What does one do when faced with obvious and widespread wickedness? Are there protocols to consult that enable one precisely to know what ethical course of action to take? And how do these protocols work when so many of one’s own countrymen seem not to have noticed, or particularly to care, that awful things are happening on a grand scale, especially to the innocent?
There was nothing subtle about the threat posed by Adolph Hitler amid the rise of National Socialism and the terrors unleashed by the Third Reich. But because so few were willing to mobilize against it, the pathology was allowed to fester, so that by the time it had fully metastasized most of Europe had gone up in flames, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
However, there were those who, at the threatened nightfall, simply would not give in to the forces of darkness, even as they appeared to be everywhere on the march. Particularly not if the triumph of evil took place at the expense of good people doing nothing. Which is what usually accounts for the successes of the wicked. Still, there were, as I say, some few souls who would not acquiesce in the face of far-reaching evil. Not only had they seen enough of the nihilism and violence to know that great wickedness was in the saddle; they were resolute in their determination to try and put a stop to it. Diagnostic skills were not enough, in other words. What really needed to be done was to disabuse people of the illusion that accommodation was possible with Hitler and the fascist ideals of National Socialism, and so to prepare them to go out and fight the enemy.
Of these brave and noble souls, none was braver or nobler than Dietrich von Hildebrand, a fearless philosopher of Roman Catholic persuasion, who put his life at risk, along with all that was most dear to him, in the struggle against state-sponsored barbarism. My Battle Against Hitler is the story he tells, beginning as far back as 1921 when, at a peace conference in Paris, he openly denounced his own country’s invasion of neutral Belgium at the start of the Great War in 1914. For this effrontery he was not only vilified by the German press, but at once became a target for Nazi assassins, who would soon force him to flee his native city when, in 1923, Hitler attempted to seize power in Munich, the place where both he and the Nazi party were born.
It is a thrilling account of one man’s effort to defend the inherited values of the Christian West, at a time when the lights seemed to have gone out all over the world. Who was this remarkable man, Dietrich von Hildebrand, and how, in the crucible of mortal combat, did he manage to survive? These are fascinating questions that, thanks to a very able and enterprising young man, John Henry Crosby (along with John Crosby, his esteemed father, and a distinguished philosopher in his own right), we are now in a position to answer. Because, as founder and director of the Hildebrand Project, young Mr. Crosby has undertaken both the translation and editing of the entire record regarding Hildebrand’s heroic stance against Adolph Hitler and the twisted ideas that possessed him and so many others across Europe.
It is a rich compilation, consisting of a series of memoirs written between the years 1921 and 1937, when Hildebrand finally made his escape from Vienna, agents of the Gestapo not far behind, followed by a dozen or more essays, in which he exposes the evils of Nazi ideology, giving detailed reasons why it had become necessary to oppose it with the truth about God and the human person.
If there is one lesson to be learned from reading this book, and the evidence for it appears on every page, it is the fact of Hildebrand’s total commitment to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. After all, both he and his first wife, Gretchen, were ardent converts, their devotion having first crystallized back in 1914 when the philosopher Max Scheler told them that, “The Catholic Church is the true Church because she produces saints.” Only the grace of God, he explained, could account for the radiant beauty and heroism of someone like Francis of Assisi. Where is the earthly virtue that alone may succeed in animating a life so singularly and selflessly generous as that of the holy man of Assisi?
And so—the implication here is unmistakable—if Dietrich von Hildebrand had not been so fiercely committed to the Catholic Thing, had not accepted her protocols as his own in the solemn discharge of his moral obligations, all serious opposition to Hitler and the policies of the Third Reich would have simply melted away. His disapproval would hardly have amounted to anything more than that of the merest velleity of disapproval and regret. Indeed, not unlike that brooding Germanic genius of the Black Forest, Martin Heidegger, who never repented of his Nazi associations, Hildebrand might even have allowed himself to be co-opted by some of the same Nordic nonsense of blood and soil, of vendettas against Versailles, not to mention an ugly anti-Semitism manifest among even the most educated and refined of the German-speaking peoples. But his faith just kept getting in the way.
How it must have infuriated his enemies! Certainly it galled those powerful and virulent voices on the side of the German Reich, who obviously found intolerable his continued opposition to the Nazi regime. Ambassador Franz von Papen, for example, Hitler’s official stooge in Austria, where Hildebrand first sought refuge from those bent on killing him (as it wasn’t possible to silence him otherwise). Hildebrand has aptly described him as “a Trojan horse … sent to throw sand into the eyes of Catholics in Vienna.” Poor Papen, how often he must have found himself reduced to sheer sputtering rage on the subject of his nemesis. “That damned Hildebrand,” he said most undiplomatically, “is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria. No one causes more harm.” Indeed, in private conversations with Hitler, he would refer to him as “the architect of the intellectual resistance in Austria.” Who must, of course, at all cost be stopped.
But also among a great number of fellow travelers as well, who seemed to think that in order to get along with the New Germany they had better trim their sails and just go along. What a thorn in their side he must have been. Especially when it came to the Jews, for whom they had very little sympathy. And, really, wasn’t it all rather too much asking Austrians and Germans to suffer the uppity Jew, who had no business being in either country anyway?
But, again, Hildebrand wasn’t buying any of it. How could he? Had he not already seen in Adolph Hitler and National Socialism the face of the Antichrist? That everything about the Nazis—the racism, the nationalism, the militarism—it all reeked of the spirit of the Antichrist, and must therefore be wholly resisted and rejected. Nothing good would ever come of Hitler; and as for those bewitched by his “gruesome speeches,” they were, he suggested, like victims of a viper, whose gaze left them prostrate with fear and paralysis.
“God is offended,” he declared, “regardless of whether the victim of a murder is a Jew, a Socialist, or a bishop. Innocent blood cries out to heaven.” And it is from that perspective, surely, that one approaches the life and witness of this remarkable man. Who seemed to possess such a confidence and serenity about doing the will of God that even in the face dangers both constant and terrible he felt himself somehow delivered from fear. “I had the consciousness that what I was doing was right before God,” he later confessed, “and this gave me such inner freedom that I was not afraid.”
There appears a quote, just inside the front cover of this wonderful book, from a student of von Hildebrand, Paul Stocklein, that sums up the character and the impact of this extraordinary human being. It is a lovely tribute he pays and it is worth quoting in full:
He immunized and protected us from the philosophical waves that swept across Germany in those days. Heidegger’s melodies no longer had the power to seduce us, for our ears had become more discerning. Whoever understood von Hildebrand was saved. Despite the many factors at work, I think one can rightly say that history might have been quite different had there been more professors like him.