Now that the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project has been founded with a view to republishing the works of this great thinker and in some cases translating them from German for the first time, it is worth recalling who Dietrich von Hildebrand was. Born in 1889, he studied philosophy in the phenomenological school of Edmund Husserl. He converted to Catholicism in 1914, partly under the influence of the great Catholic thinker Max Scheler. By 1930, he had become an important voice in German Catholicism, perhaps best known for his pioneering work on man and woman, and on marriage. One can trace the chapter on marriage in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes back to Hildebrand’s writings in the 1920s, in which he argued that the marital act has not only a procreative meaning but also a no-less-significant unitive meaning. But he was in those years also distinguishing himself in other ways: through his writings in moral and social philosophy and also through his original religious writings, especially his Transformation in Christ, which has become a kind of classic.

Hildebrand has the distinction of being one of the earliest opponents of National Socialism; already in 1923, when Hitler tried to seize power in Bavaria, Hildebrand’s name was on a short list of enemies. He seems to have had from the beginning an unusual insight into a kind of gestalt of evil in Nazism. He tells in his memoirs that many of his contemporaries, including the German bishops gathered in Fulda in 1933, would seize on “positive elements” in Nazism, such as the recovery of German national pride after the humiliation of World War I and Versailles, or such as the exercise of real authority after postwar years of political indecision and drift. Some Catholics apparently wanted to distinguish between mainstream Nazism and the radical fringes of the movement, saying that, though the radical elements were certainly beyond the pale, the mainstream still had some good substance and was susceptible of being influenced in a Christian direction. All these “positive elements” made no impression on Hildebrand; they were for him nothing but so much dust thrown in his eyes to distract him from the fundamental reality of Nazism. He increasingly spoke of the face of the Anti-Christ in Hitler.

Hildebrand left Germany for Austria in March of 1933. He saw in the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss the only statesman in Europe who was willing to stand up to Hitler. Hildebrand had always loved the Catholic identity of Austria, and now he thought that Catholic Austria, which had stopped the advance of the Turks in the seventeenth century, might stop the advance of Hitler in the twentieth. If Austria under the leadership of a resolute Catholic statesman was going to resist being annexed by Germany, then Hildebrand had found the battle he wanted to fight. It was not just a battle for the independence of Austria-similar to battles for the independence of Ireland or Poland-but a battle for Christian civilization against the anti-Christian barbarians in Berlin. So he moved to Vienna and founded a review in which he would do battle with the Nazi ideology at the level of philosophical and theological first principles. In the pages of his Viennese review, Hildebrand, living in constant danger of assassination, bore a witness that must not be forgotten.

One of his articles is entitled “The Struggle for the Human Person,” a title that well expresses the issue that, according to Hildebrand, stood at the center of the conflict. He said “the signature of the age” was a certain anti-personalism. One expression of this anti-personalism was collectivism, the philosophy that takes human beings as mere parts in some collectivity. Hildebrand held that each human being, as a person called by God and answerable to God, is always more than a part in a social whole; as a person, each exists before God as his own whole and thus refuses to be completely contained in any social whole. Each is a person at a far deeper level of himself than he is a member of the German state or of the English people, to say nothing of some political party.

But Hildebrand understood well the appeal of collectivism. He observed that people were weary of liberal individualism, weary of being deprived of all deeper forms of solidarity with others. He acknowledged as a positive sign of the times this longing for a recovery of community. But he warned that people should not seek relief in collectivism, for then they would just swing from one kind of depersonalized existence to another. The task is rather to vindicate the human person, to recover community as composed of persons and not of mere parts. If it is unworthy of the human person to exist in a fundamental suspicion of others, individualistically fortified against them, it is no less unworthy of the human person to dissolve as a part into some social whole. The call of the moment, he said, is to move to a new plane of existence altogether, a plane beyond all liberal individualism and totalitarian collectivism. One sees what I meant above that he fought at the level of philosophical and theological first principles. And he did not think that the urgency of the moment was any excuse for avoiding first principles.

Hildebrand acknowledged another aspiration that was felt by many people of the time. Many were oppressed by the mechanical and artificial rationality that dominates modern life; they were longing to get beyond this sterile rationality and to participate in forms of life that were more abundant and organic. But while he welcomed the emergence of this aspiration, he was quick to detect an opening for the anti-personalism of the age. The danger, he explained again and again in his review, is that people will try to meet this very legitimate need by abandoning themselves to instinct and vital energy. They will repeat the blunder of Nietzsche and will play off a Dionysian exuberance of Leben against Geist, and with Nietzsche they will identify Geist, or the personal, with barren and degenerate forms of rationality and with a crippling excess of consciousness. At this point, the way is open to what Hildebrand called “the dreadful heresy of nationalism,” for, when personal existence is discredited, people revert to the tribal, losing in the process the capacity to esteem other nations as well as their own; in the end they know of no other way to esteem their own nation than to assert themselves aggressively against other nations.

To this Hildebrand responded in his review that what is authentically personal cannot be reduced to artificial rationality. He took a particular delight in exploring the kinds of exuberance and overflowing abundance and even ecstasy that are not just instinctual and vital but are properly and eminently personal, such as the solidarity celebrated by Beethoven in the final movement of the Ninth Symphony. The ardor and festivity of this music gives us a glimpse of the abundant life available only at the level of person and spirit.

Hildebrand offered these analyses in the consciousness not of being isolated from the tumult of his time but of being a full participant in it and of making an indispensable contribution to resisting the advance of Nazism. The Nazis evidently agreed that he was fighting effectively against them. In 1937, the German ambassador to Austria, Franz von Papen, sent Hitler an urgent dispatch detailing the work of those anti-Nazi forces that Papen called “the worst and most dangerous enemies of the Third Reich in Austria.” He informed Hitler that “the moving spirit behind these machinations is the well-known emigrant, Professor Dietrich von Hildebrand.”

I just mentioned Nietzsche. There is one important point on which Hildebrand is in accord with Nietzsche. The Enlightenment had thought that one could eliminate the Christian God, and indeed eliminate God altogether, and still have morality, the same morality that Christians had upheld. Nietzsche was one of the first to see through this incoherence of thought. He pointed out that even so elementary a moral norm as respect for truth can no longer hold its ground once God is dead. What Nietzsche said about morality, Hildebrand says about man: Cut off from God and debunked by the reductionist philosophies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, man no longer occupies any special place in the world. For a time, man might retain a sense of some special dignity, but this is the last light cast by a setting sun. If God is dead, then the Hitlers and Stalins of the world are just treating human beings according to what they really are. It follows for Hildebrand that if we are going to take a principled stand against the totalitarians, we should not waste our time trying to restore Enlightenment civility, which is an ideal lacking in inner coherence; we have to go further back and do a much more radical work of retrieval and renewal in our thinking about man. “All of Western Christian civilization,” Hildebrand wrote in his review, “stands and falls with the words of Genesis, ‘God made man in His image.’”

So Hildebrand opposed his Christian personalism to the anti-personalism of the time. And it was on the basis of this personalism that he resisted anti-Semitism; he was in fact one of the most resolute voices in all of Europe on the evil of anti-Semitism. He did battle not only with the anti-Semitism of Nazism but also with the “ethical anti-Semitism” defended by the many Austrian Catholics who protested against all the negative and destructive cultural influences allegedly coming from the Jews. With an amazing independence from his intellectual milieu, Hildebrand resisted this anti-Semitism as something immoral and un-Christian. He apparently lost the support of many Austrian Catholics over this issue; many of them agreed with him until he spoke about the Jews.

We can express the greatness of Hildebrand by saying that he freed himself to an extraordinary degree from a perennial German danger. The strong metaphysical impulse of the German, he often said, bears a dubious fruit in the Hegelian philosophy of history, with its idea that a divine “world-spirit” is awakening in the great movements of world history. The German tendency, Hildebrand said, is to think that whatever erupts with dynamic power in history is part of this divine drama or at least has some ultimate significance. Thus one approaches each historic event or movement of thought with awe and is inhibited from ever criticizing it as fundamentally mistaken or disordered. Since National Socialism in Germany was unfolding with tremendous dynamic power, it was hard for a German not to look for some larger metaphysical significance, some fundamental truth of which it was the bearer, and so it was hard not to be incapacitated as a serious critic of it. I see it as a great personal and intellectual achievement of Hildebrand’s that he discerned the monstrous evil of Nazism so clearly that the intense historical dynamism of it, though he lived in its midst it and felt it, counted as nothing for him. He did not think with Hegel that history is full of God: He thought with Christianity that history is under the judgment of God. This is why he was able to speak not just as a German professor but also as a Christian confessor.

The witness of Dietrich von Hildebrand is rooted in his Christian personalism, which is developed in his many original philosophical and religious works. These represent a major spiritual and intellectual resource for understanding the truth about the human person; they can empower us to think more clearly and more deeply about the human person and to fight more resolutely in our day the battle for the person that Hildebrand fought in his. When Hildebrand died in 1977, he left a rich legacy of philosophy and witness. The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project has come into existence for the sake of turning this legacy into a living resource for Christian - intellectuals.


John F. Crosby is professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He and his son, John Henry Crosby, have launched the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project (hildebrandlegacy.org).