April 13th In German History: The Fall of Vienna

Vienna Offensive - Wikipedia

When one thinks about final battles of the Second World War, one generally thinks of the Battle of Berlin. That battle saw the death of Adolf Hitler and the end of the German Army being anything approaching an effective fighting force. The fall of the Nazi capitol was one of the most horrific battles of the war, and would finally end any faith the German people had in the Third Reich. One generally does not think of the fall of Vienna. On April 13th, 1945, just three days before the Battle of Berlin started, Vienna, the capitol of German-controlled Austria, fell to Soviet forces.

Vienna, along with the rest of Austria, had been annexed into the German Reich by the Anschluss in 1938. This peaceful annexation occurred against the wishes of the Austrofascist Austrian government but was supported by the prominent Austrian Nazi Party. After the country had been occupied by German troops, a referendum, which the Germans oversaw, was held and approved the Anschluss by a wide margin. Austria was integrated into Germany and its ethnically German people experienced similar treatment to that experienced by citizens of the rest of Germany. Austria provided some industry and agriculture to the Reich, but its main economic benefit was in the form of the nation’s gold reserves, which helped stave off economic collapse that would have resulted from the massive debts the nation incurred in its rearmament had war not broken out. The annexation of Austria also helped fulfill Hitler’s political promise of uniting the German people and pushed Italy towards an alliance with Germany, as Italy had previously attempted to limit German expansion and had funded the Austrian Fascist Party. That party was persecuted by the Germans after the annexation, as it advocated for Austrian nationalism rather than a pan German state, and many of its leaders were imprisoned.

Obviously, Austria did not see any fighting, apart from allied bombing raids, until late in the war. However, once the Soviets had pushed through Poland and Czechoslovakia it would become a battleground between the advancing Russian hordes and what little remained of the Wehrmacht. On April 2nd the Soviet 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts initiated the Vienna Offensive with the objective of capturing the city and destroying the German forces inside it. The Soviet forces quickly surrounded and laid siege to the city, subjecting its defenders from the II SS Panzer Corps of the 6th SS Panzer Army to bombardment via artillery and aircraft. The Soviet forces soon entered the city and began to push the defenders back in house to house fighting. The Germans held onto the outer suburbs until the 9th of April, but the Soviets were able to capture the city’s main railway station and on the 13th of April secured the Reichsbrucke bridge using troops landed by the Russian Danube Flotilla. In total, all but two of the bridges over the Danube were destroyed by the defenders, and a sizable portion of the German defenders were able to escape the city on the 13th of April. On the same day, the last defenders in the center of the city surrendered and Vienna fell.

Following the battle, Soviet forces advanced further into Austria, German forces being too depleted to do anything but temporarily slow their advance. The city itself lay in ruins as bombardment and street fighting had taken a toll on the buildings, especially in the old city. There were shortages of food and an absence of running water and electricity. The occupying Soviet soldiers also inflicted a great deal of suffering on the civilian population. However, a provisional government was set up by Austrian Socialist Karl Renner and he declared Austria’s succession from the German Reich. This, while not as symbolically important as the Fall of Berlin or the death of Hitler, should not be overlooked. Austria becoming an independent nation destroyed Hitler’s hopes for a united German people under his rule, and de facto ended the Greater German Reich that was a key promise of Nazism. Thus, the Fall of Vienna and the subsequent independence of Austria showed the world and the German people that Nazism had not only failed militarily, but had also failed to secure the loyalty of even ethnic Germans and so showed its inability to create a unified German nation state.

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