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CRISIS and WAR in EUROPE, 1937 to 1940 (1 of 11)

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Crisis and War in Europe, 1937 to 1940

Germany absorbs Austria | Appeasement at Munich | Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) | Germans to Prague and the Hitler-Stalin Pact | Germany invades 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 Soviet Union and Germany in East Europe | Hitler's "House Cleaning" in Poland

Germany absorbs Austria

By 1937, courts in Germany were unable to interfere with the activities of the Gestapo in any way. Hitler's police were occasionally putting into prison people who ridiculed Hitler, and 150 leaders of a Catholic youth organization had been arrested and accused of treason – for having associated with Marxists.

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."

In late November, 1936, Germany 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, and he agreed to give Hitler a free hand in Austria. Hitler gave Mussolini his blessing for doing whatever he wished to do in the Mediterranean area. The agreement at Stresa in 1935 between Italy, France and Britain was now dead.

Hitler Takes Austria

At the end of 1937 Austria's authoritarian conservative government found Germany conspiring with National Socialists inside its borders. Hitler was planning the unification (Anschluss) of Germany and Austria, and his pretext was the prevention of a Habsburg restoration. 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 whether they wanted unity with Germany or independence.

Hitler was enraged. He was afraid that the Austrians would chose independence.  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. On March 13 there was no plebiscite. On that day, Austria was declared a province of Germany and Hitler returned to his native Austria, to Vienna, with many Austrians welcoming him as a conquering hero.

It was Hitler's first move beyond Germany's frontiers. Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, France and Great Britain chose to remain spectators. On the 14th, France's prime minister, Léon Blum, reassured the government of Czechoslovakia that France would honor its treaty obligations to aid Czechoslovakia in event of German invasion. In April, Austria's plebiscite on unification was held, and the recorded results listed ninety-nine percent in favor – strange given the former strength of the Social Democrats in Austria.

The persecution of Jews in Austria would now begin.  Jews would be forced to get on their hands and knees and scrub the pavement. In Vienna over 2,000 persons crowded the American Consulate General office, seeking visas. The same impulse to revenge that had marked the purges in Germany in 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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