Making Sense of the Central European Tragedy

What would we have done? Trying to grasp what we can never fully understand.

This year’s commemoration of the Anschluss of Austria by Nazi Germany, March 11 & 12, 1938, has been as engrossing as it has been hard to absorb. 80 years: The series of evenings on ORF, the Zeituhr 1938 retold in real time, the photographs and the histories in Profil, Standard and elsewhere, have all brought vivid detail like tiny pieces to a vast mosaic, a puzzle we can complete, perhaps, but never understand.

We are all so very, very far away from this. It helps to be living in Vienna, to know the city well, so that photos, film and newsreel footage unrolls along familiar streets, against familiar backdrops. We are reminded then again, each time: This happened here, this madness happened right here, and many people who got caught up in it were ordinary people we might have known. Or God help us, we might ourselves have been.

One of the witnesses was British journalist G.E.R. Gedye, who had been in Austria since 1927 and was thrown out three days after the Anschluss as an “undesirable alien”. In the months that followed, he compiled a devastating memoir of his decade in Vienna since his arrival at the time of the burning of the Justizpalast in 1927, of the collapse of the First Republic, the rise of fascism and the Nazi take over, that remains to this day one of the most detailed and moving records of the time. Reading his scathing indictment of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler, Gedye’s original publisher backed out, and his employer, the Daily Telegraph, gave him a choice of publishing the book, or keeping his job. Gedye resigned, and Fallen Bastions: The Central European Tragedy went through five editions in the first two months.

Throughout, you feel the great affection Gedye had for Austria, “a fine and gentle country,” and particularly for the Viennese. He despaired at the contrast between the slightly embarrassed shouting at the rallies of the Fatherland Front and the fanatical roaring of the Nazis. But Schuschnigg’s supporters could only sigh: “It is not in the nature of the Viennese to make politics by bawling and brawling in the streets… If only it could be brought to a vote…”

Believing that Chancellor Schuschnigg’s 11th hour plebiscite would save Austria, many, left trunks half packed, he tells us, and decided to stay to support the cause. For Jews, it was a fatal decision. When Schuschnigg gave in to Göring’s pressure, the borders closed around them.

Within ten minutes of Schuschnigg’s farewell of “God protect Austria,” Gedye passed a column of the Fatherland Front carrying banners supporting the plebiscite, completely unaware of what had just happened. “As they came level with the police station, a dozen police rushed out as the inspector shouted, ‘Halt! Who is the leader of this procession?’ The Fatherland Front official at the head stepped forward proudly, and smiling happily, said ‘I am, Herr Inspector.’ Without a word, the inspector drew his truncheon and hit him full in the face. As the man dropped, his face streaming in blood and writhing in agony, the whole mob of police… charged into the procession of men, women and children… who scattered terror-stricken under the hail of truncheon blows.”

A Gedye crossed the Graben “the Brown flood was sweeping the streets. It was an indescribable witches Sabbath – storm troopers, lots of them barely out of the school room, with cartridge belts and carbines, the only other evidence of authority being Swastika brassards, were marching side by side with police turncoats, men and women shrieking or crying hysterically the name of their leader… motor lorries filled with storm troopers clutching their long-concealed weapons, hooting furiously, trying to make themselves heard… the air filled with a pandemonium of sound and intermingled screams of ‘Down with the Jew, Heil Hitler.’”

It was not the readers’ fault that they could not believe him, he wrote. “Because it is impossible… to conceive of the diseased and degenerate mentality which lies behind the pathological anti-Semitism of the Nazis.” The violence. The terror. The arrests. The systemic plundering of Jewish businesses built over generations. After a few days, he wrote, this too was accepted as inevitable, as were the daily suicide lists.

It is no fault of ours, he wrote, but our very good fortune, that we cannot understand.

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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