When you read When Hitler Took Austria, by Kurt Von Schuschnigg and Janet Von Schuschnigg, you keep trying, as in a spy novel, to figure out a way for the heroes to escape. But the reader will be defeated, because Kurt Von Schuschnigg's father, of the same name, was the unfortunate prime minister of Austria in 1938, left without recourse when confronted by Hitler's demands for an Anschluss.
The United States was largely indifferent. England and France were in their appeasement phase and Italy, a seeming backer early on, itself had joined the Axis powers. Domestically, Schuschnigg was squeezed between the Communists, who bombed like the terrorists and the Nazis who committed street violence and planned a putsch. Polls showed that some 65 percent of the Austrian people would have voted for continued independence if Hitler had not invaded before Schuschnigg could execute a referendum on the question. Yet we also all know of the huge crowds that greeted Der Fuhrer.
Imagine yourself in this environment. If you were Jewish and had figured things out--and had the means--you might have fled. Many didn't.
If you were "Kurti," the sheltered eleven year old son of the Prime Minister, you watched your pampered childhood disintegrate. Your widowed father was imprisoned by the Nazis and later moved to a kind of house arrest in a hovel by a Berlin area concentration camp--literally on the wall of the camp where the truly oppressed Jews were imprisoned. When the son's memoir, written with his American-born wife, Janet, was published in Austria four years ago, it was entitled "The Long Way Back Home" (Die Lange Weg Nach Hause"), and that is really the story: a child becoming a man as a virtual political prisoner under the Nazis, managing to survive remarkable adventures to survive the war, reunite with his father, his father's heroic second wife and Kurti's younger sister, "Sissi". And go to America.
It's a story of faith, because if there was a faction that the Schuschnigg family most represented in Austria it was the Catholic Church. (Christoph Cardinal Schonbron of Vienna wrote the Foreword to the book's English edition recently published by Ignatius Press.) Prayers precede many of Kurti's successful rescues from betrayal and death. The book also is an adventure story that has obvious cinematic potential. A little boy at the beginning, by the end Kurti is a cunning deserter from the German navy, a dashing young man who links up with American intelligence and flees to Switzerland. We've seen many accounts of World War II, of course, but none from this perspective and set largely in Austria.
The book also helps redeem Austria, if such is needed. The buildup to World War I saw the Hapsburgs increasingly influenced by Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand, a modernizer who not only accepted democracy but also saw the importance of creating a kind of United States of Central Europe, with autonomous nationality provinces. It was a tragedy for the world that he and his wife were assassinated at Sarajevo, but it was especially so for hapless Austria. The country was good at getting along, but it long since had failed as a military society--unlike the Prussians. It was joked that the Germans had the better marchers, but the Austrians had the better marching bands. "Österreich II (The Austrian Second Republic), a riveting television documentary series was produced in the '80s by the Austrian public TV network, poignantly described Austria's history from World War I to the renewed unification and independence of the country ten years after World War II, in 1955 (when the Russians finally were persuaded to leave their sector). Unfortunately, the series was never translated into English for an international audience. Yet it contained unique film footage and--again--a very different perspective from that we normally receive. Think, for example, how little Americans know about the period just as the war ended when the Allies came in. That story--also glimpsed in When Hitler Took Austria, is now quite gone from most histories of the time.
What could Prime Minister Kurt Von Schuschnigg have done to save his country in 1938? I don't know. That's what makes his story a tragedy worth pondering. One realizes, in any case, that individuals and nations can recover in some fashion.
Former prime minister Von Schushnigg wound up as a respected professor, teaching in St. Louis. His son, Kurt (Jr.), an art dealer, must now be over 90. The book's dusk jacket says that he and his wife, Janet, divide their time between New York and Kitzbuhel, Austria.
A last thought: if you want to experience something of the charm of Austria on this side of the Atlantic, I can recommend the Cafe Sabartsky on 86th and Fifth Avenue in New York, part of the amazing Neue Gallerie, the art and design museum that has been assembled by former Ambassador Ron Lauder. It's not the last word on Austrian culture, but it is a decidedly eloquent one. Even as Austria was assailed on one side by the Communists and even more forcefully by the Nazis, it produced some of the finest music, art, graphics, theater, literature, science, furniture design and architecture of the last century. That, and a democratic spirit, survived along with the Von Schushnigg family.