History of Austria


Absorption of Austria into the Third Reich

Most Austrian proponents of the Anschluss had foreseen a gradual coordination and merger of the two German states that would preserve some semblance of Austrian identity. But, influenced by the tumultuous welcome he received on his arrival, Hitler made an impromptu decision for quick and total absorption of Austria into the Third Reich.

The Anschluss violated various international agreements, but the European powers offered only perfunctory opposition. Italy had acquiesced to the invasion beforehand, and in return Hitler later agreed to allow Italy to retain the South Tirol despite his aggressive policies elsewhere to bring all German populations into the Third Reich. Britain was following a policy of appeasement in 1938 and was unwilling to risk war over Austria's independence, while France, traditionally the strongest foe of German unification, was incapable of unilateral military action.

To provide a legal facade for the Anschluss, Hitler arranged a plebiscite for April 10, 1938. The Nazis portrayed the plebiscite as a vote on pan-Germanism and claimed a 99.7 percent vote in favor of the Anschluss. Although the outcome was undoubtedly influenced by Nazi intimidation, the Anschluss enjoyed broad popular support. Nevertheless, the positive vote reflected the Austrians' desire for change far more than it did widespread support for Hitler and Nazism. Unification offered a way out of the political turmoil of the First Republic, and ties with the larger German economy promised economic revitalization. Many Austrians probably also harbored unrealistic notions of Austria's position within the Third Reich, expecting an arrangement similar to the Dual Monarchy in which Austria and Germany would be equal partners. And the full dimensions of Nazi barbarism were not yet apparent. Underlying these factors, however, was the widespread appeal of pan-Germanism that cut across political lines. Austrians had traditionally thought of themselves as Germans, and the Austrian nationalism cultivated by Dollfuss and Schuschnigg had not taken root. Although the SDAP had moderated its long-standing support for unification when Hitler came to power in Germany, Karl Renner urged a yes vote in the Nazi-organized plebiscite. Once unification was a fact, other Socialist leaders felt that the Nazi regime was not sufficient reason to reject the fulfillment of what they viewed as a progressive goal of German nationalism.

Hitler moved quickly to suppress what little independent identity and national unity Austria had. The name Austria was banned, provinces were freed of central administration from Vienna, and provincial loyalty and identification were cultivated. In addition, Austrian Nazis and Nazi sympathizers who might have become effective national leaders were transferred to relatively unimportant jobs in the administration of the Third Reich or, after World War II began, were sent to administer the occupied territories. Thus, a disproportionate number of Austrians came to be in charge of the bureaucracy overseeing the implementation of the Nazis' extermination of the Jews and other peoples and groups deemed undesirable.

Nazi Economic and Social Policies

Between 1938 and mid-1940, the Nazi administration in Austria focused on stimulating the economy and relieving social distress in order to win popular support, woo the working class away from socialism, and enable Austria to contribute to the German war machine. By early 1939, the Austrian economy was recovering, and unemployment was falling rapidly.

Policies designed to speed economic efficiency and integration with Germany led to the rise of large firms and to the relocation of industry from the east to the Austria-Germany border in the west. Although these changes brought much of the Austrian economy under the control of the Third Reich, the economy was modernized and diversified. Thus, in spite of the wartime damage done to the Austrian economy and economic infrastructure, the Anschluss years helped overcome the belief that Austria was economically inviable and laid the foundation for the mixed economy of the postwar years.

These economic advances, however, came hand-in-hand with the Nazis' political repression and barbaric racial policies, of which the Jews were the principal victims. Unification with Nazi Germany legitimized the full venting of Austria's anti-Semitic political heritage in which the pronounced Jewish presence in key areas of economic, political, and cultural life--especially in Vienna--had associated Jews with many developments in Austrian society that were opposed by the country's conservative, rural, and Catholic population.

The Jewish population of Austria--almost all of whom lived in Vienna--numbered around 220,000 in 1938. In general, Nazi antiSemitic legislation and policies were imposed more quickly and more comprehensively in Austria than in Germany, and Austria became the testing ground for the political acceptability of policies later adopted in Germany. After allowing a wave of violent popular anti-Semitism in the weeks immediately after the Anschluss, the Nazis systematized anti-Semitic harassment. Laws and regulations were implemented to drive Jews from the economic sector, and out of Austria in general, in an orderly manner to ensure that the transition did not disrupt the economy or cause the loss of economically valuable assets. Initially, Jews were encouraged to emigrate--after they had been stripped of money and assets--and the Central Office for Jewish Emigration (Zentralamt jüdischer Auswanderung--ZjA) was set up in Vienna to streamline the emigration process. In 1938 about 80,000 Jews left Austria, legally and illegally, and ultimately some 150,000 fled. In October 1941, however, Germany's policy of encouraging emigration, already made difficult by the war, was replaced with policies to exterminate the Jews. The ZjA, which had been expanded to the occupied countries, organized the registration and transportation of Jews to death camps to implement the socalled Final Solution. About one-third of Austria's Jewish population is estimated to have died in the Holocaust. In addition to the Jews, there were other victims of murderous German nationalism. Austrian Slavic minorities, such as the Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, and Croats, for example, were targeted for assimilation, deportation, or extermination.

Repression and Compliance

In comparison with non-German minorities, the political repression suffered by German Austrians was lenient but still effective in preventing significant organized resistance. The left had already been the target of political repression before the Anschluss, but as early as March 1938, conservative political leaders associated with the Dollfuss-Schuschnigg regime were also subject to arrest and detention. Some 20,000 people were arrested in the early days of the Anschluss. Most were quickly released, but some, like Schuschnigg, were held at the Dachau concentration camp throughout the Nazi era. During the entire 1938-45 period, some 100,000 Austrians were arrested on political charges. About 34,000 of these died in prisons or concentration camps, and some 2,700 were executed.

Prior to the Anschluss plebiscite, the Nazis courted and received the support of the Roman Catholic hierarchy for annexation. After the plebiscite, the church desired to maintain loyal cooperation with what was perceived as legitimate state authority, but the Nazis were just as eager to eliminate the church's influence in society on both the institutional and the ideological level. In July 1938, the government declared the 1934 concordat void and closed Catholic education institutions, dissolved some 6,000 church-affiliated associations, and took control of the Catholic press. In August relations between the church hierarchy and the state were broken off. Although it did not see its role as supporting open resistance to the Nazi state, the Catholic Church, as the only legal entity propagating an ideology intrinsically hostile to Nazism, was a focus of opposition to the regime and was closely watched by the state. The persecution of the church over the next several years was designed to gradually wear it down by depriving it of resources and institutional unity. These measures, which evoked popular resentment, were eased in late 1941 because of the need to maintain public support of the regime during the war. Nevertheless, by detaching the church from the state, the policies had the effect of increasing the church's legitimacy and credibility and helped lay the groundwork for a more positive redefinition of the church's role in society after the war.

World War II and the Defeat of Nazi Germany

In a strict sense, Austria was not a participant in World War II because it did not formally exist when the war began with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. On an individual level, however, some 800,000 Austrians were drafted into the army (the German Wehrmacht), and another 150,000 served in the Waffen SS, an elite Nazi military unit. Austrians were integrated into German units, and no specifically Austrian military brigades were formed.

Austrians loyally supported Germany through the early years of World War II. The early German military victories and Austria's geographic location beyond the reach of Allied bombers shielded the Austrian population from the full impact of the war. Only after the German defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad in early 1943, when the course of the war increasingly turned against Germany, did popular support for the war and for the Anschluss begin to erode.

More important for Austria's future, however, was the evolution in the Allies' position on Austria. In November 1943, the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States met and issued the Moscow Declaration. In contrast to the earlier Allied acceptance of the Anschluss, the declaration described Austria as "the first victim of Hitlerite aggression" and called for the reestablishment of an independent Austria. At the same time, however, the declaration also held Austria liable for its participation in the war, effectively giving it the status of an enemy state.

Allied advances in Italy in 1943 enabled bombers regularly to attack Austrian industrial and transportation centers. The winter of 1944-45 saw an intensification of the air campaign and steady advances toward Austria by the Soviet Union's Red Army. On March 30, 1945, the Red Army entered Austrian territory and captured Vienna on April 13. Although the Germans resisted the Soviet advances into eastern Austria, the Western Allies--the United States, Britain, and France--met minimal resistance as they advanced into the country. United States forces began entering Austria on April 30, and French and British troops soon followed. On May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

Austria History Contents

SOURCE: Area Handbook of the US Library of Congress