Lessons from Dietrich von Hildebrand

Published November 26, 2014

The Catholic Difference

Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889–1977) was a German Catholic philosopher, part of a circle of thinkers that first formed around Edmund Husserl, founder of the philosophical method known as “phenomenology.” Others in that circle included Max Scheler, on whom Karol Wojtyla (St. John Paul II) wrote his second doctoral thesis, and Edith Stein, now St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. The phenomenologists thought philosophy had gotten detached from reality, drifting into the quicksand of thinking-about-thinking-about-thinking. Their motto was “to the things themselves,” and their project was to reconnect thought to reality by a precise observation and analysis of Things As They Are.

Phenomenology, alas, also rates a special shrine in the philosophy wing of the Opacity Hall of Fame. The phenomenological method lends itself to a certain circularity, and a lot of patience is required to work through a typically dense phenomenological text—especially when the author is German. In my brief experience of him as a philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand was no exception to this rule.

Imagine my happy surprise, then, in discovering a collection of Hildebrand’s diaries and pre-World War II lectures, edited by John Henry Crosby and John F. Crosby and recently published as My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich (Image). Here was a Hildebrand I’d never met before: a crisp, feisty writer, who wore his emotions on his literary sleeve as he fought against the emerging Hitler regime and the Catholic intellectuals who were seduced by it, some for brief periods, others for longer.

That seduction was, in a word, appalling. In May 1933, for example, the Catholic Academic Association met at the Benedictine Abbey of Maria Laach (one of the centers of the pre-Vatican II liturgical movement). To what Hildebrand described as his “great distress,” Hitler’s vice chancellor, Franz von Papen, a Catholic, was invited to lecture; even worse, “a priest from Maria Laach praised the Third Reich as the realization of the Body of Christ in the secular world.” Hildebrand resigned from the association to protest this “ignominious affair.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand believed that Nazism breathed the ancient spirit of the Antichrist, with whom the Church could have no truck. Thus he wrote friends in Munich at Pentecost 1933, explaining that “it is completely immaterial if the Antichrist refrains from attacking the Church for political reasons, or if he concludes a Concordat with the Vatican. What is decisive is the spirit that animates him, the heresy he represents, the crimes committed at his behest. God is offended regardless of whether the victim of murder is a Jew, a Socialist, or a bishop. Blood that has been innocently spilled cries out to heaven.”

Why did intelligent Catholics in Germany and elsewhere fall prey to the siren-songs of German National Socialism? A close reading of Hildebrand’s diaries suggests that it was in part because they despised liberal democracy, which they regarded as “bourgeois” and decadent. And there certainly were elements of decadence, and aggressive secularism, in Germany’s inter-war Weimar Republic.

But a Catholic answer to the quandaries of political modernity was not going to be found in Hitler’s Third Reich (which some foolishly imagined the forerunner of a new Holy Roman Empire) or in Mussolini’s Fascism (which some Catholics thought an expression of the “corporatism” espoused by Pius XI’s 1931 social encyclical, Quadragesimo Anno). The answer was a democracy (even under a constitutional monarch) tethered to moral truth through a religiously-informed public philosophy drawn from Europe’s heritage of reason and revelation—from the legacies left to Europe by Athens and Jerusalem.

As I read the Hildebrand diaries, that option was not on the table when European Catholic intellectuals discussed the crisis of their continent during the Great Depression. That failure of imagination helped foster the catastrophes of the Holocaust and the Second World War, and helped pave the way toward Europe’s current moral-cultural sclerosis. There are lessons here for all, but especially for those “radical Catholics” tempted to turn legitimate critiques of democratic practice into contempt for the democratic experiment.

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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