Gazing into my great-grandfather’s shadow

Sunday, November 15, 2020 - 1:24pm

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Courtesy of Sammy Sussman

Editor’s Note: The following article is an excerpt from a book the author is currently writing titled “The Search for Marcel.”

On January 15, 2020 — a day that history will remember for the grim procession delivering two articles of impeachment to the Senate of the United States — I first read an article written in 1937 by my great-grandfather, Otto Schirn, titled “Chancellor Schuschnigg’s Work.”

Four months earlier, I had come across a strange document in my grandmother’s photo album about her father’s European life. Though I had always thought of my great-grandfather as an Austrian-Jewish refugee — a simple academic who was incredibly lucky to escape in 1941 with his life — the yellow, faded document claimed that he was so much more than that. “As a journalist,” it said. “Dr. Schirn had spoken against the Nazi government.”

I never met Otto; he died six years before I was born. His life had affected me only through the loving memories he left with my grandmother and mother. But as soon as I read those words, I knew I would have to dedicate months of my life to rediscovering Otto’s history. It hinted at a story too powerful to be left untold.

From my grandmother’s files, I learned that Otto turned to journalism after four years searching for an academic post. A member of the Vienna University’s inaugural economics doctoral class, Otto would later write to my grandmother of the “casual anti-Semitism” that made a teaching career impossible.

Otto spent a year studying journalism in Brussels before he was hired as the Viennese correspondent for “L’Indépendance Belge,” a left-wing Belgian newspaper. He was given the pen name Marcel Legrand to disguise his Jewish identity. From May 1937 to February 1938, he chronicled the fall of Austria’s right-wing fascist party as Austria became part of the Third Reich.

In his reporting before “Chancellor Schuschnigg’s Work,” Marcel began to establish two dominating themes that would carry through the rest of his reporting. The first was the hidden motive behind all Austrian political developments: Austria’s fight for independence from an increasingly aggressive German state. Marcel wrote of this struggle as the tragedy it would soon become.

The second theme was the increasingly violent strain of anti-Semitism that was taking root both inside and outside Austria’s borders. It was an aggressive institutionalization of the casual anti-Semitism Otto first witnessed in his days at the Vienna University. As he wrote in his second article, Europe would soon face a “Jewish problem” as Britain closed Palestine’s borders to European Jews and Germany sought to instigate the next diaspora.

This reporting took place against a backdrop of domestic unrest. Austria’s chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, was a noted authoritarian. History would later describe Schuschnigg’s brand of far-right Austrian nationalism as Austrofascism. His predecessor, Engelbert Dollfuss, had seized power by forcing the police to suspend Austria’s legislature. After Dollfuss’s assassination by 10 Austrian Nazis, Schuschnigg’s chancellorship became focused on maintaining Austrian independence, quashing Austrian Nazism and suppressing political dissent.

Though in the beginning Marcel supported Kurt Schuschnigg, he did so without acknowledging his anti-democratic tendencies. He wrote of Schuschnigg as the defender of Austrian independence, the defender of Austrian Jews in the face of the violence that lurked on the other side of Austria’s border.

But in the article I read on January 15, I watched my great-grandfather’s opinion evolve. For the first time, he admitted his support for an illiberal political figure. “Authoritarianism without dictatorship!” read the article’s subtitle. I wondered if it was written with any sliver of sarcasm.

“After the tragic death of Dollfuss,” Marcel began. “Austria found itself at a very dangerous turning point in its post-war history. The whole country was still under the impression of the National Socialist coup d’état.”

In two sentences, Marcel summarized Schuschnigg’s powerful response. “Although naturally hostile to the ideas of dictatorship and violence, [Schuschnigg] understood that Austria’s exceptional circumstances warranted an authoritarian government. This is what he achieved without resorting to measures of violence that would be repugnant to the Austrian people.”

I was horrified by the contradiction I found in this paragraph, a contradiction that carried through Marcel’s full body of reporting. It was the same contradiction that I see taking place today, the slick realpolitik that sacrifices precedent and principle for the perception of raw political power, the failure to defend the underlying principles of our electoral system in hopes of avoiding the wrath of an outgoing party leader.

For my great-grandfather, of course, the stakes could not have been higher. In 1945, he learned that his sister had died of pneumonia. A few months later, he learned his parents had during their transport to Auschwitz. Though he remembered them, Josef and Tauba, they died at 61 and 62, two names among the thousands transported from Malines that day. 

While writing as Marcel, I believe my great-grandfather thought Schuschnigg was the only person that could prevent the Nazis from destroying his homeland. Marcel was willing to give up his belief in checks and balances, legal rights — the very principles of democracy — in hopes that Schuschnigg might preserve Austria’s independence. He was willing to sacrifice all moral principles in hopes of preventing history’s inevitable outcome: the Anschluss, the fall of Austrofascism and the rise of an Austria Nazi government.

As I questioned this moral equivocation, I thought about the life Otto went on to lead in the United States. Why did Otto Schirn, the Austrian-Jewish refugee behind the Los Angeles Holocaust Memorial, once supported an authoritarian chancellor? Why had this academic, who lectured on behalf of civil rights in the early 1950s, support one of the main perpetrators of Austrofascism? 

Marcel’s position required a cynicism and realism I found chilling. Didn’t he believe that Austria could choose between democracy and Nazism? Couldn’t he see that Nazism would only grow stronger, that it would become more normalized in the sinking democratic power vacuum Schuschnigg’s party had helped create?

The comparisons to the politics of contemporary America, Otto’s adopted home, seemed obvious. There was the normalization of racism that accompanied the confirmation of judges, the degradation of ethical norms that accompanied minor tax cutsDecades of moral principles sacrificed for modest policy advances, a deeply-entrenched political party putting forward a platform of blind fealty. 

As I look at the choice Otto once made to forfeit morality in pursuit of an end goal, I see a reflection of the choice America’s leaders make every day. I can only hope they do so while knowing how hard it will be to rebuild.

But the more I compare these two devil’s bargains, the more I am forced to acknowledge their differences. In Otto’s case, he was a fake Belgian journalist, an Austrian Jew writing under a pen name. It was Hitler’s Nazism, not Schuschnigg’s nationalism, that forced Otto to become Marcel.

Unlike our contemporary leaders, Marcel’s reporting did not normalize “very fine people” on both sides of Austria’s existential fight for independence. Marcel acknowledged Schuschnigg’s authoritarianism for what it was. He did this while drawing a distinction between nationalist illiberalism and hate-based racism that would soon turn into genocide.

Nevertheless, I imagine Otto spent the rest of his life questioning his support for fascism in the buildup to the Anschluss. After nearly a year spent researching Otto’s life, I’ve come to accept that I will question my great-grandfather’s decision for the rest of my life.

And after watching America’s voters defeat the strongest, most blatant assault on American democracy in recent memory, I realized that many politicians and civil servants must be asking themselves the same question. How did they allow their desire for power or their fear of speaking out to eclipse their allegiance to our Constitution-based democratic system?

Over the past week, various political leaders have attempted to cast doubt on the factual underpinnings of this election. Lawyers have worked tirelessly to peel away votes from a specific candidate. Though my great-grandfather’s reporting makes me fearful for the health of our democracy, I take solace in the 5 million-vote margin that separates our government from the fragile ego and destruction of one man.

In Marcel’s world, after all, there was no election to save morality. Schuschnigg and his opponents could operate without any fear of a referendum on their policies. Once lost, Austria’s political morality could not be easily rebuilt.

As if to prove this point, I noticed a phrase in an article Marcel wrote a month before the Anschluss. The goal of this article was to summarize Schuschnigg’s political legacy; toward the end, Marcel mentioned Schuschnigg’s most recent domestic policies. 

In all the documents that I’ve read about Marcel’s time, I can think of no better example of the everlasting damage of compromised morality. I fear that America’s current political climate has similarly paved the way for dictatorial destruction in the years to come.

Marcel still supported Schuschnigg’s fascism at the time of his penultimate article. He viewed it as a bulwark against the Nazis. But it was of Schuschnigg’s legislation before the Anschluss, not Hitler’s genocide after the Anschluss, that Marcel wrote of a chilling new political development: “the threat to confine all disturbers of social peace to concentration camps.”


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