Anschluss in WW2: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson you will learn about the Anschluss of Germany and Austria in World War II. You will learn about the historical roots of this union, the campaign of terror to force Anschluss and how Austrians received and reacted to the Anschluss once it occurred.

The Sound of Nazis

Many of us have seen or at least heard of The Sound of Music. We might think of singing nuns, and Edelweiss, but it's easy to forget that the Von Trapp family had to flee their country in secret at the end of that film. Why? The reason is the Anschluss or forced union of Austria with Nazi Germany in 1938. Anschluss is a German word that means 'union' or 'connection'.

A Connected History

Austria is a German-speaking nation with roots that connect it with Germany going back to the Holy Roman Empire. From the mid-19th Century, Austrians and Germans had begun to think about a union. By the end of World War I, Germany and Austria-Hungary were on the verge of defeat. Pan German groups in Austria campaigned for the annexation of Austria to Germany, and succeeded in 1918 when the country German-Austria was proclaimed. However, the Allies of World War I opposed this union and outlawed it in 1919. Both the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and the Treaty of Versailles prohibited the political and economic union of Austria with Germany.

The harshness of these two treaties bred discontent in pro-German Austrians, including Adolf Hitler. Born in Austria, Hitler would write in Mein Kampf, that 'German-Austria must return to the great German motherland!' Many Austrians agreed and hoped for an Anschluss with Germany. Others were content to remain an independent nation and were wary of Anschluss once the Nazi party came to power in Germany.

Nazi Terror

When the Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933, Adolf Hitler made plans to incorporate his homeland into the German state. While he pressured Austrian officials, he ordered Austrian Nazis to begin a terror campaign in Austria to force union. Ironically, the efforts of the Nazis actually turned Austrians away from the idea. The terror campaign horrified Austrians, stoked nationalism and rallied support to the Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Dollfuss turned to Italy's fascist dictator, Mussolini, for support against Nazi aggression, and Mussolini agreed. Italian troops moved to the Austrian border in case Hitler decided to invade. Austrian Nazis led a coup which ultimately failed, but succeeded in assassinating Dollfuss.

Engelbert Dollfuss, Austrian Chancellor
Engelbert Dollfuss, Austrian Chancellor

The new Austrian Chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, decided to cooperate with Hitler as much as possible in the hopes that this would deny Hitler any excuse for invading the country. In 1936, Schuschnigg signed the German-Austrian Agreement, which required that Austria's foreign policy be consistent with Germany's, and that Nazis be allowed to hold public office in Austria. Meanwhile, Nazi strength had changed Mussolini's mind, and Hitler and Mussolini joined together in the Rome-Berlin Axis in 1936. Now, Austria was on its own. In February 1938, Schuschnigg was invited to Hitler's summer retreat in Berchtesgaden where Hitler demanded that Nazis be given important government positions. Schuschnigg appointed an Austrian Nazi, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, to the position of Minister of the Interior, and realized that the end was near.

Marching In

In the span of a few days in March 1938, the Anschluss was completed. On Wednesday, March 9, a desperate Schuschnigg called a referendum to let the Austrian people decide if they wanted to remain independent or join Germany. Outraged, Hitler demanded that Schuschnigg resign and hand over power to Seyss-Inquart. On Thursday, March 10, Hitler ordered his generals to prepare to invade Austria. In response, Schuschnigg resigned. On Friday, German troops moved to the border. The President of Austria refused to appoint Seyss-Inquart as the new Chancellor, so a German agent on orders from Herman Göring sent a telegram asking for military aid. On Saturday, March 12, the Germans marched unopposed into Austria. On March 13, 1938, Seyss-Inquart, now the head of the pro-Nazi Austrian government, revoked the Treaty of Saint-Germain and officially absorbed Austria into the German Reich. The Anschluss was completed, and Austria became known as Ostmark.

The German Reich in 1939 after the Anschluss

Hitler arrived in Austria and gave a rousing speech at Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square, in Vienna to an enthusiastic crowd. As many as 200,000 Austrians applauded Hitler's arrival and the Anschluss, and it appeared that a majority of Austrians were happy with the Anschluss.

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