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.

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The Art of the Strongman: In Which I Mock Kim Jong-Il

I nearly split my sides laughing yesterday upon learning the news that North Korea has inaugurated a new, gigantic equestrian statue of its recently-deceased dictator Kim Jong-Il, galloping alongside his father.  Anyone who is familiar with what that plump, myopic, utterly unheroic person looked like – something like the Korean version of Widmerpool from Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time” – would no doubt feel the same way.  Of course, the tens of thousands of his own people whom he killed, whether through violence or neglect, make the history of what he has done not amusing at all.

Now, before we get too far into a consideration of this topic, gentle reader, let me assure you that I am not in a position to say whether Kim Jong-Il, or Lenin, or Hitler are now residents of Hades or somewhere else.  I personally suspect that they are, but since I am most emphatically not the Lord, I am not going to presume that they are; nor, as it happens, should you.  Of course, that is a discussion for another time.

Yet at the same time as we have to be careful about dealing out judgment, we can and should mock murderous leftist regimes through the art they create to honor their leaders; this, it would seem to me, is a healthy reaction, rather than to simply throw up one’s hands in horror.  In its way, this equestrian monument to North Korea’s previous dictator is as ridiculous as the work of other socialist regimes, such as the stuffed corpse of Vladimir Lenin decomposing in his Snow White-style crystal coffin on Red Square, or the famous painting by Hubert Lanzinger of Adolf Hitler dressed as a Teutonic knight in shining armor.  With respect to the latter, I’ve always thought that in that particular image Hitler looks like a midget, who has somehow managed to put on backwards a spacesuit costume from the old “Battlestar Galactica” or “Buck Rogers” television series of the 1970’s.

History is replete with examples of strongmen commissioning heroic, colossal images of themselves.  For example, some believe that the lamussu, or winged lions with human heads from Assyrian mythology, from the outer gates of the city of Babylon, represent King Nebuchadnezzar II – a conqueror familiar to most of my readers from The Bible. The list of such things goes on, all the way from the Egyptians and Romans, such as the various monumental statues of Ramesses II or the now-destroyed colossus of the Emperor Nero, down to the present day in North Korea. Some of these works have great artistic merit, and some are simply terrible kitsch.

We should ask the question then, whether this type of art serves any beneficent purpose, other than to glorify the person represented for future generations. The portrayal of a human being in a work of art is problematic in many religions, of course, out of a concern that such objects encourage idolatrous practices. Whereas the Babylonians and the Egyptians, as devout polytheists, tried to identify their ruler with their respective concepts of the divine in order to grant divine status to their otherwise mortal ruler, in the case of modern, atheistic regimes, such as those of North Korea, Soviet Russia, or Nazi Germany, the worship of the state, in the person of its leader, is meant to supplant the worship of God, in the minds and hearts of the people who happen to suffer under such governments.

This is why a true understanding of a work of art created for public purposes cannot take place in a vacuum, based solely on personal feelings and impressions devoid of an understanding of history. Imagine someone looking at the Statue of Liberty, for example, and knowing nothing about the object other than what he can see with his own eyes. Without knowing the historical context in which the monument was erected, such a person could be forgiven for thinking that it was meant to honor some great queen of antiquity who had once ruled over this country, rather than symbolically representing the history of the American Revolution, the friendship of the American and French people, and their common appreciation of the benefits of freedom, among other things. Taken out of context, the image may have an entirely different meaning than that intended by those who created it.

In the case of North Korea, one hopes that this new, monumental monstrosity will eventually be melted down, and used to create a monument to the incalculable number of people who starved or froze to death under Kim Jong-Il’s rule. Until such time as that happens, however, let us content ourselves with mocking it, for not only is it emphatically ugly and ridiculous from an aesthetic perspective, but it also reminds us that no strongman, however powerful he may be in his own lifetime, is preserved from mortality. That fact ought to give us, and hopefully the Korean people, the opportunity to reflect on the fact that an unjust ruler is only a human being, and only as strong as the fear of those over whom he rules; if they can overcome their fears, they can overcome their dictator.  So perhaps, that means that there is a beneficent purpose to this sort of art, after all.