Hitler’s Sputtering Austrian Anschluss: Opportunity Missed?

Hitler’s Sputtering Austrian Anschluss: Opportunity Missed?

Excerpt­ed from “Hitler’s ‘Tet Offen­sive’: Churchill and the Aus­tri­an Anschluss, 1938″ for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. If  you wish to read the whole thing full-strength, with more illus­tra­tions and end­notes, click here.

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Austria and the Reich

“Don’t believe that any­one in the world will hin­der me in my deci­sions! Italy? I am quite clear with Mus­soli­ni…. Eng­land? Eng­land will not lift a fin­ger for Aus­tria. Adolf Hitler to Kurt von Schuschnigg, 12 Feb­ru­ary 1938, a month before Anschluss.

* * *

Ger­many (pink) and Aus­tria (red), 1918-35. The Saar­land, here shown out­side Ger­many, was reoc­cu­pied in 1935. Some Ger­man islands are incor­rect­ly exclud­ed. (Kram­ler, Cre­ative Commons).

Ver­sailles dis­mem­bered the vast sprawl of Aus­tria-Hun­gary. The Allies placed pri­or­i­ty on break­ing up the Haps­burg Empire. To have merged Aus­tria with Ger­many would have left a larg­er, more pop­u­lous nation than in the Kaiser’s time, Churchill nev­er denied Germany’s griev­ances over penal­iz­ing claus­es in the Ver­sailles Treaty, but he mis­un­der­stood how Aus­tri­ans felt. There is lit­tle doubt that most want­ed Anschluss—union with Germany—from the time of Ver­sailles on. Churchill did not accept this, and he was wrong. He was not wrong, how­ev­er, about the option of resistance.

Toward Anschluss

On 23 March 1931, with­out inform­ing the League of Nations, Aus­tria and Weimar Ger­many con­clud­ed a cus­toms union, caus­ing protests, but no action, by France and Britain.

In May 1935 Hitler declared that he had no evil intent toward any­one. The Reich had guar­an­teed French bor­ders, he said, includ­ing Alsace-Lor­raine. Ger­many “nei­ther intends nor wish­es to inter­fere in the inter­nal affairs of Aus­tria, to annex Aus­tria, or to con­clude an Anschluss.” The Times edi­tor Geof­frey Daw­son called Hitler’s speech “rea­son­able, straight­for­ward and com­pre­hen­sive…. [It] may fair­ly con­sti­tute the basis of a com­plete set­tle­ment with Ger­many.” As he wrote, Nazi street gangs were again active in Vien­na. Ten months lat­er Hitler marched into the Rhineland.

German approaches to Churchill

In ear­ly 1937, with Hitler’s approval, his ambas­sador to Britain von Ribben­trop invit­ed Churchill to the Ger­man Embassy. He said he want­ed to explain why the Reich was no threat to Britain. It is a mys­tery why Hitler approved his meet­ing with the Eng­lish­man he had refused to see in 1932, who was still polit­i­cal­ly pow­er­less. But British hard-lin­ers had begun to crys­tal­lize around Churchill, so mut­ing him was worth a try.

Lead­ing Churchill to a large wall map, Ribben­trop showed him Hitler’s desider­a­ta. Adding Poland, Ukraine and Byelorus­sia, a “Greater Ger­man Reich” would span 760,000 square miles. (Ger­many was then 182,000, Britain 89,000.) In exchange for British acqui­es­cence, “Ger­many would stand guard for the British Empire in all its great­ness and extent.”

Had Churchill been the diehard impe­ri­al­ist as por­trayed by mod­ern media, one might expect he’d have gone along. Instead he said Britain would “nev­er dis­in­ter­est her­self in the for­tunes of the Con­ti­nent.” Ribben­trop “turned abrupt­ly away.” He then said, “In that case, war is inevitable. There is no way out. The Führer is resolved. Noth­ing will stop him and noth­ing will stop us….” Churchill with his vast mem­o­ry recalled his reply:

When you talk of war, you must not under­rate Eng­land. She is a curi­ous coun­try, and few for­eign­ers can under­stand her mind. Do not judge by the atti­tude of the present Admin­is­tra­tion. Once a great cause is pre­sent­ed to the peo­ple, all kinds of unex­pect­ed actions might be tak­en by this very Gov­ern­ment and by the British nation… If you plunge us all into anoth­er Great War she will bring the whole world against you, like last time.

Case Otto 

Hitler’s prepa­ra­tions for Anschluss, “Case Otto,” were com­plet­ed by 1938. On Feb­ru­ary 12th, Aus­tri­an Chan­cel­lor Kurt von Schuschnigg  was sum­moned to Bercht­es­gaden. Hitler gret­ted him with threats of imme­di­ate invasion.

Schuschnigg was no demo­c­rat. As head of the right-wing Father­land Front he ruled by decree, with anti-Semit­ic lean­ings sim­i­lar to Hitler’s. Still, he was deter­mined to pre­serve Aus­tri­an inde­pen­dence. Defy­ing Hitler, he sched­uled a plebiscite on March 13th, hop­ing to get a “no” vote by legal­iz­ing the out­lawed social­ists. Believ­ing Aus­tri­an youth to be pro-Nazi, he raised the vot­ing age to 24.

He was not giv­en the chance. Aus­tri­an Nazis seized con­trol of the gov­ern­ment on March 11th, can­celling the referendum.

Bal­lot for the mock-plebiscite of 10 April reads: “Do you agree with the reuni­fi­ca­tion of Aus­tria with the Ger­man Reich that was enact­ed on 13 March 1938, and do you vote for the par­ty of our leader Adolf Hitler?” Note also the size of the cir­cles: 99.7% vot­ed “Ja.” (Selb­st­ges­can­nt Benutzer: Zum­bo, Cre­ative Commons)


Nazi troops entered the coun­try and Hitler for­mal­ly annexed Aus­tria on March 12th. In a plebiscite a month lat­er, 99.7% sup­pos­ed­ly vot­ed “Ja.”

Churchill argued that most Aus­tri­ans opposed the Anschluss. His cousin, Uni­ty Mit­ford, told him that the only Aus­tri­ans against union were aris­to­crats: “Anschluss with the Reich was the great wish of the entire Ger­man pop­u­la­tion of the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire, long before the war and long before Hitler was even born, though the Eng­lish press would make one believe that it was the Führer who invent­ed the idea.”

Mit­ford was a Hitler syco­phant, but in this case she was right. Yet from the stand­point of realpoli­tik, it mat­tered not what the Aus­tri­ans want­ed. The Anschluss was a clear vio­la­tion of the Ver­sailles Treaty. Resis­tance might have pre­clud­ed much that followed.

Churchill’s Prescriptions

At the ple­nary lev­el, the Anglo-French mut­ed their reac­tion to the Anschluss. Mus­soli­ni, as Hitler pre­dict­ed, said noth­ing. In Par­lia­ment Churchill rec­og­nized the implications:

Vien­na is the cen­ter of all the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of all the coun­tries which formed the old Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­an Empire…. A long stretch of the Danube is now in Ger­man hands. This mas­tery of Vien­na gives to Nazi Ger­many mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic con­trol of the whole of the com­mu­ni­ca­tions of south-east­ern Europe, by road, by riv­er, and by rail….the three coun­tries of the Lit­tle Entente may be called Pow­ers of the sec­ond rank, but they are very vig­or­ous States, and unit­ed they are a Great Pow­er…. Ruma­nia has the oil; Yugoslavia has the min­er­als and raw mate­ri­als. Both have large armies; both are main­ly sup­plied with muni­tions from Czechoslovakia.

Only months lat­er, Neville Cham­ber­lain would refer to Czecho­slo­va­kia as “a far-away country…of whom we know noth­ing.” Churchill knew some­thing. The Czech army was three times the size of Britain’s and the Czechs were major muni­tions pro­duc­ers. They were “a vir­ile peo­ple; they have their treaty rights, they have a line of fortress­es, and they have a strong­ly man­i­fest­ed will to live freely.”

Churchill did not pro­pose mil­i­tary action. What he want­ed was to con­front Hitler with a union of pow­ers: “What is there ridicu­lous about col­lec­tive secu­ri­ty? The only thing that is ridicu­lous about it is that we have not got it.”

“Nothing that France or we could do…”

But to Cham­ber­lain, the idea was ridiculous:

…the plan of the “Grand Alliance,” as Win­ston calls it, had occurred to me long before he men­tioned it…. It is a very attrac­tive idea [but] you have only to look at the map to see that noth­ing that France or we could do could pos­si­bly save Czecho­slo­va­kia from being over­run by the Ger­mans, if they want­ed to do it…. I have there­fore aban­doned any idea of giv­ing guar­an­tees to Czecho­slo­va­kia, or the French in con­nec­tion with her oblig­a­tions to that country.

Bas­ing so momen­tous deci­sion on geog­ra­phy alone is incom­pre­hen­si­ble. A mobi­lized Roy­al Navy and French Army, togeth­er with either Austria’s eigh­teen divi­sions and the Czech army dug in their bor­der, might have giv­en pause even to Hitler.

“Nahezu katastrophal”

Anoth­er rea­son favored resis­tance to Anschluss: the Wehrma­cht was expe­ri­enc­ing a mechan­i­cal break­down rate of up to 30%. This was not its only prob­lem, as Alexan­der Lass­ner wrote:

Offi­cers and men arrived late to their posts…mis-assigned or sim­ply untrained for their duties. Wag­ons and motor­ized vehi­cles were fre­quent­ly miss­ing, inad­e­quate for their tasks or unus­able. Indeed, the Ger­man VII Army Corps alone described its sup­ple­men­tary motor­ized vehi­cle sit­u­a­tion as “nahezu katas­trophal” (almost cat­a­stroph­ic), with approx­i­mate­ly 2800 motor­ized vehi­cles which were either miss­ing or unus­able…. Poor dis­ci­pline, lack of train­ing, and out­right incom­pe­tence wors­ened mat­ters, as did mechan­i­cal break­downs and lack of fuel…

Like some great mal­func­tion­ing clock­work, the Wehrma­cht lurched and shud­dered towards the Aus­tri­an cap­i­tal. Only a few parts of it final­ly grat­ed to a halt in the sub­urbs of Vien­na one week lat­er. Even this dis­mal per­for­mance was only pos­si­ble due to vital and essen­tial assis­tance ren­dered to the Wehrma­cht by Aus­tri­an gas sta­tions, and ship­ping and rail ser­vices. With­out this help, Hitler’s vic­to­ry parade on the Ringstraße would have been con­spic­u­ous­ly devoid of Ger­man troops and armor.

Nev­er­the­less, as with the North Viet­namese Tet Offen­sive thir­ty years lat­er, oper­a­tional dis­as­ter does not equal mil­i­tary dis­as­ter. The Nazi pro­pa­gan­da machine, parts of which were busy run­ning down Ger­man sol­diers in their rush to get to Vien­na on 12 and 13 March, would prove as suc­cess­ful as it had ever been. (Alexan­der N. Lass­ner, “The Inva­sion of Aus­tria in March 1938: Blitzkrieg or Pfusch?” in Gün­ter Bishof & Anton Pelin­ka, eds., Con­tem­po­rary Aus­tri­an Stud­ies (Pis­cat­away, N.J.: Trans­ac­tion Pub­li­ca­tions, 2000), 447-87.)

Hitler’s “Tet Offensive”

Lassner’s liken­ing of the inva­sion to the Tet Offen­sive is a strik­ing com­par­i­son. Just as in 1968, the invaders’ unreadi­ness and lack of prepa­ra­tion went unseen. Just as iron­i­cal­ly, Ger­man pro­pa­gan­da papered over the cat­a­stro­phe. Like Tet, fail­ure became tri­umph. Even Churchill did not com­ment at the time on this extra­or­di­nary dis­play of mil­i­tary incom­pe­tence. Lat­er Churchill under­stood, and he wrote:

A tri­umphal entry into Vien­na had been the Aus­tri­an Corporal’s dream. Hitler him­self, motor­ing through Linz, saw the traf­fic jam, and was infu­ri­at­ed…. He rat­ed his gen­er­als, and they answered back. They remind­ed him of his refusal to lis­ten to Fritsch and his warn­ings that Ger­many was not in a posi­tion to under­take the risk of a major conflict.”

The day before the Aus­tri­an Anschluss, Her­mann Goer­ing received the Czech Ambas­sador in Berlin: “I give you my word of hon­our,” he said affa­bly, “that Czecho­slo­va­kia has noth­ing to fear from the Reich.”

One thought on “Hitler’s Sputtering Austrian Anschluss: Opportunity Missed?

  1. Read­ers might be inter­est­ed to learn that in 1968, for­mer Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­how­er ana­lyzed Tet too, as did Gov­er­nor Ronald Rea­gan, who was run­ning for pres­i­dent for the first time.
    Dur­ing my research for my book, Reagan’s 1968 Dress Rehearsal: Ike, RFK, and Reagan’s Emer­gence as a World States­man, the Eisen­how­er Library grant­ed me access to Ike’s post-pres­i­den­tial diary. In 1944 at the Bat­tle of the Bulge, when Pat­ton had asked Eisen­how­er for rein­force­ments to destroy the Ger­man Army, Ike imme­di­ate­ly gave the order. But in 1968, when Ike had learned that Gen­er­al West­more­land had the North Viet­namese Army and Viet­cong trapped (the actu­al con­clu­sion of the Tet Offen­sive) and asked Pres­i­dent John­son for rein­force­ments, LBJ refused and the North Viet­namese and Viet­cong escaped. Eisen­how­er saw the clear par­al­lels between the Bulge and Tet, and was furi­ous at LBJ’s deci­sion. Dur­ing this time, Eisen­how­er had been men­tor­ing can­di­date Rea­gan on world affairs, and Rea­gan then deliv­ered a speech on Tet which attacked LBJ’s decision.

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