The Catholic who stood up to Hitler

by Francis Phillips
posted Friday, 19 Dec 2014

‘My Battle against Hitler’ provides a splendid witness to Catholic and human values

It is impossible to read My Battle against Hitler by the German philosopher and theologian, Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), translated by John Henry Crosby, without being inspired by its vital lesson: that you must always bear witness to the truth, even at great personal cost. These memoirs and essays, published in English for the first time, provide essential documentation of the thoughts and responses of a highly cultured man of faith when faced with the nascent ideology of National Socialism in Germany, in the 1920s and 1930s.

Like the German Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, von Hildebrand saw the Nazi Party and its leader in their true colours. At the risk of his academic position (in 1919 he had become assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Munich University) and eventually his life, he did not hesitate in pointing out and denouncing the features of extreme nationalism, militarism and anti-Semitism behind the Nazi ideology. As a Catholic (he converted in 1914) he was clear that “anti-Semitism and Catholicism are absolutely irreconcilable.”

Shortly after Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, von Hildebrand left Germany forever, at first for Vienna where he founded a journal, Der Christliche Standestaat, to oppose the spread of Nazi ideas, and then after the Anschluss in 1938, for France from where he escaped to the US. This book charts his eloquent, determined and courageous opposition – his “battle” – against the man he frequently described as “the anti-Christ”.

It is divided into two parts: the first, a memoir written at the request of his second wife, Alice, whom he married in 1957 (his first wife had died in 1955), describes his conscientious political stand from the early 1920s until his escape from France; the second is a selection of his articles for the journal he founded. Both parts build up a comprehensive picture of how the Nazi Party steadily and insidiously extended its influence over German society and how appalled and distressed von Hildebrand was to discover that Catholics he knew, from within the hierarchy as well as the laity, believed it was possible to compromise with Hitler. “Any concession in dealing with such a person only serves to whet their appetite” he wrote in 1935. He also saw, accurately, that the underlying cause of the passivity, the moral inertia of those in authority was “fear … like the gaze of a serpent on its victim”.

Published by Image Books, the book deserves wide readership. John Henry Crosby, its editor and director of the Hildebrand Project, told me that von Hildebrand worked intermittently on his memoirs from the late 1950s. He sketched extensive timelines to help structure his story but had to write from memory as all his records were lost when he fled Vienna in 1938. Selections from Part 1 of the book, Crosby told me, have been published in 1994 in an academic German series devoted to key documents in contemporary German history, but that his English translation contains several passages not previously translated.

And how did he select the articles in Part 11? Crosby explained that, helped by his father, John Crosby, a von Hildebrand scholar, he tried to choose the essays “that best represented the full range of von Hildebrand’s thoughts against National Socialism.” Eventually they plan to translate and publish all the essays on this theme. The task of the Hildebrand Project, he further explained, is not simply to publish the philosopher’s works, “but above all to introduce his major insights through conferences, seminars and fellowships for scholar and students.”
I mention that in many places in the memoir von Hildebrand writes of his doubts and anxieties concerning the 1933 Concordat between Germany and the Vatican. Crosby reminds me that von Hildebrand also expressed sympathy “for the incredibly difficult position of the Church and her leaders with respect to Nazi Germany.” Without criticising the motives of Pius XI or Cardinal Pacelli (later Pius XII), his secretary of state, von Hildebrand regretted the Concordat “because he believed it could only give ordinary Catholics the impression that the Church was withdrawing its condemnation of Nazism.” Although the Concordat itself “did not contain any yielding to Nazism” he deplored “its psychological effect on the Catholics in Germany.”

Crosby emphasises to me that when Pius XI realised Hitler had scant respect for the terms of the Concordat “he raised his voice in the magnificent encyclical “Mit brennender Sorge”. Hitler’s response “was a terrible persecution of the Church.” The book provides a splendid witness to Catholic and human values.