‘Great catastrophes often creep up on us in tiny steps.’
This short book is a brilliant and original look at the machinations and meetings which paved the way for the Anschluss of Austria in 1938, and thus the road to global war. It’s a chilling reminder that simply doing nothing is enough to allow such events to occur. It also shows us some of the backstage figures who facilitated the seemingly inexorable rise of the Nazi party, beginning and ending as it does with the industrialists who funded and benefitted from Hitler’s Reich. There’s a horrible sense, for some of Vuillard’s political figures, that by 1938 it was all simply too late to change the direction of the Nazi juggernaut. Taking as his starting point established historical points and sources (Kurt von Schuschnigg’s own memoir, for example), Vuillard then creates a vivid and personal sense of what these moments might have been like for the protagonists involved.
Crucially, he does not try to imagine Hitler’s thoughts – Hitler remains a figure to be observed. We do see him at close range though, watching the scene in a private meeting where he bullies Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, into accepting a highly damaging set of agreements designed to allow Hitler free entry into his neighbouring county.
‘…Schuschnigg, instead of turning on his heels and ending the conversation there and then, furiously racks his brains, like a good pupil, for an example of Austria’s famous contributions to history. At top speed, in no order whatsoever, he rummages through the pockets of the centuries. But his head is empty, the world is empty, Austria is empty. And the Fuhrer’s eyes stubbornly bore into him.’
An informal tone at times doesn’t mask the authoritative weight of his observations. He calls out the cowardice of individuals, Schuschnigg included, and has an excellent turn of phrase for those deserving of history’s contempt. The Duke of Wellington, a member of the far right Nordic League, ‘who had enjoyed every privilege and therefore had no excuse’, is ‘a man with a narrow skull, weak mouth, and an empty gaze’. Those who actively supported the fascist cause, or even just stood by, get short shrift. We see brief moments where individuals struggle with themselves before caving in to Hitler’s plans. No one comes out of this particularly well but Vuillard does reserve a brief and guarded support for the puppet-like President of Austria, Wilhelm Miklas,
‘Dreary little Miklas, a simple figurehead, president of a republic that had been defunct for five years, was suddenly fighting back … Man is never a sure bet; a poor bastard can suddenly dig way down deep inside himself and find an absurd scrap of resistance, a tiny nail, a splinter. And so it was that a man apparently without convictions, a nincompoop with little self-esteem, dug in his heels. Not for long, mind you, but even so. Miklas’s day was far from over.’
His attention to detail builds the tension of the time, focusing on key events which have perhaps sometimes been lost in the grander sweeps of the move towards war. We watch the newly-installed Minister of the Interior for Austria, the Nazi Seyss-Inquart, vacillate with regards to the telegram he has been ordered to send Hitler, inviting him to come in. The scene where Hitler’s convoy of tanks breaks down on the border is mined for its full absurdity in a moment of heightened political tension.
To go behind the scenes in this way – we see von Ribbentrop bore his way through a lunch at Downing Street at the very point Chamberlain receives news of the Anschluss – is to show that these figures were utterly human in their often petty private behaviour, and were therefore even more monstrous in their subsequent actions. It reminds us that these terrible figures, now often regarded as frozen in their own particular historical circumstances, were also people who connived and who manipulated those around them for their own ends.
I’m not a historian – there will be others’ views on this sort of account – but for me this was a vivid and significant retelling of these crucial few months that led to such devastation for so many. Vuillard points out that in 1938, ‘this great jumble of misery, in which horrific events are already taking shape, is dominated by a mysterious respect for lies. Political manoeuvring tramples facts.’ A valuable and significant read in so many ways.