Publication Date: Sep 25, 2018
Winner of the 2017 Prix Goncourt, this behind-the-scenes account of the manipulation, hubris, and greed that together led to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria brilliantly dismantles the myth of an effortless victory and offers a dire warning for our current political crisis.
February 20, 1933, an unremarkable day during a harsh Berlin winter: A meeting of twenty-four German captains of industry and senior Nazi officials is being held in secret in the plush lounge of the Reichstag. They are there to extract funds for the accession to power of the National Socialist Party and its Chancellor. This opening scene sets a tone of consent that will lead to the worst possible repercussions.
March 12, 1938, the annexation of Austria is on the agenda: A grotesque day intended to make history—the newsreels capture a motorized army on the move, a terrible, inexorable power. But behind Goebbels’s splendid propaganda, an ersatz Blitzkrieg unfolds, the Panzers breaking down en masse on the roads into Austria. The true behind-the-scenes account of the Anschluss—a patchwork of minor flourishes of strength and fine words, fevered telephone calls, and vulgar threats—all reveal a starkly different picture. It is not the strength of character or the determination of a people that wins the day, but rather a combination of intimidation and bluff.
With this vivid, compelling history, Éric Vuillard warns against the peril of willfully blind acquiescence and offers a reminder that, ultimately, the worst is not inescapable.
Excerpt from The Order of the Day
For now, Hitler calls him “Mister Schuschnigg,” while Schuschnigg continues to call him “Chancellor.” Hitler has shut him down, and Schuschnigg, trying to make his case, has stressed his German-friendly policies. And now here the German chancellor is insulting Austria, even screaming that its entire contribution to German history is a big fat goose egg. And the tolerant, magnanimous Schuschnigg, instead of turning on his heels and ending the conversation then and there, 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 Führer’s eyes stubbornly bore into him. So what does he finally come up with, in his desperate haste? Beethoven. He comes up with good old Ludwig, the irascible deaf composer, the republican, the hopeless hermit. It’s Beethoven he pulls out of the woodwork, swarthy Beethoven, the drunkard’s son; he’s the one that Kurt von Schuschnigg, the Austrian chancellor, the fearful little racist aristocrat, drags from the pocket of History and dangles in Hitler’s face like a white rag. Poor Schuschnigg. He tries to brandish a composer against raving delirium; he tries to brandish the Ninth Symphony against the threat of military aggression; he tries to brandish the three little notes of the Appassionata to prove that Austria did, too, play a role in history.
“Beethoven,” Hitler retorts with an unexpected jab, “is not Austrian, he’s German.” And it’s true. Schuschnigg hadn’t even considered this. Beethoven is German, no two ways about it. Born in Bonn. And no matter how you slice it, even if you quietly try to stretch the truth a bit, even were you to riffle through all the annals, Bonn has never been an Austrian city, never ever.
“Gripping…a tour de force…this unusual work…peel[s] away the veils of dissimulation, disguise and self-justification that conspire to make historical disasters appear as just the way things happen.” —Wall Street Journal
“[A] remarkable account…It captures the bizarre blend of wishful thinking, clownish self-importance, and cold calculation that characterized many of the Nazis’ powerful enablers.” —The New Yorker
“Extraordinary, disturbingly resonant.” —BBC
“‘Don’t believe for a minute that this all belongs to some distant past,’ Vuillard writes, and this poetic, unconventional history compels the reader to agree.” —Publishers Weekly
“Powerful…a sure-footed blend of storytelling and re-evaluated history…Each vignette works in isolation. Together they create a compelling picture. Eighty years on from the Anschluss, in an age of fake news and real threats, rising nationalism and diminishing freedoms, they also cohere into a timely cautionary tale.” —Star Tribune
“With chilling precision and moral authority, Vuillard draws a straight line between the marching orders Hitler gave to Germany’s moguls, and the Anschluss…Vuillard’s language is beautifully and economically crafted; his judgments raise crucial questions…a clarion call to our current era.” —The Millions
“A short, sublime history that provides a necessary and contemporary service by stripping away the mythic quality of Nazi fascism.” —PopMatters
“In this meticulously detailed and evocative book, history comes alive, and it isn’t pretty.” —Kirkus Reviews
“A slim but powerful volume.” —Foreign Policy
“A staggering work…While Vuillard has mastered the art of presenting events with a grotesquely comical slant…he never lets up on the tension…a deeply moving book. Don’t miss it.” —France-Amérique
“In this powerful, heartrending short book, Éric Vuillard demonstrates how slowly and inexorably a catastrophe unfolds: from a meeting in February 1933 of the captains of German industry gathered to finance Hitler’s rise to absolute power, through March 12, 1938, the date of the Anschluss, a prelude to the Final Solution that drove hundreds perhaps thousands of Viennese Jews to suicide, all the way to the Nuremberg Trials and the vileness of German industry’s complicity in Hitler’s death camps. A virtuous achievement!” —Louis Begley, author of Wartime Lies
“A soul-piercing meditation on how the accretion of individual acts can save civilization—or hurl it into the abyss. Enable or obstruct? That is the choice when the future rests on a knife’s edge, Éric Vuillard shows in this haunting tale. His vivid portrait of the greed and timidity of two dozen business and political ‘leaders’ who refused to see what they might have stopped suggests that the future may well depend on the rest of us finding courage in ourselves and one another.” —Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
“A fresh, multifaceted reexamination of a seemingly well-known moment of twentieth-century history.” —World Literature Today
“A powerful story you read in one go, with astonishment and dread.” —La Presse
“A brief and striking narrative in line with the previous works of the author, eagerly describing history behind the scenes.” —L’Express
“Éric Vuillard’s presentation is clear, biting, implacable.” —Télérama
“Snatched from oblivion, these scenes spring to life in our minds like a jack-in-the-box…[They] challenge established perspectives and refresh the collective conscience.” —Le Figaro Littéraire