The evil of National Socialism seeming so obvious in retrospect, it boggles the contemporary mind to reflect that such an ideology proved seductive to so many millions of Germans, including many intellectuals. Yet some resisted, and My Battle Against Hitler, a newly-translated memoir by one of Nazism’s most implacable foes, Dietrich Von Hildebrand, relates one such story.
Von Hildebrand was a Catholic philosopher at the University of Munich whose prime working years coincided with the rise of National Socialism in central Europe. As a resident of Munich, the cradle of Nazism, he was in a unique position to bear witness against the ideology from its inception.
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Until recently, Von Hildebrand has not received the attention of similar figures like the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, perhaps because Von Hildebrand eventually emigrated to America with his family rather than die in the camps. As a definitional matter martyrs cannot survive their earthly tribulations, so Von Hildebrand was not a martyr, but he nevertheless made heroic sacrifices for his faith and the oppressed.
The memoir begins in 1921, although the early years leading up to the Nazi’s Beer Hall Putsch are brief snippets in the broader work—the Nazi’s wilderness years after the putsch’s ignominious end (Adolf Hitler was found hiding in a closet) are skipped entirely. Still, Von Hildebrand writes that "the increasing barbarization of morals" that led to Nazism was present even in those early years, in virulent anti-Semitism, nationalism, and Dolschstoss legends about why Germany had lost the Great War. This period was marked by a spree of high-profile assassinations that, as Von Hildebrand notes with dismay, were rationalized by the German public as morally trivial because of the nation’s staggering war casualties.
Von Hildebrand first ran afoul of German ultranationalists in 1921 when he condemned the German invasion of Belgium during World War I as an "atrocious crime," to the delight of his French hosts and the fury of the German press. He did not cease to offend, such that by 1923 he was a likely candidate to be hauled before a popular tribunal in the event the putsch succeeded. He lived in Munich for another 10 years, doing battle in an increasingly hostile intellectual environment, before fleeing to Austria in 1933.
The Austrian people, a majority of whom were Roman-Catholic, proved more receptive to Von Hildebrand’s message. He gained the trust and patronage of the Austrian government, which tasked him with creating an intellectual bulwark against Nazism—a sufficient military bulwark being by that time unattainable. Writing in his publication Der Christliche Ständestaat ("The Christian Corporative State"), Von Hildebrand proved a sharp thorn in the Nazi’s side. The Nazi ambassador to Austria, Franz von Papen, wrote to Hitler that "Hildebrand is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria," later implying that there was an active plot against his life. When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, Von Hildebrand escaped five hours ahead of the Gestapo’s raid on his apartment.
Von Hildebrand was comfortable in the abstract world of philosophy, as the essays appended to his memoir prove. However, Hildebrand’s memoir is concerned mostly with the practical ethics of how one should act in the face of evil, and his recurring answer—affirmed by his example—is simple.
Von Hildebrand did not make compromises with evil. When the Nazis sent him a questionnaire inquiring about his ancestry, he identified as non-Aryan, "proud at [that] moment to belong to the non-Aryans." While Von Hildebrand qualified as Aryan by a technicality in the law (his Jewish grandmother was baptized and raised as a Protestant), he "was loath even to recognize the distinction and to join the ranks of the non-persecuted ‘Aryans.’"
His coreligionists’ indulgent attitude toward Nazism would prove a source of great pain to Von Hildebrand, just as it did to Bonhoeffer. First, Von Hildebrand watched as German Catholics contorted their faith to accord with Nazism—he recounts finding a translation of the Summa Theologica that began "In the Holy Year of the Germans." Then Von Hildebrand watched as the Holy See ratified a concordat with the German government that he warned would legitimize National Socialism as a political movement in the eyes of German Catholics. "I cannot express how much it pained me that the Catholic hierarchy did not take a definitive stance against the Antichrist, who raised his head in Nazism," Von Hildebrand wrote.
Von Hildebrand and his band of conspirators were extraordinary in their resistance to National Socialism, and thankfully they have received some recognition by history—Von Hildebrand was lauded by Pope Pius XII as "a twentieth century doctor of the Church."
Thus was the man. What of his book? My Battle with Hitler is something of a patchwork. The memoir is incomplete, but its gaps are carefully filled with expository and supplementary essays compiled by translator and editor John Henry Crosby. Much like Whittaker Chambers’ Witness, Von Hildebrand’s memoir provides a fascinating window into ordinary life lived in extraordinary circumstances, where the mundane can be interrupted in an instant by the surrealities of totalitarianism. He describes arriving to campus in 1933 to learn that the Nazi’s paramilitary wing had hauled off members of the faculty. "I drank a strong cup of coffee and turned to my preparation," Von Hildebrand wrote. Later, he described a hair-raising train ride from Austria to Poland: "The train was divided at the border," he wrote, with one half destined for Germany. "I cannot say how many times I had to reassure myself that the car in which I was sitting was going to Poland. Just the thought that by mistake I could suddenly find myself in Germany sent shivers down my spine."
Virtues and vices are amplified in such circumstances, so each encounter in the book doubles as a case study in morality. Von Hildebrand introduces us to great men like Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, who organized a fierce resistance to Nazism cut short only by an attempted coup, where he was shot and bled to death on the floor of his office—but not before praying for the forgiveness of his killers. We are introduced to lesser men like Dollfuss’s successor, the appeasing Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg.
Most importantly we are introduced to Von Hildebrand, who urged his contemporaries to look evil in the face. "Tua res agitur!" he concludes an essay on anti-Semitism. "This concerns you!"