“The will to break the chains of slavery will be implanted from childhood on.”
Hitler’s first success in breaking the chains of Versailles was a legal victory in the Saar plebiscite on January 13, 1935. This highly industrialized region had been detached from Germany and placed under the administration of the League of Nations by the Treaty of Versailles. The terms of the Versailles Treaty called for a plebiscite after 15 years with three choices: return to Germany, annexation by France, or continuation of League of Nations rule. In an unquestionably free election, the vote was 477,119 in favor of union with Germany and only 46,613 in favor of the continuance of the existing regime. Despite offering the Saar citizens a number of tax and customs advantages if they decided to become part of France, only 0.40% of voters voted to join France; 8.85% voted for independence of the Saar, and 90.75% voted for union with Germany.
The Saar inhabitants who voted overwhelmingly to return to Germany were mostly industrial workers—Social Democrats or Roman Catholics. They knew what awaited them in Germany: a dictatorship, the destruction of trade unions, and restrictions on freedom of expression. They knew of the establishment of the Dachau concentration camp and the execution of scores of SA members in the Röhm purge on June 30, 1934. The German economy in January 1935 was also not substantially better than that of France or other countries in Europe. The Saar election was evidence that the appeal of German nationalism could be irresistible.
Hitler began an assault on the Versailles provisions with the creation of a German air force on March 9, 1935. On March 16, 1935, Hitler announced the restoration of compulsory military service. Germany regarded the army of the Soviet Union at 960,000 men as excessively large, and France had recently increased the terms of service in her armies. Hitler wanted to increase German military strength to 550,000 troops because of this Franco-Russian threat.
Germany continued to modify the Versailles provisions by signing the Anglo-German Naval Agreement on June 18, 1935. This treaty fixed the size of the German fleet at 35% of the total tonnage of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Germany could also build a submarine force equal to that of Great Britain. Hitler was elated with the agreement. Hitler had dreamed of an Anglo-German alliance ever since he had fought Britain in World War I. Britain’s naval treaty with Germany also effectively undermined the Stresa Front that Britain had established with France and Italy earlier in 1935.
Germany was forbidden under the Treaty of Versailles to build fortifications or maintain troops in a wide demilitarized zone along its western frontier. This arrangement made the vital Ruhr and Rhineland industries vulnerable to a swift attack from France. The Treaty of Locarno, of which Britain and Italy were co-guarantors, also endorsed the demilitarization of the Rhineland. Hitler challenged this limitation when he sent troops into the Rhineland on March 7, 1936. Although this was a major gamble by Hitler, France was unwilling to challenge Hitler without British support. Britain was unwilling to authorize anything resembling war because there was a general feeling in Britain that Germany was only asserting a right of sovereignty within her own borders.
Germany was now able to protect her western borders by constructing the Siegfried Line. Lloyd George, the former prime minister of Great Britain, commended Hitler in the House of Commons for having reoccupied the Rhineland to protect his country:
France had built the most gigantic fortifications ever seen in any land, where, almost a hundred feet underground you can keep an army of over 100,000 and where you have guns that can fire straight into Germany. Yet the Germans are supposed to remain without even a garrison, without a trench…If Herr Hitler had allowed that to go on without protecting his country, he would have been a traitor to the Fatherland.
On later meeting Hitler, Lloyd George was “spellbound by Hitler’s astonishing personality and manner” and referred to Hitler as “indeed a great man. Führer is the proper name for him, for he is a born leader—yes, a statesman.”
Other British statesmen were also impressed with Hitler. In a book published in 1937, Churchill expresses his “admiration for the courage, the perseverance, and the vital force which enabled [Hitler] to challenge, defy, conciliate, or overcome, all the authorities or resistances which barred his path.” Hitler and his Nazis had shown “their patriotic ardor and love of country.”
Churchill also wrote:
“Those who have met Herr Hitler face to face have found a highly competent, cool, well-informed functionary with an agreeable manner, a disarming smile, and few have been unaffected by a subtle personal magnetism. Nor is this impression merely the dazzle of power. He exerted it on his companions at every stage in his struggle, even when his fortunes were in the lowest depths.”
By March 1936 Germany had taken important steps in overcoming the provisions of the Versailles Treaty. Hitler made no more moves in Europe for the next two years. Until 1938, Hitler’s moves in foreign policy had been bold but not reckless. From the point of view of the Western Powers, his methods constituted unconventional diplomacy whose aims were recognizably in accord with traditional German nationalist clamor.
The statesmen at the Paris Peace Conference had wanted to divide rather than unify Austria and Germany. Austria had asked Allied permission at the Paris Peace Conference to enter into a free-trade zone with Germany. Austria’s request was denied. As far back as April and May of 1921, plebiscites on a union with Germany were held in Austria at the Tyrol and at Salzburg. The votes in the Tyrol were over 140,000 for the Anschluss and only 1,794 against. In Salzburg, more than 100,000 voted for union with Germany and only 800 against. Despite the overwhelming desire of Austrians to join with Germany, the Treaty of St. Germain signed by Austria after World War I prevented the union.
Under the treaties of Versailles and St. Germain, Germany and Austria could not even enter into a customs union without permission from the League of Nations. In 1931, hard hit by the Great Depression, Germany asked again for permission to form an Austro-German customs union. The League of Nations denied Germany’s request. Germany later requested an end to its obligation to pay war reparations under Versailles because of Germany’s economic crisis caused by the Great Depression. Germany’s request was again refused. Many historians believe the resulting economic distress contributed to the rapid rise of National Socialists to power in Germany. The Allied refusals also increased the desire of German and Austrian nationalists to exercise their right of self-determination.
Hitler was given encouragement for the peaceful incorporation of Austria into Germany when he met with Edward Frederick Lindley Wood (Lord Halifax) at Berchtesgaden on November 19, 1937. Lord Halifax mentioned the important questions of Danzig, Austria, and Czechoslovakia on his own initiative without any prompting from Hitler. Halifax told Hitler that Great Britain realized that the Paris Treaties of 1919 contained mistakes that had to be rectified. Halifax stated that Britain would not go to war to prevent an Anschluss with Austria, a transfer of the Sudetenland to Germany, or a return of Danzig to the Reich. Britain might even be willing to serve as an honest broker in effecting the return of what rightfully belonged to Germany, if this was all done in a gentlemanly fashion.
Lord Halifax had given Hitler his approval for the peaceful incorporation of Germans in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Danzig into Germany if done “without far reaching disturbances.” British historian A. J. P. Taylor wrote:
This was exactly what Hitler wanted… Halifax’s remarks, if they had any practical sense, was an invitation to Hitler to promote German nationalist agitation in Danzig, Czechoslovakia, and Austria; an assurance also that his agitation would not be opposed from without. Nor did these promptings come from Halifax alone. In London, Eden told Ribbentrop: “People in Europe recognized that a closer connection between Germany and Austria would have to come about sometime.” The same news came from France. Papen, on a visit to Paris, “was amazed to note” that Chautemps, the premier, and Bonnet, then finance minister, “considered a reorientation of French policy in Central Europe as entirely open to discussion…” They had “no objection to a marked extension of German influence in Austria obtained through evolutionary means”; nor in Czechoslovakia “on the basis of a reorganization into a nation of nationalities”.
Lord Halifax’s message to Hitler underscores a crucial point in the history of this era: Hitler’s agenda was no surprise to European statesmen. Any German nationalist would demand adjustments to the frontiers laid down at Versailles. With Great Britain’s approval of the peaceful annexation of Austria into Germany, the problem was how to get the Austrians to peacefully agree to unification with Germany. Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg would soon force the issue.
Since the summer of 1934, Austria had been governed by a conservative dictatorship headed by Dr. Kurt von Schuschnigg. Schuschnigg persecuted Austrians who favored unification with Germany. Political dissidents landed in concentration camps, and the regime denied persons of “deficient civic reliability” the right to practice their occupation.
In January 1938, Austrian police discovered plans of some Austrian National Socialists to overthrow Schuschnigg in violation of a “Gentlemen’s Agreement” entered into with Germany on July 11, 1936. Schuschnigg met with Hitler at Berchtesgaden on Februay 12, 1938, complaining of the attempted overthrow of his government by Austrian National Socialists. Hitler and Schuschnigg reached an agreement that day, but Schuschnigg claimed that Hitler had been violent in manner during the first two hours of conversation. Some accounts of their meeting say that Schuschnigg was bullied by Hitler and subject to a long list of indignities.
Schuschnigg began to consider means of repudiating the agreement made with Hitler in their meeting on February 12, 1938. Schuschnigg’s solution was to hold a rigged plebiscite. On March 9, 1938, Schuschnigg announced that a plebiscite would be held four days later on March 13, 1938, to decide, finally and forever, whether Austria was to remain an independent nation.
The planned plebiscite was completely unfair. There was only one question, which asked the voter,
“Are you for a free and German, independent and social, Christian and united Austria, for peace and work, for the equality of all those who affirm themselves for the people and the Fatherland?”
There were no voting lists; only yes ballots were to be provided by the government; anyone wishing to vote no had to provide their own ballot, the same size as the yes ballots, with nothing on it but the word no. During preparations for the election, the government press in Austria announced that anyone voting “no” would be guilty of treason.
The Austrian government took additional steps to ensure that the vote would swing in their direction. The qualification age to vote was raised to 24, making it impossible for young National Socialists to register their views. Schuschnigg and his men also distributed a huge number of flyers, scattering some by aircraft in Austria’s most remote and snowbound corners. Trucks drove around the country transmitting the message of Austrian independence by loudspeaker. Everywhere the German theme was driven home: To be a good Austrian was to be a good German; to be German was to be free. Austrians were better Germans than the National Socialists.
Hitler was shocked by Schuschnigg’s proposed plebiscite. Hitler had hoped for an evolutionary strategy in Austria that would gradually merge Austria into the Reich. However, Hitler felt humiliated and betrayed by Schuschnigg, and he could not let the phony plebiscite proceed. After receiving word on March 11, 1938, that Mussolini accepted the Anschluss, Hitler decided to march into Austria with his troops on March 12, 1938. Hitler was greeted with a joyously enthusiastic reception from the mass of the Austrian people. Not a shot was fired by Hitler’s army.
Hitler was aware of the bad publicity abroad such an apparent act of force would generate. However, Schuschnigg and his entire cabinet had resigned from office after Britain, France, and Italy all denounced the phony plebiscite. Hitler feared that Austrian Marxists might take advantage of Austria’s momentary political vacuum and stage an uprising. Göring also warned of the possibility that Austria’s neighbors might exploit its temporary weakness by occupying Austrian territory. Hitler decided to militarily occupy Austria to prevent either of these possibilities from occurring.
On April 10, 1938, joint plebiscites were held in Germany and Austria to approve the Anschluss. All Germans and Austrians over the age of 20 were eligible to vote, with the exception of Jews and criminals. The result of the poll was 99.08% of the people in favor of the Anschluss. The plebiscite might have been manipulated to some extent as shown by the near unanimous assent from the Dachau concentration camp. Also, the ballot was not anonymous since the voter’s name and address were printed on the back of each ballot. However, there is no question that the vast majority of people in Germany and Austria approved the Anschluss. Hitler’s aims had struck a chord with national German aspirations, and the plebiscite reflected Hitler’s popularity with the German people.
The invasion of Austria had hurt Germany’s public image. British historian A.J.P. Taylor wrote:
Hitler had won. He had achieved the first object of his ambition. Yet not in the way that he had intended. He had planned to absorb Austria imperceptibly, so that no one could tell when it had ceased to be independent; he would use democratic methods to destroy Austrian independence as he had done to destroy German democracy. Instead he had been driven to call in the German army. For the first time, he lost the asset of aggrieved morality and appeared as a conqueror, relying on force. The belief soon became established that Hitler’s seizure of Austria was a deliberate plot, devised long in advance, and the first step toward the domination of Europe. This belief was a myth. The crisis of March 1938 was provoked by Schuschnigg, not by Hitler. There had been no German preparations, military or diplomatic. Everything was improvised in a couple of days—policy, promises, armed force…But the effects could not be undone…The uneasy balance tilted, though only slightly, away from peace and towards war. Hitler’s aims might still appear justifiable; his methods were condemned. By the Anschluss—or rather by the way in which it was accomplished—Hitler took the first step in the policy which was to brand him as the greatest of war criminals. Yet he took this step unintentionally. Indeed he did not know that he had taken it.
Winston Churchill made the following statement in the House of Commons shortly after the Anschluss:
…The public mind has been concentrated upon the moral and sentimental aspects of the Nazi conquest of Austria—a small country brutally struck down, its Government scattered to the winds, the oppression of the Nazi party doctrine imposed upon a Catholic population and upon the working-classes of Austria and Vienna, the hard ill-usage of persecution which indeed will ensue—which is probably in progress at the moment—of those who, this time last week, were exercising their undoubted political rights, discharging their duties to their own country.…
Churchill’s statement is a misrepresentation of the truth. The overwhelming majority of Austrians had desired a union with Germany. The Anschluss was hugely popular in Austria. Churchill in his speech had begun the warmongering that led to World War II.
“We will force Hitler into war, whether he wants it or not.”
Churchill 1936, From: Did Jews Fake Hitler’s “Master Race” Phrase To Create War?
Additional Suggested Reading:
Image: Breaking The Chains Poster
Image: Hitler in His Berghof Office
Image: Churchill Smoking Europe via KATANA
 Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, p. 45.
 Tansill, Charles C., “The United States and the Road to War in Europe,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, p. 118.
 Bochaca, Joaquin, “Reversing Versailles,” The Barnes Review, Nov. /Dec. 2012, Vol. XVIII, No. 6, p. 61.
 Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, p. 86.
 Tansill, Charles C., “The United States and the Road to War in Europe,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, p. 119.
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 145-147.
 Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, p. 46.
 Rowland, Peter, David Lloyd George: A Biography, New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, p. 728.
 Ibid., p. 733.
 Churchill, Winston, Great Contemporaries, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1937, p. 228.
 Ibid., p. 232.
 Kershaw, Ian, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis, New York: W. W. Norton, 2000, p. 91.
 Neilson, Francis, The Makers of War, New Orleans, LA: Flanders Hall Publishers, 1950, p. 171.
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 183-184.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 76.
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 183-187.
 Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, pp. 137-138.
 Buchanan, Patrick J., Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War, New York: Crown Publishers, 2008, pp. 188-189.
 Tedor, Richard, Hitler’s Revolution, Chicago: 2013, p. 98.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 91.
 Tansill, Charles C., “The United States and the Road to War in Europe,” in Barnes, Harry Elmer (ed.), Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Newport Beach, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1993, p. 141.
 Quigley, Carroll, Tragedy and Hope, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1966, p. 624.
 Tedor, Richard, Hitler’s Revolution, Chicago: 2013, p. 102.
 MacDonogh, Giles, Hitler’s Gamble, New York: Basic Books, 2009, p. 35.
 Hoggan, David L., The Forced War: When Peaceful Revision Failed, Costa Mesa, CA: Institute for Historical Review, 1989, p. 93.
 Tedor, Richard, Hitler’s Revolution, Chicago: 2013, p. 104.
 MacDonogh, Giles, Hitler’s Gamble, New York: Basic Books, 2009, pp. 104-106.
 Taylor, A.J.P., The Origins of the Second World War, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961, pp. 149-150.
 Neilson, Francis, The Makers of War, New Orleans, LA: Flanders Hall Publishers, 1950, pp. 176-177.