“ When I crossed the frontier there met me such a stream of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators. ” — Adolf Hitler in a speech following his annexation of Austria
Hitler was not overstating the case. His welcome was tumultuous as he entered his native Austria on March 12, 1938—a few hours behind his panzer divisions—and rode in an open Mercedes-Benz toward Vienna. The invasion, code-named Operation Otto, had been entirely bloodless—and quite unnecessary. The day before, the Germans had orchestrated the overthrow of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and his replacement by the local Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart. Still, the panzers rolled in, with Hitler in their wake. And all along his route, the populace cheered him wildly, women throwing flowers in his path, men holding up their children for a glimpse of the passing Führer. In the picture-postcard city of Linz, where he had
gone to school, Hitler declaimed with visible emotion, “If Providence once called me forth from this town to be the leader of the Reich, it must in so doing have charged me with a mission, to restore my dear homeland to the German Reich.”
Hitler’s triumph had its minor setbacks. His arrival in Vienna was delayed until Sunday, March 14, because Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler needed time to complete his security arrangements—including the arrest of thousands of so-called unreliables—and because the Nazi armored columns broke down on the road to the capital, holding up traffic for hours. Hitler was furious over the delay, but the ecstatic welcome restored his good humor.
Ecstasy: It was a beautiful spring day, and Felice Benedict, a 15-year-old Jewish schoolgirl, watched fearfully from her window as Hitler drove by. “The outside of our apartment building was being painted, and there was scaffolding up,” she recalled from her home in Pleasant Hill, Calif., last week. “Hundreds of people had climbed the scaffolding to get a better view, screaming ‘Siey heil' as Hitler passed. You never saw such glory.” The following day Hitler addressed a
vast crowd in the Heldenplatz, or Heroes’ Square. Nazi Minister Franz von Papen, who stood beside Hitler, said later, “I can only describe him as being in a state of ecstasy.”
It was in that ecstatic mood that the First Austrian Republic passed out of history to become the eastern province of Hitler’s Germany, which it remained until Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” collapsed in fire and rubble in 1945. By that time the victorious Allies—anxious to rehabilitate Austria as a respectable postwar buffer between Eastern and Western Europe—had characterized the country as the Nazis’ “first victim.” But although there had been a small and gallant resistance movement, some historians and politicians —Austrians among them—disputed that description. Far from being the helpless victims of Nazism, they said, the Austrians were mostly its enthusiastic supporters.
Guilt: That perception, long submerged beneath the placid surface of postwar Austria, rose explosively to full view two years ago with revelations that former United Nations secretary general Kurt Waldheim, then seeking election as president of Austria, had concealed his wartime service as an intelligence officer in the Nazi-occupied Balkans. Waldheim won the election, but the controversy raged on, confronting Austrians with some painful questions. Among them: whether they should feel guilt about their acquiescence in the Anschluss— Hitler’s annexation—and whether they should follow the example of West Germany and acknowledge collective or individual guilt for Nazi war crimes.
For Austrians, sharing a common language and culture with the Germans, the first issue is less painful than the second. Apart from the many Austrians who were pro-Nazi at the time, there were others among the 6.5-million population who welcomed the idea of absorption into the much bigger German Reich because, with the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, they clearly felt weak and vulnerable. Indeed, until Hitler came to power in 1933, even the Social Democrats and Christian Socialists had been in favor of annexation. The five years between Hitler’s election and the Anschluss were not enough time for a movement that had been growing for 15 years to die.
As a result, when the Nazis held a referendum the following month to give a stamp of democratic respectability to their takeover, 99.75 per cent of the Austrian electorate voted “ja.” That stunning unanimity was not, of course, a completely accurate reflection of the national will.
Many people undoubtedly voted in favor out of fear or apathy. But most historians of the period say that Hitler could have won his referendum by a handsome majority without resorting to intimidation. After all, the spiritual leader of Austria’s six million Roman Catholics, Cardinal Theodor Innitzer, publicly urged a
“yes” vote—although six months later, when Nazi hooligans sacked his palace, he may have regretted it.
Austria’s 187,000 Jews were those with real cause for despair (page 30). The American journalist William L. Shirer, author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, recalls: “What one saw now in Vienna was almost unbelievable. The Viennese, usually so soft and sentimental, were behaving worse than the Germans. Every time you went out you saw gangs of Jewish men and women, with jeering storm troopers standing over them and taunting crowds shouting insults, on their hands and knees scrubbing fanti-Anschluss] slogansoff the sidewalks and curbs. 1 had never seen quite such humiliating scenes in Berlin or Nuremberg. Or such Nazi sadism.”
Amnesia: Whether Austrians should feel a collective guilt for such behavior—and for the deaths of 67,000 Austrian Jews in concentration camps—is a more painful issue than the Anschluss itself. It might never have been brought into such sharp focus in this 50th anniversary year, except for the Waldheim affair, which has forced Austrian intellectuals, historians and journalists—although apparently not the majority of the public—to examine their collective conscience.
Many critics say that Waldheim’s wartime record—followed by his peacetime career as a high-flying diplomat before becoming secretary general and finally head of state— mirrors the recent history of his country. In trying to bury the record of his wartime service in the Balkans—claiming first that he was not there at all, then that he was ignorant of the Nazi atrocities that took place, and finally that he only did what was necessary for his personal survival—he has paralleled the collective amnesia of the nation, his critics say.
Crimes: Still, says Vienna University psychiatrist Prof. Erwin Ringel, author of the 1987 book The Healing of the Austrian Soul, his election was “a blessing in disguise.” Ringel says that nations, like individuals, must acknowledge their crimes before they can be cured. “We must finally come to terms with our past and thereby, according to the theories of depth psychology, win back our identity,” said Ringel. The respected Austrian human rights activist and author Karl, Prince of Schwarzenberg, agrees. “Nothing destroys the soul of a person, and thus of a whole nation, more than guilt for which one has not paid and for which one does not want to pay,” he said.
But Ringel points out that, to be effective, the purging process must be carried out by the Austrians themselves and not by foreigners. Still, as the cataclysmic events of
50 years ago are commemorated, there is little sign that the process is taking place. A survey published last week in the conservative daily Die Presse asked Viennese what topics they were talking about most. Seventy-seven per cent said that they were talking about Waldheim, although there was no indication of whether they were for or against his resignation. More significantly, though, the Anschluss was a topic of conversation for only 17 per cent. Any serious examination of history, it seemed, would be confined to a minority. □
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.