BOOK REVIEW A News Weekly
unique historical record
, November 24, 2012
WHEN HITLER TOOK AUSTRIA:
A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son
by Kurt and Janet von Schuschnigg
(San Francisco: Ignatius Press)
Hardcover: 339 pages
Reviewed by Michael E. Daniel
When Hitler Took Austria is the autobiographical memoir of the son of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. As a child and young man, Kurt the younger (who bore the same name as his father), both witnessed and participated in some of the seminal events in Austria’s history in the 1930s and 1940s. The work, which includes 24 photos, was co-authored by his wife, American-born Janet, who only gradually came to learn of her husband’s extraordinary story.
Kurt von Schuschnigg the elder, who became Chancellor in 1934 after the Nazis assassinated his predecessor Dr Engelbert Dollfuss, was born in 1897, the son of a general in the Austro-Hungarian army. He saw service in World War I, before studying to be a lawyer and entering politics.
Kurt von Schuschnigg the younger was born in 1926 and saw little of his father owing to the demands of the latter’s political career. In 1932 the family relocated from Innsbruck to Vienna. The first part of this autobiography focuses on Kurt’s father’s attempts to prevent the seizure of power, first by Austrian Nazis, aided and abetted by their German counterparts, and later by Nazi Germany itself.
After World War I, as von Schuschnigg the younger reminds us, both Weimar Germany and Austria suffered severe economic setbacks — loss of territory and financial assets, a hyper-inflation in the early 1920s which wiped out people’s savings and impoverished the middle class, and the Great Depression of the 1930s which ushered in unprecedented unemployment and misery.
The younger von Schuschnigg’s life was typical of that of an upper middle-class Austrian youth. He was educated at a Jesuit school in Vienna and spent his summer holidays at the resort town of Saint Gilgen. All this came to an end when German troops entered Austria.
Thanks to the prudent leadership of political figures such as von Schuschnigg, Austria was able to maintain its independence until 1938, when the country was occupied and absorbed by Hitler’s Reich. This unification (or Anschluss) of the two German-speaking countries had been expressly forbidden by the victorious Allies at the end of World War I.
Tragedy was to strike the von Schuschnigg family in 1935, when the Chancellor’s wife, Herma, was killed in a motor accident. It was widely suspected that the Nazis were responsible for her death, her chauffeur having earlier accepted from an unknown person a drink believed to have been “spiked”.
When Hitler occupied Austria in 1938, the elder von Schuschnigg was promptly arrested and jailed, with even his family members unable to visit him. On June 1 that year, he married Vera Fugger in a ceremony conducted by proxy in Vienna.
The younger von Schuschnigg was sent to Munich, where his family took great pains to find a school prepared to accept him as a student.
Meanwhile, his father was transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. However, unlike most inmates, he was afforded accommodation in a small house, where his wife Vera and their daughter Sissi were able to live with him and his son could visit him.
As a teenager, the younger Kurt served at an anti-aircraft battery in Munich. With compulsory military service looming, in 1944 a schoolfriend’s father, Vice-Admiral Kurt Slevogt, recommended that he and his friend volunteer for the navy, otherwise the younger von Schuschnigg, as the son of a Nazi enemy, would have been conscripted into the army, placed in a “death” battalion and deployed in high-risk engagements.
Von Schuschnigg devotes a considerable portion of his narrative to his war service as an officer cadet on the German heavy cruiser the Prinz Eugen and to other subsequent events. He saw service in the Baltic fleet before being wounded by burns sustained when the ship came under enemy attack. Hospitalised, he deftly avoided being evacuated from East Prussia on the Wilhelm Gustloff, which was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine and sunk with at least 8,000 people on board. He then altered his medical tag, so that he was sent to a hospital in Munich, closer to his native Austria, rather than to a hospital in the northern regions of Germany.
While in Munich, he was tipped off by a doctor that the Gestapo had ordered the hospital to hand him over to them as soon as he had recuperated. Von Schuschnigg bravely returned to the Baltic fleet in uniform and without authorised transport orders, hoping to re-join his ship and believing that his captain would protect from.
Ironically, an attempt to ferry him out to his ship failed, because the sea had been heavily mined by the Russians. Worried now that the Gestapo would track him down, von Schuschnigg clandestinely journeyed to Austria, once again evading military police.
He was ultimately able to make contact with relatives, who put him in a safe house, where British military personnel, operating behind enemy lines, met him and organised his escape to Switzerland towards the end of the war. The narrative ends with his being re-united with his father, stepmother and half-sister in Italy in 1945.
When Hitler Took Austria is an inspiring account of the courage of a father and son to stand by their convictions and resist evil — indeed, it is a book that this reviewer found hard to put down.
It provides a particularly fascinating record of events of this turbulent period from the perspective of a family of one of Hitler’s political enemies. This work is highly recommended.