If Bonhoeffer enjoys continuing status as the Protestant opponent of Hitler, then the claimant to the Catholic equivalent is surely Dietrich von Hildebrand. Von Hildebrand may not have been martyred but he saw the danger of Hitler well before the N.S.D.A.P. was a serious electoral force. He also identified the centrality of the “Jewish question” much earlier than many other opponents of Nazism didafter all, on the matter of Nazism and Jews, the Barmen Declaration was silent. Further, via his journalism and speaking, von Hildebrand offered ongoing and substantial critique of Nazism as a political, cultural, and social phenomenon from the early 1920s.
For all of these reasons, My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Image) makes a fascinating and indeed important read. Most of the text is taken up with von Hildebrand’s account of his opposition to Nazism from 1921 to 1938, followed by a selection of his pertinent articles and lectures. During this time, he emerged as a significant personalist philosopher in the tradition of Husserl, left Germany for Austria, and then escaped from Austria to France during the Anschluss. Along the way, he met figures as diverse as Franz von Papen, Nicholas Berdyaev, Engelbert Dollfuss, and Étienne Gilson. He also established himself as the most formidable intellectual opponent of the Nazi regime. The Nazis sentenced him to death long before they gained power.
Von Hildebrand was disappointed by the many fellow Catholics who failed to see the danger of Nazism and to oppose it. Some used the Hegelian argument that history was on the Nazi’s side. Others seemed simply motivated by anti-Semitism. Ironically, among the academics in Vienna it was the ill-fated Moritz Schlick, the logical positivist (and hence philosophical opponent of von Hildebrand), who saw the issues most clearly and was his closest ally.
This surely goes to the heart of the issue recently highlighted by Michael Hollerich in his review of Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: the question of the lack of opposition to Nazism cannot be reduced to a confessional one. It is far more complex than that. Many Protestants, Catholics, and atheists failed morally in this context. Only a few acted in a manner which history would ultimately regard as admirable. One hesitates to use sadly outdated and quaint terms, but it seems that such opposition was in part more likely to have been a function of individual, personal moral decency, integrity, and courage than of the wealth of social teaching which one had at one’s ecclesiastical disposal. Do not blame Luther’s writings or the Pope’s concordat for acquiescence to tyranny. Blame those who chose to acquiesce.
In this context, von Hildebrand offered an interesting insight into why opposition to Nazism was so hard. It was not because it was risky, though that was undoubtedly true. It was because it was tedious. To stand in opposition to something takes time and energy and yields little or no results and rarely brings immediate social credit (in fact, it typically brings the opposite). Sooner or later most people become tired of being indignant and simply accommodate themselves to what appears to be an invincible force. They may not privately approve but they publicly acquiesce.
The extreme nature of Nazism makes it an interesting case-study in the transformation of the moral norms of a highly civilized and sophisticated society. Von Hildebrand was surely right to see that at its root it involved a redefinition of human personhood. This was a complex issue but one crucial insight was his observation that the human longing for community (intrinsic to human nature itself) could not be satisfied by radical individualism; and it was this longing which the totalitarian ideologies of Nazism and Bolshevism tried to satisfy, with their mythological histories, their sense of corporate solidarity, and their sense of destiny.
In retrospect we are able to see how the Nazis were able to persuade the German people (and others) that they had the answer to the problem which von Hildebrand identified. Careful use of the moving image, the deployment of the rhetoric of science, the cultivation of myths of identity, the subjugation of science to political ideology, and appeals to non-rational sentiment, emotions, and historical destiny all played their part. To this, as von Hildebrand noted, we might add their ruthless treatment of the advocates of other answers to the question of community, such as a Roman Catholic statesman like Engelbert Dollfuss.
Our times are not as extreme as those of the 1930s, but the dynamics of the moral change of society remain much the same. American individualism does not satisfy the human longing for community or give an adequate account of what it means to be human. Thus, the rhetoric of community is easy for lobby groups to hijack and attach to the predicates of identity politics. The moving image, with its concomitant narrative constructions and aesthetics, dominates the world of popular culture and thereby the world of electoral politics. Sentimentalism continues to permeate the myths by which the world is understood. Debates about abortion and about sexual identities have served to redefine personhood.
Indeed, one may still not be allowed to derive an “ought” from an “is” when we are trying to defend traditional morality; yet it seems increasingly common to demand an “is” from a “want” when it suits the trendsetters of this present age. And the indignation of those who oppose these changes seems to grow less and less each year. Tedium sets in, and more and more people find ways to accommodate themselves to the bien pensant panjandrums of political power.
The times are ripe for precisely the kind of loss of corporate moral compass which Nazism and Bolshevism represented in an extreme form less than a century ago. And while that remains the case, the voice of Dietrich von Hildebrand will retain both its relevance and its prophetic quality. Whether or not one agrees with his philosophy or his Catholicism, My Battle Against Hilter is a most important book.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?