If past is prologue, then looking back at history might be one way to better understand the escalating power struggle between East and West now unfolding in Ukraine. Historic parallels are ever precise. There are always differences in scale and scope.
But when comparing the events of our day in Eastern Europe with those that took place 80 years ago in Central Europe, one can’t help but notice the similarities.
The events that culminated in the March 1938 German occupation and annexation of Austria are regarded by many historians as the hinge upon which the fate of Europe turned.
Without so much as a shot being fired, Germany was able to conquer, occupy and erase from the map of Europe an independent nation without any opposition from the Great Powers. In the process, Hitler’s Germany won a prize of monumental strategic military, economic and political importance he would use to launch the greatest conquest in history.
The story of the “Anschluss” or Union of Austria with Germany, perhaps best recounted in William Shirer’s classic “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” is filled with intrigue; plots, murder, treachery and collaboration. The Western response (such as it was) was marked by resignation and indecision.
Hitler took great advantage of the growing chaos that characterized much of the world in the 1930’s. He sparked much of it and benefited from all of it. The Spanish Civil War, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Japanese adventurism in China and Asia and the suicidal convulsions that consuming Stalinist Russia.
Hitler used it all to help him reassemble the empire Germany lost in World War I. He brilliantly married bluff and bluster to a rearmament program that was rapidly remaking the German Army into what would become the mightiest fighting force the world had ever seen.
Hitler hated the very idea of an independent Austria. It’s only purpose, he wrote in Mein Kampf, was to sabotage the German national ‘idea’; which was for all Germans to live inside a German Reich. The 1919 Versailles Treaty that oversaw the creation of the Republic of Austria expressly banned any union between Germany and Austria.
“No one”, bellowed Hitler, “has ever declared or recorded what he wanted more often or more clearly than me. My program from the first was to abolish the Treaty of Versailles!”
By late 1937, Hitler felt Germany was ready to embark upon a period of rapid expansion. Austria was the obvious first target. Hitler’s top generals tried warning him that Germany was still to weak, while France and England were still too strong, to risk a war. He fired them all.
Austria’s tried to fend off German encroachment by cooperating with Hitler. In the 1936 Austro-German Friendship Agreement for instance, Hitler insisted that Austria align its foreign policy with Germany’s and that Austria appoint Nazis to senior positions in the government in exchange for his recognizing “Austrian independence”.
These concessions did not satisfy Hitler’s appetite; they increased it.
By 1937, Austria’s Nazis, operating on orders from Berlin, had set the country on fire. Bombings, murders and violent Nazi rallies were a near daily feature of Austrian life.
Hitler secretly ordered Austria’s Nazis to start an armed revolt against the government in the spring of 1938. It’s purpose was to force a crack down that Germany would then use as the pretext to invade and annex Austria. Hitler had long warned he would “never permit Germans to spill the blood of other Germans”.
In February, 1938, Hitler summoned Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg to meet him at Berchtesgaden, where virtually at gunpoint, Schussnigg was forced to sign an agreement that ‘legalized’ Austria’s Nazi party, freed all Nazis criminals from local jails, including those who murdered Austria’s previous chancellor, and appointed nearly 100 German officers to positions inside the Austrian army.
Hitler also demanded that control of Austria’s powerful Interior Ministry be given to the leader of Austria’s Nazi party, the notorious Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart.
On February 20, 1938 Hitler proclaimed to the Reichstag (and the world) that it was the responsibility of the Reich to “protect those …10 million German peoples living in two states on our borders … not in a position to secure..their political and spiritual freedom by their own efforts.”
Days later, Schussnigg told Austria’s Bundestag in a nationally broadcast address that his country would never surrender to German threats. “Thus far and no further” he thundered.
As he spoke, local Nazis rampaged through Austria’s towns and villages taunting those gathered to listen, smashing radios and raising Swastikas to replace Austrian flags they had torn down. Local law enforcement, now under the control of Syess-Inquart, refused to intervene. Austria plunged into chaos. Massive capital flight ensued. Economic collapse loomed.
Since Austria’s authoritarian government had long since banned organized political opposition, Schussnigg thought his only option was to hastily call a referendum asking Austrians whether they wanted to remain inside a “free, independent, and united Austria”.
Late on the evening of March 9, 1938, Austria’s chancellor announced the plebiscite would take place just four days later, on March 13. Even though the German High Command had no active war plans for an Austrian operation, Hitler ordered an immediate invasion.
First, Hitler had to make sure such an invasion would not provoke war with Italy, Austria’s ally and protector.
Hitler’s first bungled attempt to seize Austria in 1934 was foiled after Mussolini raced four of his best divisions to the Austrian border. Hitler asked for Mussolini’s indulgence in a letter blaming the crisis on Schussnigg. A day later, Mussolini agreed.
At 2:00 AM on March 11, Germany sealed the Austrian border. Schussnigg ordered the Viennese police, part of Austria’s Interior Ministry, to set up defensive positions around the capital. The police refused.
He then called an emergency cabinet meeting that Nazi members boycotted. Seeing he had little choice, Schussnigg backed down and cancelled the plebiscite. But this was no longer enough for Hitler. He used the concession as leverage to demand more concessions.
Now, Hitler demanded that Schussnigg resign and immediately appoint Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Austria’s new Chancellor. While Schussnigg agreed, Austria’s President would not.
Hitler flew into a rage. If German demands were not accepted in writing within 2 hours, or by 7:30 PM, March 11, the Republic of Austria would “cease to exist”.
Within one hour, Nazi mobs had been unleashed onto the streets of Vienna and other Austrian cities.
Before leaving office, Schussnigg broadcast a final statement announcing that Austrian troops had been ordered to offer no resistance German units that by then were pouring crossing the border.
Hitler dictated the exact wording of a telegram he instructed Austria’s new Chancellor, the Nazi Seyss-Inquart, to send to Berlin requesting German troops be urgently sent to “establish peace and order in Austria.”
The following day, March 12, 1938, Hitler returned to his native country as the head of a conquering foreign army. Witnesses said the rapturous delirium with which Austrians greeted Hitler was almost impossible to overstate.
That same afternoon, Seyss-Inquart, Austria’s new Chancellor, declared the 1919 Treaty of St. Germain that established Austria as an independent nation guaranteed by the League of Nations, was null and void.
Hitler wanted more. He demanded that a total Anschluss be immediately approved both Germany’s Reichstag and Austria’s Bundestag; that Hitler himself be declared President of Austria, and that a plebiscite on Anschluss be held in both Germany and Austria on April 10, 1938.
Other than threatening to issue a formal ‘written protest’ if reports of a German ultimatum to Austria were proven true, the British government did nothing in response to Germany’s annexation of Austria. France didn’t even have a government that could respond. Neither the League of Nations nor United States said or did anything either.
Five days later, on March 17, 1938, the Soviet Union called for an urgent conference of nations to discuss ways to prevent further German aggression.
Britain’s Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain rejected the idea out of hand. He told parliament such a conference would be an “act of provocation” that could only “aggravate the tendency towards establishing exclusive groups of nations which can only be inimical to the prospects of peace in Europe.” France and the US never even considered the Soviet proposal long enough to reject it.
Even though there were more unwilling lambs (Czechoslovakia) the West was still prepared to sacrifice upon the alter of appeasement, the seizure of Austria confirmed that Hitler’s grip around the throat of Europe could from then on only removed by war.
No, of course Putin is not Hitler, nor is today’s Ukraine like Austria of the Anschluss. But one thing is certain. Vladimir Putin obviously studies his history. Maybe we should too.