“Better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into compromises against my conscience.” Thus begins the memoir of Dietrich von Hildebrand—a German philosophy professor considered “enemy number one” by Hitler’s henchmen, a man who escaped from Vienna after more than a decade of resistance. Hildebrand was a German philosopher who led a battle against Nazism by pen in the pages of the weekly paper he founded and edited, Der christliche Standestaat (in English, “The Christian Corporative State”). This writing career nearly got him killed.
“No one causes more harm,” wrote Franz von Papen, Ambassador to Austria, than “that damned Hildebrand . . . the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria.” It’s remarkable that a philosopher of love was targeted for assassination. Yet the personalist philosophy he espoused throughout his books and public lectures– the topics of which ranged from marriage and purity to the metaphysics of community—made him a clear target. He was forced to flee his home, leaving everything he knew behind. Equipped with only a coat, hat, and walking stick, he rushed to make the last train to Czechoslovakia, mere hours before Gestapo officers arrived at his home.
In My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, von Hildebrand narrates his intellectual resistance to National Socialism. The threat of execution eventually forced him to flee to six countries before he finally arrived penniless in New York. Part I of My Battle Against Hitler tells the story of this philosophy professor’s life beginning in Munich in 1921, where he had his first clash with the Nazis, and concluding with his harrowing escape from Vienna seventeen years later. Part II is a selection of his anti-Nazi essays, which have been translated by John F. Crosby and John Henry Crosby of the Hildebrand Project. Although a thrilling narrative ties the book together, this moving memoir is ultimately a deep and probing exposition of the nature of love. It is also a self-portrait of a man dedicated to the pursuit of truth and devoted to the vocation of sharing that truth with others, no matter the cost.
The Threat of Gradual Moral Blindness
Dietrich von Hildebrand came of age at his family’s villa San Francesco, a converted monastery outside of Florence, Italy. His father was a prominent sculptor named Adolf von Hildebrand; his childhood was an encounter with beauty, instilling a deep aesthetic and moral sensitivity in the young man:
I grew up in these glorious surroundings, sheltered in the superabundant love of my mother, and of my five sisters, all rarely gifted personalities. Everything was pervaded by the genius of my father who was, not only great as an artist, but also as a personality. My youth was one of the happiest one can imagine.
Formed from the beginning with a profound appreciation for beauty, von Hildebrand’s aesthetic sensibility was a unique gift that would later inform his resistance to the Nazi party. At a time when everyone—including many devout Catholics—remained silent about the evils committed by Hitler, von Hildebrand spoke up. In 1922, for example, Hildebrand had a conversation with a Catholic priest about the murder of a Jewish friend. The priest asked, “How can one more death really matter?” Von Hildebrand was in shock, “deeply upset by this moral value blindness and the loss of any sense for the horror of murder, which had permeated German public opinion.”
The witness of von Hildebrand illustrates the gradual moral blindness that can infect individuals and entire countries when small concessions are made to accommodate greater evils. In 1923, he wrote of the “uncanny feeling” in Germany that “growing numbers of people saw [the Nazi movement] as inevitable, even if they did not explicitly welcome it.” This line is especially striking to read today. How many Americans are standing back in complacency as the fate of the family in society is being decided in favor of “progress,” the definition of human life is relativized, and “death with dignity” is becoming a human right? Von Hildebrand wrote of how Nazi ideals “had been poisoning the political atmosphere for a long time.” Most of us can’t imagine how Hitler’s Germany came to be, but von Hildebrand paints a picture for us.
Those lacking an appreciation for the German philosophers, the classical music of Mozart, or the cinematography of the “Sound of Music” may not fully appreciate the love letter to old Austria contained in these chapters. In his memoir, von Hildebrand describes an evening at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna; finding himself invited to one of the “most beautiful apartments,” he describes:
The most magnificent parquet floors imaginable, enchanting baroque furniture, wonderful ornamented blankets, and above all a view into the little garden filled with roses. It was an absolute Figaro-world: highpoint of culture and beauty. I can hardly find the words to express how beautiful it was to be invited there for dinner. We ate outside in the garden in front of the house, and it was the most blissful experience to be surrounded by this unique world—the world of Austria, of the Rococo, the world of Figaro.
An account of such a profoundly cultured nation surrendering to the lie of Nazism narrates the exchange of authentic high culture for brutal kitsch. “The un-German character of National Socialism can be seen not only in its basic blindness and hostility to other nations,” Hildebrand writes, but in the “extremely brutal atmosphere” and “hostility of spirit” of National Socialism:
Anyone who has read Faust, who has listened to the works of Mozart and Beethoven, or who has immersed himself in the calm and lovely world of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm; anyone whose heart has been moved by the angelic, sublime beauty of Mozart’s music, can feel nothing but deep revulsion at the sound of the Nazi Horst Wessel Lied.
Von Hildebrand recounts many stories of academic conferences with Franciscan priests and philosophy professors who “overemphasized the notion of community at the expense of the individual.” Because they were “infected by this collectivistic tendency,” they advocated ideas that deny the fundamental dignity of the human person. These ideas paved the philosophic path for collectivism and, in turn, a justification of anti-Semitism. The small concessions became large compromises. The philosophical rhetoric became physical reality. Eventually, the actions that flowed from the collectivism espoused at these conferences justified sending truckloads of Jews to the gas chambers. It all began with an idea, for which many lived and millions died.
The Call to Moral Heroism
Hildebrand describes the way in which many Germans “fell prey to the idea that history unfolds inexorably” and that the only option is to “swim with the current.” These words are especially meaningful in a time when rhetoric from the left draws on the same Hegelian concept of history.
Over and over, we are told that marriage, the definition of personhood, and the nature of death are all progressing inevitably toward a “better” future. But today’s anti-Christian culture throws into sharp relief the continuing relevancy of von Hildebrand’s wisdom. Is it still possible for us to achieve a life of moral heroism like his?
“All great things on earth are connected with risk,” von Hildebrand writes. “Without risk, human life would be deprived of all grandeur and heroism.” Every person can choose to live his or her life with heroic virtue, however minor his or her acts may seem to others. We are all called to pursue moral truth with courage, even when it leads to social alienation or the detriment of our careers.
Although we may not be faced with the threat of assassination, need to flee our country, or hold a position of power that conflicts with the forces of our government, we are all called to fight for truth in our own spheres of influence.
A Labor of Love—and a Fight That Isn’t Over
In his own words, the memoirs of von Hildebrand’s battle against Hitler are, first and foremost, “a love letter and a labor of love” for his widow, Alice. In this, the “longest love letter ever written,” in his words, Dietrich sought to tell the tale of his first life—the fifty years he lived before meeting fellow philosopher and wife Alice in New York—by leaving thousands of pages of his life’s story to her. A portion of his letters to Alice were adapted into a biography of his life, the riveting tale Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand. That book would be a marvelous supplemental read for those captivated by My Battle Against Hitler.
In a 2014 interview, Alice von Hildebrand relayed a telling personal conversation with Dietrich. When abortion, “the murder of innocents,” was legalized, Dietrich declared, “Hitler won the war.” “What do you mean?” Alice asked. “Hitler was defeated militarily,” von Hildebrand explained, “but his spirit has entered into society.”
Anecdotes like this make it clear why Pope John Paul II declared von Hildebrand “one of the great ethicists of the twentieth century.” He was a philosopher who truly lived out the Christian ethical life in the face of terrible moral evil. “When the intellectual history of the Catholic Church in the twentieth century is written,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in 2000, “the name of Dietrich von Hildebrand will be most prominent among the figures of our time.”
Reading My Battle Against Hitler is a humbling experience. Von Hildebrand’s tale of moral strength and philosophical courage leads us to wonder how we would have responded in the face of similar evils. Would we have the courage to speak the truth in love? Or would we sit back silently, fearful of the consequences of defending the truth?
“Truth always rests with the minority,” writes Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. “The minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by gangs who have no opinion.” Let us hold the moral heroism of Dietrich von Hildebrand close to our hearts as we go forth into the public square to proclaim the truth, and let us recall the words of Kierkegaard when we feel as if we’re in the minority of opinion. For it is better to be in the minority with the truth than to be a face amid the crowd without it.