German opposition to Hitler, though it never enjoyed mass support, drew on three main sources: the Communists and Social Democrats, the army, and the churches. Each of them had occasional successes; none seriously threatened the Third Reich. The Left, though brave, was penetrated by the Gestapo and not very effectual. Senior army officers were largely hostile to Hitler, discussing politics freely in private, protecting their own anti-Nazi dissidents, and hatching several plots to remove or assassinate him. But their caution, political unrealism, and aversion to “revolution” ensured that most of their plots fizzled out. Only Claus von Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt came near to success. The relative independence of the churches until very late in the war enabled them to resist the regime on specific issues — notably, its euthanasia of disabled and mentally ill people — but they failed to mount any kind of general resistance to Hitlerism. Indeed, they were shamefully divided among themselves, both within and between denominations, in their overall attitude to Nazism. Some churchmen bravely defied it; some supported it enthusiastically; some equivocated.
My Battle against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich helps to explain why the churches, in particular the Catholic Church, failed so lamentably. It consists of the memoirs of Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German theologian and philosopher who mounted a consistent campaign of resistance to Nazism from academic posts in Munich and Vienna, together with a selection of his articles for the anti-Nazi Austrian journal Der Christliche Ständestaat (“The Christian Corporate State”), which he edited between 1934 and 1938. Faithfully translated and edited by the father-son team of John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, it gives us one dedicated Christian’s privileged insight into how Nazism both corrupted and overcame Catholic intellectual resistance in Central Europe.
Though born in Italy into an artistically gifted but agnostic family, Hildebrand was “God-intoxicated” from his earliest youth. He earned high academic honors under Edmund Husserl in philosophy, in which he embraced a Christian personalism. He moved socially in both cultivated and aristocratic circles. His politics were monarchist (pro-Hapsburg in particular), moderately conservative, and hostile to German nationalism. He married, became a Catholic (along with his first wife, Gretchen), and, after World War I, was appointed an adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Munich. All these settled commitments were transformed in the 1920s by his early, deep, and consistent opposition to the rise of anti-Semitism, Nazism, and Hitler.
Not only did Hildebrand recognize Nazi totalitarianism as fundamentally anti-Christian — he routinely called Hitler “the Anti-Christ” — but the Nazis returned the compliment. When he remarked at an international conference that the German invasion of Belgium in 1914
Not only did Hildebrand recognize Nazi totalitarianism as fundamentally anti-Christian, but the Nazis returned the compliment.
had been an “atrocious crime,” they marked him down as an enemy of their lawless nationalism and to be eliminated in due course. This threat, omnipresent in Munich, in no way blunted his opposition to Nazism. He sent his students to the Nazis’ meetings to expose their incoherence and brutality through sharp questioning. He would not let an anti-Semitic remark — however silly, thoughtless, or trivial — pass without subjecting it to a merciless refutation. He was particularly enraged by such notions as “Jewish mathematics” and “proletarian art,” which he dismissed simply as “rubbish.” Above all, he was tireless in challenging those Catholic intellectuals, priests, and organizations that attempted to reconcile Nazism with Christian teaching.
All this might make him sound a little intimidating, but his friends and students thought he was a very happy man and genial (if serious) company.
Inevitably, Hildebrand was forced to flee Germany when the Nazis staged a coup in semi-independent Bavaria. He found a refuge in Vienna, where, with the support of the Austrian president, Engelbert Dollfuss, he obtained a position in the philosophy department of the University of Vienna and established Der Christliche Ständestaat. He admired, even loved, Dollfuss as a Catholic statesman who might inspire all Central Europe to block and eventually defeat Nazism.
History has given Dollfuss more mixed reviews. He was undoubtedly an enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism and an obstacle to Hitler — to the point that Austrian Nazis attempted a coup, took him hostage, shot him, and allowed him to bleed to death. But he had earlier suppressed an uprising by Social Democrats with great bloodshed, introduced a new post-democratic constitution, and ruled autocratically thereafter. Hildebrand’s main reason for supporting him was the practical judgment that, in the circumstances of Central Europe in the 1930s, he offered the best hope of resisting Hitler. That was almost certainly true. It was also sufficient reason.
What is also true, however, is that Dollfuss’s advocacy of the corporate state as a replacement for democratic parliamentarianism was attractive to Hildebrand, as it was to other contemporary European Catholic intellectuals who had long distrusted Anglo-American liberalism. Hildebrand reports with sympathy the distress of some leading democrats who had swallowed their doubts and joined the Dollfuss government from the same practical desire to resist Hitler as his own. But his support for Dollfuss went deeper — endorsing a post-democratic corporate state that, when analyzed, looks like a device for maintaining the control of existing political and economic elites.
Following the assassination of Dollfuss, Austria’s Catholic authoritarian regime continued to resist but was continually drawn further into Hitler’s orbit. Hildebrand was perhaps the most important intellectual influence fighting this drift in Vienna at the time. The fight made strange allies. Moritz Schlick, the founder of logical positivism, was philosophically at odds with Hildebrand, who considered his ideas “false and dangerous.” Schlick probably had similar reservations about Hildebrand, but he warmly welcomed the German theologian into the department of philosophy of which he was head, in part because he was an old-fashioned gentleman rather than a ruthless ideologue, in part because the two men were united by a detestation of anti-Semitism and Hitler. (Schlick was later killed by a student for mysterious reasons — in which anti-Semitism may have played a part, since some considered Schlick’s ideas “Jewish,” though he himself was not.) All the same, it was Hildebrand, with his political and aristocratic connections, as well as a monthly intellectual journal, who exercised the greater influence in the Catholic Vienna of the day.
But it was a losing fight within both Austria and the Church. Of the many incidents in which Hildebrand had to counter Catholic appeasement (and worse) of Nazism, the most shocking occurred when he began an address to seminarians with a “beautiful story” of how an abbess had recently introduced a Jewish convert to her nuns: “Tomorrow we have the great privilege of accepting someone into our convent who is a sister of our Lord not only in spirit but in blood.” There were both protests and applause at these words, and during the speech a large number of seminarians walked out. This was close to blasphemy, of course, but it was also a manifestation of quite extraordinary ignorance: What race did the seminarians imagine Christ was? In such an atmosphere Hitler had many potential recruits, and eventually he seized Austria amid widespread Austrian rejoicing. Initially, the Austrian bishops supported the Anschluss, advising Catholics to vote for it in a referendum. The Vatican promptly rebuked them in unusually strong language. Relations between the Church and the Nazi authorities in Austria then descended into outright conflict. By then, however, many Catholics had been lost to Nazism. By then, also, Hildebrand had had to flee for his life for the second time, initially to Budapest, then to France, and finally to the United States.
Hitler’s dominance of Central Europe was in part the result of a formidable and well-financed campaign of political warfare. Spies, endless mendacious propaganda, the cultivation of treasonable Germans abroad, manufactured border incidents, political murders, military threats — these and other techniques help to explain the relentless advance of Nazism from the failed Beer Hall coup in Munich in 1923 to the eve of Barbarossa. But they don’t explain the innumerable cases of Catholics and other Christians, encountered by Hildebrand, who were spiritually tempted and even converted to Nazism in everyday civil society without being subject to any such pressures.
Nazism was a powerful revolutionary and even spiritual force that appealed to those whose apparent religious and political convictions were weak and ill thought out.
Nazism was a powerful revolutionary and even spiritual force — a perverted religion — that appealed to those whose apparent religious and political convictions were weak and ill thought out. When there was no Hildebrand around to point out the incompatibility of Christ and Anti-Christ, they appeased Nazism, made excuses for its “excesses,” found similarities between it and Christian teaching, blamed anti-Semitism on the Jews, and were halfway to being Nazis when it became dangerous to oppose them. Because they didn’t resist when it was easy, they had lost the will to do so when it became a matter of life and death.
That is not a purely historical lesson. Christians are now being persecuted around the world with little or no protest from the governments of post-Christian countries. Jews are facing discrimination, street brutality, and murder in modern Europe. Many of the formulae employed to justify ignoring or downplaying these evils would be familiar to Hildebrand — we should not exaggerate the evils, they reflect the injustices done to their perpetrators, the victims bring it upon themselves, even if by proxy, etc., etc. We need Hildebrand’s relentless, patient determination to destroy such justifications logically and to point out clearly where they will lead if not checked now.
Hildebrand’s articles from this time, reprinted here, are good guides in almost every respect. They are always serious, deep, scrupulous, and on the side of good against evil. Addressing spiritual or social topics, they are always acute and powerful. They disturb and awaken the Christian conscience. Addressing political questions, however, they are sharper and more powerful in what they oppose than in what they propose. A mild and decent Catholic authoritarianism may be better than any other kind, even a refuge against worse evils, but it cannot really be a political ideal, and it is unlikely to generate the kind of energy and commitment needed to defeat a revolutionary force such as Bolshevism or Nazism.
Nor does that seem to be where Hildebrand ended up. The one article written during his American exile selected here comes from 1941 and has a political sharpness and positive force lacking in some of his Vienna writings. Its first sentence points out the incompatibility of anti-Semitism not only with Christian doctrine but also with “the democratic ideal.” It is almost as if Hildebrand, on landing in America, took a lungful of fresh air and shook off some of his European political pessimism. That would not have been unusual for exiles at that time. Composer Kurt Weill changed his political outlook on becoming an American (and, in my opinion, wrote better music too). America not only gave them hope; meeting the American people also cheered them up.
Alas, it is questionable whether political exiles would feel the same effect today; certainly any fellow intellectuals they met would discourage such naïve enthusiasm. And that kind of cheerful self-confidence is necessary if we are to summon up the courage to defend our decencies and resist today’s evils. If we don’t want to end up having to be brave before firing squads and terrorist gangs, then we should begin by being brave at faculty meetings and dinner parties.