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The Effect of The 1938 Anschluss on The City of Vienna

The Effect of The 1938 Anschluss on The City of Vienna

March 12th 2008 marked the 70th anniversary of the Anschluss (or political union) between Austria and Germany. Although exhibitions and public events have been arranged throughout the year to commemorate this event many Austrians will be having mixed feelings about the anniversary.

The idea of an Anschluss was first aired by Austria itself in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War. This catastrophic confrontation between Germany and her neighbours resulted in the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which had existed since 1867. Many German-speaking Austrians were keen to develop a political union with the defeated German state, but this dream was to be dashed by the post-war members of the Treaty of Versailles, who were naturally wary of allowing any expansion of Germany after four years of war.

The election of Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor of Germany in 1933 cooled Austria's aspirations somewhat towards the idea of unification. Although Hitler had been born in Austria, and lived in Vienna from 1907 to 1913, his extreme nationalistic views were causing unease in neighbouring states and nowhere more so than in Vienna, which was home to the largest community of German-speaking Jews in Europe. There was however, an undercurrent of support from many non-Jewish Austrians so, when Hitler mobilised his forces and entered Austria in March 1938, he was greeted with enthusiasm from the majority of the population. It was a particularly uplifting moment for Hitler, returning to his homeland as the unifier of Austria with his adopted country, Germany.

At this time Vienna was the centre of Austro-Zionism, and most of the city's leading businessmen, bankers, physicians and lawyers were of Jewish origin. It was estimated that there were 185,00 Jews living and working in Vienna. To their dismay, after the creation of the Anschluss, the Nazi Party swiftly set about enforcing the anti-Jewish legislation that was already operational in Germany.

In this tense atmosphere a mass migration of Viennese Jews began, with those that could afford to pay the exorbitant fees for exit visas queuing for days on end to obtain them. 130,00 emigrés left Austria during this time, of which 30,00 headed for the USA.

Life for the city's Jewish community took a dramatic turn in November 1938, just eight months after Hitler's triumphal entry into Vienna, with the launch of the anti-Jewish pogrom known as 'Kristalnacht'. All over Germany and Austria, Nazi Party members and civilians, stirred up by paramilitary groups such as the SS, formed hit squads to torch synagogues, together with shops and businesses owned by Jews. In Vienna Kristalnacht was particularly vicious and 6,000 Jews were deported to Dachau concentration camp in the aftermath.

German Troups during the AnschlussFor the duration of World War Two, until the liberation of the city in April 1945, 65,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps, of which only 200 survived. Of those left in Vienna, only about 800 Jews lived to see the arrival of the liberating troops. After the liberation, by the Red Army, Vienna was divided by the Allies into 4 zones, and the city would not be unified again until May 1955.

Fifty five years after the end of World War Two an amazing discovery was made in one of Vienna's ancient apartment buildings. Stored in wooden filing cabinets and cardboard boxes, were some 500,000 pages of reports, letters, deportation lists, photographs and maps detailing the last years of Vienna's thriving Jewish community. Official files had been safely stored and were easily accessible after the war, but these later discoveries had been hidden away by a long-dead generation, and no-one had been aware of their existence until that day in the year 2000.

The official files were lodged with the Central Archives for Jewish History in Jerusalem in the 1950's, but these recently discovered files were in such a bad state of deterioration that urgent work was required to preserve them before any decision was taken as to their future storage. With the co-operation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum the entire collection has been transferred to microfilm. These, together with the Jerusalem collection which is also in the process of being put onto microfilm by the USHMM, will provide nearly 2 million pages of documentation for scholars and students to use in their studies.

Following this important discovery the Austrian Federal Government has agreed to provide a building on Josefstader Strasse in Vienna in which to store these precious records. When work is completed the building will be known as the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies,and will provide not only a permanent home for the recently discovered files but a centre for study, debate and education. It is scheduled to open in 2012.

It is fitting that Vienna is remembering the name of Simon Wiesenthal in this way, as his post-war work in tracing Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice was directed from a small suite of rooms in Vienna known as the Jewish Documentation Office, and he made the city his home until his death, at the age of 86, in 2005. The Vienna Wiesenthal Institute will be a fitting tribute to a man who lived through the horrors of the concentration camps and dedicated the rest of his life to making the world aware of the dangers of anti-semitism and racism.