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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (1 of 10)

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Crisis and War in Europe, 1937 to 1940

Germany absorbs Austria | Appeasement at Munich | Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) | From Prague to the invasion of Poland | Opponents of War Look Inward | Invasions of Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium and France | Support for France's Collaborationist Government | The Battle of Britain | The Baltic States, elsewhere in East Europe and Hitler's plan for the Soviet Union | Hitler's "House Cleaning" in Poland

Chamberlain and Hitler

Neville Chamberlain and a disingenuous Hitler at Munich

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Germany absorbs Austria

By 1937 the rule of law in Germany had deteriorated to the point that the courts were unable to interfere with the activities of the Gestapo in any way. Hitler was well enough established and popular that his police occasionally put into prison those who were so unpatriotic as to ridicule Hitler. And recently 150 leaders of a Catholic youth organization had been arrested and accused of treason – for having associated with Marxists.

And the government was making life harder still for Jews. By 1937 the exclusion of Jews from public or private employment left at least half of them without a means of livelihood. In many towns a Jew could not find lodging. Some found it difficult or impossible to buy food, including milk for their children, or to buy medicine. Over some shops were signs that read, "Jews Not Admitted."

On the international front, Germany, in late November 1936, had signed a pact with Italy and Japan: the Anti-Comintern Pact. This was not a formal alliance. Japan signed wishing to give support to Germany without having to join against Germany's enemies should war develop in Europe. Japan was hoping that a strengthened Germany would force Britain's withdrawal from Asia.

Mussolini was grateful for Hitler's support concerning Ethiopia. He agreed to give Hitler a free hand in Austria. Hitler gave Mussolini his blessing for doing whatever he wished in the Mediterranean area. And the Stresa front – between Italy, France and Britain - was shattered.

Hitler Takes Austria

At the end of 1937 Austria's conservative, authoritarian government found Germany conspiring with National Socialists inside its borders, with Germany aiming to take power in Austria. The planned pretext for Germany's takeover was that Germany was moving to prevent an attempted Habsburg restoration. Then in mid-February, 1938, Hitler presented Austria's chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg (Dollfuss' successor), with demands that National Socialists be left unrestricted and that they be included in Schuschnigg's government. Hitler threatened to invade if Schuschnigg did not agree in writing at once. Schuschnigg felt abandoned by Italy, and he expected no help from France or Great Britain. So he agreed to Hitler's demands. Then he had second thoughts and decided to stand up to Hitler. He announced that Austria "would never voluntarily surrender its independence." He appealed to Austria's Social Democrats – who according to their voting margins in previous years represented forty-two percent of the public.  The Social Democrats agreed to help defend Austria. And in a speech on March 9, Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite for March 13 – a vote by the nation on the question of whether people wanted unity with Germany or independence.

Hitler was enraged. He was afraid that the Austrians would not chose unity with Germany and that the plebiscite would leave him without an excuse to move against Austria.  German troops massed on the Austrian border. Schuschnigg resigned. A pro-Hitler lawyer in the pay of Germany, Seyess-Inquart, became Austria's chancellor, and, on March 11, German troops crossed into Austria without resistance.  The announced reason for the move was that Seyess-Inquart had invited in the German troops to put down a Communist uprising, and Hitler proclaimed that he was putting Germany at the service of millions of Germans in Austria.

Many Austrians were jubilant, especially Austria's National Socialists. Supporters of the National Socialists were a minority in Austria, but a minority could make a big showing in the streets. Then, on March 13, Austria was declared a province of Germany. Hitler returned to his native Austria, and to Vienna, with many Austrians welcoming him as a conquering hero.

It was Hitler's first move beyond Germany's frontiers, and Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain chose to remain spectators. In April a plebiscite was held in Austria on the unification (the Anschluss) of Austria and Germany, and the recorded results listed ninety-nine percent in favor – strange given the former strength of the Social Democrats in Austria, who were most hostile to fascism.

The persecution of Jews in Austria would now begin.  And the same impulse to revenge that had marked the purges of 1934 were applied in Austria against those who were known to be hostile toward the National Socialists. Many people were arrested, including Schuschnigg, who was imprisoned in a small room for seventeen months, tortured with sleeplessness, and in the months that followed he was forced to perform menial tasks, such as cleaning the latrines of his guards.  He lost fifty-eight pounds.  Then he was sent to a concentration camp.


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