Austrian children welcome German soldiers in March 1938

My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich, by Dietrich von Hildebrand

On March 12, 1938 Austrian democracy died. Hitler’s Wehrmacht marched in, greeted by cheers, Nazi salutes, and flowers, and annexed the country in what is known as the Anschluss. Jews and prominent opponents of the Nazi regime, among them Dietrich von Hildebrand and his wife Gretchen, fled for their lives. They escaped only hours before Nazi guards at the border crossings received photos with orders to arrest them. Had he been caught he was slated for execution; the Nazi ambassador, Franz von Papen, had written to Hitler: “That damned Hildebrand is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria. No one causes more harm.”  

Von Hildebrand had seen it coming. He had witnessed the flight from common sense of his own Germany, besotted by the Nazis, and then of Austria. The staunchly anti-Nazi position of the Austrian people and their leadership had been undermined by assassination and infiltration of key positions. On March 11, the Austrian Chancellor, Kurt Schuschnigg, was bullied by Hitler into resigning.

Von Hildebrand was horrified at the insane gush of emotion that led vast number of Germans and Austrians to embrace the ideology of the Nazis, ignoring the blood of their innocent victims. He was disgusted with the politics of hatred that isolated the Jews. He was appalled by the lies of Hitler, by the self-serving politicians and military who saw their moment, and by the complicity of religious people. He was saddened at the moral numbness seeping through a society desensitised to Hitler’s tactics.

He had been one of the earliest, most perceptive, and most fearless critics of Nazism. In 1921 he had to flee for his life after denouncing the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 as an atrocious crime. Ten years later, when Hitler came to power, after having described the Nazis as “most vicious animals” he had to flee Germany again. Because of his editorship of an Austrian journal against Nazism, Der Christliche Ständestaat (“The Christian Corporative State”) he was targeted for assassination by Nazi agents in 1937.

This recent edition of von Hildebrand’s memoirs from the 20s and 30s includes also a selection of his writings from the time. For von Hildebrand truth was the only worthy foundation for behaviour. Adamant that no good can come of self-deception, neither for the individual involved nor for society, he railed against the group-think of the subjects of a collectivist state, convinced “that objective truth exists and can be known”.

He insisted on importance of thinking for oneself, because the one who compromises in conscience, will become “morally blunted as a result of living in the midst of an evil regime”. He was appalled by the self-deceptive concessions many made to Hitler.

He wrote of his countrymen who had become numb before moral evil – certain German seminarians who were starry-eyed about Hitler, compromising politicians, and the enormous herd following their lead. He was critical of the naiveté of so many Christians who accepted Nazism hoping that they could turn it to good. He saw that virtuous principles must underpin society if it is to flourish. He wrote, “The sphere of virtue is the very core of reality.”

Confront ideologies which are disconnected from the real nature of things, he urged. Compromise will wreak havoc in a person’s own life and in the nation.

“Habit is a sort of beneficial adaptability in human beings that can make their lives more bearable, yet it is also a force that can diminish the spiritual alertness of a person which is the foundation of all true moral and spiritual life. Under certain circumstances it can even eliminate this alertness entirely.”

Von Hildebrand was particularly attuned to the sexual permissiveness of Weimar Germany and the degradation of marriage in Germany. He lectured and wrote about purity and chastity and the impact of impurity: “The sexual realm is essentially deep, for it affects the soul much more profoundly than any other bodily experience.”  

In 1930, Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pius XII, urged him to publish his book In Defence of Purity. This work is acknowledged as a forerunner of the teachings on marriage that characterised Vatican II and the work of John Paul II. Von Hildebrand understood and taught the sublime dignity of sexual activity between husband and wife, and that the unitive and procreative dimensions of marriage must never be separated. To do so, he wrote, would be philosophically and morally indefensible and would invite ruin:

“To perform the act which signifies the hallowed union of two human beings in one flesh, and should be the expression and fulfilment of a lasting and indissoluble bond of love, with a partner to whom we are not united by the sacred tie of matrimony is obviously a desecration of the most awful kind.”

A man of extraordinary culture and artistic sensitivity, he insisted that love and beauty must be grounded in reality, in being, and ultimately in the Being of God himself, and that true beauty can vaccinate against glitter and shallow emotion.

“If a person has a deep relationship with the world of true art which fills his spirit with joy he will not constantly wish he were going to the movies. If a man is filled with a great profound love for a woman, the attractiveness of other women will not affect him. Whoever has really grasped the glory of the courts of the Lord, whoever has tasted the sweetness of the yoke of Christ, whoever has drunk of his living water, can no longer be intoxicated with [the slogans of the Nazis]. Such a person can no longer mistake stones for bread.”

We are not made for self centredness, where “the ultimate goal of life [is] the material prosperity of the individual around which everything else revolves.” He wrote, “We must rehabilitate the human being as a spiritual person”. Spirit trumps materialism.

He did not mince words. Atheism is inexcusable. To deny the creator is “the trivialization of the cosmos”. Being spiritual we should see, behind creation, the creator, who “speaks to us and … loves us with infinite love.” True brotherhood between human beings is only possible where the Fatherhood of God is respected.

Comparisons with our own times are inevitable. Were von Hildebrand here in Australia in 2017, about to cast his vote for or against same-sex marriage, I have no doubt he would experience the same distress on seeing the values underpinning Australian marriage and family life howled down as he had when goosestepping SS troops entered Vienna.

As a John the Baptist-like prophet, he would speak bluntly to politicians and churchmen who have persuaded themselves that toleration of same sex marriage is the Christian thing to do. He would wonder at shop front after shop front flying the rainbow flag. He would seethe at seeing so many CEOs, celebrities and sports figures using their prestige to advance the gay marriage agenda and to cement their own popularity.

Von Hildebrand’s philosophy of personalism and of realist phenomenology was ideally suited to his critical purpose. Of course he would pity persons where life is but feelings and emotions, but he would pillory the ideology that manipulates those it purports to endorse, and he would condemn compassion-mongering as a deceitful political tactic. With his incisive philosophical analysis, he would show that same sex marriage is merely an ugly parody of the fruitful, committed love of man and woman, and that in no sense can it be equal. He would urge us to feel the evil of things that are not right, “to keep present – an inner wakefulness- in our memory, good standards of judgment, heightened feelings of what is good.”

Above all he would warn us of the moral numbness that so easily sets up shop in every heart: “We should become inured to suffering but not to evil, as such a blunted response is self-centered and self protective.”

Dr Andrew Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield College and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney for 18 years. He is the author of Parenting for Character. He now works with university students in Melbourne. 

Dr Andy Mullins was the Headmaster of Redfield and Wollemi Colleges in Sydney. Now he teaches formation of character at the University of Notre Dame Australia. His doctorate investigated the neurobiological...