Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Book Review (sort of): My Battle Against Hitler

This is a very belated book review. I was in England when Dietrich von Hildebrand's edited memoirs “My Battle Against Hitler” were first released, and I could not get a review copy until I came back to the States. Even then, it was a challenge for me to read the book, first of all because the only format I could obtain limited me to reading it on an iPad (no treat for tired eyes), but more importantly because the book itself is so dense. We are talking, after all, about a philosopher's memoirs of a philosophical and political battle against an all-encompassing ideology. At times it was a struggle for me to get through. I do not have a strong background in 20th century thinkers, and von Hildebrand seemed to have been friends or at least colleagues with all of them. I didn't know anything about the Austrian experience of the Anschluss outside of some scenes in The Sound of Music, but now I know enough to even use the word appropriately (pronunciation is an altogether different question).

Suffice it to say, this was not a quick read, but now that I am (getting around to) writing about it, I am realizing how much I got from the book—and how unnervingly timely it is. Von Hildebrand, who was born at his family's villa in Italy but educated in Germany, perceived very early on just what kind of a menace Nazism was, thanks to his youthful philosophy studies under Edmund Husserl (the same Husserl alongside whom St Edith Stein would soon enough be working) and his friendship with Max Scheler (whom St John Paul would credit as providing one of the two “great philosophical revelations” in his life).
From Scheler, it would seem, both von Hildebrand and the future pope learned to approach qustions and issues from the standpoint of human dignity. It was “the depersonalising tendency of National Socialism” that provoked von Hildebrand's laser-like attention. In writing his memoirs some thirty years after so many experiences, it is this very point that the author keeps returning to. Scheler is also credited, at least in the book's introduction, with the conversion to Catholicism of von Hildebrand and his wife Gretchen. (The “other” Dr. von Hildebrand, Alice, was Dietrich's second wife; it was for her that he wrote the encyclopedic memoirs that are present only in part in the published book.) The motivation? “The Catholic Church is the true Church,” according to Scheler, “because she produces saints.”
Right from the beginning of his teaching career, von Hildebrand faced the challenge of putting his students on guard against the philosophical underpinnings of National Socialism (something his contemporary, Martin Heidegger, would soon be busily propagandizing). Sadly, von Hildebrand was in a minority. Many Catholic thinkers and leaders thought that Nazism was simply “a sign of the times” and had to be taken into consideration, or that it was best to placate the movement as much as possible, in order to protect the Church and its institutions from retaliatory damage or marginalization. This accommodating tendency continued even as Hitler's forces invaded country after country. I was saddened to read that the nationalist fervor was not absent even among the most distinguished religious communities. Von Hildebrand continued to insist that every dimension of Nazism, “its nationalism, militarism, collectivism, materialism, and anti-Semitism were unbridgeably antithetical to Christianity.”
When Hitler came to power, von Hildebrand was effectively exiled. He first moved to Italy, to his family's holdings, and then to Austria where he hoped to be part of an intellectual and political stronghold against Nazism. The annexations, first of Austria and then of France, by the Nazis kept von Hildebrand on the run. He knew he was on their hit list for starting an anti-Nazi journal, and narrowly escaped assassination (unlike the Austrian President with whom he had been working so hard). He fled from nation to nation, finally finding refuge in the US in 1940. The world hadn't even seen what Nazism would still do.
His experience of Austria had been that it was always, in its own way, what we today call “multiethnic”: “it had a supranatural character, not only because it always embraced non-German nations such as the Bohemians, Hungarians, and southern Slavs, but also because it was interiorly united and formed by an ideal that was religious, multi-national, cultural and dynastic in character.” What the Nazis brought was “the great heresy of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: nationalism.” “This terrible error... [starts] with the identification of nation and state and reaching all the way to committing idolatry towards a nation, that is, making the nation the highest criterion for the whole of life and making it the ultimate goal and highest good.”
It is hard not to read those words of von Hildebrand's in our current political setting and not feel unsettled. We need von Hildebrand's critique now as much as the complacent people of Germany and Austria needed it almost a century ago. What I want to take from this book is his centering (as St John Paul did, and as Pope Francis is modeling for us now) on the person. Any time we find ourselves expected to sacrifice a person to an ideal, every red flag ever flown should go up.
“Genuine patriotism and nationalism are as different from each other as the true, divinely ordained love of self is from egoistic self-love. ...The first characteristic of nationalism is thus a collective egoism that disavows respect and concern for foreign nations and evaluates the rights of one's own nation according to criteria different from those applied to other nations.” “Nationalism is also present wherever the nation is ranked above communities of even higher value, such as larger communities of peoples or mankind as a whole.” It doesn't take laser vision to see this sort of thing spreading like a virus through contemporary social media.
So. A tough read, but a worthwhile (maybe even necessary) one.

- - - - - - -

More books by/about von Hildebrand, who was also a kind of proto-Theology of the Body writer:

No comments: