These writings by the German theologian and philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977) have not appeared in English before, and it is thanks to this translation by John Henry Crosby that they are now available. Their publication is significant because they are part of the authentic witness and documentation of the moral evil of National Socialism many years before Hitler came to power in 1933.
It is easy in hindsight to recognise the terrible folly that the German people committed in voting for the Nazis, but it is another thing to have had the clarity and courage to recognise this in the 1920s, when Germany was in a state of social and political upheaval and the National Socialists were still considered of marginal significance. 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 merely of private devotion. He had already rejected the militarism that had led to the First World War, and the cultural anti-Semitism of the post-war 1920s was alien to his nature.
In 1919, as assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Munich university, he sent his students to meetings of the nascent Nazi Party so 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 the Nazi leader’s views.
As early as 1921, von Hildebrand was marked out as an 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 that “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”. 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 lay fear. He settled in Vienna where, before the Anschluss of 1938, he held a post at the university and founded a journal of intellectual resistance to Nazism, Der Christliche Ständestaat.
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 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 Antichrist” 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, though 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: the first, written at the request of his second wife, Alice, describes his life in Germany and Austria in the decades before they met. Part two 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” discusses the importance of publicly defending Christian values. “Against Anti-Semitism” is a spirited defence of the unique mission of the Jews in history. He understood that, as with Nazism, anti-Semitism and Catholicism were “absolutely irreconcilable”.
With comprehensive footnotes and excellent introductions to each chapter, this book should be read, not least for its underlying message: you can never compromise with evil.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (22/5/15).