Terror in Vienna
George Shuster April 9, 2004 - 10:40pm
We have passed through a week of harrowing experiences, still so vivid in the memory that I can hardly bring myself to write about them. It is one thing to see blood spilled, and another to watch the soul of man writhe in torment and then die. On the fateful Wednesday evening when Dr. Schuschnigg announced that Austria was to pass judgment on its government and its future, I happened to be touring the provinces with an Austrian journalist. In so far as we were concerned the news dispelled any illusions we may have entertained concerning the fateful gravity of the situation. A blow was to be struck in favor of Austrian independence, but it could hardly succeed unless somewhere in Europe a promise of substantial aid had been given.
Information concerning that point was reserved to a handful of people. But we could see-and this the next day’s travel was to make even clearer-that, in so far as the country itself was concerned, there was no room for doubt concerning the decision. The government had been everything but popular. It was based on an attempt to exercise a "Catholic dictatorship" in a notoriously anticlerical state, and such stability as it possessed was the result far less of its own innate strength than of the intense hatred which separated its enemies of the Right and Left. Nevertheless after Berchtesgaden a kind of miracle had happened. The Chancellor’s plucky stand for independence and his promise to modify the rigid financial policies of his government had evoked a wave of popularity which was constantly growing more impressive.
There were Nazi demonstrations in almost all towns, but nowhere excepting possibly in Styria did they serve any other purpose than to show that the strength of Hitler’s support had been greatly exaggerated. Workers, including many embittered former Social Democrats, were flocking to the Schuschnigg colors, and it seemed quite possible that in two weeks the gulf between the Catholic party and labor would be healed. Later on I was to regret having gone on this reconnoitering trip, but the fact that I went at least enables me to declare without any hesitancy whatsoever that the situation was fully under the government’s control, that the plebiscite was being organized with the utmost fairness, and that every sign pointed to a severe Nazi defeat. All stories and rumors to the contrary are fabrications. It is true that some pressure was brought to bear on civil servants, and that the government was in control of most of the instruments of propaganda. But in every other respect the road to the polls was so unobstructed that one had difficulty in realizing that Austria was not a democratic state.
We drove on through mountainous and sparsely settled country, so that we arrived in Graz late at night on March 11, utterly unaware that the government had yielded to Hitler’s ultimatum. There we ran headlong into a delirious Nazi demonstration. The car was surrounded by a crowd of schoolboys carrying any number of assorted weapons. "Jews! Jews!" resounded on all sides, and it was only by dint of displaying a measure of good feeling which I did not possess that we were able to extricate ourselves and leave for Vienna despite the hour and a blinding snowstorm. Almost every mile of what seemed the longest trip on record was interrupted with shouts. Boys armed with rifles and bayonets leaped from the roadside and insisted upon inspecting our passports and our political opinions. Once we lost our bearings and instead of keeping on the main highway drove up to a Franciscan monastery. When the error had been corrected, there gathered round us in that darkness a band of armed youngsters the oldest of whom was seventeen. They insisted upon searching the car for "treasures" which they thought we were escorting to safety.
At last we reached Vienna at five in the morning. The city, which had never boasted of more than a few thousand active Nazis, was asleep excepting for a small group of the faithful still congregated before the German tourist bureau in the Kaerntnerstraße, inside which a huge portrait of Hitler was banked with flowers. But there was little time for slumber. An hour later German bombers began to "demonstrate" over the city. They swooped down so close to the housetops that every other sound was drowned out. Round about, groups of high school boys began to mount guard. Directly across the street from us, for example, two urchins in knee pants stood with rifles and bayonets looking for all the world like boy scouts run amok. The vanguard of the German army, seated in trucks and armed to the teeth, began to roar through the streets. Terrorization was in progress-the method adopted for enforcing submission by creating what can be defined as absolute insecurity.
In order to understand what this means one must remember that probably less than a third of Vienna’s population can qualify as German according to Nazi principles. For all these people the borders had been hermetically sealed the night before. The coup had come so suddenly that Austria was huge trap. By eight in the morning every resident American in the city had a swarm of visitors asking the impossible. They begged for aid in cajoling passports out of the embassy or in being smuggled out of the country. I have never seen so much despair and frenzy in all my life. Meanwhile more and more thousands of Germans were brought to Vienna. Police, black shirts and brown shirts, soldiers and officials-all these were impressive, but most striking of all were the masses of organized school children brought down by train and truck to demonstrate when Hitler arrived. Soon the otherwise quiet and dignified city became a veritable bedlam. All day and all night the roar continued, rendering sleep an incredible luxury.
The pogrom followed. Jewish shops were plundered and smashed. Houses were entered and ransacked. Individuals were pursued on the streets. Property was confiscated without a moment’s warning. Whole streets looked as if a tornado had passed along. But far worse than all this was the horrible despair which unnerved hundreds of thousands-a despair so omnipresent that suicide was a normal recourse. People stabbed or shot themselves to death on the very streets. I shall say not more about it excepting this: An American monsignor and I walked along together wondering whether even Christianity can subdue the beast in man. Cruelty surrounded us, massed, exultant, and victorious. I know now what Calvary means....
Nevertheless, when Hitler entered the city, the bells of St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in welcome. I do not wish to judge harshly, but I doubt whether in all history there is a more shameless incident. It was for many of my acquaintances who sensed the full moral ignominy of what was happening round about just as if Christ had really made a pact with Satan in the hour of temptation....
I was so shaken by this experience that for hours I walked about aimlessly, hardly noticing the shouting and the roaring and the click of steel. All this was merely external. What mattered was not what had come, but what had gone-the values of Christendom no longer earned but merely inherited, now to be struggled for tenaciously again through long generations with quiet heroism, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom. These values must be rescued not only through the present difficult times but through the even more perilous days ahead. For there is nobody over here now who doubts that Europe is on the brink of irreparable disaster.
April 15, 1938