Adolf Hitler had long dreamed of making his native Austria a part of Germany and subjecting Austria’s Jews to the same fate he had in mind for the Jews of Germany. Seventy-five years ago this month, he made his move.
In the very first paragraph of his autobiography, Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that the “reunion” (Anschluss, in German) of Austria and Germany was “a task to be furthered with every means our lives long.” He argued that since the two countries were ethnically similar and had been associated in the past, it was Germany’s destiny to absorb Austria.
In early 1934, about a year after he rose to power, Hitler began pressuring Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss to embrace Nazism. When Dollfuss rejected Hitler’s overtures, Austrian Nazis assassinated him. Their attempted coup failed, however, and the plotters fled to Germany. There, with Hitler’s support, they staged terrorist attacks on Austrian government institutions. These provocations increased civil turmoil in Austria and helped pave the way for German military intervention.
An orgy of sadism
On March 11, 1938, German troops marched into Austria to impose the Anschluss. They were greeted by huge, cheering crowds.
Violent anti-Semitism erupted almost immediately in Vienna, home to most of Austria’s 190,000 Jewish citizens.
The world-famous psychologist Dr. Sigmund Freud, a resident of Vienna, wrote to a friend: “The people in their worship of anti-Semitism are entirely at one with their brothers in the Reich.” Freud’s apartment was twice raided by the Nazis, and his daughter, Dr. Anna Freud, was briefly detained and interrogated by the Gestapo. Soon afterwards, the Freuds fled to England.
Famed CBS Radio broadcaster William L. Shirer described the treatment of Austria’s Jews in the wake of the Anschluss as “an orgy of sadism.” He reported:
“Day after day large numbers of Jewish men and women could be seen scrubbing… the sidewalk and cleaning the gutters. While they worked on their hands and knees with jeering storm troopers standing over them, crowds gathered to taunt them. Hundreds of Jews, men and women, were picked off the streets and put to work cleaning public latrines and the toilets of the barracks where [Nazi secret police officers] were quartered. Tens of thousands more were jailed. Their worldly possessions were confiscated or stolen.”
Among the property confiscated was the Jewish-owned Hotel Metropol, which was turned into Gestapo headquarters, and the famous Rothschild and Gomperz art collections, much of which was added to the private collection of senior Nazi leader Hermann Goering.
William Shirer needed to fly to England to elude Nazi censorship, but ran into trouble getting a ticket on the packed flight to London: “I offered fantastic sums to several passengers for their places,” he noted in his diary. “Most of them were Jews [escaping the Nazis] and I could not blame them for turning me down.”
The suicide rate among Vienna Jews skyrocketed in the weeks following the Anschluss. Three generations—22 members—of a single Jewish family, the Wolkners, took their own lives in response to the Anschluss. The last of the suicides, 18 year-old Gertrude, a musician, left a note asking that a single marker be placed over the graves of all her family members.
“Eichmann helped us”
The Germans were still years away from their program of mass murder. Their goal in Austria was to make the lives of the Jews so miserable that they would emigrate.
Austria’s Jews got the message. Within days of the Anschluss, the lines outside the United States consulate in Vienna stretched for blocks, as tens of thousands of Jews sought permission to immigrate to America. According to U.S. law, a maximum of 27,370 German and Austrian citizens could be admitted annually. But that allotment was almost never filled, because the Roosevelt administration implemented an array of bureaucratic obstacles that made it extremely difficult to qualify for a visa. Other countries likewise closed their doors.
Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist movement offered an alternative: Palestine. The obstacle to getting to the Holy Land was that the British Mandate authorities, in response to Palestinian Arab violence, were beginning to restrict Jewish immigration. In 1937, the Revisionist-affiliated Irgun Zvai Leumi underground sent several of its top activists to Europe to organize illegal immigration, known as Aliyah Bet. One of the organizers was 24 year-old Yitshaq Ben-Ami, the son of early Zionist pioneers (he was the first child born in Tel Aviv).
The Anschluss “brought about a dramatic change in the attitude of Viennese Jews” toward Aliyah Bet, Ben-Ami later recalled. “Prior to March 12 it had been almost impossible for younger people to obtain their parents’ approval to join our group, but now we had hundreds of candidates.” That number grew rapidly. Soon “thousands were lining up outside our office in Vienna, and even that was only the beginning.”
Ben-Ami found himself dealing with the notorious Adolf Eichmann, who was put in charge of the Nazis’ Office of Jewish Emigration in Vienna. “Eichmann helped us,” Ben-Ami noted. “He wanted the Jews out and we were ready to accommodate him. Knowing that this was, to say the least, a tenuous accord, we raced to expand our activities.”
Ben-Ami and his cohorts chartered small boats that brought groups of several hundred Jewish refugees from Austria and Poland to the northern coast of Palestine, where they landed late at night, near thick orange groves, to elude British patrols. The immigrants were greeted by Irgun activists, taken ashore, given false identification papers, and quickly dispersed among various towns and settlements. Because of the nature of the operation, the precise number of people brought to Palestine as part of Aliyah Bet in the late 1930s and early 1940s will never be known, but historians believe it was more than 20,000.
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the founding director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies. His latest book is “FDR and the Holocaust: A Breach of Faith.”