If you have ever found it tempting to eat dessert before the main course, then I would encourage you to indulge this streak and read the second part of this memoir first. For readers unfamiliar with the life and philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand, the profundity of his struggle, the manner of his Catholic thinking and the reason why the Nazi Gestapo might want to assassinate him, the short essays at the end of this memoir bring all of this into focus. Originally published in his Viennese journal Der Christliche Ständestaat, the essays warn 1930s Catholics not to be “morally blunted” by National Socialism, to stand up for the Jews and to take on anti-Nazism as a Catholic religious imperative. The dessert is delicious and sets up the main course extraordinarily well.
In the first part of this memoir we are introduced to von Hildebrand, whose life when read through the eyes of liberals or democrats might seem neither appealing nor all that interesting. He was born into Germany’s cultural aristocracy (his father was a famous German sculptor whose studio was in Italy). Although of military age, since he was recently married and a father, he avoided any whiff of grapeshot during World War I by serving as an assistant to a doctor in a Munich hospital. Both he and his wife Gretchen converted to Roman Catholicism during the first year of the war. He received his doctorate under Edmund Husserl at Göttingen in 1912. His wartime service permitted him time to publish his first book in 1916, and by 1924 he was an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Munich.
There is nothing much proletarian about von Hildebrand. He dines with duchesses, hosts industrialists, lionizes clergy, longs for the return of the Hapsburgs and ingratiates himself with various German cultural and political elites. In our own age, when the plight of refugees is at the front of the public mind, we may strain to find deep sympathy with a person whose flight from danger in Germany entailed traveling by train to his family’s hillside villa in Florence. Von Hildebrand bemoans the fact that as a Florentine refugee he will no longer be able to have long lunches with the Spanish Infanta.
A son of privilege who had reached privileged status, von Hildebrand had every reason to go along to get along with the rising Nazi party. Many young academics found it easy to view Nazism as another form of nationalism. Not so for von Hildebrand, whose earliest reaction to Nazism was visceral.
As the memoir unfolds, even von Hildebrand’s wistful monarchism evaporates under the force of his philosophical personalism and extraordinary faith. Here is a philosopher pushed into anti-Nazism precisely by the power of his new philosophical view. If Camus is counted as the father of political engagement, then he should be seen as the stepchild of von Hildebrand, who pioneered the place of the philosopher as a public and political nemesis to Nazism.
Von Hildebrand viewed Nazism not simply as another form of collectivism, but rather as a worldview based in a materialism as equally destructive to the soul as Bolshevism.
For von Hildebrand, personalism meant that all humans were in some sense transcendent. Under the influence of Max Scheler (1874-1928), von Hildebrand now saw the human person as “the value of all values.” The materialist “what” of the person was superseded by the transcendental “who” of the person. This new equation, grounded in Husserl’s “essences,” and distilled by Scheler, gave von Hildebrand a new and prophetic freedom in pronouncing on Nazism.
For von Hildebrand, Nazism’s statist impulse denuded the soul of its transcendental meaning. It devalued humanity. The “value” of the person—whatever race, ethnicity or creed—was obliterated by sole identification with the state. This is what Achille Ratti, Pope Pius XI, called “stateolatry,” the idolatry of the state. The free exercise of religion and the exercise of conscience were anathema to Nazism, von Hildebrand argued, even if some Nazi politicians made piecemeal concessions. In its origins and in full flush, Nazism was intrinsically evil. “It would be better,” von Hildebrand concluded, “if it could be destroyed altogether.”
Incredibly, von Hidebrand was forming these conclusions as early as 1923, when he witnessed Hitler’s putsch in Munich. He was vocalizing them shortly after. For von Hildebrand, Nazism was not simply a carbuncle on the German body politic, it was the Antichrist. Hitler and his associates were simply “criminals.” With a double-thrust of the pen, von Hildebrand characterized the Nazi ethos and its public pomp as nothing more than “kitsch.” Von Hildebrand railed at Nazi anti-Semitism as not only inhumane, but un-Christian. He particularly singled out Catholics who either tried to reconcile with or make concessions to Nazism. These Catholics had become “infected” with National Socialism and were in desperate need of reconversion.
How could such a young philosophy professor become so intensely anti-Nazi so shortly after the birth of Nazism? The memoir moves us to consider how the new philosophy of personalism, combined with a vibrant life of prayer, made such protest possible. To the mind of this reviewer, von Hildebrand’s personalism acted as a unique impetus for protest because it was completely removed from the dominant Thomism and neo-Thomism of the day. Aquinas shackled his adherents to the obeisance of civilly constituted governments. (An exception here would be Jacques Maritain.) For Aquinas, civil government was “subordered” to divine law and acted on a mandate only to approximate the divine order. Consequently, Aquinas did not compel the church to pass judgment on the style of a state, only to its relationship with the church.
Personalism cut through such distinctions, especially since the style of the state clearly showed intent to devalue human life. Thomists were left to wrestle with the fact that Hitler’s legal ascent to power left him as the “civilly constituted authority.” Von Hildebrand saw the Hitler government not as legal but as criminal. He did not hold out for a reconciliation of Nazism with the church. Nazism was the AntiChrist. It was malum in se. Legalism was immaterial. Exasperated, von Hildebrand understood that it was precisely such “civil obedience” that stymied the bishops’ ability to criticize Hitler. In contrast, von Hildebrand never missed an opportunity to criticize National Socialism and the party’s leader, Adolf Hitler.
While the memoir strains to put Hitler’s fingerprints on the levers that forced von Hildebrand into exile, historian Derek Hastings’s recent work on Nazi violence against the German Catholic press seems to show that von Hildebrand’s fretful accounts of his flights from Nazi terror were warranted completely. (In 1935 and 1939, for example, Catholic resisters Willi Schmidt and Maurice Bavaud met their fate by means of a practice specially reserved to the Nazi S.S. for just such critics—beheading.)
As Austria fell to the Nazis, von Hildebrand made his way to France, where he was able to join the Catholic Institute of Toulouse. With France next in line for conquest, von Hildebrand bolted to Lisbon in 1940, where he ended up as one of two Catholics aboard a ship chartered by the Rockefeller Foundation to transport German Jews to the United States. In 1942, he began a teaching career in the philosophy department at Fordham University lasting until his retirement in 1960.
The Second Vatican Council proved to be an electric moment for von Hildebrand, and he immediately lent his pen to the emerging Catholic culture wars of the 1960s. Catholic morality was a pressing concern for von Hildebrand. Germany’s incremental desensitization to fascist political gains was similar to the way creeping sexual permissiveness desensitized the conscience to the moral gravity of human sexual activity, he argued.
As von Hildebrand began to indict liberal Catholics in the wake of “Humane Vitae,” many theological critics began to dismiss him as nothing more than an angry crank. Consequently, scholars began to gloss over, if not cast aside altogether, von Hildebrand’s earlier career as an anti-Nazi. By the 1970s his trenchant warnings against Hitler and Catholic anti-Semitism were in danger of being sidelined from the discussion altogether. This edited memoir is a long-overdue accomplishment that snatches back the complex story of one philosopher’s antifascism, and should be considered for placement on every Catholic bookshelf.