Review: An Engrossing “Battle Against Hitler”

Today is my turn on the blog tour for “My Battle Against Hitler”, a compilation of the writings of the great German philosopher and professor Dietrich von Hildebrand, translated, edited, and annotated by John Henry Crosby together with his father, John F. Crosby, himself a student of Hildebrand.  Those among my readers who are interested in philosophy, particularly Catholic philosophy, history, and political theory will thoroughly enjoy this volume.  Yet I also want to encourage those of you who do not typically read such subjects to take a look at this work, which kept me fascinated from beginning to end.  It taught me much about a great figure I knew little about, for it not only recounts von Hildebrand’s harrowing experiences using his voice and his pen against Hitler, it also gives an engaging picture of what life in the lead-up to World War II was really like for those who dared to defy Nazism from its inception.

I must confess I was a bit intimidated when I was asked to review this book.  Although I have studied history, political theory, and theology throughout my life, I certainly couldn’t attempt to hold my own in a philosophical debate on some of the deep questions of human nature and existence with authors like von Hildebrand explored in their writings. Yet I needn’t have worried, for while such underpinnings are important to understanding who von Hildebrand was and why he did what he did in the battle against Nazi totalitarianism, this engrossing volume is less of a philosophical textbook and more of an adventure story, chronicling not only the timeline of how von Hildebrand became a prime target of Hitler’s regime, but also the people and situations he encountered along the path to eventual exile to the United States at the outbreak of war.

Using a collection of materials, including von Hildebrand’s own journals and published writings between 1921 and 1938, Crosby not only gives the reader the opportunity to follow von Hildebrand from his rise to prominence as an outspoken critic of Nazism in Munich, to his “last stand” in Vienna before the Anschluss, he also provides many of the writings which encapsulated von Hildebrand’s ideas, and what got him into trouble with Hitler in the first place. As such, this is a hugely entertaining read, if one may use so seemingly flippant a categorization when reviewing such serious material. Even those who are wholly unfamiliar with von Hildebrand will be drawn in to understanding the man in a way that is not normally attempted in writing about historical figures.

For example, in the journal portion of this volume, von Hildebrand recounts his friendship and meetings with the great conductor Otto Klemperer, who had to flee Germany as a result of being Jewish, and eventually chose to head to the safety of the United States. During their time in Vienna the two men were able to meet often and share their love of Germanic culture, appreciating among other Germanic artists the dignity and elegance of the world evoked by the music of Mozart:

To experience such a distinctive and refined world, filled with the special air of Mozart, and embodied in such a concrete and individual manner, is something very rare. How unusual it is to find the beauty and nobility of this world realized in such perfection, concreteness, and fullness. And what a great and unusual gift it is to find oneself unexpectedly in this world, not for the sake of enjoyment but transported there by life circumstances, not as a spectator but as someone inhabiting it in an entirely natural way.

This idea of the crystalline perfection of Mozart which von Hildebrand expressed in his conversations with Klemperer and in his journals is similarly reflected in his published writings. In one of the selections for this book, “German Culture and National Socialism”, published in June 1934, von Hildebrand’s essay takes aim at the notion that German culture is the slogan-laden caricature presented by the Nazis, rather than the “expressions of the spirit” which come through in its greatest interpreters of art, poetry, and music. “[A]nyone whose heart has been moved by the angelic, sublime beauty of Mozart’s music,” he writes, “can feel nothing but deep revulsion at the sound of the Nazi ‘Horst Vessel Lied’, and must inevitably feel that here two irreconcilable worlds have confronted each other.”

The pairing of von Hildebrand’s private thoughts and experiences with selections from his published writings give us a well-selected overview of the life and work of one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century, in a way that those who know little or nothing of the study of philosophy can appreciate as much as those who are experts in the field. Anyone who can read the chapter entitled “Escape from Vienna” and not be on the edge of their seat, wondering whether the von Hildebrands will be able to get out in time as rumors of the German Anschluss begin, has no taste for adventure. From false alarms to cars that mysteriously break down, angry crowds trying to block taxis to the Gestapo at the door, this chapter alone reads like a film script – except we have to remember that it was real. These are not simply intellectuals with important ideas sitting around waiting for things to happen, but real people, with real relationships, feelings, and concerns, anchored by von Hildebrand himself, who are trying to fight against the greatest evil that had befallen Western Europe since the Plague, and at the same time preserve their own lives and those of their loved ones.

There is so much material to explore in this single collection, that to attempt to do it justice in a single blog post would be an *in*justice.  From von Hildebrand’s outreach to and speaking out on behalf of German Jews, to his quarrels with fellow conservatives who realized too late that Hitler and Nazism could not be contained or controlled, to stories of heroism and courage contrasted with cowardice and betrayal, it will be difficult for the reader to put this book down.  In fact, I myself intend to go back and read it more closely, lingering over the details and some of the debates which von Hildebrand raises in these pages, something which I confess I rarely do after having read a book.  Perhaps that then, is the best review recommendation I can give you, gentle reader, as to why you, too, should add this outstanding work to your library.

IMG_20141117_084807

Dominicans to the Rescue: Saving Souls and Civilization in Iraq

Obviously there is much to be said, and much that is praiseworthy, when someone heroically saves another’s life.  People are more important than property, something which all of us need reminding of from time to time.  Yet sometimes we can find equally praiseworthy acts of heroism when it comes to rescuing objects that are part of the heritage of all mankind.  So for this blog post, I want to take the opportunity to laud the work of my favorite religious order, the Dominicans, who are doing something heroic not only for the care and salvation of souls, but also for preserving civilization, right now, in a very dangerous place and time.

As ISIS slashes and burns its way across Iraq, we are right to focus on their human victims, first and foremost.  Yet ISIS is not only interested in terrorizing their fellow human beings through violence and intimidation.  Rather, they want to show the people of the lands they are conquering, to paraphrase a line from the film “Doctor Zhivago” after the Bolsheviks have killed the Tsar and all of his family, that now, there’s no going back to the way things were. And part of the way ISIS is going about this task is through the destruction of culture and history.

To counter that effort, the Order of Preachers, more popularly known as the Dominicans, have been trying to rescue as many ancient Christian texts as they can ahead of the ISIS onslaught. In an interview with France24, Fr. Laurent Lemoine, O.P., described how he has been assisting in Iraq with the preservation of centuries-old manuscripts, currently in the care of Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., who with the help of his fellow Dominicans threw everything they could into a truck and fled ISIS for the comparative safety of the Kurdish city of Erbil, with only half an hour’s warning.

Fr. Michaeel’s is a name which may be familiar to some of my readers from publications like First Things, where he has been reporting on the experiences of the Dominicans and those to whom they minister. This interview in particular gives some indication of what he and the other friars face, and also why they choose to stay.  Their dedication and courage in this regard is an example to all of us who can glibly declare, amidst our relative ease and comforts, that we’re prepared to lay down our lives for our brother, as Christ tells us we must be willing to do.  These friars are putting themselves at risk every day, and not only for their fellow Catholics, but for all of those who are fleeing the ISIS terror.

For those who understand the importance of history and preserving the heritage of civilization, the work that Fr. Michaeel and the Dominicans are doing is no less important.  Without it, the real danger would be the loss of identity and roots for a group of people who have already lost almost everything else they once had.  At the same time, the existence of these objects connects them and indeed us to centuries of our forebears in Christianity, in the part of the world where Christianity first arose.

Christians do not need old objects, like ancestral bones or ancient parchments, to be able to worship God. Yet the Church has always recognized that preserving the past is a way to be more fully aware of the role God has played throughout human history, and the need to respect and honor the traditions and knowledge which others have contributed to the Church as well as to mankind as a whole.  Let us hope that one day, these books and the descendents of those who created them will once again be able to find a place of peace and restoration.

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

Fr. Najeeb Michaeel, O.P., with some of the rescued manuscripts

 

“The American Catholic Almanac”: Four Centuries of Incredible Stories

I’m honored to be the next stop on the blog tour for the new book, “The American Catholic Almanac” by Brian Burch and Emily Stimpson, which was just published by Image.  If you’re a Catholic interested in learning about the contributions of your brothers and sisters in the Faith to the building up of this country, you need a copy of this book.  If you’re not a Catholic, but appreciate the huge sweep of American history and cultural life, you also need a copy of this book.  For Catholics, as it turns out, have had a far earlier, deeper, and more lasting impact on this country than many of us were taught in school.

Given that I live in Washington, DC and often write about architecture and design on this blog, I wanted to take one example from the “Almanac” as an example of the wealth of fascinating material in this book.  The name James Hoban may be known to you from pub quiz trivia – or indeed, from the pub named after him in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of the Nation’s Capital – as the architect who designed the White House.  What may not be known to you is the fact that Hoban was a devout Catholic.

In the “Almanac” the authors detail how Hoban, the son of a poor tenant farmer in Ireland, managed through talent, hard work, and being in the right place at the right time to land what even today would still be considered the most prestigious of all home design competitions in America.  His chance meeting with George Washington in South Carolina led to a prosperous career, where Hoban not only built the White House, but was one of the principal architects working on the Capitol, as well as designing homes, churches, banks, and hotels around DC and for other parts of the young country.

Perhaps Hoban’s most famous commission apart from the White House was the State House in Columbia, South Carolina, which was burned to the ground by Sherman during the Civil War.  Fortunately, his elegant County Court House in Charleston still stands.  That said, even the White House did not escape the meddling of others, for Thomas Jefferson, who had himself entered the competition to design the President’s House and lost to Hoban, modified a number of Hoban’s designs when he moved into the Executive Mansion. Ironically, as the authors point out in the “Almanac”, Hoban later had a second crack at the White House, which is why their entry about him appears on August 24th.

During the War of 1812, the British invaded Washington and burned the Capitol, the White House, and many other buildings on August 24, 1814,  When reconstruction began, then-President James Madison approached the now 64-year-old Hoban and asked if he would supervise the residence’s rebuilding and restoration.  “Proving himself a more gracious loser than Jefferson,” the authors write, “Hoban replicated the third president’s modifications in his restoration.”  Given Jefferson’s tendency toward the experimental, which was not always successful, this was a true mark of respect, indeed.

For Catholics across the Capital City, Hoban’s efforts remain a visible reminder of his legacy to this city and the country, even when the buildings themselves were later replaced.  From Georgetown University to St. Patrick’s in the heart of downtown to St. Peter’s on Capitol Hill, the communities that still support these institutions owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Hoban for helping to make the Catholic presence in Washington a visible and lasting one.  He is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery here in DC, overlooking the city which he helped turn from a dream of the Founding Fathers into a reality.

The entry on James Hoban is just one of the stories contained in the “Almanac”, one for every day of the year.  There is such a wealth of material, that it is hard to imagine the sheer amount of work that went into this volume.  Spanning over 400 years of history, the “Almanac” provides daily reading on the lives of Catholic men and women, both Americans and those with an important tie to America, as well as non-Catholics who made an impact on the lives of American Catholics.  Often, the stories contained in these pages may come as a complete surprise to the reader.

For example, the original Mary “Mother” Jones, after whom the famous left-wing magazine is named, was a devout, pro-life Catholic, who thought mothers ought to stay at home and raise their children rather than work.  Joseph Warren Revere, the grandson of Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere and himself a celebrated hero of the Civil War, converted to Catholicism as an adult, much to the surprise of his New England family.  So too did Fanny Allen, daughter of the very anti-clerical Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen; she actually went one step further and became a nun.

Athletes, criminals, entertainers, politicians, writers, and yes, clergy and religious fill the pages of the “Almanac”.  Some of these individuals were pious believers, and some of them were absolute scoundrels. And yet we would not have the America we know today without them.

Catholics have been part of the story of America from the very beginning.  This book is not only proof of that fact, but provides that proof in an engaging, well-researched, but never heavy style, making it easy to read cover to cover, or to pick up and put down as the mood takes you.  It will also provide, particularly for educators, writers, and politicos, a picture of just how significant the Catholic contribution to this country has been in the past, and will continue to be into the future.

Whether for those new to American history, or for those who think they already know it well, there is much to savor and enjoy here, at any level: in fact, I already know which college professor friend I’m giving a copy to for Christmas.

American Catholic Almanac