Hannes Richter

Rebuilding a Nation

Hannes Richter
Rebuilding a Nation

Top Photo: www.bundesheer.at


The End of World War II in Austria

By Günter Bischof

For the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, a number of substantive books appeared on the collapse of the Hitler regime and the Third Reich, among them Ian Kershaw’s signature study The End. All of these books touched upon the end of the war in Austria only marginally, as a sideshow of the demise of the criminal Nazi regime.

Yet, as the war ended, most of Austria, parts of Bavaria and Bohemia was all that was left of the once mighty Third Reich that had controlled much of Europe only a few years before. From April to July 2015, an exhibit was dedicated to the end of the war in Austria: 41 Tage: Kriegende 1945. Verdichtung der Gewalt (41 days: End of the war in 1945. Intensification of violence) was on display in and around the Outer Castle Gate of the Hofburg in Vienna. The exhibit showed portraits of prominent Austrians and displayed some of the most grisly “end of the war crimes.”

It took the Allied armies 41 days to liberate the Danube- and Alpine Gaue – the name of the territory of Austria during the Third Reich, annexed by the Nazis in March 1938 until the end of World War II. The Red Army crossed the Hungarian border into Burgenland on March 30, 1945. The surrender of the Nazi regime and the end of World War II in Europe came on May 8. During these 41 days, probably more death and atrocities occurred on Austrian territory than during the previous 6 years of the war. From their bases in England and North Africa (later Southern Italy), the American 8th and 15th Army Air Forces had pounded Nazi occupied Austria from the air since the fall of 1943. Most major Austrian cities had been ruined and many factories destroyed. In early 1945, civilian populations were increasingly targeted.

The population on the ground retaliated by “lynching” some 100 American airmen that had bailed out of their planes being shot down, as a recent study by Georg Hoffman has shown. It took the Red Army, moving into Austria from the east (Hungary) and the north (Bohemia-Moravia), two weeks to liberate much of Eastern Austria, parts of Styria and Vienna which cost them tens of thousands of casualties. Nazi Wehrmacht and SS troops were fighting hard against the Soviets to the end and retreated from Vienna causing considerable damage to the city (and setting fire to the roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral).

Western Austria was liberated by the American Army moving into the Tyrol, Salzburg and Upper Austria from the north, the French Army liberating Vorarlberg, and the British Army moving into Southern Styria and Carinthia. Based on American intelligence picked up from sources inside the Third Reich, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, was afraid that Hitler would make his last stance in an Austrian-Bavarian Alpenfestung (Alpine Fortress) and prolong the fighting for another year. Eisenhower therefore turned his armies conquering Germany southward to preempt such a “last stand” by Nazi fanatics.

The Third Division in General Patch’s 7th Army liberated the city of Salzburg without much of a fight as the Nazi defenders retreated on May 4 without additional destruction of the city. At the same time, American and French units chased towards the liberation of Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest in Berchtesgaden – prestige prize for the conquerors. Units of the fabled American 101st Airborne Division liberated rural parts of Salzburg, including the city of Zell am See (American historian Stephen E. Ambrose has immortalized these events in his famous book Band of Brothers, later made into a Hollywood blockbuster TV series).

General Patton’s Third Army liberated Linz, the euthanasia center of Castle Hartheim, and the Concentration Camp of Mauthausen, encountering the full extent of Nazi atrocities committed on Austrian territory. Next to the regular fighting among mighty armies, the end of the war in Austria was a sort of a Walpurgisnacht of violence of retreating Nazis who had a hard time accepting defeat. The Nazi regime had ordered some 70,000 Hungarian Jews to the Third Reich’s border with Hungary to build a last-ditch defensive system (Südostwall) against the approaching Red Army.

The Austrian scholar Walter Manoschek has detailed the cold blooded murder of Jews in this operation in a recent documentary film and book. When the Red Army came, thousands of Hungarian Jews perished as they were directed back to Mauthausen on “death marches,” during which regular civilian bystanders murdered Jews too. Meanwhile, a train load full of valuables (gold, jewelry, silverware, precious stones, money) of Hungarian Jews who had been robbed by fellow Hungarian Nazis, made its way through Austria in the final days of the war until it got stuck in the Tyrol.

Another train load of valuables made its final stop in Salzburg. All these precious things ended up in the dark channels of the black market and were even “liberated” as “war trophies” by American soldiers and never returned to the rightful owners. In the final days of the war, the “monuments men” – a special team of art historians in the U.S. Army – secured huge treasure troves of art works stolen by the Nazis all over Europe. In a salt mine in Altaussee in the Austrian Alps, the monuments men discovered thousands of pictures and drawings designated for Hitler’s Führermuseum in Linz, among them Jan Van Eyck’s priceless Ghent Altarpieces.

The story of the monuments men has recently been popularized in a Hollywood movie directed by and starring George Clooney. It stands to reason that much of the artistic heritage of the Western world was thus saved by a few American GIs. When American GIs liberated the Mauthausen concentration camp and its many subcamps (such as Ebensee) in early May, they first encountered the enormous depravity of the Nazi regime.

Thousands of inmates, barely alive, welcomed them and could not believe their good luck of seeing American soldiers, who brought food. For many of the inmates though, the Americans had come too late; all that was left were piles of bodies. Meanwhile, General Patton sent a war crimes investigation team to Castle Hartheim under the leadership of Captain Charles Dameron from Port Allen, Louisiana. In May/June 1945, Dameron’s team interviewed local people and uncovered the full extent of Nazi euthanasia crimes, including the infamous “Hartheim Statistics:” The Nazis had studiously documented the murder of some 70,000 handicapped and disabled Germans (among them 18,000 Austrians in Hartheim) in the four major T-4 euthanasia centers in the Third Reich.

Right after the end of the war, a major tragedy unfolded in Eastern Tyrol and Carinthia. Thousands of Cossack troops who had fought as allies of the Wehrmacht, along with their families in tow, surrendered to the British forces. Based on wartime agreements with Stalin, the British felt obliged to hand them over to the Red Army. During the handover, many Cossacks chose suicide by jumping into rivers swollen by snow waters. The rest marched into certain death.

 U.S. Army Tanks in Salzburg after the City’s peaceful surrender Photo: www.bundesheer.at

Social and economic chaos prevailed for months after the war ended. Austrians were hungry and exhausted and needed to rebuild their houses, factories and farms, transport systems and infrastructure. 1.5 million refugees (“displaced persons”) had poured into Austria from Eastern and Southern Europe and needed to be clothed, housed and fed. Hundreds of thousands of Wehrmacht soldiers and SS troopers had poured into Austria from the fighting fronts and wanted to return to regular life. Tens of thousands of Nazi prisoners of war and slave laborers needed to be returned home. Were it not for public and private American and United Nations (UNRRA) aid programs, this mass of humanity could not have been provisioned to survive. The political situation was equally chaotic.

Even before the fighting stopped in Austria, the Soviets set up the Provisional Renner Government in Vienna on April 27. The Anglo-American powers considered this government, unilaterally established by Moscow, as a “Soviet puppet” and did not recognize it; one third of the cabinet ministers were Communists. It would take another half year before the Western powers recognized the Renner Government and agreed to hold free elections in the late fall. The November 25 elections then brought a conservative-Socialist coalition government under Chancellor Leopold Figl into power, as the Communists were marginalized at 5% of the vote much to the surprise of the Soviet occupiers.

Austria, reestablished by the four powers that liberated the country and occupied it for ten years after the end of the war, now had a voice again in the international arena. Yet, under the first occupation agreement, Austria was under the total tutelage of the occupation powers. Their most visible symbol of controlling Austria was the “Four in the Jeep” – soldiers of the four occupation powers policing the central first district of Vienna together in a jeep. In June 1946, a Second Control Agreement was passed by the Allies that eased the control powers tutelage of the country.

Now the four powers could only stop constitutional laws of the Austrian parliament if they unanimously vetoed such laws. With the growing tensions in the Cold War, such unanimous vetoes became unlikely. The Austrian government thus gained more control over its own affairs. Meanwhile, the four occupation powers (Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, and France) settled into their respective zones and began their reconstruction efforts, including punishing the former Nazis they captured. “Denazification” of some 537,000 Austrian Nazi party members was a major endeavor. The worst offenders were incarcerated in Allied holding camps; some were put on trial in the so-called Austrian Volksgerichte (People’s Courts), who issued 42 death sentences against Nazi war criminals.

When the Cold War came to influence Austrian affairs more seriously by 1948, the Allies stopped their denazification efforts. It became more important to stop the “red menace” in Austria than clean out the “brown detritus.” Early in 1946, the Allies began to work on plans for an Austrian peace treaty (eventually called “State Treaty”). Such a treaty was discussed seriously for the first time during the Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Moscow in March/April 1947.

Hundreds of diplomatic meetings of the Foreign Ministers and their Special Deputies for an Austrian Treaty would follow over the next 8 years. Subject to the “tempo and temperature” of the Cold War (Foreign Minister Karl Gruber), progress on the Austrian Treaty was caught up in superpower tensions. Only when Khrushchev came to power at the Kremlin did he order movement on the Austrian Treaty in the spring of 1955.

A visit of a high-level Austrian delegation led by Chancellor Julius Raab to Moscow in April 1955 brought about the major breakthrough, with the Soviets accepting an economic buy-out of the so-called “German assets” by the Austrian government and Austrian neutrality. On May 15, 1955, the four powers’ foreign ministers along with new Austrian Foreign Minister Figl signed the Austrian State Treaty in Vienna’s Castle Belvedere.

Austria was “free” again after four years of homemade dictatorship (during the austrofascist Ständestaat, 1934-1938), seven years of Nazi dictatorship (1938-1945), and ten years of four-power Allied occupation (1945-1955). When the last occupation soldiers had left the country, the Austrian parliament passed a constitutional law on October 26, 1955, proclaiming Austria’s “permanent neutrality” which survived throughout the Cold War and the post- Cold War era until today.

During a Third Division commemorative ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery followed by a historic seminar at the Austrian Embassy in May 2015, the Mayor of Salzburg Heinz Schaden personally thanked the five 3rd Division veterans present at the event for their contribution to liberating Salzburg.


Günter Bischof, PhD, a native of Austria, is the Marshall Plan Professor of History and Director of Center Austria: The Austrian Marshall Plan Center of European Studies at The University of New Orleans