After the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles forbid Austria from being a part of the German Empire (The Reich), in order to prevent the formation of a strong military and economic superstate.
The majority of Austria’s population was German speaking and watched its German neighbours reach full employment and reverse inflation. Many wanted to join in Germany’s success.
Austrian feelings on a reunion with Germany
The word Anschluss means ‘connection’ or ‘political union’. Thought a union between Germany and Austria was strictly forbidden by the terms of the Treaty of Versa, many Austrian Social Democrats had been pressing for reunion with Germany since 1919, even though they were wary of many of Hitler’s policies.
Since the rise of Nazism in Germany, Anschluss became far less appealing among various Austrian political groups and was even resisted among Austria’s far right, namely Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who banned the Austrian Nazi Party in 1933. Dollfuss was then killed in a failed coup attempt by Nazis from both Germany and Austria.
Hitler himself was Austrian and thought it unacceptable that his homeland should have been cut off from its mother, Germany. During the 1930s a right wing party that was openly pro-Nazi began to rise in Austria, giving Hitler a good reason to enter discussion with the Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg, who had succeeded Dollfuss, and invite him to his retreat in Berchtesgaden for talks in February of 1938.
Both Dollfuss and Schuschnigg preferred an alliance with Fascist Italy to a union with Germany under Hitler.
Positions of power & responsibility for pro-Nazis
The talks in Berchtesgaden went well for Hitler, and Schuschnigg agreed under pressure to give the Austrian Nazi Party more responsibility by appointing one of their members as Minister of Police and giving an amnesty to all Nazi prisoners.
The non-German population and the Austrian Social Democratic Party were in disagreement with the new right wing party, and signs of internal civil disturbances took place.
Hitler wanted to place German Army troops inside Austria, but Schuschnigg disagreed and then rescinded the agreement he made at Berchtesgaden, demanding an internal referendum (plebiscite) to preserve some Austrian independence.
Hitler demanded that Schuschnigg call off the referendum, and the Chancellor felt he had no choice but to relent.
Street riots on the day of the Referendum
Like Germany before it, inflation in Austria in the 1930s was on an inconceivable scale and on the day of the referendum the Austrian people were demonstrating in the streets.
Otto Skorzeny, a member of the Austrian Nazi Party and the SA, tells in his memoirs of the Vienna Police arriving in the crowds all wearing swastika armbands and trying to create order. Skorzeny was sent to the Presidential Palace to try to prevent bloodshed as the guards were starting to draw their weapons on the crowds.
The referendum cancelled, the President was convinced by Skorzeny to tell his men not to shoot and order was restored. President Miklas resigned at the request of Dr. Seyss-Inquart, the Nazi Chancellor, who took over presidential powers. Otto Skorzeny was given command of the SS soldiers at the Palace and made responsible for internal security there.
13 March 1938 Hitler declares Anschluss with Austria
On 13th March, Seyss-Inquart was instructed by Hermann Göring to invite the German Army to occupy Austria. Seyss-Inquart refused so a Vienna-based German agent sent a telegram in his stead, proclaiming a union with Germany.
Austria was now renamed as the German province of Ostmark and placed under the leadership of Arthur Seyss-Inquart. The Austrian-born Ernst Kaltenbrunner was named Minister of State and head of the Schutz Staffel (SS).
Certain foreign newspapers have said that we fell on Austria with brutal methods. I can only say; even in death they cannot stop lying. I have in the course of my political struggle won much love from my people, but when I crossed the former frontier (into Austria) there met me such a stream of love as I have never experienced. Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.
—Adolf Hitler, from a speech at Königsberg, 25 March 1938
On Sunday, April 10, a second, controlled referendum/plebiscite was arranged for the German men and women of Austria over twenty years of age to ratify the reunion with the German Reich, which had in fact already been decided.
Jews or Gypsies (4% of the population) were not permitted to vote. The Nazis claimed a 99.7561% approval by the Austrian people for the union of Germany and Austria.