The Blogs of Francis Phillips
My Battle against Hitler. By Dietrich von Hildebrand. Translated and edited by John Henry Crosby.
What is remarkable is the way von Hildebrand never wavered in his opposition, even at the cost of personal danger. From a highly cultured but irreligious family, he had converted, along with his first wife, Gretchen, in 1914 and instantly understood that his newfound Catholic faith could never be a matter of private devotion. He had already rejected the militarism that had led to WW1; the cultural anti-Semitism of the post-war world of the 1920s was alien to his nature.
In 1919, as assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Munich university, he sent his students to the meetings of the nascent Nazi Party so that they could challenge the intellectual incoherence of its ideology. It is interesting to reflect that Munich, where Hitler first attracted a crowd of followers, was also the home of the thinker and philosopher who most clearly articulated the moral bankruptcy of his political views. As early as 1921 von Hildebrand was marked out as the enemy of the new Party, for his public condemnation of Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914 as “an atrocious crime.” In 1923, at the time of Hitler’s beer hall putsch, he recognised “Bavaria had fallen into the hands of criminals.” He described the Nazi ideology as representing the “epitome of kitsch – a flat, gloomy and incredibly trivial world, a barren and ignorant mindset.”
In 1923 he could not have imagined that Hitler would ever achieve power in a country so civilised as Germany. By 1932 the political scene had altered. Von Hildebrand was shocked to discover that some of his Catholic friends wanted to reconcile Nazism with Catholicism – something he vehemently rejected. He had begun to see that his “battle” against the Party was a “mission”, something he was called to speak out against.
Not prepared to make any compromises for the sake of his academic career, von Hildebrand left Germany forever in March 1933 after Hitler came to power. He felt he could not remain in a country where violence had been legalised, correctly diagnosing that behind the passivity of the German populace “was fear...like the gaze of a serpent on its victim.” He settled in Vienna where, until the Anschluss of 1938, he held an academic post at the university and founded a journal of intellectual resistance to Nazism, “Der Christliche Standestaat”.
What is so inspiring in reading this narrative is the sense of moral outrage von Hildebrand evokes; when it would have been convenient to keep his head down he was passionate in his belief that it “it is better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into making compromises against my conscience!” To his Catholic friends and others he constantly pointed out how “absolutely incompatible” Nazism and Christianity were; Hitler embodied “the spirit of the anti-Christ” and it was a “terrible illusion to think Catholics would be able to influence the Government by means of compromises.” Thus he was rightly pessimistic about the Vatican Concordat of 1933, designed to protect the position of German Catholics. He felt “their inner resistance would be paralysed” by what would seem a compromise with the state. This was indeed the unintended consequence of the Concordat which he always regretted, although without impugning the integrity of Pius XI or his secretary of state, Cardinal Pacelli, later Pius XII. He understood the very difficult position of the Church and how the Concordat would be misinterpreted.
The book is divided into two parts: part 1, written at the request of his second wife, Alice (Gretchen had died in 1955), describes his life in Germany and Austria in the decades before they met; part 2 is a selection of his articles for the anti-Nazi journal he founded when exiled to Vienna. These have much resonance today, at a time when Christian belief is becoming increasingly marginalised and attacked in the western world. “The Danger of Quietism” (1935) discusses the importance of publicly defending Christian values and “Against Anti-Semitism” is a spirited defence of the unique mission of the Jews in history. As with Nazism, he understood that anti-Semitism and Catholicism were “absolutely irreconcilable.”
With comprehensive footnotes and excellent introductions to the different chapters, this book should be read, not least for its underlying message: you can never compromise with evil.
This blog first appeared on the Catholic Herald website.
Version: 16th March 2015