April 10, 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the infamous Anschluss election. Ninety-nine percent of those voting throughout the German Empire put their stamp of approved on the Nazi takeover of Austria. The percentage of yes votes was even higher in Austria where 99.75 percent voted “Ja.” Adolf Hitler proclaimed, “This hour is the proudest my life.”
Like many elections conducted by dictators, the Anschluss election was more of an international publicity stunt than a genuine election. The elections were held in Germany, Austria, and on vote ships from numerous countries where German and Austrian citizens sailed outside territorial waters to cast their ballots. The New York Times of April 11, 1938 described the experience aboard one of those vote ships, the Wilhelm Gustloff which sailed from London, England to a point beyond the three-mile limit. The cost per person was “seventy-five cents for a day’s sea-outing with two meals and all the beer desired.” The article attributed the low prices to contributions from Strength Through Joy, an organization of German workers. The article listed the overwhelming yes votes from those on board as 1,167 to five from the Germans and 801 to five from the Austrians. There were only two spoiled ballots, which is amazing considering the free-flow of beer.
The Other Half of the Half-Truth
The overwhelming vote of approval was a half-truth. The other half of the truth paints a considerably different picture — one of power seekers using political power, military might, and corrupt electoral practices.
The time was 1938 and the Nazis had their eyes on Austria for their next conquest. They were aided in this case by a desire that had already existed in the hearts of many Germans and Austrians to unite. Hitler’s strategy was to take advantage of that desire while taking over Austria primarily via diplomatic and behind-the-scenes maneuvers. That February Hitler coerced Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg into signing an agreement at Berchtesgaden. The agreement included provisions for amnesty for imprisoned Nazis in Austria and appointing of such Nazi sympathizers as Arthur Seyss-Inquart into high-level posts in the Austrian government.
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Photo at top shows border barrier separating Germany and Austria being removed, March 14, 1938: AP Images