No, Austria Wasn’t a Victim in World War II

February 28, 2022 | Liam Hoare
About the author: Liam Hoare is a freelance writer whose work on politics and literature has featured in The Atlantic, The Forward, and The Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies.

Before the Third Reich seized Czechoslovakia or invaded Poland, it joined itself to Austria. The Anschluss, as it was called in German, had significant popular support; to demonstrate that it was something other than a conquest, Hitler also had Austrian troops station themselves in Germany as German troops entered Austria, creating a “mutual occupation.” The Austrian foreign minister appears to have had a somewhat different narrative in mind during a television appearance last week, as Liam Hoare writes:

Reflecting on the Ukraine crisis, Schallenberg mused most unwisely: “After all, we experienced first-hand in 1938 what it means to be abandoned.”

It has been several decades since Austria . . . officially gave up its victimhood myth: the idea that, following the Anschluss in March 1938, . . . Austria became the “first victim of National Socialism.” “We acknowledge all the facts of our history and the deeds of all sections of our people, the good as well as the evil,” Chancellor Franz Vranitzky told the Austrian parliament in 1991.

Schallenberg never meant to invoke the myth of Austrian victimhood, or so he said the next day. But he said what he said, and to hear those words escape from the mouth of Austria’s number-one diplomat, even if late on a Sunday at a testing time given events in Ukraine, was incredibly jarring. It is true, to be unnecessarily generous for a moment, that Mexico was the only country to protest the Anschluss at the League of Nations. It is also true that Adolf Hitler heaped tremendous political and military pressure upon Austria in the lead-up to the Anschluss, and viewed one way, it did constitute an illegal occupation and annexation of one state by another, as an Austrian foreign ministry communiqué framed the event in 2008.

But the victimhood myth was just that and its death came not a moment too soon. Austria was an independent state before 1938, but it was also a fascist one on the Italian model, with a close relationship [between the regime and] the Catholic Church. Austria had a small but active and incredibly violent Nazi party, and Nazis such as Arthur Seyss-Inquart were incorporated into the Austrian government before the Anschluss. [And] 200,000 Austrians turned out to cheer . . . Adolf Hitler’s proclamation of the Anschluss on March 15, 1938, a development welcomed by, among others, the prominent social democrat Karl Renner and the archbishop of Vienna.

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