Why Were So Many Austrians Hitler-Friendly?
By Rick Steves
Today I stood on Vienna’s Heroes Square where, in 1938, more than 200,000 tearfully happy Austrians gathered before Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator stood on the palace balcony and stated, “In front of German history, I declare my former homeland now a part of the Third Reich. One of the pearls of the Third Reich will be Vienna.” From that day on, Austrians were forbidden to say the word “Austria.”
Americans often wonder how Austria could so eagerly embrace Hitler. Let me hazard an explanation: Imagine post-WWI Austria. One of the mightiest empires on earth started — and lost — a great war. In a few bloody years, it went from being a grand empire of 55 million people to a relatively insignificant landlocked state of six million that was required to be nonaligned.
The capital, Vienna, was left with little to rule, and now its population comprised a third of the country’s. With the economic crisis we know as the Great Depression, Austria also got a fascist government complete with a dictator named Engelbert Dollfuss. He was as right-wing and anti-Semitic as Hitler, but he was pro-Roman Catholic Church, pro-Habsburg, and anti-Nazi. When an Austrian Nazi assassinated Dollfuss in 1934, it was easy for the German Nazis to take over four years later. By that point, the Austrian fascists had already put down the leftists. The German Nazis just took over their Austrian counterparts’ file cabinets. And, Hitler promised greatness again…and jobs…