Hitler’s greatest achievement in foreign policy was the Anschluss with Austria in the spring of 1938, bringing the German Austria into a greater German Reich. He had talked in Mein Kampf about the creation of a greater German Reich, and this seemed to be a fulfillment of that dream and the political objective. What were the consequences of this move?
Hitler in Austria
Hitler had forced the national self-determination of peoples, which had been one of the hallmarks of the Treaty of Versailles, onto the international community. There was great unease in Paris, in particular, and London about the Anschluss with Austria, but, after all, it was national self-determination of peoples. They couldn’t argue with it from some sort of principled view.
And the Austrians seemed to want this unification. There were great scenes of jubilation in Vienna as Hitler spoke in the center of the city. Heinrich Himmler and the SS moved into Austria at the same time, and within two weeks, had arrested 70,000 politically unreliable Austrians.
There would be a plebiscite, but only after the Nazis had established full control in Vienna. This was a Catholic country; there were still objections and concerns, especially at this time, by the Vatican about National Socialist Germany.
The Vatican had issued an encyclical called Mit Brennender Sorge, “With Burning Care,” about breaches of the concordant that the Nazis had signed with the Vatican in 1933. And yet, there seemed to be considerable public support.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.
The Worry for the Nazis
During the Anschluss, Hitler and Hermann Goering had worried about the possible reaction of Czechoslovakia to German actions in Austria; they were afraid particularly of military mobilization.
The Czech army was sizable, and very well-trained and well-armed. There had been a National Socialist Party in Czechoslovakia, where there was a sizable German population, particularly around the rim of Czechoslovakia that extends into Germany proper, an area called the Sudetenland, a mountain region right on the frontier.
The NSDAP in Czechoslovakia had been banned. A Sudeten German homefront, headed by a man called Conrad Heinlein, had been established. It was a quasi-Nazi organization of ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland.
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Germany’s Interest in Czechoslovakia
The Sudeten German Party was pro-Nazi, and their stated goal was the cession of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. After the Anschluss with Austria, Czechoslovakia moved to the forefront of Nazi attention.
So great was the concern in Prague, the Czech capital, about the Anschluss, that Hitler felt it necessary to send a reassuring telegram to the Czech president, Benes. He reassured Benes that Germany had no territorial desires in Czechoslovakia, while at the same time, he gave his military men orders to “smash Czechoslovakia in the foreseeable future.” Indeed, the date was set for October 1, 1938.
The Sudeten Germans
The Sudeten Germans were encouraged by Berlin to make impossible demands, to provoke incidents, whereby the Czech authorities would be seen to oppress the German minority in Czechoslovakia, and in the Sudetenland in particular.
In fact, things became so tense that in May of ’38, the Czechs had actually, even beforehand, had sensed that they wanted to mobilize their troops. There was a possibility that a diplomatic struggle would ensue. It was clear that the Nazis were pressing, and the Czech government didn’t see this as national self-determination of peoples, and the Czech authorities had the ability to resist.
Czech Treaty with France and the Soviet Union
So, what would happen if the Germans moved into the Sudetenland or claimed it? Czechoslovakia had treaties with two major European states—France and Soviet Union. If Germany moved into the Sudetenland and the Czechs resisted, it would be the tripwire that would start a second European-wide war.
The agreement between France, Russia, and Czechoslovakia was that Russia would come to Czechoslovakia’s aid if France invaded the country first. Stalin didn’t trust the West, and he didn’t want to be provoked into a war against Germany.
But for diplomats in Europe—and all over the world—concern grew over the summer of 1938 that something would lead to a German invasion, and then this would be the start of a second world war.
Hitler called for the Sudetenland to come heim ist Reich—to come home to the Reich. There was a long tirade against the Czech oppression of the German minority there. It looked as if he was working himself up into some sort of declaration of war.
Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, decided to fly to Germany to meet with Hitler in September of 1938. What he found was the agreeable Hitler, but he was very firm about one thing—the German minority in Czechoslovakia was being badly treated, and something had to be done.
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Chamberlain told Hitler he would go back and see if he could win the agreement of the British cabinet to work out some deal about the Sudetenland, probably with a plebiscite involved, where there would be a vote to see whether the Sudetenland really wanted to become part of Germany or remain in Czechoslovakia.
He would also use his good offices to convince the French to play ball on this. He made no mention of the Russians. He went back to London and kept his promises.
The Push Toward the War
Chamberlain returned to Germany for a second meeting with Hitler. This time, Hitler said that he simply couldn’t hold back the wrath of the German people toward the atrocities committed by the Czechs against the German minority in the Sudetenland. Chamberlain left crestfallen, not knowing what to do.
At a speech at the Sportspalast in Berlin shortly thereafter, Hitler demanded agreement on the terms he had put forward—basically immediate German entry into Czechoslovakia. He demanded agreement within 48 hours.
At this point, Britain and France actually mobilized their troops. France was going to honor its obligation; the British looked like they were going to do it as well. The Czechs rejected Hitler’s demands, and Europe stood perched on the precipice.
Common Questions about the Aftermath of the Anschluss
Heinrich Himmler and the SS moved into Austria during the Anschluss. Within two weeks, they arrested 70,000 politically unreliable Austrians.
During the Anschluss, there were great scenes of jubilation in Vienna as Hitler spoke in the center of the city.
Stalin didn’t trust the West, and he didn’t want to be provoked into a war against Germany.