the first page of his book, "Mein Kampf" he demanded that "German Austria" as he called it "must return to the great German motherland". His strategy included the subjugation of Austria and Tschechien, now in the Czech Republic as stated in November 1937.

In February 1938 Franz von Papen, the German ambassador in Vienna arranged a meeting between Hitler and Schuschnigg at Obersalzberg in Gaden in Bavaria. Hitler threatened repeatedly to invade Austria and forced Schuschnigg to implement a range of measures favourable to Austrian Nazism. The Agreement of Gaden guaranteed the Austrian Nazi Party political freedom and assisted Arthur Seyß-Inquart in becoming Home Secretary (Innenminister). Schuschnigg endeavoured to maintain Austrian national integrity despite steadily increasing German influence. On March 9, 1938 he announced that he wanted to hold a consultative referendum on the independence of Austria on the following Sunday. Hitler responded by mobilizing the 8th Army for the planned invasion. Edmund Glaise-Horstenau who was at the time in Berlin brought Hitler’s ultimatum from there and Göring reinforced it with a telephone message to Schuschnigg. The German government demanded the postponement or abandonment of the referendum. Schuschnigg conceded on the afternoon of March 11. Then Hitler demanded his resignation which happened on the same evening.

The "Anschluss"

After Schussnig left office, the federal president Wilhelm Miklas asked Arthur Seyß-Inquart to form a new government as the Germans demanded. From the 11th to the 13th of March he led the Austrian Government and completed the Anschluss. On the morning of the March 12 heavily armed German troups and police crossed the Austrian frontier, in total about 65,000. Large sections of the Austrian population were very pleased to see them. In Vienna, Aspern met Heinrich Himmler of the SS accompanied by many police and SS officials to take over the Austrian police. Supporters of the Austrian Nazi Party together with members of the SS and SA occupied public buildings and offices throughout Austria without a previously planned transition period. The formation of the Greater German Reich was announced from the balcony of the Council House in Linz. On the following day, March 13, 1938, the second session of the Government passed the “Reunification with Germany Law”. Federal President Miklas refused to endorse it and resigned. Seyß-Inquart was now functioning Head of State. He could make his own laws and publish them.

Integration into the German Empire

On March 15 Hitler, who had spent the previous two days in his birthtown of Braunau am Inn, made a triumphal entry into Vienna and gave a speech on Heldenplatz in front of tens of thousands of cheering people, in which he boasted his "greatest accomplishment": "Als Führer und Kanzler der deutschen Nation und des Reiches melde ich vor der deutschen Geschichte nunmehr den Eintritt meiner Heimat in das Deutsche Reich." Translation: "As leader and chancellor of the German nation and Reich I announce to German history now the entry of my homeland into the German Reich." Ernst Kaltenbrunner from Upper Austria, sentenced to death in 1946 at the Nuremberg trials, was promoted SS-Brigadeführer and the leader of the SS-upper section Austria. Beginning on March 12 and during the subsequent weeks 72,000 people were arrested, primarily in Vienna, among them politicians of the First Republic, intellectuals and above all Jews. Jewish institutions were shuttered.For April 10 a referendum was set for the already accomplished annexation. In those weeks leading to the referendum a kind of propaganda took place all over Austria in a way that had been never seen before. Hitler himself, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and many other leading figures of the Nazi regime had very squeamishly scheduled appearances in public to hold speeches. The controlled press and radio had no other topic than YES to the "Reunion of German and Austria". Prominent Austrians like Cardinal Theodor Innitzer who signed a declaration of the bishops with "Heil Hitler", and the Social Democrat Karl Renner promoted the approval. According to official records 99.73% voted YES in Austria and in the German Empire 99.08 voted for the annexation.

Excluded from the referendum were about 8% of the Austrian voters: about 200,000 Jews and roughly 177,000 "Mischlinge" (half-breeds) and all those who had already been arrested for "racial" or political reasons.

In many places assaults took place against Austrian Jews during those weeks. Many were dispossessed of their shops and apartments, into which moved those who had robbed them assisted by the SA and fanatics. Jews were forced to put on their best clothes and, on their hands and knees with brushes, to clean the sidewalks of anti-Anschluss slogans.


Josef Bürkel, previously Reichskommissar for the reunion of the Saar (protectorate) now became "Reichskommissar for the reunification of Austria with the German Empire".

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