Violet Nesdoly Review of My Battle Against Hitler
Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German professor of philosophy in Munich, watched with dismay as Germany fell under the spell of Hitler and the Third Reich. In 1933, at age 43, he and his wife Gretchen left Germany to live in Vienna.
In exile he founded a weekly magazine (Der Christliche Standestaat—The Christian Corporative State) that, for five years (until the spring of 1938 when Hitler took over Austria and the von Hildebrands had to flee), was dedicated to unmasking the nationalism, militarism, collectivism, and anti-Semitism that combined to make up the ideology of National Socialism espoused and enforced by the Nazi party.
My Battle Against Hitler is Dietrich von Hildebrand’s story. The book is made up of two sections. The first part—von Hildebrand’s memoirs—contains selections from the 5000-page memoir he wrote in 1958 for the benefit of his second wife to help this much younger woman understand his life. This section is organized by year.
The second part is fragments of the essays he published in the Vienna magazine from 1933 to 1938.
The whole thing is stitched together by pieces written by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby, translators of the memoirs and essays. The book begins with John Henry Crosby’s chapter “The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand.” Throughout the book pieces written by the Crosby’s connect the dots between journal entries and put the essay fragments into context.
Von Hildebrand’s journals are interesting and colorful. They depict him as an inveterate people-watcher who tended to categorize those he met as black or white depending on how they viewed Bolshevism and National Socialism. Any whiff of sympathy to those movements colored his entire opinion of a person.
He was someone who also seemed readily star-struck with those in power that he admired. His account of meeting the Empress and Emperor Otto of Belgium in 1933 is typical of his reaction:
“The Empress made a very strong impression on me. There was something unbelievably elegant and aristocratic about her face, while her presence as a whole seemed to combine both strength and tenderness. She was immensely attractive. … Afterward I was able to meet Emperor Otto, who also made a very great impression on me. He was then still very young, about nineteen or twenty. …I was amazed how well informed he was about all the problems in Austria and how intelligently he spoke about them” – Kindle Location 1927 & 1934.
As a whole, his memoirs introduce us to the philosophers, thinkers, and politicians of the day with whom he rubbed shoulders in Vienna and other parts of Europe. They are infused with his philosophical idealism which is rooted in his Catholic / Christian worldview. And so he saw Bolshevism and National Socialism as players in the age-old drama that was far bigger than what was being enacted on the stage of Europe at that time:
“In reality, there have been only two fronts in the world for the past two thousand years; the front for Christ and the front against Christ. He is the cornerstone which separates all spirits” – Kindle Location 5012.
Though I found many of his essays hard to follow (he was a deep, philosophical thinker, quoting names of contemporaries as handles of philosophical movements with which I’m unfamiliar), his strong convictions and clear thinking is, as a whole, hard to resist. I couldn’t help but contrast his well-thought-out opposition to Nazism to our popular movements which, herd-like, seem to be fueled by little more than trending tweets and social medial ‘LIKE’s. Von Hildebrand would have been aghast.
In our time when dueling worldviews continue, von Hildbrand stands as a shining example of someone who knew his convictions, was a master at communicating them, and stuck by them no matter how popular opinion shifted. This book is a worthwhile read for his defense of the Jews alone. The journal entries and essays where he decries anti-Semitism could help bolster our own resistance to this movement that is again finding a voice on the streets and university campuses around us.
This book is a treasure for those interested in a close view of pre-World War II Vienna, the political atmosphere and movements of the time, and how one Christian thinker analyzed and evaluated the philosophies that underpinned those movements.