I have recently finished reading a very fascinating book, My Battle against Hitler. It is a collection of autobiographical fragments and philosophical writings by Dietrich von Hildebrand, a major thinker of the 20th Century and a true hero in the resistance against Nazism.
Hildebrand, a former student of the philosophers Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Munich. After Hitler’s ascent to power, he fled his fatherland. From Austria, where he eventually settled, he led an unrelenting battle against the principles and the deeds of Nazism, particularly on the pages of the journal he founded and with lectures throughout Europe.
Though Hildebrand demonstrated the philosophical and anthropological absurdity and destructiveness of Nazism on grounds acceptable by any human being endowed with reason, a crucial component of his own worldview and a major force propelling his resistance was his Catholic faith, which permeates his writings and his actions.
While I hope that this article will stimulate interest and curiosity about this fascinating and somewhat neglected hero, perhaps encouraging somebody to read the book, I would like to discuss an article included in the appendix, which seems to me highly relevant to today’s situation. The article, “False fronts”, written in 1936, contrasts Nazism and Bolshevism. It contends that, even if they seem to be opposing worldviews, in fact they are very much alike, both in their guiding principles and in their ultimate deeds. (This is a sad truth, as anybody familiar with the horrific count of Hitler’s and Stalin’s victim knows well.)
Hildebrand’s article starts by asserting that the opposition of Nazism and Bolshevism is false: “there is only one real antithesis to all errors, namely, truth itself. For errors, no matter how different they may be among themselves, are not truly antithetical to one another”. He argues that “one error never counteracts what is specifically false in another, opposite error”, and thus “the two are fundamentally related”, as “they both proceed from the same initial falsehood, even though they move in opposite directions”.
For Hildebrand, the only truth which really stands against errors is the truth of Christ; however, he points out that this truth may be embraced also by those who do not identify as Christians or do not believe in Christ, provided that they acknowledge the fundamental truth of the values of “the Christian West”; and these values, he maintains, are systematically fought by both Nazism and Communism.
“In what respects”, he asks, “does the Christian West form the real front against both Nazism and Communism? The first decisive element is the stance toward the question of truth. A profound reverence for truth is an integral aspect of Christian Western culture, as is a clear consciousness that the question of truth stands at the beginning of all decisions and cannot in any way be subordinated to practical considerations”.
At this point, I think that my readers will see that Hildebrand’s thought was not only prophetic in his own time, but is possibly even more important today, in the “post-truth” era when any individual feels free to construe his or her own truth, even to the point of making one’s gender a matter of personal conviction or arguing that a human being becomes a person only after birth.
Hildebrand warns that to deny the existence of truth is possibly even more dangerous than denying the existence of God. Atheism, he writes, “acknowledges, at least in principle, the decisive role of the question of truth. In National Socialism, however, the question of truth as such is suppressed in favour of a purely subjective factor […]. This connotes a still deeper breach with any adherence to objective truth than is to be found even in radical skepticism”.
Closely related to this first point, a second fundamental aspect is highlighted by Hildebrand: “A second foundational element of Christian Western culture is the conviction that there is an objective moral law which is independent of all subjective interests, arbitrariness, and mere power”. He maintains that “this belief in an objective law immune to the arbitrariness of individuals and nations is an inheritance of the Christian worldview, which is still preserved even by many enemies of Christianity”, whereas Nazi leaders frequently declare “that there is no objective right or wrong and that what is right is what is useful for the German people”.
Once again, if we replace “the German people” with other subjects (“me”, “the State budget”, “my party” …) we face a very familiar picture in today’s world.
Very few moral tenets are still held as binding and absolute by all members of our communities. The very fact that some human beings, deemed as unworthy of life, can be suppressed lawfully and sometimes with the taxpayer’s money, tells us a lot about the moral stance of our countries. If a disabled person’s life is a “burden” (for “me”, for “the State budget”…) then it is not morally wrong to administer death, either in the prenatal form of abortion or in the postnatal form of euthanasia.
But think also of surrogacy. If the objective moral law that it is wrong to sell and purchase human beings conflicts with my desire to become a parent, then it is “right”, it is “my right”, to go ahead with surrogacy, regardless of what it implies for the “gestational carrier” (a truly Orwellian expression) or for the baby.
Hildebrand warns us forcefully against this worldview: “With the denial of an objective law one not only stands outside Christianity as a religion, but also outside the entire classical and humane cultural tradition of the West, which has received its decisive formation from Christianity”.
Thirdly, Hildebrand focuses on a further aspect, i.e. “the primacy of the spiritual sphere over the vital, and a fortiori, over mere matter. […] In Christian Western culture, the spiritual sphere is held to be higher than the vital and purely material spheres, the latter of which were bound to serve the former. It is also considered to be ontologically superior”.
Nazism and Communism, in Hildebrand’s article, and today’s materialism are all opposed to this belief: “Both economic materialism, in which all spiritual values are merely a means to an end, and racial materialism, which idolizes the vital sphere, break in principle this self-evident primacy of the spirit”. Hildebrand cites as examples “the laws governing sterilization and marriage”, as well as the “racial doctrine” of the Third Reich, but, once more, we need only look briefly around ourselves to see that words like spirit, soul, personhood are rarely mentioned in the public square, and that material well-being, economic factors, and physical health and fitness are seemingly the only guiding principles both of legislation and of personal choices.
But Hildebrand goes further: “A fourth factor”, which he defines as “perhaps the most decisive of all”, and which is connected with the previous point, is that “various liberal theories have stripped the human person of his true nobility as the image of God. First, immortality was denied to the person, then freedom of will, then the capacity to make meaningful, intentional responses”. However, “the practical consequences” of these modern philosophies were “never drawn” before the ascent of Nazism and Communism. Before, “a certain reverence for the dignity of the person, his inalienable rights, and his freedom of opinion lived on, though in reality such things logically presuppose the Christian concept of the human person”.
In the 20th Century, instead, “it was left to Bolshevism and National Socialism to draw the ultimate consequences of this devaluation of the human person”. At Hildebrand’s time, this took the form of collectivism, practised to the most extreme point by both ideologies.
Today, a number of examples can be cited of how the rather absurd and illogical combination of individualism, egoism, and disbelief in the dignity of the human being have provoked unthinkable and horrific results. The examples cited above (eugenics, surrogacy, abortion, euthanasia) are all demonstrably derived by this intersection of the subject’s assertion of his own will over the other’s rights and of the concomitant objectification of the other, which denies their basic and inalienable dignity as human beings.
As Hildebrand writes, “Anyone who still holds fast to genuine reverence for the individual person is in some way drawing, albeit unconsciously, from Christian thought”. And he adds: “Closely connected with this is one’s attitude toward the poor, the sick and the weak. […] The National Socialist morality of the master race views the sick and the weak as ‘faulty products’ who are a tiresome burden on human society”. Here too, Hildebrand’s words sound all too familiar to today’s readers, who can find them cited practically verbatim in the “reasons” of those who promote assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Hildebrand teaches us that the philosophical foundations of both Hitler’s and Stalin’s power, though seemingly opposed, are in fact strictly related; the atrocious deeds committed in the name of these ideologies are under anybody’s eyes. What Hildebrand did not say, and possibly could not foresee, is that new ideologies based on variations of the same errors are still alive and well, many decades after the fall of these totalitarian regimes, and are still exacting a horrible toll of human lives. It is our responsibility, today, to stand against these ideologies with the same courageous, unrelenting and staunch frankness which inspired von Hildebrand, and which ultimately defeated these two inhuman ideologies.
Dr Chiara Bertoglio is a musician and theologian moonlighting as a journalist. She writes from Italy. Visit her website.