Anthony J. DeBlasi
Before the COVID invasion, a story appeared in a magazine called “Military,” no longer published, about an Austrian woman who grew up under Hitler’s Nazi regime.
I saved it and, in reexamining it, found that its relevance for us is greater than before. What the woman had to say presents parallels to current times that are, to say the least, astonishing. I shall call the woman Betty.
Hitler did not take Austria with tanks and guns, said Betty, he was elected by the Austrian people. In 1938, a third of Austria’s workforce were unemployed and inflation made life extremely difficult. Businesses and farmers declared bankruptcy daily and the young went begging for food, door to door. Betty’s mother, a devout Christian, helped feed some 30 poor people every day by cooking soup and baking bread for them.
Cities like Vienna and Linz were being destroyed by the fighting between communists and National Socialist activists. (National Socialism was Hitler’s Naziism.) The people petitioned their government for a voice in what kind of government they wanted. They had heard that in Germany, their neighbor to the north, there was no unemployment, the people had a high standard of living, and everyone was happy. (The reports did not mention the persecution of dissidents, whether Jew or gentile.)
Austrians were promised by the National Socialists that a vote for Hitler would bring them the same prosperity and happiness enjoyed in Germany. Some 98% of the people voted to annex Austria to Germany and be under Hitler’s rule. For three days, people danced in the streets and held candlelight parades. The new government opened up large field kitchens and everyone was fed.
German officials were appointed, and overnight there was law and order. In three or four weeks everyone was employed.
On the day Hitler was elected (March 13, 1938), Betty entered her school classroom to find a picture of Hitler on the wall where there had always been a crucifix. Her teacher, a devout Christian, told the class that they would no longer be praying and having religion. Class began by singing “Deutschland, Deutschland, Über Alles” and two hours of political indoctrination. The rest of the school day was for sports. The sports equipment was provided free.
Sunday was National Youth Day, which all schoolchildren had to attend. Parents of children that failed to attend got letters of warning that a second nonattendance of their children would bring a heavy fine, and a third such failure would subject them to imprisonment.
Children loved the changes and told their parents how happy they were about school. Betty’s mother was far from happy about this and resolved to take her daughter out of public school and have her schooled in a convent. Betty protested, but her mother told her that she would one day be grateful for the decision.
Her new curriculum had no political indoctrination and, though there were no sports and there was hardly any fun, Betty did her best to comply with her mother’s wishes.
At home for the holidays, Betty would ask her friends what went on in school. The looseness of their new lifestyle repelled her and she was alarmed to hear that unwed mothers were commended for having “babies for Hitler.” Betty could see why her mother wanted her out of public school.
Nazi equal rights
In 1939, World War II having started, food was rationed and available only with food stamps. A full-employment law was enacted, mandating that whoever did not work would not get a ration card and could face starvation. Young males and females were drafted into a labor corps for one year of service. Girls worked on farms during the day and returned to their barracks after work, for military training, like the boys. They were trained to be anti-aircraft gunners and signal corps operators and were used in the front lines.
Betty was 17 when she was severely wounded during an air strike and almost lost a leg. The injury exempted her from further military service.
Government under National Socialism
Before Hitler, Austria’s medical care system was excellent and attracted American doctors to train at the University of Vienna.
Under Hitler, health care was socialized. It was free for everyone, and doctors were salaried. Free access to health care filled waiting rooms with every known complaint, crowding hospitals. It could be a year or more before getting elective surgery. Funding for health care (taxes were 80% of income) diverted money from medical research, closing medical schools and forcing the best doctors to leave Austria.
Agencies were installed to oversee businesses and farms. Betty’s brother-in-law owned a restaurant that had square tables; he had to replace them with round ones “for safety.” Then he was ordered to provide more bathroom facilities. Unable to meet all the demands, he went out of business. A planning agency for farmers sent agents to inform the farmers on what to produce and how to produce it. Free enterprise faded away.
There were programs for families. Newlyweds were given money [the equivalent of $1,000] to set up house. Food stamps, clothing, housing, daycare and education were subsidized and monitored by the government.
Betty was sent to a village in 1944 as a student teacher. She was told that some of the adults there were retarded. One day she saw one of them placed into a van and she was told that he was being sent to a State Health Department institution where he would be taught basic skills. She learned that their families could not see them for six months. In time, these families would receive letters informing them that their family members had died of “natural causes.” It did not fool the villagers who suspected what was really going on. Their loved ones had left in excellent physical health.
The final measures
Then came a mandate to register guns. Criminals would be caught by matching serial numbers on guns. Most citizens were law-abiding and gun owners dutifully marched to the police station to comply with the mandate.
Freedom of speech ended. Whoever said anything against the government was arrested, and this included priests and ministers who spoke against the government.
Betty concluded her account by pointing out that dictatorship did not come quickly to Austria; it took five years, starting in 1938. If it had occurred overnight, her countrymen would have fought to their last breath. But by 1943 “our only weapons were broom handles.”
With the end of the war in 1945 came Russian troops, and Austria was once again under ruthless rule, this time by Soviet communists. In 1955, when the Soviets left Austria, they took with them everything they could. Factories were dismantled. Orchards were sawed down. What couldn’t be destroyed was burned. People barricaded themselves in their homes during the Soviet violence. Women hid in cellars. A monument in Vienna memorializes the women who were massacred by the Soviets.
Betty emigrated to America after the war, and on her visits to family and friends in Austria, she saw that most of the younger women were emotionally scarred from the horrors of their combat service.
Betty concluded her account by saying that “it’s true, those of us who sailed past the Statue of Liberty came to a country of unbelievable freedom and opportunity. America truly is the greatest country in the world.”
There is for me a personal endnote to this story. A childhood friend of mine met life under Nazi rule when his parents left America in 1938 to return to their native Germany. (Yes, I am that old.) I never heard from him again. My friend was doubtless put into the Hitler Youth program to be indoctrinated and regimented in mind, spirit, and uniform into a life of duty to Hitler.
And I must add two general endnotes:
1. It must be remembered that the official name for Nazi rule was National Socialism. And it must be remembered that socialism, by any other name, is an enemy of freedom that history has shown to be ruthless and brutal. The embrace of socialism is, to say the least, thoughtless in any age.
2. Comparing what this Austrian woman had to say about the land of her birth between 1938 and 1955 to what has been going on in America raises a fundamental question: Knowing what can be known about human nature, what assurance is there that what occurred to the people of Austria almost a century ago could not occur – with variations of detail – in America?
Anthony J. DeBlasi is a veteran and culture warrior.
Image: Wikimedia Commons, via Picryl // public domain