When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son (Ignatius Press, 2012; also available in Electronic Book Format), by Kurt and Janet von Schuschnigg, is the incredible story of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg and his family during and following the invasion and overthrow of Austria by the Nazis. Kurt von Schuschnigg’s memoir is a deeply personal account of resistance, escape, and survival; it is also a story of faith, hope, and perseverance in the face of tyranny, persecution, and the nearly constant possibility of death.
Catholic World Report recently interviewed Kurt von Schuschnigg about the book, co-authored with his wife, Janet.
CWR: In addition to telling your account of the harrowing decades of the 1930s and beyond, When Hitler Took Austria also seeks to set the record straight on some counts. What are some of the misunderstandings or misrepresentations the book addresses? Do some of them have to do with your father and his time as Chancellor of Austria?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: The first glaring misrepresentation stems from a bill before parliament on March 3, 1933, that the Socialists wanted very much to pass. They were one vote short. There are three presidents in parliament. The first cannot vote; the other two can. The first president was Karl Renner, head of the Socialist Party. On the advice of Otto Bauer – chief spokesman for the Socialist party – Karl Renner resigned, thus allowing Renner to cast a vote. Renner’s office passed to the second president, a Christian Social of the party of Dollfuss and Kurt von Schuschnigg. Rudolf Ramek knew that Renner’s purpose was to deny Ramek his vote, therefore gaining two votes for the Socialists. Ramek resigned. The third president from the small Pan German party wasn’t going to be left holding the ball. He resigned as well. Thus, parliament had dissolved itself. It is Dollfuss who is falsely blamed in many history books for this dissolution.
Dollfuss could have called for new elections or recalled parliament. Instead, using the Emergency Empowering Law of 1917, he called for a new constitution – namely the corporate state. This was a form of government that Pope Pius XI had endorsed in his encyclical of 1931. It was representation by professions and trade unions instead of political parties. Both Dollfuss and Kurt von Schuschnigg were fully aware of Adolf Hitler, who had been active since the early 1920s. They had also read “Mein Kampf,” which clearly stated Hitler’s intentions towards Austria. Dollfuss could not have expelled the Nazi party alone. That would have been an invitation for Hitler.
Furthermore, for years the intransigence of the Socialist Party – whose credos were ‘the overthrow of the bourgeoisie government by any means’ and ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ – had caused a virtual stalemate in parliament. The benefits to Austria without the danger of the Nazis and the obstructions of the Socialists were obvious. One of Otto Bauer’s responses to this was the coinage of the phrase ‘Austro Faschismus,’ a theme to which the Socialists dedicated themselves to perpetuate – along with the equally slanderous description of Engelbert Dollfuss as a ‘dictator.’
CWR: Your book opens with a quote from Mein Kampf, in which Adolf Hitler expressed his “longing” for Austria to “return to the great German mother country.” How did that “return” come about? And how was Hitler and the Nazis perceived and received by the Austrians?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: That ‘return’ was helped by a massive influx of propaganda by Nazi minister Josef Goebbels. By the end of 1934, Germany had spent more than 5 million reichmarks on Austrian propaganda. There were endless streams of radio transmissions; leaflets dropped from airplanes; and unending newspaper articles through which Germany painted Austria as weak and poor, and compared it to the prosperity and power of the Third Reich. Like a drop of water on a piece of marble, eventually it will cause a break in the surface.
The invasion of Germany on March 12, 1938, was an enormous curiosity for many Austrians. The Nazis among them were jubilant. Kurt von Schuschnigg had refused to send Austrian soldiers to certain death. The Austrian Army was massively outnumbered and had only several days worth of ammunition.
CWR: As someone who witnessed firsthand the work and destruction of the Nazis, how would you explain the appeal and hold of Hitler’s philosophy and personality?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: The Socialists had already prepared the groundwork by damning the Catholic Church for trying to impose church doctrine, thus restricting their freedom. Hitler wanted to replace religion with German mythology. The aims of the Third Reich were to portray Germany as origin of the Arian race, and the propagation of that master race and of strength through happiness. Hitler’s rhetoric mesmerized his audiences. The unending displays created through pomp, pageantry and theatrics were unfailingly impressive.
CWR: You describe a brief but memorable encounter, as it were, with Hitler, when you were a teenager. How did that take place and what do you recall of the moment?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: I was riding my bicycle to visit my friend, who lived across from Hitler’s Munich residence. Not too many blocks before reaching my destination I became aware of a column of vehicles. It began passing me. I looked over at the exact moment Hitler’s open landau was next to me. I suppose my jaw dropped for I was certainly amazed. He stared straight at me and taking my astonishment for admiration he gave me the Nazi salute. A dozen thoughts raced through my mind. But most prevalent were that his freckled neck squished over his collar, and his moustache looked absolutely ridiculous.
CWR: The importance of your faith as a Catholic is evident throughout the book. How did faith sustain you and your family during the war? And who were some Catholics from your youth who helped you along the way?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: I grew up with a family who believed in the power of prayer. My father was an exceptionally strong Catholic. Without his faith to sustain him, he would have never survived after 1938. After father’s arrest, Pope Pius XI sent him a papal autograph in which he named Father, my step-mother and me. The pope wrote at the bottom of the document that, “If at the hour of your death you are unable to pronounce the name of Jesus your sins are forgiven.” I held that thought tightly throughout those war years. I will always remember one of the acts of valor by Bishop (later Cardinal) Preysing. He sent word that I should visit him in Berlin, which was not a great distance from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. When I did so, he entrusted me with delivering Holy Communion to Father. Bishop Preysing was a fearless leader of the church. But such things were not to be tolerated by the Third Reich. I still thank God that we were not caught.
CWR: What are some lessons, or observations, about freedom and faith that can be drawn from your experiences as a young man?
Kurt von Schuschnigg: My father always said there was freedom, and there was the freedom of fools. The former is precious, something to be guarded. The latter is what can happen with the misuse of freedom. I do not believe that today’s use of the First Amendment was ever envisioned by our forefathers – nor was the expulsion of God from classrooms, courthouses and endless other locations in our lives. And I am concerned for the children of today. If a child does not grow up in a family who worships God how is he or she ever to acquire faith? Today’s media – TV, movies and print – expose every aspect of human nature. The boundaries of decency have disappeared. How can we preserve our children’s childhoods?
(For more about the book, including a video trailer and ordering information, visit www.ignatius.com.)
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