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Saturday, November 15, 2014

Book Review: My Battle Against Hitler by Dietrich von Hildebrand

Published by Image Books

Some books tell stories so important about figures who shape the history of their times that they demand to be read. My Battle Against Hitler (MBAH) by Dietrich von Hildebrand is one such book. It records the memoirs of Catholic German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand, a man Pope Pius XII called a “20th century Doctor of the Church.” The book covers a 17 year slice of this great man’s life from the early years of National Socialism up to 1938 as he battled the “antichrist” of Nazism trying to wake a sleeping world to its grave errors and criminal actions. During this intense period, von Hildebrand abandoned his University post in Munich and his beloved home fleeing Germany in 1933 with his family. To stay, he felt compelled him to choose either compromise and silence, impossible to his conscience, or the concentration camp. The von Hildebrands settled first in one country and then another before finally emigrating to the United States in 1940. During Hitler's rise to power von Hildebrand's lonely voice trumpeted the warning of Nazism's threat to Europe and the world. 

As early as April 1921, the Nazis marked von Hildebrand as an enemy because of a statement he made a at peace congress in Paris. He denounced nationalism and called the German invasion of neutral Belgium during WW I “an atrocious crime.” This earned him the label “traitor” and the hatred of the Nazis.  The conference took place two years before Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch, jail term, and subsequent resurrection and meteoric rise to power. Nearly a decade would pass before Hitler revealed himself as a murderous tyrant, but von Hildebrand recognized the poison in the Nazi philosophy with its virulent anti-Semitism from the very beginning.

Who was this man imbued with such foresight? We receive a brief sketch of Von Hildebrand’s early life in the introductory pages of MBAH. But another book, which I consider a companion to this one, Alice von Hildebrand’s biography of Dietrich, The Soul of a Lion, provides a more extensive portrait. The youngest child and only son of a famous German sculptor, Adolf Hildebrand (The von was a government honor added later.), Dietrich grew up surrounded by famous artists, authors, composers, and political figures. Even royalty visited their homes in Florence and Munich enjoying the hospitality of his gracious mother, Irene. While Dietrich’s parents were nominally Protestant, their real love was aestheticism: truth, goodness, and beauty, but purely on a natural level. They worshiped the works of God rather than God himself, and failed to understood their deeply spiritual son. Practically from the cradle, Dietrich loved Jesus and knew He was the Son of God. “When he was a child,” Alice writes, “he used to prostrate himself in front of a reproduction of Donatello’s Head of Christ that his parents had placed in their living room above the door because of its artistic beauty. Once his mother opened the door and caught sight of her son in this adoring posture. Deeply moved, she gently closed the door. She was much too reverent to try to change or suppress spontaneous inclinations in her son’s soul.”

Influenced by a Catholic philosopher friend, who himself lived a questionable life, von Hildebrand converted to Catholicism with his first wife Gretchen in 1914. He considered it the decisive event of his life and never wavered in his love of Christ and Christ's bride, the Church. While reading The Soul of a Lion is not necessary to understand MBAH (The editors provide chapter introductions and frequent explanatory notes to assist the reader.), it enriched my appreciation by presenting a broad overview of von Hildebrand’s life and the influence his cultural upbringing had on the formation of the man. Certainly, the beauty he experienced in those early years awakened a love for the greatest beauty of all, God himself. Soul of a Lion offers valuable background for the focus on von Hildebrand’s struggle with the Nazis told in MBAH. Both works depend on the 5,000 page handwritten memoir von Hildebrand wrote at Alice’s request and never intended to publish. It was written for Alice alone long after the events it narrates. Even so there is a freshness about the narrative that makes many sections riveting especially those that describe the several harrowing escapes from the Nazis. The final chapter of Part I, “The Escape from Vienna,” reads like a thriller. What a gripping movie von Hildebrand’s story would make!

MBAH focuses on the years from 1921 to 1938 when von Hildebrand was actively fighting the Nazi philosophy through lectures and conferences and, later, through a weekly journal he published in Austria, Der Christlich Standestaat (The Christian Corporate State), with the support and encouragement of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, a devout Catholic. Dollfuss was the only head of state in Europe to recognize the growing threat of Nazism and the particular danger to an independent Austria. A man small in stature and from humble peasant stock, he was a political genius with a deep love for Austria and her people, especially the peasants. He collaborated with von Hildebrand on the journal, which was distributed throughout Europe, and it became the premier source opposing  the Nazi philosophy. 

Though they met only a few times, Von Hildebrand felt a profound love and respect for Dollfuss and was strongly committed to promoting the chancellor’s  vision for Austria. When Dollfuss was assassinated by the Nazis in 1934, von Hildebrand was deeply affected. “The death of Dollfuss,” he wrote, “the tragic death – broke my heart. It was a pain rooted in a very personal love and veneration. Dollfuss for me was not only the David who had taken up the heroic battle against the Goliath Hitler, he was also an embodiment of the so precious Austrian spirit – he enchanted me with his humility, his deep faith, his genius and with the great charm of his being.” Dollfuss's murder ultimately sealed the fate of Austria as his successor followed the disastrous policy of Nazi appeasement. 
Von Hildebrand’s war against National Socialism found him confronting even Catholic clerics and theologians whose nationalistic fervor and latent anti-Semitism blinded them to Hitler’s evil. Frequently he mentions specific clergy and bishops who refused to recognize the complete incompatibility of Nazism with the Catholic faith. Many clerics excused Hitler despite his evil, racist ideas, ideas that caused von Hildebrand to label him “Antichrist.” One particularly disgraceful event involved the German bishops gathered at Fulda in 1933 who penned a letter “listing all the things within National Socialism to which they spoke a full approving ‘yes.’” Horrified, von Hildebrand wrote:
All this affirmation was a shameful betrayal….[It] created the impression of a primarily affirmative stance toward National Socialism as such….No word about the heresy of the totalitarian system, no protest against the innumerable crimes and the terrorism, no real condemnation of racism and of the whole ideology of National Socialism! Two weeks before Hitler seized power, membership in the Nazi Party still entailed excommunication, and now this affirmation! Words cannot describe how this failure of the German episcopacy grieved me. To my sorrow, I saw how right I was to fear that Catholics in Germany would allow themselves to be carried away by a shameful spirit of compromise and accommodation toward the Antichrist. 
Von Hildebrand never shrank from identifying those culpable in promoting the evils of Nazism. Among them were German bishops, Wilhelm Berning of Osnaburck and Conrad Grober of Freiburg, as well as Austrian titular bishop, Aloi Hudal, who wrote a book favoring Nazism which von Hildebrand vigorously refuted in the journal. Laity were also infected with the spirit of the age. In the chapter on 1936, von Hildebrand describes with disgust a book published by Catholic theologian Anton Stonner:
I can hardly describe how much this book upset me. I could not believe my eyes when I read the passage where Stonner says that in order to awaken a love for the swastika in children already at a young age, religion teachers should point out that mass vestments in the Middle Ages bore the swastika….It was unbelievable that a Catholic theologian could write such things all the more so because he had said to me in March 1933, as I was leaving Munich and Germany for good, ‘You absolutely must go. There is no limit to what one can expect from these criminals.
To recognize how much the Nazis hated and feared von Hildebrand, one need only read the words of Germany’s ambassador to Austria, Franz von Papen, himself a Catholic, who told von Hildebrand’s brother-in-law, Theodore Georgii. “That damned Hildebrand is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria. No one causes more harm.” In a letter to Hitler, von Papen called von Hildebrand the “mastermind” behind “intrigues” to “overthrow the Nazi regime.” He also implied a plan to assassinate the philosopher, writing that he had forwarded documents to SS head Heinrich Himmler proposing that, “We may be able to strike a severe blow against these extremely evil and dangerous enemies of the Reich.” Von Hildebrand himself described his near escape from Austria after the Anschluss when “three Gestapo agents came to my apartment to arrest me, and found it empty. I had the honor of being the first on their list of arrests, after the heads of the government.” Had he been there, von Hildebrand likely would have been shot on the spot.

In view of Church history, the errors rampant among Catholic clergy and laity during the horrors of Nazism should not surprise the faithful. Von Hildebrand’s experience is repeated in every era. In our own, we have the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family where several German and Austrian Cardinals, namely Walter Kasper, Reinhard Marx, and Christoph von Schönborn worked untiringly against Church teaching on marriage and the family. How interesting it would be to see von Hildebrand respond to the Synod since he wrote several books on marriage and chastity. It isn't hard to predict which side of the debate he would join in view of his commitment to authentic Church teaching. Just as he fought against racism defending the nature of man, one could expect him to defend the nature of marriage and family. We get a clear idea of how he would respond from Part II of MBAH consisting of twelve essays from the journal. One, published on March 10, 1935, is titled "The Danger of Quietism."and warned Catholics to avoid a "cowardly flight from the battle to which God is calling us. It is our obligation as soldiers of Christ to wage war against he Antichrist and to rip the mask from his face...Are you for Christ, or against Him?" It is a question for every age.

The battle von Hildebrand fought against the satanic ideas of National Socialism is as old as original sin and as new as today's culture of death. Dietrich von Hildebrand gives us a model for how to engage the enemy -- not through ad hominem attacks so common in today's internet culture, but by confronting evil ideas with the truth. Reading his essays, one understands why Pope Pius XII called him a 20th century Doctor of the Church. As for a man with the "soul of a lion," Alice von Hildebrand herself tells us where that title came from. As she sat by his bedside in the final days before his death, the great philosopher whispered to his beloved wife, “I used to be a lion; now I am a helpless little thing. But you know, you know my soul is still a lion.” Both titles are fitting tributes to this great warrior of the Church Militant who deserves to be better known by the world. 

See more:

Image Books


Von Hildebrand Legacy Project

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