1920-1939 | Appeasing Hitler | Backing dictatorships

Archbishop of Canterbury backs Hitler’s takeover of Austria

Cosmo Gordon Lang c. 1932 (Philip de Laszlo via Wikimedia) and Jews scrubbing the pavement in Vienna (via Wikimedia.)

[ 29 March 1938 ]

Speaking in the House of Lords on 29 March 1938, Archbishop of Canterbury Cosmo Gordon Lang, not wishing to appear too pro-Nazi, began his defence of Hitler’s recent seizure of Austria, cautiously. He reasoned that it had been ‘inevitable,’ and that Prime Minister Chamberlain, by not taking retaliatory action, had chosen ‘the wisest course this country might follow in the interests of not only itself only, but of peace in general.’ However, this was not a case of being forced to choose a lesser of two evils and he proceeded to explain his unequivocal backing of the Nazi takeover, declaring that ‘the division (of the two countries), had it continued might have been a sore spreading infection. The union might bring some measure of stability to Europe. It had the support of the majority of the Austrian population.’ As evidence he cited a letter from an ’eminent non-political artist,’ who had insisted that he and other Austrians were ‘happy and proud to part of the German Reich’ and that the arrival of Hitler’s storm troopers was ‘a sudden salvation which seemed like a dream.’1

Tens of thousands of German troops backed by tanks and followed by units of Himmler’s notorious SS security forces and the Gestapo political police had poured across the border on 12 March 1938, only hours after the Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg had agreed to Hitler’s demands to cancel a plebiscite on whether the population favoured a union with Germany. Neighbouring countries immediately closed their borders to refugees and for left wing politicians, labour activists and Vienna’s Jewish community, the nightmare of Nazi occupation began. As historian Tim Bouverie notes, ‘political opponents were arrested, tortured and even murdered but it was Austria’s 200,000 Jews, most of whom lived in Vienna, who bore the brunt. Forced out of their homes and shops, their windows smashed and property looted, the Viennese Jews were dragged into the streets and made to scrub pro-Schuschnigg graffiti off the pavements, while laughing mobs hurled insults and blows.’2 Had any one of them even been inclined and able to write a letter to the pro-Nazi Archbishop, it is doubtful whether it would ever have passed the Nazi censors.

FOOTNOTES

  1. H.R.S. Phillpott, ‘Primate thinks Hitler was right,’ The Daily Herald, 30 March 1938, p. 4. and ‘Her Hitler Praised by Peer,’ The Western Morning News and Daily Gazette, 30 March 1938, p. 7.
  2. Tim Bouverie, Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War, Penguin, London, p. 188.

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