Seventy-five years ago today, Germany marched into, occupied and annexed Austria in what became known as the Anschluss.
As the above photo shows, many turned out to joyously greet Wehrmacht troops as they rolled through the Austrian countryside and cities, including Vienna.
Not all were advocates of the union, however.
Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was committed to his country’s independence despite several years of bullying from Austrian and German Nazis.
Prior to the actual German annexation, Schuschnigg had scheduled a plebiscite on the issue of unification for March 13, 1938, expecting his fellow countrymen to reject the idea.
Adolf Hitler, ever the proponent of fair and honest elections, declared the vote would be tainted by fraud and stated that Germany would not abide by the results.
In addition, the German ministry of propaganda issued statements that alleged widespread rioting throughout Austria and reported that large segments of the Austrian population were calling for German troops to restore order.
On March 11, Hitler sent an ultimatum to Schuschnigg demanding that power be handed to the Austrian National Socialists or Germany would invade.
Schuschnigg had reason for concern; his predecessor, Engelbert Dollfuss, had been assassinated as part of a failed coup by Nazi agents in 1934.
Schuschnigg desperately looked for support in the hours following Hitler’s ultimatum. But, realizing that neither France nor Britain was willing to step in, Schuschnigg resigned as chancellor later that evening.
German soldiers entered Austria the following day, March 12, 1938, to enforce the Anschluss.
The Nazis held a plebiscite within the following month, and claimed 99.7 percent of Austrians favored the union. Given that 99.7 percent of Austrians likely couldn’t have agreed on whether schnitzel was a popular dish among their fellow citizens, the results seem sketchy to say the least.
The Anschluss was a key event in Germany’s run-up to World War II, along with the return of the Saar region through a 1935 plebiscite, the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936, the occupation of the Sudetenland in 1938 and the 1939 invasion of the remainder of Czechoslovakia.
So how did Anschluss work out for Austria? Not real well.
Besides being on the losing end of the greatest war in history and being aligned with one of the most despotic regimes mankind has ever known, Austria suffered approximately 260,000 military deaths and another 120,000 civilian deaths, including 65,000 Jews, during World War II.
Approximately 5.7 percent of its 1939 population died during the 1939-45 conflict.
One suspects that those who were cheering the Wehrmacht on in 1938 were much less joyous seven years later, if they were alive at all.