Catholic Heroism in the Face of Nazi Domination

A Review of When Hitler Took Austria, by Kurt von Schuschnigg. Ignatius Press, 2012

When I took up this book for my reading pleasure and to add to my store of historical knowledge, I expected it to be something a bit different. I was somewhat disappointed in it at the beginning, but as the story of the von Schuschnigg family unfolded, it became more interesting and exciting.

Although the subtitle claims it to be “a Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son,” it is more the story of the son than the father. As such, it is an autobiography of young Kurt von Schuschnigg during the period between the world wars, during World War II and the Nazi occupation of Austria, and the fate of the von Schuschnigg family during those years.

It is well-known that Hitler wanted to dominate all of Europe, but had his eye on Austria as a first victim because he wanted all the “German peoples” to be united under the Third Reich. After her defeat in World War I and the loss of the Empire, Austria, having been greatly reduced in land area, struggled for its very existence. Although a clear majority of Austrians wished to remain independent of the Reich, there were enough noisy Nazis among the citizenry to make things uncomfortable for the government. The Nazi war machine was many times more powerful than the Austrian military, and worse, the Nazi philosophy appealed to the “German pride” of many Austrians who saw hope in their conquest – a hope that they had lost after the terrible defeat in the Great War.

Nazi assassins ended the life of the beloved Chancellor Engelbert Dolfuss in 1934. His successor, the elder Kurt von Schuschnigg, labored heroically to keep the Austrian government from being dominated by Nazi sympathizers and Communists and to keep the economy from collapsing. He spent four years — 1934-1938 — struggling mightily to keep his country independent. He was rebuffed by the major powers of Europe — England, France and Italy — all of whom declared that they would remain neutral in the face of growing German strength. On March 12, 1938, the German Eighth Army crossed the border into Austria. The country was now in the hands of the Nazis as part of its policy of Lebensraum — gaining more land and the raw materials thereof.

The heroic Chancellor von Schuschnigg had the opportunity to escape the country into Hungary, but refused. He chose to remain behind and accept his fate at the hands of his country’s conquerors. Unfortunately for his young family — Kurti was only twelve years old at the time — they suffered along with him.

Growing up a child of wealth and privilege, young Kurti was somewhat spoiled during those pre-war years. He was an only child who was doted upon by his parents and their friends. As he matured the bond between Kurti and his mother grew stronger, especially since the Chancellor’s work took him away from home much of the time. Kurti’s experiences during the war years were very far from the circumstances of his early childhood, and the reader sometimes wants to pummel him for acting like a spoiled brat know-it-all. At other times, one has to cheer him on for his heroics.

To give you an example of the sufferings the Schuschnigg family endured during the lead-up to war in Europe: After being bounced around Vienna for some time, they were sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp to live in a dirt floor cottage. Their food was meager, and, during the Austrian winters, it was freezing. The Chancellor was kept as a prisoner in this hovel, while, in fact, only Kurt’s stepmother and little sister were allowed to leave camp for getting necessities in the town. The worst part of Sachsenhausen, however, was outside the windows and over a wall: here Jews and other “undesirables” were kept in miserable conditions and treated inhumanly. Young Kurt witnessed the murder of an old Jewish man when he looked out the window at the wrong time. A far cry from the luxurious conditions he knew as a child as part of the Austrian Catholic aristocracy!

Kurti’s adventures as a sailor in the Nazi Navy are exciting and at times amusing. Most Austrians who were conscripted into some part of the German military machine were not there willingly. The relation of his eventual escape into Switzerland is heart-pounding.

If you are interested in a small part of the enormous experience that was World War II, the story of the von Schuschnigg family is an interesting and edifying read. Today, the author and his American wife divide their time between New York City and Austria.