Seventy-five years ago Tuesday, Nazi Germany annexed neighboring Austria in the “Anschluss,” a long-held dream of Chancellor Adolf Hitler and many others, including non-Nazis, in the two German-speaking states.
Austria's chancellor at the time, Kurt Schuschnigg, opposed Hitler’s takeover, but his desperate attempt to hold a referendum on the question was squelched by a coup by the Austrian Nazi Party in Vienna. The next day, March 12, 1938, the German Wehrmacht marched into Austria to enforce the Anschluss – with little or no resistance. In fact, many Austrian Nazi sympathizers showered the invading forces with flowers. (Schuschnigg resigned as chancellor the night before, knowing he was doomed).
Hitler fantasized creating a Greater German Reich that would unite all German peoples of the former empire that it lost in the First World War -- and then some. Seizing Austria, which had been Germany's ally in that war, was the first step in realizing that pan-Germanic dream.
Hitler, of course, was born in Braunau am Inn in Austria.
Upon annexation, Austria became the German province of Ostmark and Arthur Seyss-Inquart, a prominent Austrian Nazi, became its Reichsstatthalter, or governor.
The Anschluss spelled doom for thousands of Austrian Communists, Jews and other anti-Nazis -- about 70,000 Austrians were arrested within weeks of the German annexation.
Strangely, the Anschluss failed to excite the fears of the Western powers who were already preparing for another war with Germany. It was not until the Third Reich steamrolled into the Sudetenland, the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia, in October 1938 that an international crisis was sparked – within one year, with Germany’s blitzkrieg of Poland, another global war was on.
About 200,000 Jews lived in Austria at the time of Anschluss, 180,000 of them clustered in Vienna, according to Jewish Virtual Library. By the end of the war, fewer than 2,000 remained.
Austria remained part of the Third Reich until the bitter end of the war in 1945; it was then occupied by the Allies and did not officially regain sovereignty until 1955, as neutral territory in the Cold War.
BBC reported on some interesting revelations about Vienna’s famed Philharmonic orchestra in connection with the Anschluss.
Nearly half of the musicians (60 out of 123) in the Philharmonic during World War II were official members of the Nazi Party. About 13 musicians were removed for being Jewish or having married Jewish spouses (five of whom perished in concentration camps).
Historians have also uncovered that Helmut Wobisch, a trumpeter in the Philharmonic who was also a Nazi Party member and later joined the Waffen SS, handed over a ring of honor to Baldur von Schirach, the Nazi governor of Vienna who supervised the deportation of some 65,000 Austrian Jews to death camps.
But long before then, Austria lost thousands of its best talent – many of them Jews -- in the years leading up to Anschluss.
Among the luminaries who fled Austria included the founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, artist Oskar Kokoschka, film director Billy Wilder, actor Peter Lorre, novelist Stefan Zweig, photographer Erich Lessing and chemist Carl Djerassi, who later developed the contraceptive pill.
The exodus of brilliant minds from Austria was "a monstrous cultural blow," Johanna Rachinger, director of Austria's National Library (OeNB), told Agence France Presse.
An extraordinary number of current and future Nobel Prize winners were part of the flow of departing Austrians – including Erwin Schroedinger (Physics, 1933); Victor Hess (Physics, 1936); Elias Canetti (Literature, 1981), Walter Kohn (Chemistry, 1998) and Eric Kandel (Physiology & Medicine, 2000).
"The effect was a provincialization of Austria's scientific landscape after 1945," historian Johannes Feichtinger from the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW) told AFP.
"The country's most brilliant minds were expelled. ... In the postwar period, universities were in many cases dominated by mediocre figures, including people who owed their career to the Nazi regime.”
Marcus Patka, curator at the Jewish Museum Vienna, told AFP: "There was a great bloodletting of culture and intellect. In 1933, many intellectuals and artists -- Jews and non-Jews -- had fled from Germany to Vienna. They were again displaced (in 1938) and the problem is that after the war, very, very few of these people came back.”
In the postwar period, a Jew named Bruno Kreisky became Austria’s foreign minister from 1959 to 1966 and chancellor from 1970 to 1983, although he espoused virulently anti-Zionist views.
JVL reported that today some 7,400 Jews live in Austria, but most are immigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern European states.