Story of Austrian Catholic hero a must-read for World War II historians
"Alone Against Hitler: Kurt von Schuschnigg's Fight to Save Austria From the Nazis" by Jack Bray. Rowman and Littlefield Prometheus Books (Lanham, Maryland, 2020). 313 pp., $26.
The subtitle of this excellent book might more accurately be "Schuschnigg's fight to save Austria and the Jews from the Nazis" since the plight of the Jews under the Nazis forms its major subplot. This is a meticulously researched book that is a must-read for historians of the period.
It also is a book that the average Catholic reader can enjoy, as its narratives of the people and events of Germany and Austria in the period leading up to and during World War II are well-written, even gripping at times.
The book contains numerous photographs of the main characters and events including the religious leaders, such as Pope Pius XI, who publicly condemned Nazism and anti-Semitism.
The story revolves around two Austrian Catholics, Schuschnigg and Adolf Hitler. The latter veered away from Catholicism early in his life, coming to hate the church. The former was a devout Catholic whose worldview was deeply rooted in the teachings of the church, and who was chancellor of Austria from 1934 until the German invasion ended Austria's independence.
The first part of the book sets the stage, telling the story of how each of the protagonists rose to lead their respective countries, both of which had been deeply scarred by the strictures placed on them, economically and politically, after World War I, and the Great Depression.
People in both countries were looking for someone to blame and many in both countries found a scapegoat in the Jews, who had often in European history over the centuries been blamed for the economic problems, even plagues, so that the ruling elites would not be held responsible for their own failings. Hitler used the ancient Christian teaching of contempt for Jews and Judaism, which had become racial anti-Semitism, to great effect in his rise to power. Schuschnigg eschewed this and opposed anti-Semitism.
Later parts of the book detail how Schuschnigg traveled to Germany to meet with Hitler, who harangued and threatened Schuschnigg for hours, hoping to get him to agree to a German takeover of Austria. Schuschnigg calmly but resolutely refused and returned to Austria. Hitler prepared to send his troops to take over.
The chancellor of Austria, with a mob of Nazis at his door, went on the radio and affirmed the independence of his country, condemning Nazism and anti-Semitism. German troops stormed into Austria.
Schuschnigg was taken prisoner, along with his wife and young daughter, remaining in a German-run prison in Italy until the end of the war. The Italians treated them reasonably well and ignored an order given by Hitler in his last days to execute them along with other prisoners who were leaders of countries conquered by Germany.
Liberated, the Austrian family went to America. Schuschnigg became a professor at Jesuit-run St. Louis University and an American citizen. In 1967, he retired and, after his wife died and daughter married and moved to France, he returned to the small Austrian town in which he was born and raised, which welcomed him warmly. He died there in 1977, praised by all for his resistance to the Nazis at a time when few others, as Bray clearly shows, did. A true Catholic hero.
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Fisher is a professor of theology at St. Leo University in Florida.