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Surviving Hitler: A Memoir of the Austrian Chancellor’s Son

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jun 04, 2012

Kurt von Schuschnigg was the devoutly Catholic Chancellor of Austria when Hitler invaded and took control of his country. For several years prior to the invasion, von Schuschnigg negotiated desperately both with Hitler and with potential allies in an effort to preserve Austrian independence. He abhorred Nazism and worked tirelessly to minimize Nazi influence in his own country. Even before the invasion, he lost his wife in a deadly automobile accident caused by saboteurs. Once Hitler took over, von Schuschnigg spent the remainder of the war in a concentration camp.

It is painfully obvious in hindsight that the Chancellor’s efforts were doomed to failure. Other European nations were unwilling to stand with Austria, and of course Hitler never negotiated in good faith. Fortunately, however, Germany was ultimately defeated in World War II and Austria regained its independence. Von Schuschnigg, along with his second wife and their daughter, survived to be welcomed in the United States, where the former Chancellor became a political science professor at Saint Louis University.

But there was also his son by his first wife, young Kurti von Schuschnigg, who was left in the hands of friends and relations when his father was taken into German custody. At age 17, when he would have been drafted and almost certainly killed in the German army, Kurti joined the navy where some sympathetic officers were capable of ameliorating his fate. Late in the war, a victim of an explosion in the engine room of his ship caused by an allied bomb, he found himself in the hospital. From there he managed to give the Gestapo the slip and eventually made his way to freedom in Switzerland shortly before the end of the war in 1945.

Kurti too lived to tell his story, along with his Atlanta-born wife Janet, and that story has just been published by Ignatius Press in an engaging book entitled When Hitler Took Austria: A Memoir of Heroic Faith by the Chancellor’s Son. The tale covers Kurti’s mischievous childhood in the 1930s as his father gradually rose to the highest office of Chancellor; the years without his parents when he struggled to get a good education while avoiding schools which espoused the party line; his brief military service as a cadet; and his successful effort to escape and ultimately rejoin his family. Kurti survived under Nazi control from the invasion of Austria in 1938 when he was 12 until his escape in 1945 at the age of 19.

Catholicism is an undercurrent in this story. Hitler’s quarrel with Austria was political, but the von Schuschniggs, father and son, had a completely different vision of the common good which was deeply rooted in their Catholic faith. The father was a friend of the Pope and specifically attempted to rule according to Catholic social teaching. The son was assisted in his escape by Catholic priests and brothers. Even if young Kurti did not always get to Mass as a schoolboy on his own, he recognized and thanked God for the miracles at work in his escape. The Faith sustained both of them through their horrors. In the end, it was the German Fuhrer who committed suicide, while the Austrian Chancellor and his son survived against all odds.

When Hitler Took Austria is both entertaining and insightful. As Kurti grows up, he encounters many different kinds of Austrians and Germans, some who hated the Nazis, others who were obviously weather vanes, some who invariably assumed the best of Hitler and were unable to believe what went on in the concentration camps, and still others who were devoted heart and soul to the Nazi cause. The interplay is fascinating, and the account of Kurti's later escape is riveting, even if events are recounted with a certain emotional detachment which masks some of the pain and fear. These are, after all, recollections at a distance of some sixty years. But they make a story that is both wonderful and true, and a valuable contribution to the historical record from the heart of the struggle.

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