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.


The Courtier Reviews: “The Debt”

The British film “The Debt”, which opened here in the U.S. this weekend, is a remake of an Israeli film from a few years ago of the same name.  It deals with a great many themes, too many to address in a single blog post.  However if you are prepared, gentle reader, to challenge yourself and go see this film, you will not only find it entertaining – with plenty of Hitchcockian touches and John Le Carré thrills, punctuated by some superb acting – but you will also find it challenging, raising a number of issues for the thinking man to consider.  And one of the most fundamental of them, for this reviewer, was its frank look at the question of evil.

The film is a tale told in flashback, but not in a strictly linear fashion, meaning the viewer must actually pay attention to what is going on.  I have seen several reviewers complain about this fact but personally, I found it engaged, as Poirot would say, the little gray cells.  That the filmmaker expects his audience to use their brains seems rather refreshing in an entertainment era when the stimulation of one’s brain – let alone the assumption that the viewer has one – seems to have been abandoned in favor of using the cheap and obvious to stimulate other bodily regions.

The film begins with a book launch event, in which the daughter of Helen Mirren’s character Rachel tells a story that has had a profound impact on the main characters of the film. Stefan, David, and Rachel, three agents of the Mossad, Israel’s legendary intelligence agency, are sent to East Berlin in the 1960’s to capture Dr. Vogel, a man who is working as a gynecologist but who had previously performed human experimentation in a Nazi concentration camp.  What happens to him, and to each of them, is woven into a story that at times is very much like one of the “Bourne” series, and at times reminiscent of films such as “Munich” and “Death and the Maiden”.

At the core of “The Debt” is a sequence in which the young Israeli agents hold their man prisoner, feeding him and keeping him clean against his will, until he can be sent to Israel for trial.  The way in which each of the three reacts to the old Nazi is telling about their character.  Stefan, being older than the rest and the leader of the group, never lets the prisoner speak to him.  He has seen his like before, and says he views the doctor as an animal; he mocks and shows his contempt for Dr. Vogel and his ideology by playing and singing a kind of slag-rendition of “Deutschland, Deutschland” on the piano.

The exchanges between Dr. Vogel and Rachel, and Dr. Vogel and David, are very different from his interactions with Stefan, in part because they allow him to speak, but also because neither of them treats him as Stefan does.  And here we move into somewhat different cinematic territory from either a spy film or Holocaust film, for as I watched these sequences my mind kept going back to two reference points: “The Exorcist” and “The Third Man”.  Of course, director John Madden is not deliberately evoking either of these movies, but if the reader will indulge me, I believe he will see why I made these connections.

If you have not seen “The Exorcist” in some time, or dismiss it as mere Halloween fare, you are missing the point. Spinning heads and pea-soup vomit aside, what is truly terrifying about the film is not what takes place physically, but psychologically, in the tony Georgetown home of Regan, the possessed young girl.  The Devil *knows* things about those who are holding him prisoner, and uses his uncanny, infernal mixture of knowledge and twisted reason to try to affect the hearts and minds of his jailers.  By causing them grief or doubt, he hopes he can take advantage of their indecision.

Similarly, the famous “cuckoo clock” speech in “The Third Man”, when Orson Welles and Jospeh Cotten are on the ferris wheel, employs a kind of logic of justification for acts of evil.  Harry Lime (Welles), realizing that his old friend is no longer entirely loyal to him after having seen the evil that Harry has done, points out that during decades of strife under the Borgias and others, Italy gave rise to Michelangelo, Da Vinci, the Renaissance, and all that flowed from it, whereas under centuries of peace and harmony, the Swiss only managed to produce the cuckoo clock.  It is an over-simplification, obviously, but it raises an issue that Harry – in loco diaboli – wants his listener to consider, in an attempt to save and justify himself: is “evil” really such a bad thing?

So it is that in “The Debt”, Dr. Vogel preys on Rachel’s emotions, and on David’s doubts.   Like Father Damian Karras in “The Exorcist”, Rachel is subjected to mental torture about the fate of her mother, which causes her to lash out at the demonic doctor.  She has, in several superbly restrained scenes, literally put herself in Dr. Vogel’s hands, but even though now the tables are turned and he is in her power, he manipulates his knowledge of her in deliberately painful ways.  He wounds her even though he is physically restrained, just as was the case with Linda Blair’s character of the possessed child, Regan.

Far worse in scope is Dr. Vogel’s challenge to David, about how easy it was for the Nazis to succeed in exterminating the Jews, and whether the Jews ought not to look at their own role in how the Holocaust took place.  Earlier in the film we learnt that David lost every single member of his family in the Holocaust, and cannot open up to others about his sense of guilt as to why that happened, and why he survived and they did not. Like Harry Lime’s cuckoo clock speech, Dr. Vogel’s words to David form an infernal over-simplification of a complicated subject, and yet the words have a profound impact on David.  My Jewish readers in particular may find this exchange difficult to watch, and even as a Catholic European-American it made me squirm, mentally.  I do not know whether this bit of the script was taken from the original, Israeli version of the film, having not seen it, but it is a profoundly disturbing bit of evil to put on film.

It is of course usually the case that evil does not gain control over man through physical attack, but rather through the subtleties of the mind.  From Adam and Eve being tempted by the Serpent into committing sin, to the rotting away of human decency through our educational, cultural, and political institutions coming to embrace and celebrate selfishness over self-sacrifice, Satan does not have to actually show up, horns and all, to throw us into chaos: all he needs is to put an idea into someone’s mind, and then twist it.  As Shakespeare writes in “The Merchant of Venice”, Act I Scene iii,  “The Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

There are many good reasons to see “The Debt” – terrific suspense moments; interesting young actors whom I was not familiar with; the always-superb Helen Mirren, whose performances are much beloved of thinking men and women in this country; and so on.  It is not a perfect film, though I did not find its flaws to detract from the impact of the work. For this reviewer, the best recommendation I can make is to say it is a superb cautionary tale, showing how easy it is to allow evil to walk in and start affecting your thinking – and subsequent behavior – if you are not careful.

Helen Mirren as Rachel Singer in “The Debt”

Incurable Impotence: The Chapman Brothers

If you are Christian, Jewish, or simply have good taste, you will not be attending the new Chapman brothers exhibition at London’s White Cube Gallery, which opened today and runs through September 17th. The exhibition however, gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on the purpose of art, but more importantly on our reaction to it.  Here we have an ideal example of how our emotional reaction to a work of art must be tempered by subsequent reason.

As reported in today’s Torygraph – with an accompanying slideshow that I caution you is not for the faint of heart or stomach – the latest installation from two of the British contemporary art scene’s most famous droppings  features the combination of horror, blasphemy, and pornography that has become a hallmark of the Chapmans’ work since they gave up destroying other people’s work for a living. Among other elements of the installation, we see mannequins of disfigured, elf-like children dressed in track suits embroidered with swastikas; a member of the KKK standing guard over a painting; Nazi corpses wearing smiley-faced arm bands; and a statue of the Madonna and Child, altered and turned into something from a Guillermo del Toro film.  It is hard to imagine how the Chapman brothers could have come up with a montage more capable of offending just about everyone, though no doubt they will try even harder in future.

Clearly this is a show designed to get people talking.  As repulsive as this art is, there can be no denying that the Chapmans know how to push our buttons.  As you read the description I gave of the exhibition, or looked at the images in the slideshow, you probably felt different emotions.  Perhaps you felt a bit queasy in your stomach, or perhaps you felt a rising flush of anger, etc.  If you did, then the Chapmans have done their job.

The only problem for the Chapmans is, once we, the viewing public, take a moment to separate ourselves from the visceral reaction we have to this show, in the end we find that their work is flaccid.  While one measure of the power of a work of art is whether it generates a reaction, truly powerful, effective art is that which comes to define/redefine how the viewer sees himself or others.  In this case, after the initial emotional reactions we may have to the Chapmans’ show, our reason kicks in, and the Chapmans’ work goes from evoking a cry of “Scandalous!” to eliciting merely a “Meh.”

When a work of art is created with a purpose beyond that of decoration, it can have an incredibly powerful effect on us.  In portraiture, for example, the artist tries to capture the essence of his subject so that future generations can get a sense of what the person and their times were like in a way which, if done well, even the modern digital camera cannot hope to fully replicate.  In devotional art, the artist is trying to help the believer direct his thoughts toward matters eternal; because we are both body and spirit, and not simply spiritual beings, this can often be helped through visual clues provided by the artist.

Here, there is no real attempt at reaching a wider audience.  Presumably not being entirely moronic, the Chapmans realize that their show will go the same as all other shows of this type.  The show will provoke a negative reaction from the more conventional branches of society, the Chapmans will be feted and applauded by their peers, who will laugh about such complaints given their mutual loathing of traditional society, and then everyone will go home. It is a pattern that has repeated over and over again in the contemporary art world and its never-ending quest to insult what it terms the bourgeoisie.

The problem is, neither the Chapmans nor their infernal cohorts – for be in no doubt, gentle reader, that from dark places come the ideas which produce and promote such art – are changing our minds.  They are shocking us, yes, at least initially. But after the initial shock wears off, there is little left to talk about. If that is all the Chapmans wanted to achieve, then they could simply streak the Trooping of the Color.

There is no real, lasting impact from work such as this on the people it was designed to hurt or insult, because the average man or woman who would find such work shocking walks away from it thinking, “what sick people those Chapman brothers must be,” rather than “I must stop being a Catholic now.”  It will be forgotten within days, perhaps hours, of being seen, and sag limply beside the work of great artists who, even when they disturb us with an image  – e.g. Rembrandt’s stunning “Anatomy Lesson” – can seemingly paradoxically achieve greatness by something comparatively smaller and less complicated than what the Chapmans set out to do.

Being able to speak only from my own experience, nothing I have seen of this show changes my opinions on the Faith, Our Lord and His Blessed Mother, the Nazis, the Klan, etc.  It is art that brings about no fundamental change of mind on my part, no questioning of my long-held assumptions and conclusions.  This is not to say that what the Chapmans have done, whether in this installation or in their previous shows, is merely poorly-executed, poorly-thought-out art.  One can fault the Chapmans for many things, but one cannot deny that they have clearly thought about what they were going to produce, and put a lot of effort into producing it.

We can acknowledge that, in the case of this installation, the Chapman brothers wanted a reaction.  And, as we have admitted above, they certainly succeeded.  Yet ultimately we have to ask, along with Miss Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?” If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s keep dancing.