On March 11, 1938, as Austria prepared to vote on independence, an ultimatum from Adolf Hitler demanding the March 13 plebiscite be canceled was delivered to Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg. The next day, German troops poured into Austria. The Anschluss had begun, and it would last until the end of World War II.
Chancellor von Schuschnigg, a Catholic, paid dearly for his opposition to unification with Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, along with his second wife.
That same day, Father Hugo Montjoie, prefect of the Jesuit boarding school Kollegium Kalksburg, informed 12-year-old Kurt von Schuschnigg that his father had been arrested.
“The Nazi ship of state, with a full wind at its back and captained by the little Austrian-born corporal, sailed on,” according to the younger von Schuschnigg, or Kurti, as he was affectionately known to friends and family. “In its wake bobbed the flotsam of its victims.”
The author’s odyssey during the war years would have its ups and downs. These included a couple of visits with his father, as well as interviews with Heinrich Himmler, head of the feared Gestapo.
It was during one of his visits with his parents that Kurti’s mother asked him to visit then-Bishop Konrad von Preysing, who gave him an envelope containing a consecrated host for his father. “I was happy for Father,” he wrote. “His faith had sustained him these many years; but for the devout Catholic, to be denied the sacraments was a great deprivation.”
Perhaps the high point — apart from Kurti’s ultimate survival — occurred in his time as a cadet in the German navy. He was assigned to the heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen and was working in the ship’s engine room when it was struck by a bomb dropped from a German aircraft piloted by a Russian.
He was hospitalized in Konigsberg with burns and lung damage. With the advance of the Russians, the hospital was evacuated. From then on, during his journeys through Germany and Austria, he successfully avoided the Gestapo, who were searching for him as a deserter. The constant fear of betrayal and the burdens of searching for food and a safe place to rest until his ultimate arrival in Switzerland only made his travels that much more difficult.
The young Schuschnigg’s remarkable powers of observation worked to his great advantage, however. Early on, he spotted the pattern the military police usually followed when boarding trains in search of people on their wanted lists. He somehow managed to come up with various documents that threw authorities off his trail. And, when the occasion required it, he was quick-witted enough to fabricate stories on the spot as to where he was headed or where he had come from.
In addition to a foreword by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn and a preface by von Schuschnigg’s American-born wife, the book contains 24 pages of photographs and an index.
Bill Loughlin writes from Glendale, California.
WHEN HITLER TOOK AUSTRIA
A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son
By Kurt & Janet von
Ignatius Press, 2012
329 pages, $24.95
To order: Ignatius.com