When Dietrich von Hildebrand died in 1977, his passing went largely unnoticed. The New York Times, to its credit, did publish an obituarybrief but respectfuland several other secular and religious journals followed suit. Most noted that this eminent German Catholic thinker held a Doctor of Philosophy degree from the University of Gottingen, and was teaching at the University of Munich in 1933. When Hitler came to power, Dietrich was appalled, and left for his birthplace in Florence.
Answering a questionnaire forwarded him from the University, demanding to know whether he was Aryan or non-Aryan, Dietrich declared himself to be non-Aryan (his paternal grandmother was born Jewish, but baptized as a child) out of solidarity with a persecuted people. Von Hildebrand was immediately fired.
He went into exile, to Austria, where he started his anti-Nazi journal, Der Christliche Standestaat, which enraged Hitler and made Dietrich a target of assassination. When Austria fell to the Germans, he escaped to France, teaching at the University of Toulouse. When France surrendered, he quickly moved to Spain, and soon thereafter to America, where he joined the faculty of Fordham University in New York.
There, he taught for nearly twenty years until he retired in 1960, devoting himself to what the Times described as his “voluminous writings.” At the time of his death, von Hildebrand had published thirty books and over one hundred scholarly papers (His private memoirs run to some 5,000 handwritten pages). But while his outstanding books on marriage, morality and spirituality gradually became known in the English-speaking world, and his series of works on the post-Conciliar Church made him a hero to committed Catholics, few knew of Dietrich’s early writings against fascism and Nazism, written in German but never translated.
Now, thanks to his widow, Dr. Alice von Hildebrand, and John Henry Crosby, head of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, many will have a chance to do so. Entitled My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, von Hildebrand’s essays will be published by Random House’s Image books next month.
Covering the political and cultural events of the 1920s and 30s, von Hildebrand’s writings describe a society gradually turning from Judeo-Christian ideals and toward relativism and secularism. Racism and anti-Semitism were on the rise and struck von Hildebrand as particularly toxic. What horrified him most was the acceptance of these evils among so many Christians. As he describes one German or Austrian layman after another capitulating to the Third Reich, and even wayward Churchmen bending their knee to Hitler and his henchmen, we feel his anguish and moral indignation. “Fraternal correction,” he makes clear, is a vital part of Christianity, especially during a moral or political crisis.
At the heart of von Hildebrand’s essays are three beliefs: the need for Christians to guard against evil; the willingness of believers to resist it; and the obligation of the Church to uphold the teachings of Christ, regardless of the situation. They speak with special meaning to contemporary American Christians. Though America blessedly is not threatened by the totalitarianism against which von Hildebrand struggled, it faces its own dangers. Von Hildebrand recognized and lamented them, declaring in the wake of Roe v. Wade, “A country that legalizes the killing of its own children is doomed.” It would prove to be his final speech.
Yet it would be a mistake to regard Dietrich as simply a culture warrior, for that would reduce his powerful witness to partisan politics. Von Hildebrand’s message is deeper than that: it is spiritual, a passionate appeal for self-reflection and personal conversion, inspired by Holy Scripture and guided by the Magisterium. These are the only ways, he maintained, that Christians will recognize “the call of the hour” and be strong enough to fulfill it.
At a time when the spirit of accommodation rules, and when a creeping “Christian minimalism” prevails in Americathat is, quietly affirm Christianity in its bare essentials, but never do anything serious to proclaim and defend its truths under attackvon Hildebrand’s uncompromising essays are a lesson for every committed believer, and a clarion call to bear witness to Christ in our own times.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.