Hitler’s Adversary Challenges Us to Public Square Engagement
“How did the German citizens allow Hitler to come to power?”
“How did an entire nation drink the Kool-Aid of anti-Semitism and national socialism?”
These questions have run through the minds of most Americans upon learning of the atrocities of World War II and the Holocaust. As a child, I remember thinking to myself, “We would never allow this to happen in America,” as if being an American somehow implied I am of a morally superior race, a breed of humans whose innate, well-formed consciences would prevent us from allowing such egregious crimes to be committed on our land. Despite my naive musings, no such metaphysical difference exists between humans today and those of a hundred years ago. Therefore, it follows that not every 20th century German was a heartless Nazi or silent bystander. There were a few men and women during the reign of the Third Reich who remained disenchanted by Hitler’s allure and the weltanschauung of national socialism.
One such man was the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand. Hildebrand was the formidable intellectual warrior whom Adolf Hitler himself once referred to as his public enemy number one.
How does one earn such a title as public enemy number one during the reign of one of history's most notorious dictators?
Apparently, defending truth at all costs is a good place to start. Hildebrand’s battle with Hitler contains no dramatic fight scenes, espionage or gruesome executions. Hildebrand was a professor and a layman, whose love of truth and love of Christ compelled him to speak out against evil and be committed to the demands of his conscience.
It is well past time for his story to be told and his witness to be heeded. For the spirit of our age is not free from dangerous ideologies, and our consciences are not always protected by the state. Hildebrand’s battle with Hitler underlines why we must give our faith and our conscience primacy over political parties, ideologies and cultural fads. For when objective standards of morality are not conserved, chaos ensues and innocent lives are lost.
The Siren Song of National Socialism
Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power did not occur overnight, nor was its victory a mere result of military prowess. What occurred in the gas chambers of Birkenau and Auschwitz was an inevitable consequence of an evil worldview, specifically that of national socialism.
National socialism formed the ideology at the core of the Nazi movement. Over the course of many years, its ideas and spirit seeped into every facet of society: university classrooms, church pulpits, children’s literature, etc. National Socialism and the zeitgeist of 21th century Germany were one and the same. When we watch black and white tapes of Hitler speaking from a pulpit to a vast sea of zealous supporters, we hear the phrase “national socialism” again and again. But in our history classes, have our educators thoroughly explained to us how the core principles of that philosophy and how its erroneous tenants led to mass genocide? It wasn’t until I read the memoir of Dietrich von Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, that I understood how a philosophy could so powerfully impact the worldview of an entire nation and incite unimaginable moral debauchery.
Despite those around him that remained jaded towards the philosophical and political milieu of the day, Hildebrand immediately took note of the errors present within the Nazi’s ideologies. In the early 1920s, prior to the Nazi movement becoming widely known, Hildebrand was already publicly anathematizing its main pillars: nationalism, militarism, collectivism and anti-Semitism.
He had the intellectual, moral and spiritual clarity to see through the allure of these ideas and the resolve to speak out against them. His outspokenness did not go unnoticed by the political party whose movement was founded upon beliefs that Hildebrand frequently referred to as “the greatest heresy of the 19th and 20th century.” As early as 1921 the Nazi party blacklisted Hildebrand.
A Beggar In Freedom
During the years that passed between Hitler’s initial failed coup in 1923 and his gradual rise to prominence and power, Hildebrand strived to make the errors of national socialism and the Nazi party apparent to his colleagues, friends, family and church. National Socialism and the Nazi party were gaining popularity and prominence, particularly within the German universities.
As a professor at the University of Munich, Hildebrand’s fierce renouncement of the Nazis and their beliefs stymied any possible advancement in his career.
He wrote, “The battle against national socialism belongs to my mission. I cannot make any compromises in order to secure my career.” Not only was he uncompromising but he was continuously defiant. When his university required their faculty to fill out a questionnaire on racial purity, Hildebrand proudly wrote, “Nein,” in response to the question, “Are you of Aryan descent?” Although Hildebrand had a Jewish grandmother, he himself would have been considered a non-Jew, but Hildebrand thought the question asinine and desired to stand in solidarity with the Jewish people.
In 1933 when Hitler successfully seized power, Hildebrand had already made up his mind that he must leave Germany. One might think it was his name on Hitler’s hit list that compelled him to flee. On the contrary, Hildebrand believed his intellectual war with National Socialism must continue, and to do so while remaining in Germany would be nearly impossible. He knew that if he stayed in Germany he would either be forced into silence or risk the concentration camps. In his memoirs, he writes, “I simply could not make compromises, and it was clear to me that I was in the greatest danger of forfeiting my freedom … Better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into making compromises against my conscience!”
Once in Austria, Hildebrand immediately sought to continue his work and with the support of Austria’s anti-Nazi chancellor, Engelbert Dollfuss, Hildebrand established a Catholic anti-Nazi, anti-racist newspaper, Der Christliche Standestaat -- The Christian State. The Christian State took up a mission to combat all false ideologies incompatible with a Christian worldview whilst promoting the internal conversion of Austria’s culture and people. Hildebrand offered himself to Dollfuss as an intellectual officer in the battle of worldviews.
Within the pages of his journal, Hildebrand strove to protect the minds of the Austrian people from the impending wave of National Socialism crashing down upon them. He appealed to them as a thinker by revealing with intellectual clarity the many errors of National Socialism and anti-Semitism. But more importantly, he appealed to them as a fellow Catholic and Christian, imploring them to take note of National Socialism’s and racism’s incompatibility with their faith and the teachings and spirit of Christ. He believed that if Christ truly reigned in their hearts as King, they could not argue or ignore the fact that the Nazi movement stood in direct opposition to Christ and His church.
For Hildebrand, it was as simple as asking oneself, “Are you for or against Christ?”
Unfortunately, Hildebrand’s words, convicting and powerful as they were, were not enough to light the flame within those who had already decided not to take up arms.
In March of 1934, Austrian Nazis assassinated Engelbert Dollfuss, and in 1938 German troops marched into Austria and claimed it for the Third Reich. Fortunately, an Austrian police officer tipped off the Hildebrand family and they managed to escape Vienna just five hours before the Gestapo arrived at their front door.
By the grace of God, Hildebrand and his family eventually arrived in the United States. A famous German professor no longer, Hildebrand began his new life: a poor refugee, holes in his shoes, the unknown public enemy number one of Adolf Hitler.
Dietrich von Hildebrand’s battle with Hitler is a tale whose recounting is long overdue. In order to not repeat the sins of our ancestors, we must examine how they fell and look to the heroic lives of those who withstood the temptations of their age.
At the time of Hitler’s rise to power, the population of Germany was around 60 million. The Christian population of Germany was also around 60 million.
How could this be so?
Why did the churches not detect the immense danger of the evils of the day?
Why did they not fight against it?
Are we not all that different from those silent Christians who lived not so long ago?
The next article in this series will address what Dietrich von Hildebrand referred to as quietism, the failure of good men and women to speak up and take action in the public sphere. Sound familiar?