W hen we pass through cataclysmic times such as the run-up to World War II, there are figures who become vivid for a while despite their dullness and then fade away. Every now and then it is worth checking one out of the archives to have another look. Now Austrian dictator Kurt Schuschnigg gets that twice-over from French writer Éric Vuillard, quickly and cuttingly like the marks of Zorro.
In 2017, Vuillard won the Prix Goncourt, France’s biggest literary prize, for a slim book of nonfiction, “L’Ordre du jour.” Last fall it was published in a English translation as “The Order of The Day.” It is a marvel of a sort that only French writers seem to pull off.
In a series of vignettes blending meticulous fact and moral speculation, Vuillard examines the Anschluss, the means by which Germany annexed Austria in 1938; conquered it without firing a shot. What we recollect dimly now is that too many Austrians wanted the Nazis to come, and that is true, but it is also the case that Schuschnigg did far too little, and too late, to save his nation.
Nevertheless, Schuschnigg believed Austria should remain independent. So the Germans imprisoned him until 1945, when he was handed over to U.S. troops. Then he was able to emigrate to America – where he had a career as an academic and got U.S. citizenship. If he was not a hero, he was not a villain, either – this bare-bones version of Schuschnigg’s story nauseates Vuillard.
Schuschnigg was a fascist. He was just a different flavor than the Nazis. He cultivated Catholic paramilitary groups. Jailing socialists, closing newspapers, eliminating political parties – these did not bother him, and they did not seem to trouble the Church, either.
He was craven. In February, 1938, Schuschnigg went to Germany to see Hitler in an attempt to smooth thing over. Hitler, who could be ingratiating, had no reason to charm Schuschnigg. Instead, one dictator roared at the other and because Hitler had a bigger army, Schuschnigg had to take it. He had already ceded so much; two years before, he had committed Austria to a “German course,” freeing Austrian Nazis and agreeing to align Austria’s foreign policy with the Reich’s. Germany was able to gobble Austria without a fight because Schuschnigg had prepared the meal.
Schuschnigg spent some time in Dachau, the notorious German concentration camp, but as a political prisoner who had more privileges than Jews who were sent there. The Germans were not out to kill him. And when the war was over, he had the perfect alibi if one did not look too closely.
Next, for 19 years, Schuschnigg served as a professor of political science at Saint Louis University, the Jesuit school in Missouri. Said one student: “I took every course he taught. He was the man who stood up to Hitler. Schuschnigg made me want to be a teacher.”
This is why Vuillard despairs.
In its obituary for Schuschnigg, in 1977, The New York Times noted he was a controversial figure. Though he resisted Hitler, feebly, “some say his authoritarian policies at home in the four years he spent as Austrian chancellor created the conditions for a successful ‘Anschluss,’ or union, of Austria with Germany.”
Schuschnigg died in bed after a brief illness, in rented rooms in the Austrian Tyrol, aged 79. It was a peaceful end to a life that never should have merited a professorship at a prestigious American university. It is an insult to the past to say those were different times. Some things do not change.
Perhaps what we ought to remember from all of this is similarly eternal, that sometimes your enemy’s enemy is just another puny monster.