In the strictest of terms, Austria did not technically exist during the Second World War. The country, not unlike Germany, was beset by militia warfare throughout the 1930s, and even had its own civil war in 1934.
The vexing idea as to whether Austria should join forces with Germany to form a “Greater Germany” had been mooted for decades and a referendum was to be held late in 1938.
Instead of a referendum, however, Austrian-born Adolf Hitler annexed the country early in the year, driving through the capital Vienna as a conquering, prodigal son showered with flowers and salutes by an adoring crowd.
Soon 800,000 Austrians were drafted into the army (the German Wehrmacht) and another 150,000 served in the Waffen SS, the elite Nazi military unit.
The number of Jewish Austrians murdered is estimated at between 65-75,000, 62,000 of whom have been identified and named. Thirty thousand Austrians were also euthanised and an estimated 10,000 Roma murdered. Of a population of six-and-a-half million, 700,000 Austrians were members of the Nazi Party.
In the 1943 Moscow Declarations, the British, Soviets and Americans declared the annexation (Anschluss) of Austria was null and void, and that the country was the first victim of “Hitlerite aggression”. This would serve to encourage beleaguered Austrians under attack from partisan forces to rise up and realise their future as safe, separate and secure from Nazi Germany.
And from 1943 onwards Italian and Yugoslav partisans as well as Allied bombers began to make regular forays into previously untouched Austrian territories.
Austrian communists were well versed in underground activities. Their country’s annexation led to an intensification of their activities.
A short-lived civil war in 1934 between fascists and the “left” saw the Communist Party enjoy an increasing popularity at the expense of the Social Democrats, in opposition to a “corporatist” state.
There was also considerable pressure and displeasure from the Catholic Church and Austrian conservatives.
Others who wanted to take up arms, or feared for their lives, made their way to Yugoslavia or, under the remit of Tito’s forces, to elsewhere on the continent.
Resistance in Austria was difficult and potentially deadly, but it did happen.
Austrian coalminers and rail workers, loyal to the Communist Party, were responsible for a number of acts of sabotage, both industrial and through bombings.
Throughout 1941 coal miners and rail workers carried out a number of bomb attacks on railway lines. The leadership was rounded up and executed.
Minority Carinthian Slovenes, persecuted by the Nazis, formed a formidable armed response with many joining either Yugoslav partisans or undertaking to work for the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in London with the Czechoslovakian army.
A conscientious objector and devout Roman Catholic, the Nazis set out to make an example of Jägerstätter by executing him in Berlin in August 1943. Jägerstätter’s decision to be killed by Nazis had a dramatic effect on the outside world. A film about his life, A Hidden Life, was made by Terence Malik in 2019.
Born into a poor family in 1902, Pesendorfer is named as one of the 50 most formidable women to challenge the Nazis during WWII. In 1937 she organised a series of groups around the Salzkammergut mountains that would seek to form the
A machine fitter from Strobl, Karl Gitzoller was one of the founders of the Willy-Fred resistance fighters, also known as the Salzkammergut Group. In October 1943 Gitzoller was shot while trying to free resistance fighters from an internment camp.