Anschluss: The Union of Germany and Austria

Voting ballot fro Germany, 1938

Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anschluss’ was the union of Germany and Austria to create a 'Greater Germany'. This was explicitly banned by the Treaty of Versailles (the settlement at the end of World War One between Germany and its opponents), but Hitler drove it through anyway on March 13, 1938. The Anschluss was an old issue, one born of questions of national identity rather than the Nazi ideology it is now associated with.

The Question of a German State: Who Was German?

The Anschluss issue predated the war, and far predated Hitler, and made a lot of sense in the context of European history. For centuries, the German-speaking center of Europe had been dominated by the Austrian Empire, partly because what became Germany was over three hundred small states forming the Holy Roman Empire, and partly because the Habsburg rulers of this empire held Austria. However, Napoleon changed all this, and his success caused the Holy Roman Empire to cease, and left a far smaller number of states behind. Whether you credit the fight back against Napoleon for birthing a new German identity, or consider this an anachronism, a movement began which wanted all the Germans of Europe united into a single Germany. As this was pushed forward, back, and forward again, a question remained: if there was a Germany, would the German-speaking parts of Austria be included?

German Austria?

The Austrian, and later Austro-Hungarian, Empire had a large number of peoples and languages within it, only part of which was German. The fear that nationalism and national identity would tear this polyglot empire apart was real, and to many in Germany incorporating the Austrians and leaving the rest to their own states was a plausible idea. To many in Austria, it wasn’t. They had their own empire after all. Bismarck was then able to drive through the creation of a German state (with more than a little help from Moltke), and Germany took the lead in dominating central Europe, but Austria remained distinct and outside.

The Allied Paranoia

Then World War 1 came along and blew the situation apart. The German Empire was replaced with a German democracy, and the Austrian Empire was shattered into smaller states including a single Austria. To many Germans, it made sense for these two defeated nations to ally, but the victorious allies were terrified Germany would seek revenge and used the Treaty of Versailles to ban any union of Germany and Austria, to ban any Anschluss. This was before Hitler ever came along.

Hitler Scars the Idea

Hitler, of course, was able to masterly use the Treaty of Versailles as a weapon to advance his power, performing acts of transgression to incrementally move forward a new vision for Europe. Much was made of how he used thuggery and threats to walk into Austria on March 13, 1939, and unite the two nations in his Third Reich. The Anschluss has thus become weighed down with negative connotations of a fascist empire when it was actually a question originating over a century before, when the issues of what national identity was, and would be, were very much being explored and created.