Austrian chancellor’s son tells how faith helped him survive Nazis

Kurt and Janet Von Schuschnigg CNA US Catholic News 5 10 12 Kurt and Janet Von Schuschnigg speak to CNA about their new book

Kurt von Schuschnigg Jr., son of the former chancellor of Austria, says that his Catholic faith helped him get through difficult times during World War II and now guides the way that he looks back at past events.

“Faith is always a big thing when you are in trouble,” he observed. “Unfortunately today, not too many people hold on to faith anymore.”

Von Schuschnigg was a first-hand witness of many of the atrocities committed during the Second World War. His father, who has the same name, was chancellor of Austria when Germany invaded the country in 1938.

On May 9, Kurt von Schuschnigg Jr. and his wife, Janet, spoke with CNA about their new book, “When Hitler Took Austria” (Ignatius, $24.95).

The book tells the story of the German takeover of Austria, as experienced by young von Schuschnigg.

He explained that his father opposed the takeover when German troops entered the country but also realized that they were not equipped to fight.

To avoid a massacre of the Austrian people, he resigned from his position as chancellor and was later sent with his wife to Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Von Schuschnigg Jr. was able to complete his education and was then stationed on a naval vessel before deserting the German military and fleeing from the Gestapo, making a harrowing escape to safety.

He and his wife – both of whom are Catholic – worked together on the new book. Janet, who grew up in Atlanta, Ga., said that over their years of marriage, her husband told her stories about his life in Austria.

She realized that the story of Austria’s takeover by the Nazis was not being taught in schools, and she decided to record the events that her husband had recounted.

The book is not a plea for anything, she explained, but is simply trying to explain how life was for people in Austria during that difficult time.

“America should know it,” she said. “The rest of the world should know it.”

Kurt von Schuschnigg believes that God’s providence was helping him during that difficult time, sometimes manifest through the kind and daring gestures of other people.

He recalled an instance in 1945 when a German doctor in Munich saved his life. Due to the family responsibility laws, he should have been turned over to the Gestapo and would have been taken to a concentration camp or executed. But the doctor – whose name he does not even know – allowed him to escape.

He also remembered how his Austrian governess had courageously taken him in when his father was arrested, risking her own safety in doing so.

“She could never get a job again,” he reflected.

Janet von Schuschnigg describes her husband’s family as “centered on God.” Even after all they’ve been through, she said, they are still good Catholics.

More in US

“You don’t find so many good Catholics in Austria anymore,” she continued, explaining that the Church has undergone heavy persecution.

Her husband added that while there are many good people leading “a happy life” in Austria, they have largely been forced to “forget their past” in order to do so.

For him, however, faith has played a significant role in both good and bad times.

He recalled a hand-written papal blessing that was given to his family that gave him confidence and helped him trust in God during difficult circumstances.

One time, he recounted, he was able to smuggle the Eucharist to his father in the concentration camp.

This was only possible, he explained, because the guards had been there for four years, and they had become friends.

The guards were “kind” and “decent” people, he reflected, although they would have shot his parents without hesitation if ordered to do so.

(Story continues below)

When von Schuschnigg attempted to tell some family friends about the things he had witnessed in the concentration camp, they brushed him off, refusing to believe his stories and defending the Nazis.

Kurt von Schuschnigg does not consider his actions particularly heroic, especially since at the time no one thought of themselves a a heroe.

“We were survivors,” he said.

After World War II, von Schuschnigg’s family was liberated and moved to America, where they became citizens.

While he has not forgotten the atrocities he witnessed and experienced, von Schuschnigg has forgiven those responsible for causing his family pain – an ability that his wife says “impressed me incredibly.”

Kurt von Schuschnigg explained that he does not blame those who hurt him because he knows that “they did it out of fear.”

He described the “terror” that pervaded the atmosphere of a country in which one could never trust the people around him.

You have to be able to forgive, he said. “You cannot carry things with you.”

He compared the situation to a fight with a good friend. After a while, you let go and forgive, and you return to being friends, he said. 

Kurt and Janet von Schuschnigg hope that “When Hitler Took Austria” will inspire people to reevaluate their lives.

Janet explained that the book is an example of discipline and faith, virtues that are sorely needed today, as many people seek immediate gratification but find that they are not truly happy.

“The world’s a mess right now,” she said. “It’s frightening.”

She lamented that so many people today have lost a sense of balance in life, forgetting the importance of virtues like discipline and duty.

“People don’t go to Church anymore,” she added.

Her husband agreed. He said that many of the values that were strong in his childhood have been lost by society.

Restoring these values is critical, and it must begin in the home, Kurt von Schuschnigg said.

“It cannot all be done by the schools,” he explained. “It comes from the family.”

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.