March 12 is a significant day in the history of Austria. A day that is not at all related to joyful events. It all started 100 years ago on March 12, 1919, when the Constituent Assembly re-confirmed an earlier made declaration, making the Republic of German-Austria part of the German Republic. Within the nations, there were mixed feelings about this agreement. While the Social Democrats and the Pan-Germans supported the union with Germany, the Christian Socialists were less supportive.
Austria, as you know of it today, consists of nine federal provinces: Vienna (the capital), Burgenland (border to Hungary), Lower and Upper Austria, Salzburg (where Mozart was born), Carinthia, Styria, Tyrol, and Vorarlberg. For the last province March 12, 1919, is of high significance, as things could have been very different. Just the day before on March 11, 1919, a referendum took place whether or not Vorarlberg should be part of Switzerland instead of Austria. From a geographical perspective, this would have made more sense as Vorarlberg shares a mountain border with Tyrol but does not with Switzerland. Also, 80% of the inhabitants of the province voted with a ‘yes’ on the referendum to join neutral Switzerland. However, on September 10, 1919, the peace treaty of St. Germain stated that Vorarlberg will remain part of Austria.
Today more than 80 years ago German troops entered Austria as Adolf Hitler decided to announce an Anschluss between the Third Reich and the German-speaking nation. Although the Treaty of Versailles had stated explicitly that the union of both nations is strictly forbidden, this has always been a dream of the Austrian Social Democrats since 1919. Not only for them but also Hitler, as a native-born Austrian, wanted the two countries unified.
In the province of Vorarlberg, even before the Anschluss took place people started greeting each other with the Nazi salute and on March 6 the Swastika was placed at a Ski race. Herta Grabher, a citizen of the municipality Lustenau, born in 1920 talks about the excitement people felt when the Anschluss started in 1938.
[transl.] You could see them on their bikes, wearing armbands with the Swastika on it, singing songs and making loads of noise. Everybody seemed to join, whereas we just told them that this is very bold as Hitler songs were forbidden at the time. They replied to us saying that we were not up to date. And we were not, it was actually on the radio that day. We went home,
andI found my dad sitting in the corner crying saying it’s over. We went to the church and people were celebrating, wearing uniforms and shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ and we knew everyone who was there asking them if they are not ashamed and all they said was ‘just watch what you are saying’
Another eye witness Josef Grabher, born in 1922, talks about the Anschluss.
[transl.] On March 11, it was Friday evening, there was a march, a forbidden march lead by the Nazis. They went to the church square and made an announcement. Policemen Schneider told me, he tried to forbid the march with his rifle over his shoulder standing in the middle of the square and from all directions Nazis kept walking towards him singing and shouting proverbs such as: hit them, hit them, hit them on the face. I was still in school back then, we were on a trip when I heard them coming from everywhere. I just thought now it’s starting, it’s time to go home. I said “Heil Hitler” to my teacher and joined the march. It was a great feeling back then, I realized that I can go wherever I wanted. And I did, for example, I went to Munich, which was my first destination.
What felt great for some people at the beginning quickly turned into fear and despair shortly after World War ll. started. Things we nowadays take for granted were different back then.
Mathilde Gasser, born in 1925, not only lost friends and family but also never knew what it was like to be a teenage girl.
[transl.] .. and they just never came back, I sometimes look at the war book I own and think ‘just look at all those young boys who died in the war and I knew so many of them. Being in contact with them and none of them ever came back’… it was a terrible time. I always say they took away our youth. I was 14 when the war started and 20 when it was over. Those years are supposed to be the best. When it was over suddenly you could find sweets and chocolate again, we couldn’t believe our eyes. During the war there was no such thing like sweets or chocolate .. nothing.. the only thing we had was on Christmas day when we got a handful of cane sugar. That was it. I remember my friend managed to get a job in Switzerland shortly after the war, and one evening she came to see me and said, ‘Look I brought you something.’ And it was a Swiss chocolate bar. I couldn’t believe what I saw, I said ‘Where did you get that from?’ and she said, ‘It seemed like in Switzerland they never run out of it.’ I think I never enjoyed anything so much.
Lustenau is located right at the border to Switzerland, only a river is dividing the two nations. Where nowadays the old river is a popular and frequently used destination for swimming, biking, skating or taking a walk. The only thing reminding people that this was not always a joyful place is a small gate in the middle of the river placed on an old pipe. Back in the 1940s if you had crossed this gate you would have immediately been shot. People tried to escape through the river or the gate in despair to get to the other side of it where they would be safe. In 2019 nothing is easier as taking one step and you are leaving Austria and entering Switzerland. The people born after the war might never understand what a difference one step might make, yet some people still have to live with the loss they suffered when it all began- with one simple vote- a hundred years ago.