Gunter Acrisius Schüssel was born in Poppendorf, Austria, a small village near the Styrian capital of Graz, on March 26, 1947. His parents were Gustav Schüssel (1907 – 1979), a local confectioner, and his wife Aléka Petropoulou (1922 – 1998). They were married on October 20, 1945 – Gustav was 38 at the time, and Aléka was a 23-year-old Greek model. How they met is not known. According to Gunter, both of his parents were very strict.
"Back then, in Austria, it was a very different world. If we did something bad or we disobeyed our parents, the wooden spoon was not spared." He grew up in a religious family, and attended church service every Sunday.
Gustav had shown a preference for Meinhard, the younger of his two sons. His favoritism was "strong and blatant," which may have stemmed from the unfounded suspicion that Gunter was not his biological child. Gunter has said his father had "no patience for listening or understanding your problems… he only was concerned with one thing: making the perfect bonbons." In later life, Gunter commissioned research into his father's wartime record, which came up with no evidence of atrocities despite Gustav's membership in the Nazi Party. Gunter had a good relationship with his mother, however, and kept in contact with her until her death.
At school, Gunter was academically in the middle of the pack, but stood out for his "cheerful, good-humored and exuberant" character, according to one teacher. Money was a problem in the household, particularly growing up in a Cold War-torn Austria; Gunter has recalled that one of the highlights of his youth was when the family bought an electric mixer.
As a boy, Gunter played many sports — heavily influenced by his father. However, at the age of 14, Gunter chose to join the debate team over the football (soccer) team. In response to questioning related to when he started his debate career, Gunter said "I actually started debate training when I was fifteen, but I'd been participating in games, like chess, for years, so I felt that although I was inexperienced, I was mentally well-developed, at least enough so that I could start going to the debates and start debating." Later during questioning, however, he claimed that "at 14, (he) started an intensive training program with Professor Don Frakenmer, studied psychology at 15 (to learn more about the power of mind over body) and at 17, officially started (his) competitive debating career." Eventually, however, Gunter debated internally whether the debate circuit was meant for him.
"I had to decide my life's plan at 14. My father wanted me to be a confectioner, like he was. My mother wanted me to go to trade school. I wanted neither; I hated chocolate, and I wanted to use my head, not my hands, to make a difference in the world," Gunter said. Conflicted and looking for inspiration, Gunter took to visiting a poetry cafe in Graz, where he also frequented the local movie theaters to see his idols on the big screen. "I was inspired by individuals like Sean Connery and Alec Guinness," Gunter says. When Guinness died in 2000, Gunter fondly remembered him: "As a teenager, I grew up with Alec Guinness. His remarkable accomplishments allowed me a sense of what was possible, when others around me didn't always understand my dreams. He has been part of everything I've ever been fortunate enough to achieve."
In 1961, Gunter met former Austrian chocolate champ Hinrich Dossel, who invited him to a "Bake-Off" at the Grand Hotel in Graz, where his life would take a 180 turn. He discovered his disdain for chocolate was just a way to mask his feelings towards his father. He realized chocolate was in his blood, and that the possibilities were so much broader than what his father would "allow (him) to achieve". After this discovery, he became so dedicated that he would break into his father's bakery on weekends, when it was usually closed, so that he could make chocolate bars. "I had my father's expertise at my disposal, but I didn't want to be chained by his oppression. I learned the craft, all his secrets, under his nose." Gunter exhibited his creations under a psuedonym, so as not to incur his father's wrath. "It would make me sick to miss a Bake-Off... I knew I couldn't look at myself in the mirror the next morning if I didn't do it."
In 1978, Gunter's brother Meinhard died in a political riot while living in Greece. Meinhard had been running a baklava bakery owned by his aunt and was killed when the bakery was firebombed by Dourakos rebels. Gunter did not attend the funeral. Meinhard was married to a Greek woman named Elene Noxious, and the couple shared a six-year-old son named Louden. One month after her husband's death, Elene was killed as well, once again from another Dourakos attack. Gunter had not spoken with Meinhard in over a decade, but upon learning of young Louden's existence six years later, Gunter paid for his education and a life in the United States.
Gustav died in 1978 from a stroke, one year after his younger son's death. Gunter claimed he did not attend his father's funeral because he was traveling the world and was out of contact with his family, although testimonies from other sources indicate at least three other stories of why he did not attend his father's funeral. Barbi Sazi, his first serious girlfriend, said he informed her of his father's death without emotion and never spoke of his brother, either. With Meinhard's death leaving him the sole heir to his father's business, he took over and turned it into a multi-billion dollar company.
By this time, Gunter's exploits as a chocolatier were no longer a secret to the rest of the world, and with the specter of his father no longer hanging over him, Gunter became king of the candy world. Nevertheless, Gunter seemed to use what "would now be called child abuse" from his father as motivation to succeed and surpass him.
"He was a brilliant confectioner but a horrible parent. My hair was pulled. I was hit with cookie sheets. So was the kid next door. It was just the way it was. Many of the children I'd seen were broken by their parents, which was the German-Austrian mentality. They didn't want to create an individual. It was all about conforming. I was one who did not conform, and whose will could not be broken. Therefore, I became a rebel. Every time I got hit, and every time someone said, 'you can't do this,' I said, 'this is not going to be for much longer, because I'm going to move out of here. I want to be rich. I want to be somebody.'"