Shortsightedness as policy

The Anschluss, which took place 70 years ago, has practical implications for today's policymakers.

Nazis 298.88 (photo credit: )
Nazis 298.88
(photo credit: )
Seventy years ago, on March 13, 1938, after Nazi German forces had waltzed across the border the day before, the Nazis formally annexed their Austrian neighbor. The world accepted the annexation (Anschluss) with nary a sigh and the large majority of Austrians displayed enthusiasm for their new status as part of the Third Reich. Austrians would go on to play central roles in the machinery of murder set up by their fellow countryman, Hitler, in his drive to destroy the Jews. It would take most Austrians many decades after the end of the Holocaust to stop considering themselves as Hitler's first victims and begin to face their responsibility for the crimes perpetrated by the Third Reich. There were several reasons why the world acquiesced to the Nazi takeover of Austria. In part, the victors in World War I were weary of war and determined to avoid another bloodbath that might again take millions of lives. In part, the world saw certain logic in the idea of the unification of Austria and Germany. Pan-Germanism, the notion that all German-speaking people should live in one national unit, was not invented by Hitler and his cohorts. It blossomed following the unification of the disparate German states in 1871 into one nation state and the ensuing drive to forge a national identity. At the time of the unification, many German speakers were left out of the new Germany, chief among them those of neighboring Austria, then the senior partner in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. With the defeat of Germany and Austro-Hungary and the collapse of the old order at the end of World War I, Germany was humiliated and Austria reduced to a small and insignificant nation state. Mollifying the aggressive demands of those who wanted the unification of Germany and Austria carried with it an element of sense at the time. Some politicians who felt guilty over the excessive reparations demanded of the defeated nations in World War I saw placating Hitler as a corrective act. The fact that so many Austrians so earnestly supported Nazi designs on their country contributed even more to justifying Hitler's deed. HALF A YEAR after the Anschluss of Austria, Hitler again played his Pan-German card, calling for the appropriation of the Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia that contained a large percentage of ethnic Germans. This time the annexation was preceded by a conference that led to the infamous Munich Agreement, wherein Britain, France and Hitler's ally Italy, agreed to let the Nazis take the Sudetenland in exchange for Hitler's promise not to make any more territorial demands. As we all know Hitler promptly broke his promise, dismembering Czechoslovakia in March 1939, and detonating the outbreak of World War II, when he tried to swallow Poland the following September. The policy of appeasing Hitler that began in Austria has come down to us as a symbol of shortsightedness and weakness. It is true that the architects of the policy could not have clearly known in 1938 that Hitler would embark on the mass systematic murder of the Jews or that he would launch a multi-front war with his allies that would engulf much of the world in flames for more than half a decade. In retrospect of course certain signs were there in his writings and speeches, but taking the step from hateful, belligerent words to murderous and destructive actions is a significant leap. In early 1938 Hitler himself had not yet formulated all of his plans for turning his words into deeds. The Final Solution for example would only be decided upon and implemented in autumn 1941. Yet even in March 1938 much was known about Hitler and his cohorts. The Nazis had not yet shown their full murderous cruelty, but they had already displayed great malevolence. Beginning soon after the Nazi ascent to power in 1933, thousands of Germans who opposed them or were thought to oppose them began to be incarcerated in brutal concentration camps. For internal party considerations, on Hitler's orders leaders of the Nazi's own organization, the SA, were viciously murdered in 1934, in what came to be known at the Night of the Long Knives. By early 1938, the targeted persecution of Jews had unfolded from the boycott of Jewish business and discrimination in the many spheres of life to the expropriation of property. It was clear to any observer that Hitler was neither a tolerant democrat, nor benign autocrat, but a racist dictator who used violence and coercion to achieve his goals, without giving a second thought to humane considerations. HAD THE world been better tuned into the evil the Nazis embodied already at an early stage, it might have been better equipped to deal with the threat they posed. In our contemporary world, beset by great evil that has already shown itself as such, it behooves us to recall the events that began with the annexation of Austria and the catastrophe that unfolded in its wake. The Anschluss should serve as a compelling reminder where the justification and appeasement of radical evil may lead. The writer is the director of the Yad Vashem Libraries, author of Approaching the Holocaust, Texts and Contexts, co-editor of The Holocaust - Frequently Asked Questions, and co-editor of Encyclopedia of the Holocaust published by Facts on File and Yad Vashem.