07/10/2012 07:07 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2012

Coming To Terms With Austria's Nazi Past

Today I stood on Vienna's Heroes Square, where, in 1938, more than 200,000 happy Austrians welcomed Adolf Hitler. The Nazi dictator stood on the palace balcony and stated, "In front of German history, I declare my former homeland now a part of the Third Reich. One of the pearls of the Third Reich will be Vienna." From that day on, Austrians were forbidden to say the word "Austria."

In 1938, Vienna gave Hitler a rousing welcome.

Americans often wonder how Austria could so eagerly embrace Hitler and the Anschluss, the notion that Austria was meant to be unified with Germany. Let me hazard an explanation: One of the mightiest empires on Earth started -- then lost -- World War I and, in so doing, went from being a grand empire of 55 million people to a relatively insignificant landlocked state of six million. The capital, Vienna, was left with little to rule, and its population comprised a third of the country's. As the economic crisis we know as the Great Depression swept the Nazis to power in Germany, Austria also got a fascist government complete with a dictator named Engelbert Dollfuss. He was as right-wing and anti-Semitic as the tyrant ruling Germany, but he was pro-Roman Catholic Church, pro-Habsburg and anti-Nazi. When an Austrian Nazi assassinated Dollfuss in 1934, it was easy for the German Nazis to take over four years later. By that point, the Austrian fascists had already put down the leftists.

The German Nazis simply took over their Austrian counterparts' file cabinets. Then Hitler promised greatness -- and jobs -- something that has driven voters to support crazy political notions to this day.

This final wing of the Habsburgs' palace, the Hofburg, was built -- with imperial grandeur in mind -- just a few years before World War I and the end of the Habsburg dynasty. Twenty years after the last Habsburg stood here, Hitler spoke from its balcony.

Today, after so much megalomania crashed and burned, the theme of the Habsburg military museum is "war is something for museums." This architectural last hurrah of the Habsburgs -- which hosts three museums -- is now filled with armor, Greek statues, and musical instruments.