When Hitler Took Austria: Introduction


"When Hitler Took Austria is a crackling good story. I love stories of chases over the snowy mountains as dissidents heave strained frosty breaths trying to stay just ahead of the Gestapo they know is getting closer. And it is even better when it is a story of a hero for faith and human honor such as the son of the Austrian chancellor. If you want to understand how our present world came to be, don't miss this book." - Michael Novak

March 12, 1938: Madly waving people lined the highways and streets of Austria. Jubilant crowds filled squares and plazas. Excitement abounded as the army of the Third Reich marched into Austria escorted by the aircraft of the German Luftwaffe. Flags of the Third Reich were unfurled as the sound of jackboots echoed throughout the land. Many men raised their arms in salute — the greeting required by Hitler — as women threw flowers and blew kisses.

The German Eighth Army crossed into Austria between Bregenz and Schärding. By early morning military units rumbled into Salzburg; by midday they were in Innsbruck. Mile-long columns of artillery and Panzer tanks, which had been patiently awaiting orders since the end of February, had disembarked from the autobahn near Traunstein, Germany, while from Bad Aibling's new airfield, German planes had roared into the air and by nine fifteen a.m. had landed in Vienna. More than one hundred thousand German troops now occupied Austria.

A week earlier, the Reich commissioner for economic affairs, Wilhelm Keppler, had arrived with a new list of demands from Berlin. The Austrian Chancellor, Kurt von Schuschnigg, knew he was out of diplomatic options and time. In a final attempt to draw attention to the plight of Austria, he called for a plebiscite on Anschluss, the incorporation of the Austrian Republic into the Third Reich.

Recent polls had showed that between 65 and 70 percent of Austrians wanted to retain their independence, and the plebiscite was set for March 13. Efforts to keep the chancellor's plebiscite a secret prior to the formal announcement on March 9 had been in vain. A secretary, who was a German spy of long standing in the office of Austria's Fatherland Front Party, had informed Berlin.

On March 10 the Third Reich prepared to invade Austria, and Hitler's ultimatum was delivered to the chancellor on March 11. It was simple: cancel the plebiscite or German troops will march into Austria. The führer could not afford the humiliation of a public rejection by the Austrian people and was determined to have their country as part of the Reich.

Phone calls and cables flew from Vienna to its ambassadors abroad. London, now implacably "neutral" in the matter, formally refused to react in any significant manner. These two German states should resolve their own differences.

In Paris the Chautemps cabinet had resigned the previous day, leaving the country without a government and producing a simple explanation for not intervening. France would not — could not — stand against Germany.

Italy's response was brief: "Under the circumstances the Italian government is unable to give advice."

After four years of unremitting struggle the Austrian chancellor had lost. Austria was left without any prospect or even hope of assistance. The week before the impending plebiscite he had tried to rally his countrymen with the patriotic cry: "Red, white, red until death!" Now with a twoor three-day supply of ammunition and a vastly outnumbered army, to resist German aggression would have been suicidal.

Just after two p.m. on March 11, Austria received yet another demand from Berlin. The chancellor and his cabinet were to resign, and the Austrian Nazi Arthur Seyss-Inquart, the newly appointed minister of the interior, would become the new chancellor; otherwise the German Wehrmacht would move that very evening.

Six hours later Kurt von Schuschnigg broadcast Hitler's ultimatum to the nation. Berlin had fabricated stories of Austrian civil disorder, of a government that was no longer in control, and of streams of blood running in the streets. "These", said the chancellor, "are lies from A to Z. 

Six hours later Kurt von Schuschnigg broadcast Hitler's ultimatum to the nation. Berlin had fabricated stories of Austrian civil disorder, of a government that was no longer in control, and of streams of blood running in the streets. "These", said the chancellor, "are lies from A to Z. President Miklas asks me to tell the people of Austria that we have yielded to force." He ended this address with the words, "God protect Austria!"

After taking leave of his cabinet and President Miklas, Schuschnigg with his aide-de-camp, Lt. Col. Georg Bartl, set out for the chancellor's residence. Bartl related a plan to fly Schuschnigg to Hungary, to which the chancellor replied, "I've stolen no silver spoons." Schuschnigg would remain in Austria and meet his fate. At eight a.m. on March 12, the German Eighth Army, under Gen. Fedor von Bock, crossed into Austria as it had planned to do. The authority of the German National Socialist Party had been established.

The former chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, had paid for his resistance to Anschluss with his assassination by the outlawed Austrian Nazi Party. Chancellor von Schuschnigg continued this resistance in the face of Hitler's untiring rhetoric advocating Germany's right to Lebensraum — increased land and raw materials. Those who believed in and profited from National Socialism now had their day.

With the Anschluss finally achieved, no voices remained to challenge Hitler's vision. The once independent Austrian Republic, now incorporated into Greater Germany and renamed Ostmark, would face an uncertain future.

Crowds on that March 12 included the unconvinced and the skeptical, as well as the curious. People gathered as if drawn by a magnet; but their presence did not endorse the new political environment, nor did it contradict the findings of recent government polls. Austrian Nazis were a minority in Austria, so what was the explanation?

The answer lies in the events of 1918 and before. Most of the vital ingredients that had combined to create the wealth of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire no longer existed within Austria's borders after World War I. Left behind was a modest bit of land, little more than a smudge on the European map, and this land had begun to feel isolated and orphaned. National pride, the sense of belonging to something great, was gone completely. The humiliation of defeat in war paled in comparison to the daily struggle people faced to feed their families. The devastation of war produced food shortages, which in turn triggered strikes and demonstrations. Inflation was rampant, and people carried bags of money to buy food.

Soon the Austrian middle class ceased to exist. Unemployment was everywhere, and prospects for young Austrians were bleak. The dismal situation bred discontent and its corollaries: extremist and violent political movements.

It would take time, years for some people, before Austrians understood what the welcome given to the army of the Third Reich actually meant. Moreover, in time it would be difficult to find anyone who admitted to have taken part in that welcome. The Anschluss had been carefully planned over a long period of time, and it served first as a testing ground, then as a springboard, for lebensraum; its consequences would be incalculable.

The arrival of the Third Reich signaled a wave of political arrests and a realignment of people and the military. Tens of thousands of political opponents were imprisoned, while 55 percent of Austria's generals, 40 percent of the colonels, and 17 percent of the other military officers were reassigned. Innumerable demotions included those of decorated veterans of the First World War who were declared "unworthy to serve". Also marked by the Reich was Chancellor von Schuschnigg.

The country, however, busied itself with thoughts of what good would flow to it from the Third Reich.

The First Reckoning

By 1926, eight years after the end of the First World War and seven since the signing of the treaties of Versailles and Saint-Germain, the world was moving toward stability and prosperity.

On one side of the Atlantic the United States, led by their modest, conservative president, Calvin Coolidge, had a robust economy and thrived with just 1.8 percent unemployment. Americans undertook daring challenges such as the flight to the North Pole by Admiral Richard Byrd. Although a young nation, America had become a beacon to the rest of the world.

In England, King George V continued his reign, and Stanley Baldwin, prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party, was in firm control of the government. Unemployment, however, was high. The country awoke one day in May to find itself in a state of emergency caused by a local coal strike that had widened into a general strike.

Meanwhile France, economically weakened by inflation and an unstable franc, had rejected the left-wing government of the Cartel des Gauches. The French elected Raymond Poincaré and his conservatives hoping to revive the economy.

Italy had witnessed the political rise of a former journalist who had earned a reputation as a radical and a firebrand. With a heavy hand he had consolidated his power and by 1926 led the only political party whose existence was permitted. The party was that of the Fascists, and its founder, Benito Mussolini, was popularly known as Il Duce.

The struggle to succeed Lenin in the Soviet Union was well under way. Leon Trotsky's star was on the wane and Joseph Stalin's on the rise. Those countries lying between Russia and Austria were working busily and optimistically toward a better future.

In Austria anger had subsided since the expulsion of the Habsburgs, the dissolution of Austria-Hungary, and the period when returning imperial soldiers — too poor to buy civilian clothes — had been spat on and had the medals and insignia ripped off their uniforms. The political situation was not stable, however, as different factions sought to fill the power vacuum left by the monarchy. In November 1926, Otto Bauer, the head of the Austrian Socialist Party threatened the country with the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in a speech given in Linz. Since the beginning of the 1920s, the Socialists had professed their hatred for both the Catholic Church and her clergy. In the view of the Socialists, the Church was suffocating free thinkers. That the Socialists loathed the very name Habsburg was also no surprise. The Habsburg dynasty, the Catholic Church, and the ruling Christian Social Party were all held to be obstructive to Socialist goals and Socialist ideals. This boded ill for the country — such was the state of the world when I joined it.

When Hitler Took Austria
by Kurt & Janet von Schuschnigg

After a two-year engagement, my parents had married in 1924. By 1926 Father, then twenty-nine, had been practicing law for five years. Like many of his classmates, he had gone directly from his graduating class at Stella Matutina, the Jesuit college in Vorarlberg, to war in 1915. A year later he found himself in Italy, near Gorizia, where he remained through 1918, when he was taken prisoner along with his father, a general in the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army. The two spent nearly a year as prisoners of war in Caserta.

When my father returned home, his first objective was to complete his education. Father possessed a keen mind, which the Jesuits had honed further. He earned his law degree from the University of Innsbruck a year early and at the top of his class. To open more career avenues he enrolled in a course at the Academy of Commerce. Papa often said that the sons of career military officers knew few luxuries other than a first-class education.

Father quickly established himself as a lawyer while Austria struggled to establish itself as a republic. With passion and concern he turned his focus toward Austria's post-war problems. Initially, in gatherings at the University of Innsbruck, he began to share his views on the future of Austria. These progressed to town hall meetings, where his impressed colleagues eventually persuaded him to declare his candidacy for the Austrian Parliament.

In 1927 he was elected senator and began to commute to Vienna. As with everything else he did, Father threw himself totally into this new phase of his life. After Mass on Sunday he took the train to Vienna. Returning Friday evening, he would spend Saturday traveling around his constituency, listening to the people and making speeches.

The qualities that had propelled Father into Parliament were noted by Monsignor Ignaz Seipel, the chancellor. In the then still very Catholic Austria, the priest was chairman of the Christian Social Party (1921–1930) and had once before served as the Austrian chancellor (1922–1924). He was appointed chancellor again in 1926 and would continue in this office until 1929.

Referred to as Doctor Seipel, the priest-chancellor took the young Kurt von Schuschnigg, with his strong faith and pure ideals, under his wing. Often in one another's company, Doctor Seipel became a mentor to Father.

My first vivid memory of childhood is associated with Saint Nicholas Day, a big holiday for children in some northern European countries. According to tradition, on December 6 children often receive candy or other special treats from the saint, but the devil Krampus leaves one of his switches in each family's home to remind children to be obedient and behave themselves. With one of these switches, I was introduced formally and painfully to the concept of justice. When I was five years old, about a week after Saint Nicholas and Krampus had visited, a huge, L-shaped, cherrywood banquette arrived for my room. It had hinged seat cushions and would be used to store my toys. Admiring her acquisition, Mother exclaimed, "Wait until your father sees this!" Since Papa was available so seldom, it was left to me to endorse Mother's purchases.

I stowed my books and toys in the new banquette with great pride and in doing this discovered a forgotten set of miniature tools. The idea of making improvements to the banquette overwhelmed me. With my hammer in midair I heard Mother shriek, "Kurti! What on earth are you doing?"

I froze, and the hammer fell from my hand, creating a wholly unintended dent to my pattern. Mother's voice had a volume and octave I had never heard before. These were very bad signs followed by the words every child dreads: "Wait until your father sees what you've done!" Her firm, calm voice rendered those words more sinister....





Kurt & Janet von Schuschnigg. "Introduction and part of chapter one."  from When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor's Son (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012): 5-11.

Reprinted with permission from Ignatius Press.


Kurt von Schuschnigg was born in Innsbruck in 1926. He emigrated to the United States, where he worked as an arts dealer. Janet von Schuschnigg grew up as one of seven children in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1981 she married Kurt von Schuschnigg. They divide their time between New York and Kitzbühel, Austria.

Copyright © 2012 Ignatius Press

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