One of Hitler’s stated ambitions was to incorporate all Germanic peoples into the Reich. The first step in creating this Greater Germany would be the unification of Germany and Austria, an Anschluss (merger). The idea of an Anschluss dated back to the Napoleonic wars, but its realization would be delayed for more than a century. It first seemed feasible after Austria and Germany’s defeat in World War I. The Hapsburg Empire, which had opposed the idea, collapsed, and many citizens on both sides of the border believed that Austria and Germany should finally become one. The Allies, however, disagreed.
In the peace treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the Allies stipulated the Austria could not form a union with Germany without the approval of the League of Nations, an approval that would be unlikely. The Allies’ disregard for Austria’s right of self-determination angered many Austrians and broadened the appeal of an Anschluss. Although Hitler made clear from the beginning that he intended to unite Germany and Austria, he downplayed the idea when he came to power in an effort to placate Mussolini.
Because it shared a border with Austria, Italy was not supportive of an enlarged Germany on its doorstep. However, Hitler and Mussolini strengthened their relationship through their support of Franco during the Spanish Civil War. The Western powers’ lack of involvement in the conflict also emboldened Hitler to move forward with his foreign policy aims.
Hitler strengthened the power and presence of the National Socialists in Austria by pressuring its reluctant chancellor, Kurt van Schuschnigg, to legalize the Austrian Nazi party and to place Nazis in the government. Schuschnigg reluctantly agreed, and appointed Arthur Seyss-Inquart as Interior Minister and Edmund Glaise-Horstenau as Minister of War.
In early March 1938, the activities of local Nazis disrupted civil order in Austria, and the government lost its will to preserve the republic. Realizing that Germany would invade if Austria did not accept a Nazi government, Schuschnigg resigned. At Hitler’s behest, Seyess-Inquart became chancellor, and he invited the Wehrmacht (German army) to cross the border.
On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria. They marched into Vienna the next day, where they were warmly welcomed by enthusiastic crowds. Hitler arrived on the 14th, greeted by euphoric crowds that poured into the streets. On March 15, Hitler delivered a speech in the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square), in which he triumphantly announced “the entry of my homeland into the German Reich.” 250,000 people – more than a third of Vienna’s population – were present at the event.
On April 10, a plebiscite was held in which 99.7 percent of Austrians voted in favor of the Anschluss. Even if the election data was flawed (and it most certainly was), the people of Austria overwhelmingly approved of their country joining the Reich. They also approved of Germany’s approached to the Jews, most of whom lived in Vienna. Acts of violence and humiliation escalated, often surpassing that which had been seen in Germany to that date.