A Catholic Philosopher's Courageous Battle Against Hitler
Saint Francis de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists, but should Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand ever attain canonization — not unlikely, but also a process not yet begun — he will have to merit consideration as co-protector of scribblers, especially polemicists willing to take on very strong and ruthless adversaries on behalf of the weak and the despised.
Read the new edition and translation of von Hildebrand's memoir My Battle Against Hitler by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby and you will be persuaded that Hildebrand is easily among the most courageous of the journalists of the past 100 years. And that is saying something.
We live in an era where not a few reporter-writers venture far into harm's way — John Fisher Burns, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Dexter Filkins, Robert Kaplan, David Kirkpatrick, and Jake Tapper are just six I have myself interviewed, and there are many dozens more who have chronicled this decade-plus of war from the front lines. All of them deserve kudos for following the warriors into battle.
I have just begun Toby Harnden's Dead Men Risen, which records the battles of the Welsh Guard in Afghanistan's Helmand province and which was awarded an Orwell Prize for its excellence, and is yet another example of a reporter who goes into battle with those he covers. The late Christopher Hitchens set Orwell as his North Star and though he was in my view often wrong, he never trembled, and even managed to get in a few actual as opposed to literary swings against various thugs.
But von Hildebrand actually fought the worst evil of the past century, the battle against Hitler, the Nazis and totalitarians generally, and most vividly throughout his life he fought against anti-Semitism. In a time when that timeless virus is spreading again as fast and potentially as deadly as any including the years of the Reich, von Hildebrand's example and thus this new book could not be more timely.
Distinguished as a philosopher early in his career, as early as 1923 von Hildebrand was willing to publicly denounce his own country's 1914 invasion of Belgium as a crime. He was a vocal opponent of Hitler even before the Beer Hall putsch and never relented. Forced to flee the country when Hitler became Chancellor, he took up residence in Austria and almost immediately founded the most relentless and savagely blunt of the papers critical of every aspect of Germany's spiral downward.
Nor would he have any truck with the anti-Semites who were also anti-Hitler. He was if not the first anti-anti-Semite among the Germans, he seems to me the most consistently vocal and determined. When Hitler swallowed Austria, Von Hildebrand got out one step ahead and carried on his anti-Nazi crusade across Portugal and Spain before getting finally to America.
His widow, Alice von Hildebrand, carries on as does the work of the Hildebrand Project and the new book will bring long overdue attention to the work not only of a great philosopher but also of a journalist of extraordinary courage, who refused to even nod to the bigots, the bullies and eventually the mass killers of his time. Give a copy of My Battle Against Hitler to any writer (or elected official) you know this Christmas. It is a handy thing to be shown the real thing when so many variations of faux courage earn praise on a daily basis.
John Henry Crosby wisely includes some translations of Hildebrand's best essays on a variety of topics as a coda to the central struggle of his life, and there is obviously a treasure trove here. But the memoir is the best and should come first. Especially in this age, especially as America considers a deal with the mullahs of Tehran, killers infected with the same ancient disease, aiming for the same end as those von Hildebrand fought.
Hugh Hewitt is a nationally syndicated talk radio host, law professor at Chapman University's Fowler School of Law, and author, most recently of The Happiest Life. He posts daily at HughHewitt.com and is on Twitter @hughhewitt.