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Over the Brink and Into the Abyss: A Memoir from World War II Austria

When Hitler Took Austria, by Kurt and Janet von SchuschniggTHE BASIC HISTORY of World War II’s European front is (or should be) well known to every western adult and schoolchild. From the offensives that brought the majority of the European continent under Axis control, to the D-Day invasion and Operation Overlord, to Hitler’s unthinkable campaign to exterminate Jews and other “undesirables,” the general flow of the first half of the 1940s has been the subject of countless books, films, and documentaries. The flow of events leading up to that period is less well known, though, particularly with regard to the role countries like Austria played in the years, months, and days leading up to the second world war.

When Hitler Took Austria shines a bright light on the events of the late 1930s in Austria from a very particular point of view: that of a chancellor’s son who came of age during the events he is recounting.  As may be expected, a significant portion of this memoir focuses on the author’s father, Kurt von Schuschnigg the elder, both as Chancellor of Austria prior to the German invasion (1934–1938) and as a prisoner of Hitler’s government.  The recollections in the book as a whole, and in the pre-Anschluss portion in particular, are made up of a precise intertwining of history and personal memory, and the result is a narrative that is as intellectually informative as it is personally engaging.  Von Schuschnigg sets his own youthful exploits and learning experiences against the backdrop of serious situations and events that his father and his country faced in the run-up to WWII, from Austria’s long and painful climb back from the economic knockout punch delivered it after the first world war to the desperate attempts by the chancellor to keep his nation independent and secure in the face of the growing Nazi threat across the German border and at home.

The picture of Chancellor von Schuschnigg drawn by the author is the same as the man whom Marquess Falcone Lucifero, chancellor of the Italian royal household, referred to late in the war as “the herald to Europe and the world” about the threat Hitler posed.  Unfortunately, as Lucifero went on to lament, ”because of our own preoccupations, this continent turned a deaf ear…until it was too late. That [von Schuschnigg] was left standing alone is our collective shame” (p. 297).  In fact, Schuschnigg the elder was left standing alone in more ways than one, having lost his wife in a car accident (which may have been the result of a Nazi plot [pp. 48, 52]) before being arrested by the invading Germans and shipped off to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna, where he was kept in solitary confinement and subjected to horrific treatment (p. 107), after which he was transferred to Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp along with his second wife Vera (whom he had married by proxy while imprisoned) and their young daughter.

THE LION’S SHARE of the text after this is concerned solely with the exploits of the younger von Schuschnigg – and they are fascinating exploits indeed, seemingly recounted as vividly in print as they appear within the author’s memory.  From being educated in Germany at the only school that didn’t refuse to turn him away because of his name, to the ever-increasing military and civilian workload borne by adolescents due to the long war’s human cost, the author’s teenage years seem to have lacked dull moments altogether.  After receiving his “wartime diploma” (the term for the automatic graduation of all 17-year-old students in preparation for their conscription [p. 158]), von Schuschnigg avoided army duty by attending the Naval Academy and being stationed aboard a naval vessel in service of the very government that had annexed his homeland and was keeping his father, step-mother, and half-sister in a concentration camp.

Following a tour of duty on the cruiser Prinz Eugen that saw him gravely wounded in an engine room explosion, von Schuschnigg deserted from the German military.  The remainder of the text is primarily focused on his constant effort to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo while making it back first to Austria, and then safely out of Axis territory.  Each scene is vividly presented, and the dialogue recalled from decades ago for this memoir is as sharp and noteworthy as the sights, sounds, and feelings the author describes.  Further, the book’s subtitle, A Memoir of Heroic Faith, could very easily have been replaced by “A memoir of the man with the most over-worked guardian angel alive,” as the remarkability of von Schuschnigg’s own exploits is only matched by the amazing number of times that he avoids death and capture where others repeatedly fail, and by the number of people with whom his path crosses who are amazingly willing to lend assistance at great personal risk to themselves.

THE AUTHOR’S RECOUNTING of the horrors witnessed at the concentration camp where his family was interned – which they were not subjected to due to their status, but which took place in plain view from the unshuttered windows of their small cabin at the camp’s edge – is but one example of this memoir’s deeply personal look at the horrors of Hitler’s Reich and the reign of terror he, his enablers, and his allies unleashed on Europe.  As with all works that touch on this subject, most readers will likely search the text for some further assistance in understanding how peoples and nations went so mad as to allow and assist Adolf Hitler’s incomprehensibly evil acts.

While its author cannot completely answer that question (and while portions of the book make that maddeningly distant answer seem farther away that ever), When Hitler Took Austria includes characters and dialogue that shed representative light on some mindsets of the time.  For example, the reader meets several German officers who claim to think very little of Hitler, his plans, and his cult of personality, but who have taken up arms to serve the fatherland all the same.   Additionally, a particularly illuminating conversation between von Schuschnigg and a school friend’s father is recounted, in which the author attempts several times to tell the Hitler supporter “the true state of affairs” at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (of whose existence it was illegal to speak) and in Hitler’s Reich.  The latter doggedly refuses to believe that “the führer would…do anything that was unjust,” and instead insist that the concentration camps house only those who need protection or who make up “a hard-core criminal element that the National Socialist Party refused to  put up with any longer” (pp. 146–47), and that Jews are only being held until they can be transported to countries which had offered them asylum.  With the benefit of decades of hindsight, such naivete is too remarkable for words.

A FAST-PACED, ENGAGING memoir that clearly communicates the author’s strength and suffering (both physical and mental) at Hitler’s tyrannical hands, When Hitler Took Austria outclasses a great number of its peers within the genre.  The book is well-written, thanks in no small part to the narrator’s wife (and titular co-author) Janet,* who took on the large task of writing down her husband’s recollections, and whose first-person writing in the preface and acknowledgments should not be confused with the first-person narrative of the book itself.  Further, its unique point of view and informative personal anecdotes make it a must-read for those interested in run-up to the war in Europe, as does its focus on events in Austria, a country whose story rarely receives the attention it deserves, perhaps due to the Austro-Hungarian role in WWI.  Whatever the reason, When Hitler Took Austria makes up for a deficit of information and recognition on two fronts.  The first is the story of Austria in the years before WWII, which has received precious little attention from the general public.  The second, of a far less ephemeral nature, is the recognition this book provides for overworked and underappreciated guardian angels everywhere, without whom neither the author nor his family would have survived a fraction of the encounters recounted in this excellent book.

When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son by Kurt and Janet von Schuschnigg (ISBN 9781586177096; 329 pages, 24 photographs; $24.95) is published by Ignatius Press.

*Janet von Schuschnigg née Cook is also my lovely wife’s aunt.

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