1938: Hitler’s Gamble, by Giles MacDonogh
Hitler’s greatest gamble in 1938 was his determination to occupy the Czechoslovak Sudetenland, even at the risk of sparking a European war. Neither Neville Cham- berlain nor the French prime minister, Edouard Daladier, was prepared to play for such high stakes and they threw in their chips, giving the Führer what he wanted without bloodshed. It will therefore come as a surprise that in Giles MacDonogh’s 1938: Hitler’s Gamble, a mere seven paragraphs are devoted to the Munich conference that effectively sealed Czechoslovakia’s fate.
Instead it is the Austrian capital that takes centre stage in this compelling survey of a tumultuous year. Given the extensive literature on the Munich carve-up, most recently and successfully by David Faber, the focus on Vienna is certainly justifiable. There is, after all, a natural tendency to see Hitler’s unopposed invasion of Austria in March 1938 as a fait accompli, with the details of the anschluss skimmed over as a mere prelude to the main event at Munich six months later. In contrast, MacDonogh shows how the vicious crushing of Austrian opposition and the persecution of Vienna’s Jews demonstrated — or should have demonstrated — to the world the true nature of the Nazi regime and the scale of its terrible ambitions.
At the time, there was little international sympathy for Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor whose decision to hold a plebiscite on Austria’s independence succeeded only in bringing on Germany’s invasion. Aside from its resistance to annexation by the Third Reich, there was not much to admire about Schuschnigg’s Corporate State. Even the proposed plebiscite was scarcely fair — the ballot slips only had ja printed on them. Austrians wanting merger with Germany would have had to bring their own nein scrawled scraps of paper to the polling station. Schuschnigg’s enforced resignation hastily followed by the invasion just before the vote was due to be held, made the whole performance unnecessary. Hitler’s arrival in Vienna was saluted by enough ecstatic Austrian pro-Nazis and wind-following opportunists to convince the world to mind its own business. Only Mexico and the embattled Spanish Republican government issued formal protests to the extinction of a major European nation-state.
Schuschnigg and his ministers were promptly dispatched to Dachau. They were joined in the camp by anyone who questioned the right of Austria’s new Nazi overlords to do whatever they wanted. Dachau’s prisoners including Princes Max and Ernst Hohenberg, the sons of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand whose assassination in 1914 triggered Europe’s 20th-century woes.
Indeed, having long since crushed his left-wing opponents, Hitler in 1938 outmanoeuvred a far more influential block on his ambitions — his conservative critics. The Blomberg-Fritsch affair in January provided the pretext for further subjugating the armed forces to the Führer’s will. Rightly alarmed, the more traditionally minded — usually aristocratic — elements within the Wehrmacht command were as aghast at the military risks Hitler was prepared to take in pursuit of his foreign policy agenda as were financial leaders like Hjalmar Schacht at the shaky economic doctrines underpinning it. The conservatives planned to depose Hitler in a military coup in September 1938. Unfortunately, the Munich peace diplomacy of Chamberlain and Daladier pulled the rug from under them. If the British and French were prepared to give Hitler what he wanted rather than confront him, why should German officers place their heads in the noose? MacDonogh seems convinced the plotters would otherwise have carried off their plan and, with hindsight, it must be regretted the moment was allowed to pass. But while Chamberlain was certainly too quick to dismiss the conspirators as ineffectual Jacobites, should he really have been expected to abandon Britain’s entrenched appeasement policy on a hunch that some discontented German officers with little evidence of popular and sustainable backing could deliver on their promises?
Another conservative force the Nazis crushed in 1938 was the Austrian Church. Religious instruction was removed from the school curriculum, the monasteries were looted and following Cardinal Innitzer’s pointed ‘Christ is our Führer’ sermon, the Archbishop’s palace was trashed. Hundreds of priests were sent to Dachau. Christmas ceased to be a holiday and carol singing was banned. The Reich was not in the business of celebrating the birth of a Jew.
Instead, the anti-Semitic paper, Der Stürmer, ran a cartoon of Father Christmas carrying a sackful of Jews that no one wanted in their stockings. The dark humour contained more than an element of truth. The lucky few made their escape through the efforts of the Quakers, the Kindertransporte and the consciously not very rigorous and hasty baptisms organised through the Church of England Committee for Non-Aryan Christians. Other Jews were ripped off by those for whom their desperation presented an opportunity for rich pickings. Most found their exit blocked. In reality, the rest of Europe did not want them in great numbers and the Zionist objective of a homeland in Palestine suddenly came up against Britain’s realisation that mass Jewish migration there could only result in the animosity and violent retaliation of the Arabs. Marooned, asset-stripped and deprived of their rights, Vienna’s 176,000 Jews were mostly left to their fate.
Giles MacDonogh has repeatedly shown himself to be in the front rank of British scholars of German history. The depth of his human understanding, the judiciousness of his pickings from source material and the quality of his writing make this a book at once gripping and grave.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 15, 2009