Alone against Hitler
Kurt Von Schuschnigg’s Fight to Save Austria from The Nazis
Prometheus Books, Lanham, Maryland, 336 pages
Book Review published on: July 30, 2021
Kurt Von Schuschnigg was chancellor of Austria from 1934 to 1938 and prisoner of the Nazis from 1938 to 1945. He spent the following twenty years teaching political science at the University of Saint Louis. Author Jack Bray made his acquaintance as an undergraduate student in the 1950s. Bray was struck by Schuschnigg’s humility and reticence to talk about the drama leading up to Germany’s annexation of Austria or his role in spoiling Adolf Hitler’s attempt to characterize the actions as welcomed by Austria. With exhaustive research, Alone against Hitler delivers a balanced appreciation of the dire predicament Schuschnigg and Austria faced in the spring of 1938, and describes the personal toll Schuschnigg and his family paid in the aftermath.
Bray writes from a less conventional perspective. Prewar European statesmanship and appeasement is generally described from the viewpoint of the main actors—Britain, France, and Germany. Austria and others are treated as the objects of that statesmanship. In this rendition, Bray focuses on agility and resourcefulness of Austria’s chancellor to make the best of an untenable quandary. The story has many parallels to today’s international environment and gives the reader an appreciation of the pressures facing borderland nations contending with the geographic, cultural, and economic pressures of great power politics.
Alone against Hitler begins with a flash forward to the 1934 assassination of Schuschnigg’s predecessor, Engelbert Dollfuss, in a botched Nazi attempt to install their proxy as chancellor. The account pulls the reader in and gives context to the following three chapters of background. Austria faces many dilemmas: war reparations debt, the Great Depression, violent political upheaval, and rising anti-Semitism. Included are brief biographical sketches of Schuschnigg and his family. Schuschnigg’s father was a general in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Both father and son were held as prisoners of war in the same camp during the war. Bray revisits these events later as Schuschnigg wrestles with the decision in 1938 to commit Austrian troops to what he deemed a futile defense against overwhelming German forces staged for invasion. The background chapters also address Hitler’s early years in Austria, the social and economic structure within Austria, and the geographical nightmare of being stuck between Nazi Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy with the realization that no international assistance is forthcoming.
The tension culminates when Hitler summons Schuschnigg to his residence in Berchtesgaden to receive an ultimatum to endorse the “rejoining,” or Anschluss, of Germany and Austria. Bray lays out the limited options available to Schuschnigg. This phase of the drama concludes with a discussion of Schuschnigg’s harrowing exit from Berchtesgaden, his immediate actions following the meeting, subsequent arrest by the Gestapo, and Germany’s initial actions upon Austrian occupation.
While the political science objectives of the book may be arguably concluded at this point, Bray devotes the last forty pages to an extended epilogue focused on the human aspect of this story. He details the incarceration of Schuschnigg and his family in various concentration camps and covers Schuschnigg’s eventual return to Austria in the last chapter of his life.
Bray artfully blends a spectrum of secondary sources with contemporary accounts. He draws on diplomatic correspondence from the U.S. ambassador to Austria, George Messersmith. As the American consul in Berlin prior to his posting in Vienna, Messersmith was a central figure in Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts. Like Larson, Bray highlights the human side of the conflicts facing the principles at the center of crisis. An example of this is his treatment of anti-Semitism in Austria in the run-up to the Anschluss. In describing the rapid shift in Austrian enthusiasm away from Schuschnigg in the two weeks between his rousing anti-Nazi address and Hitler’s apparently warm reception in Vienna, Bray notes on page 195,
The sudden about-face has been extensively analyzed in postwar reflections. Some historians call attention to national personality traits attributed to Austrians. Some of them contend that most prewar Austrians were better people than appears from their role in the war. Others are more accusatory, pointing at Austria’s history of anti-Semitism … How many were responding to which motives and traits is unknowable.
Alone against Hitler will appeal to a wide readership, from scholars of the interwar period to general readers of political history. It provides a profound illustration of decision-making suitable for a leadership or strategy course. Jack Bray delivers on the commitment made in his introduction to tell the compelling story of the man at the center of these historic events.
Book Review written by: Brian Allen, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas