- Existence: 1897 - 1977
Kurt von Schuschnigg was born on 14 December 1897 in Riva del Garda, today located in Italy but then part of Austria-Hungary. His father Arthur von Schuschnigg was a career military man who reached the rank of general. It is claimed that the family was of Slovenian descent, the name originally Susnik, but Schuschnigg denied this report. He explained that his family had its roots in Klagenfurt, Austria; his great-grandfather was a mill owner and his grandfather an officer who became commandant of the provincial gendarmerie in Tirol in 1901 (draft of letter to newspaper Zagreber Morgenblatt, Series 12 (Scrapbooks), Folder I, p. 131). Although Schuschnigg held the hereditary title of Edler, roughly the equivalent of a baronet, the new Republic of Austria abolished the use of titles in 1919. Thereafter Kurt von Schuschnigg became Kurt Schuschnigg, dropping the noble prefix von from his surname, but during his political career as a member of the ruling conservative party, the old style was often used. This style was also accorded him during his tenure at Saint Louis University.
As a boy Schuschnigg attended the Jesuit boarding school Stella Matutina in Feldkirch. He served as an artillery officer on the Italian front during the First World War and received his law degree from the University of Innsbruck in 1922. Two years later he set up his own business in the city. He also entered the Christian Social party and in 1927 was elected to the national assembly, becoming its youngest member. In 1930 he founded the Ostmarkische/Ostmaerkische Sturmscharen, or Austrian Storm Troops, an effort at Catholic cultural renewal and political defense, which later took on the characteristics of a paramilitary force.
Chancellor Karl Buresch appointed Schuschnigg his minister of justice in 1932, while Buresch's successor Engelbert Dollfuss also made Schuschnigg minister of education in 1933. The government in general, and Schuschnigg in particular as justice minister, were strongly criticized for the death sentences meted out to those left-leaning opponents of the regime who fought government forces in the streets during the February 1934 civil war. The badly wounded Karl Munichreiter/Muenichreiter was carried to the gallows on a stretcher, an action seen as especially shocking. Schuschnigg refused to entertain pleas of mercy for the condemned men, who were executed immediately after their trials as examples to the public.
When Dollfuss was murdered in an attempted coup by Austrian Nazis in July 1934 Schuschnigg succeeded him as chancellor, as Dollfuss himself had supposedly commanded on his deathbed. At 36 Schuschnigg was and remains the youngest person to hold the post. In attempting to realize his mentor's vision of a corporate state or Standestaat/Staendestaat he faced opposition not only from leftist groups and Nazis but also from rivals within his own party. Ernst Rudiger/Ruediger von Starhemberg, head of the paramilitary Heimwehr or Home Defense, was seen by many as a threat to Schuschnigg, who disbanded all paramilitary forces in October 1936. His own Sturmscharen had already reverted to a purely cultural organization in April of that year.
The Nazi government of Germany aided and abetted the intrigues of its Austrian confreres, who as ethnic Germans aimed for union or Anschluss with Germany. Schuschnigg attempted to maintain Austrian independence by fostering feelings of solidarity and nationhood through the Fatherland or Patriotic Front (Vaterlandische/Vaterlaendische Front), a supra-party organization founded by Dollfuss and the only lawful political group in Austria. He also strove to stave off German takeover by forging closer ties with Hungary and Italy and by signing a treaty of coexistence with Germany in 1936. This agreement guaranteed Austria freedom from German interference in its internal affairs in exchange for the release of imprisoned members of the illegal Austrian Nazi party and the participation in the Austrian government of figures trusted by the Germans. Yet by February 1938, when he was summoned by German leader Adolf Hitler to Berchtesgaden in Bavaria to answer charges of alleged Austrian violations of the treaty, Schuschnigg had been backed into a corner. Austria could count on no practical assistance from the democratic powers of Europe in the event of German belligerence, and Italian intentions were far from clear.
During the meeting at Berchtesgaden Hitler demanded that Schuschnigg make Nazi sympathizer Arthur Seyss-lnquart his minister of the interior. Forced to agree, Schuschnigg returned to Vienna shaken, as he put it, by "the most horrible days of his life" (copy of American diplomatic telegram, pp. 1-2, Series II [Reports and Memoranda], Folder II). On 24 February 1938 Schuschnigg announced a plebiscite for 13 March on the question of Anschluss. What some have termed a bold stroke was occasioned as much by desperation as by courage. Schuschnigg feared that a German invasion was inevitable, and he later wrote, "Making it as legally difficult as possible for Hitler and in any case placing him clearly in the wrong was the most that could be achieved in practice" (Schuschnigg letter to Dr. Winter, Series 0003 [Correspondence], Folder 0026). Schuschnigg hoped to get at least 60 or 65 percent of the vote in favor of continued independence (final draft of television commentary" 'Gott schutze/schuetze Osterreich/Oesterreich,' "p. 12, Series 7 [Manuscripts], Folder 25), and apparently Hitler was not entirely confident of a favorable outcome for his side.
Taking no chances, Hitler struck on II March, insisting that the plebiscite be cancelled. With German troops mobilizing along the border Schuschnigg acquiesced, only to have Hitler then demand his resignation in favor of Seyss-lnquart. Meanwhile, Germany was broadcasting to the world that Austria was in the grip of a violent workers' uprising, its government no longer master of the situation. Calling these allegations "inventions from A to Z" in his famous farewell speech to the nation (Series 7 [Manuscripts), Folder 10), Schuschnigg revealed that in order to avoid a fratricidal conflict he had ordered the Austrian army not to resist the Germans: "We yield to force.... God save Austria!" On 12 March, the day originally planned for the plebiscite, Hitler entered Austria to a triumphant welcome from local Nazis, and the country was formally annexed to Germany the next day.
Schuschnigg was immediately placed under house arrest, then moved to Vienna Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Metropol, where he was kept in solitary confinement in a tiny room for over a year before being transferred to Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Later he was incarcerated in Flossenbuerg and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. In April, 1945, along with other "celebrity" prisoners, he was moved to the Hotel Prager-Wildsee in the Italian Tyrol, where a few days later in May he and his fellow captives were freed by the combined efforts of the local resistance and the American army.
After some time in a camp for displaced persons on the island of Capri in Italy, Schuschnigg accepted an offer of a lecture tour of the United States. In 1947 the gaunt former chancellor, his second wife Vera, and their daughter Maria Dolores Elisabeth (Sissi) disembarked in New York. Through the good offices of Dr. William Bauer, director of the pathology department of the dental school at Saint Louis University, an old friend from lnnsbruck, Schuschnigg was offered a position in the political science department at the University, which he took up in the summer session of 1948. He remained here, teaching courses in international law and the history of Germany and Central Europe, until he retired in 1967, whereupon he received the Fleur-de-Lis Award, the highest honor bestowed by the University. He then moved to the village of Muttersnear lnnsbruck, the home of his maternal grandparents. On 18 November 1977 he died there of an undisclosed illness that during the last weeks of his life had left him bedridden, tended by his daughter Sissi.
While at Saint Louis University, a time Schuschnigg described as the best of his life ("Kurt von Schuschnigg: Christian Statesman and Scholar" by Raymond J. Derrig, S. J., Jesuit Bulletin, April 1967, p. 3, Series 2 [Clippings], Folder 31), Schuschnigg had been a popular professor, " 'a superb teacher-courtly in manner, tolerant in controversy, profound in knowledge and dynamic in presentation' " (The University News, 10 Feb. 1967, p. 4, Schuschnigg personality file). Raymond J. Derrig, S. J., chairman of the political science department, commented upon learning of Schuschnigg's death, " 'He was a great one, both as a person and as a faculty man' " (The University News, 2 December 1977, Schuschnigg personality file).
Schuschnigg published three books dealing with the political situation in Austria preceding and during his tenure as chancellor: Farewell Austria (1938); Austrian Requiem (1946), which also covered his experiences in captivity; and The Brutal Takeover (1971; German edition Im Kampf gegen Hitler, 1969). Throughout his life Schuschnigg faced accusations of himself being a fascist and a dictator, and the controversy continues today. The ruling principle of his regime, and that of Dollfuss before him, has been dubbed clerico-fascism and Austro-fascism. He is often excoriated as an enemy of democracy whose authoritarianism ironically exacerbated the conditions that led to Anschluss, the very outcome he tried so hard to avoid. Yet Schuschnigg the man has earned respect because of his long imprisonment by the Nazis, even though, as is sometimes pointed out, his incarceration was under milder conditions reserved for politically important prisoners.
Schuschnigg was first married in 1924 to Herma Masera, the daughter of a businessman from Bozen, today Bolzano in Italy. With Herma he had a son, Kurt, born in 1926. Herma perished in an automobile accident on 13 July 1935 that left Schuschnigg badly injured and their son with only minor scratches. Later Schuschnigg became acquainted with Countess Vera Czernin von und zu Chudenitz, the former Countess Fugger von Babenhausen; her first marriage had been annulled but had produced four children, Eleonore, Rudolf, Rose Marie, and Sylvia. (Rose Marie spent some time with her mother and Schuschnigg in Missouri, as revealed in the article "A Chat with Dr. Schuschnigg," St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 31 July 1949, Series 14 [Supplementary Material], Folder 8A. This probably explains the mention of Schuschnigg's "adopted daughter" in at least one other article.) Vera and Schuschnigg were married by proxy during his Gestapo captivity in Vienna. Vera was later allowed to join her husband in Germany, where she lived in a boarding house while he was imprisoned at Dachau concentration camp. Maria Dolores (Sissi), Vera's and Schuschnigg's daughter, was born in March 1941, after which Vera lived with her husband and child in the camps where Schuschnigg was confined. Vera became a United States citizen in 1954 and died of cancer in September 1959.
Schuschnigg himself took up American citizenship on his fifty-ninth birthday in 1956. In 2001 Dieter A. Binder and Heinrich Schuschnigg, the former chancellor's nephew, brought out "Sofort vernichten": Die vertraulichen Briefe Kurt und Vera von Schuschniggs. 1938-1945, the letters of Schuschnigg and his wife Vera to Schuschnigg's historian uncle Hermann Wopfner. These letters, written from the couple's captivity, provide insight into Schuschnigg's thoughts on politics and cultural topics.
Schuschnigg's son Kurt, an art dealer, emigrated to the United States in 1957. In 2008 with the help ofhis wife Janet he published his reminiscences of his father, Der lange Weg nach Hause: Der Sohn des Bundeskanzlers erinnert sich. Schuschnigg's daughter Sissi graduated from Saint Louis University, made her debut in St. Louis, was also presented to society in France, and married Viscount Aubry de Kergariou. She died in 1989.