As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:
On the morning of March 12, 1938, Chicagoans all over the city awoke to find they needed to throw out their maps and globes. Overnight, Austria, the small European country, had been wiped from the map, the first one annexed by Nazi Germany.
The news engulfed the front page of the Chicago Daily News under a headline that read: “Austria ours, says Hitler.” The day’s paper included several dispatches from reporters in Europe, Associated Press bulletins and an editorial wondering what Austria’s fate might mean for the rest of the globe.
The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed in 1919 after the end of World War I the previous year, prevented Germany and Austria from unification, but German leader Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party violated several aspects of the treaty and received little, if any, pushback from Great Britain or France, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s encyclopedia. Hitler reinstated military conscription in 1935 and sent German armed forces the following year to the demilitarized Rhineland on the borders of France and Belgium, violating the 1927 Treaty of Locarno. Given Germany’s increasing aggression, Austria’s annexation seemed like a natural progression.
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In Berlin, foreign service reporter Wallace R. Deuel witnessed the reaction of Germans and other Europeans firsthand.
“Europe shuddered today with the booted tread of marching troops and no man could say where the march would end,” he wrote for the March 12 edition of the paper. “Preceded by war planes roaring on ahead, German infantry, tanks and other army formations, and picked S.S. units, began to pour over the frontiers into Austria at 5:30 o’clock this morning — at the urgent request of a provisional Austrian government, itself headed by Hitler’s own man, Dr. Arthur Seyss-Inquart.”
A crowd of several thousand people gathered late that morning outside the Wilhelmstrasse, a major thoroughfare in the German capital, “many of them delirious with pride and joy,” Deuel observed. Some women sobbed with happiness.
Another foreign service correspondent, John T. Whitaker, watched the German army take over the eastern city of Innsbruck, located just south of the German border.
“With slow but machine-like precision, a thin column of camouflaged trucks with their machine guns and antitank cannons rolled down the valley and behind them rang the sound of German boots on Austrian asphalt,” he wrote.
Along the route, men and women came out of their homes to watch the procession, Whitaker said. Swastika flags, many distributed in the moment by the Nazis, began waving, and watchers began raising their hands in Nazi salutes.
An AP bulletin on the front page detailed Hitler’s “wild greeting” from thousands of Austrians as he arrived in Linz. The crowd in the Austrian city “worked itself into a passionate ecstasy” as the chancellor stepped out his car and addressed the crowd from the City Hall balcony.
“We must now prove to the world that further attempt to part this united people will be useless,” Hitler told the crowd, and then added, “It will be your and Germany’s duty to contribute to this future. Today you have seen German soldiers marching in, willing to fight for the unity of Pan-Germany, for its liberty, for the greatness of Germany, Sieg, heil!”
Back in Chicago, the paper’s editorial board warned readers of impending war.
“Whether this swift, ruthless subjugation of Austria by Germany will prove to be the match which will fire the powder house upon which European peace is built, no one can say with certainty,” the editorial said. “That it is the precursor of other events of a similar nature, which will put repeated and intensified strains on European peace, is sure. That these strains will ultimately break that peace, ushering in another European war, is the conviction of every chancellery abroad.”
The U.S., the editorial insisted, needed to reevaluate its treaties and begin building up its forces immediately.
Austria’s annexation did not prove to be the “match” the paper expected. That event did not come until September 1939 when the German military invaded Poland, finally stirring Britain and France to declare war and begin the Second World War.
Several of the day’s reports described the annexation as “bloodless,” but it wouldn’t remain so. Within months, the country’s new regime ordered Jewish businesses and synagogues to close and those that didn’t later burned in the November 1938 Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), according to Holocaust Museum’s encyclopedia. Thousands of Jewish Austrians would be sent to concentration camps.