(1892 - 1946)
In the run-up to the Second World War, one of the defining moments that revealed Adolf Hitler's territorial ambitions was the Anschluss (Union) that saw Austria incorporated into the German Reich. At the time of the absorption of this ancient nation, the man technically in power was a politically radicalized lawyer named Arthur Seyss-Inquart (or Seyß-Inquart). Less than ten years later, the final Chancellor of Austria's First Republic would swing from a rope in a Bavarian prison. What happened in between his meteoric rise to power and his subsequent crash and burn?
Early Life and the Great War
Arthur Seyss-Inquart was born in 1892 with the decidedly non-German name Arthur Zajtich in what is now the Czech Republic (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The Zajtich family was apparently comfortably middle class, with his father earning a respectable living as a teacher. Eventually, the family moved to Vienna for better opportunities and they changed their name to the more German sounding Seyss- (which is a reasonable though abbreviated Germanic approximation of 'Zajtich') Inquart. In 1909, Arthur Seyss-Inquart began studying law in Vienna, something at which he evidently excelled.
Like many young Europeans of the time, Seyss-Inquart was whipped into a nationalistic fervor over the outbreak of the First World War. He joined the Austro-Hungarian army in 1914, right at the outset of the war, and was stationed in Italy and Russia, among other places. Like the man who would eventually become his boss, Seyss-Inquart received honors and awards for his brave conduct in battle and was injured several times. It was during one of his trips away from the front that Seyss-Inquart was finally able to get his law degree and after the war, he went out on his own set up a very successful law practice.
Austria after the War and Political Career
In most cases, the story would stop right there, with perhaps an addendum about his wife and children and the fact that he died at the rosy old age of 82 in his sleep after a long, fulfilling life. Such was not to be the case. It's unknown what his feelings were before the war, but certainly after the war, Seyss-Inquart demonstrated highly radical political beliefs. One can assume that much of this was due to the trauma of the Great War; until virtually the end of the war, the general populace of the Central Powers was unaware that the war was going badly for them. Government censorship of the press made sure that only the best news was reported (in all fairness, Germany and Austria-Hungary were hardly unique in this regard during World War I) so it came as an absolute shock when in November of 1918, the two dominant powers of Central Europe capitulated to the Allies. The union between Austria and Hungary was abolished and the Empire itself was dismantled, with new states such as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the forerunner of the former Yugoslavia) and Czechoslavia appearing on the map for the first time. Land was given to Romania, Italy, and other states. Even Poland was formally reincorporated as a state with territory captured from Austria, Russia, and Germany.
Despite all of this, however, Austria (the main successor state to the Austro-Hungarian Empire for diplomatic purposes) suffered far less than Germany did under the conditions of the various treaties signed at the end of the war. As everyone is aware, Germany was forced to admit sole responsibility for the war and to assume the entirety of the war idemnity as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles (which, incidentally, appeared on TIME Magazine's 100 Worst Ideas of the Twentieth Century). For people who haven't studied the First World War all that much, this seems natural. After all, it was Germany who started the war, right? Wrong. Although Germany could hardly be called a "disinterested observer" in the build-up to the war, it was actually Austria-Hungary that made the first declarations. Since Austria-Hungary was nonexistent after the war and neither Austria nor Hungary had any major assets to speak of that could help pay for it (and it was inconceivable that the recently "emancipated" Slavic nations be required to pay up), Germany was made to shoulder the costs owing to its large industrial framework and its ample supply of natural resources (specifically in the Ruhr area). For Germans of the nationalistic persuasion, this was just another piece of evidence that lent credence to the perception that they had been betrayed by bourgeois politicians at the bargaining table.
This is not to say that Austria got off scot-free. As we've already established, Austria was territorially but a former shadow of itself and its economy was in a shambles. The new Austrian government (called the First Republic) sought an economic union with Germany but the Allies categorically banned such a thing for a number of reasons, but specifically because they feared a consolidation of Teutonic power in Europe. Austria was therefore left to fend for itself, absolved of all responsibility but effectively prohibited from growth.
As I've discusssed elsewhere, the government that came into power in Germany after the end of the war was a semi-socialist coalition government known commonly as the Weimar Republic and right-wing militias roamed the street, sometimes helping the state and sometimes acting out their own agenda. Austria had a similar situation after the war, but they were not entirely equal. The First Republic was dominated by the center-right Christian Social Party and armed militias of several different political persuasions (the communist Schutzbund and the nationalist Heimwehr being the most prominent) came to blows with each other and with the police on several occasions.
Another misconception that some people have is that National Socialism was invented by Adolf Hitler. Actually, many of the positions that he laid out in Mein Kampf were directly lifted from the Austrian Deutsche Nationalsozialistische Arbeiterpartei (DNSAP, German National Socialist Workers Party) established directly after the War. Arthur Seyss-Inquart joined the DNSAP in 1931, partly because he increasingly came to believe that a union (Anschluss/Anschluß) with Germany was essential to the survival of Austria and this was a position supported vociferously by that party (and by the NSDAP, for that matter). In 1932, Engelbert Dolfuss (or Dolfuß, depending upon how big an asshole you are when it comes to proper German spelling) became the Chancellor of Austria, and he began a series of political moves that remain highly controversial in the German-speaking world to this very day.
Dolfuss was the leader of the Christian Social Party in parliament, but resistance from the Left was fairly heavy. In an effort to consolidate his power, he created a new party called the Vaterländische Front (Fatherland Front, VF) and formally incorporated the Heimwehr into it. In 1933 he invited Seyss-Inquart (a talented lawyer and quite devoted to the political right) to join his cabinet, which he did, making him the highest-ranking National Socialist in Austria (although it is worth pointing out that he was somewhat distant from the party at this point). That same year, Hitler came to power in Germany. Frightful of Hitler's influence on Austrian politics, he then banned the Austrian NSDAP (as well as all other parties that opposed the VF for good measure). Of course, the Austrian Nazis refused to take this lying down and took the only logical course of action: in 1934, they broke into Dolfuss's office and shot him several times. Upon his death, Dolfuss was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg who, later under pressure from Hitler, appointed Seyss-Inquart as his Minister of the Interior. In essence, this gave Seyss-Inquart (and by proxy the German NSDAP) control of the Austrian police force.
Needless to say, things didn't improve for Schuschnigg in the weeks to come. In 1938, Hitler, Hermann Goering, and Benito Mussolini all put immense pressure on the Austrian president, Wilhelm Miklas, and forced him to sack Schuschnigg or face a German invasion. Miklas relented and Schuschnigg resigned instead. Miklas then appointed Seyss-Inquart as Chancellor on March 11 and the very next day, German troops entered Austria to wild applause. The only casualty was a German soldier died of a heart attack from all the excitement.
Career in Germany and World War II
Now that Austria was a province of the Third Reich, it needed a new name. The former Österreich (Eastern Realm) had its name officially changed to Ostmark (an ancient name for the area dating back to the time of Charlemagne). Heinrich Himmler inducted Seyss-Inquart into the Schutzstaffel (SS) as was his custom to do for any devoted party member or wealthy financier even vaguely involved with the government. In 1939, Seyss-Inquart reprised his role from eight years earlier on a larger scale when Hitler made him a minister without portfolio in his cabinet. Essentially, this meant that Seyss-Inquart had no specific function whatsoever in the government but that he was being rewarded for his good work in signing away Austria to the Reich. After the war broke out and Poland was overrun with minimal effort, Seyss-Inquart was sent there to help put down the underground resistance (which he did quite brutally).
After his success in Poland, Seyss-Inquart was sent to the Netherlands (where he was referred to as "Zes-en-een-kwart" -- six and a quarter -- owing to the effects of a leg injury sustained in the First World War*) as Reichskommissar and he remained there until 1945. Nominally, the leader of the government in the Netherlands was the founder of the Dutch National Socialist Party, Anton Mussert. In reality, Arthur Seyss-Inquart was the real power behind the throne: in 1941, he ordered Mussert to form a state militia and had all political parties other than the National Socialist Party banned.
Interestingly, the NSDAP had some rather lofty aims for the Netherlands. Since the Dutch are a Germanic people, they were considered part of the Herrenvolk (Master Race). Hitler tasked Seyss-Inquart with "equalizing" Dutch society: in other words, closing the gaps in living conditions between rich and poor and integrating the hitherto separate Protestant and Catholic sectors of society. Mussert even put together a Freiwilligen (Volunteer) SS Division of Dutch soldiers to help the fight on the Eastern Front in 1941. Seyss-Inquart saw his duty as almost a divine calling:
Several times it has been held against me that I have let national socialism come to the fore in all phases in public life. As far as I am concerned that is no reproach, it is an historical mission, which I have to fulfill here. - May 1943
Of course, we all know the equalization policy completely tanked and Seyss-Inquart began treating the Netherlands like a colony for exploitation. At Berlin's behest, he levied exorbitant taxes and executed any striking industrial workers who got in the way.
In 1945, the Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop was fired for a combination of gross incompetence and suspicion that he had been somehow involved in the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. On April 29, 1945, Hitler named Seyss-Inquart as von Ribbentrop's successor in his will, entitled "My Political Testament." When Hitler committed suicide the next day, Seyss-Inquart returned to Germany to advise Karl Dönitz, the President of the Reich, in Foreign Affairs. It isn't recorded how exactly their only meeting went, but I think this serves as a good approximation:
DÖNITZ: Thank you for coming, Dr. Seyss-Inquart. Well, what are we going to do?
SEYSS-INQUART: We are going to die.
Seyss-Inquart advocated a surrender to General Dwight Eisenhower but not to the Soviets, which was the exact thing that earned Himmler a formal expulsion from the party, the government, and from Hitler's will. Not that it mattered much: on May 8, Seyss-Inquart was apprehended by Canadian troops trying to flee Hamburg. He was tried at Nuremberg for all four charges and, surprise, found guilty and sentenced to death. Before his sentence was carried out in October of 1946 (he was the last defendant executed), his final earthly words were:
I hope that this execution is the last act of tragedy of the Second World War and that the lesson taken from this world war will be that peace and understanding should exist between peoples. I believe in Germany.
* - Thanks to Professor Pi for imparting this knowledge.
McCombs, Don and Worth, Fred. "World War II."
Gilbert, Martin. "The First World War."