In 1938, Austrian police officers faced difficult choices as they decided how to react to waves of Nazi violence and the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany.1 They had originally sworn oaths to serve an independent Austrian state, but in March 1938 they became part of Nazi Germany’s police forces. Although most Austrian police did not actively support the Nazi Party before the annexation, the vast majority of them quickly adjusted to the new political realities that they faced.
In the featured clip from the police propaganda film, “March 11, 1938: The Great National Turmoil in Austria,” Vienna police officers can be seen wearing swastika armbands and giving the Nazi salute during the German annexation (Anschluss) of Austria.2 Many members of Austrian police forces began displaying support for the new regime almost immediately. One witness account describes how Vienna police officers pulled swastika armbands out of the pockets of their uniforms and slipped them on. In one district of the city, members of the Vienna police received armbands from local Nazis. Although the early adoption of Nazi emblems was improvised, swastika armbands would soon become mandatory for all Austrian uniformed police.3
The film—likely created to show to police officers and new recruits—also shows members of the Vienna police turning in their police batons, which many Austrian Nazis viewed as symbols of the police enforcement of the Austrian ban on Nazi Party activity between 1933 and 1938.4 Austrian police forces used batons on crowds of rioting Nazis just before the annexation. Once the Nazi Party was in control of Austria, however, members of Nazi paramilitary groups used batons as they raided Jewish businesses and arrested prominent Jews.5
In the weeks after the Nazi takeover, Austrian police hesitated to intervene in a flood of violent crimes committed against Jews and political opponents of the Nazi Party by Nazi supporters and members of the SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel).6 Some police officers even participated in the violence themselves.
The featured film clip demonstrates how the lines of authority quickly shifted and blurred as Nazi Germany took control of Austria. Vienna police officers are shown adopting the emblems of the Nazi regime and turning in their police batons before the film’s focus shifts to heavily armed members of the SA and SS marching proudly through the streets. As Nazi authorities reorganized Austrian police forces and incorporated them into the Nazi state, Jews and others targeted by the Nazis could no longer count on the protection of the police.7