The lawyer who humiliated Hitler
The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand
by Benjamin C. Hett
(New York: Oxford University Press / Sydney: Murdoch Books)
Hardcover: 368 pages
Rec. price: AUD$45.00
Seventy years after the outbreak of World War II, the world is still haunted by the question as to why the Nazis could have done what they did, particularly in a nation with a reputation for civilisation such as Germany.
Many Germans who bravely opposed Hitler and paid the price have become increasingly well-known over the years – one thinks of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Sophie Scholl. Others, however, such as lawyer Hans Litten, who famously confronted Hitler in a 1931 court trial, are largely unknown outside Germany.
Historian and former lawyer Benjamin Hett wrote this biography (which won him the 2007 Ernst Fraenkel Prize in contemporary history), not only to fill this gap in historical knowledge, but also to reassess Litten’s complex personality. Previous biographers of Litten, he argues, have been essentially partisan and have glossed over aspects of Litten’s character that did not fit the image they wished to convey.
Litten was targeted by the Nazis because he dared to call Hitler as a witness in a 1931 trial in Berlin of four Nazi storm-troopers charged with murder. Litten conducted a thorough and relentless cross-examination of Hitler, lasting three hours. In the course of it, he exposed Hitler’s true agenda and greatly undermined the appeal of his party.
Hans Litten was the son of Fritz and Irmgard Litten. His father had converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to advance his academic career and saw action in World War I. His mother came from a distinguished family that included a number of Lutheran pastors.
He was raised in East Prussia by parents who embodied Prussian values and respectability. He showed early academic promise, but as he matured he sought a path different from that of his father. Whereas his father had converted largely to further his career and distanced himself from his Jewish heritage, Hans as a young man embraced it and openly associated with Jewish organisations.
He became a lawyer and soon acquired a reputation as a brilliant advocate, but did not seek to benefit financially from this. Instead, he devoted his energies to defending members of the working class, many of whom were Communists. By the time he cross-examined Hitler, most of his fees were being paid by Red Aid – a Communist fund to help workers – and he was financially in arrears.
The event that would determine Litten’s fate, namely his calling of and cross-examination of Adolf Hitler, took place on May 8, 1931. Four Nazi storm-troopers stood accused of murdering Communists at the Eden Dance Palace in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg. Hett describes the trial at length, and includes in an appendix the full transcript of Litten and Hitler’s three-hour courtroom confrontation.
Hitler, under Litten’s questioning, argued that the Nazis did not condone or use violent methods, but rather sought to attain political power through legal means. He distanced himself from the Berlin SA (Sturmabteilungen) brown-shirted paramilitary leader Walter Stennes, claiming that the Brownshirts’ violent acts were contrary to Nazi ideology. In doing so, Hitler risked alienating himself from the SA and long-serving party members.
Litten succeeded in calling into question and seriously undermining Hitler’s credibility to the extent that he provided the court with enough evidence to charge him with perjury. He exposed as a lie Hitler’s assertion that the Nazis had a peaceful ideology by producing a pamphlet by Goebbels calling for terror. One can only speculate on what would have happened had Hitler been charged with, and found guilty of, perjury.
While Litten’s skilful defence of left-wingers and Communists had sharpened his legal skills, it earned him the wrath of the German legal establishment who sought to discredit him. Moreover, it also caused the final rupture between him and his father. Upon the Nazi accession to power at the start of 1933, Litten was now a target for Hitler’s reprisals and his friends urged him to flee Germany.
Immediately after the February 1933 Reichstag fire, which Hitler used as a pretext to enact emergency rule and to jail those who opposed him, Litten was arrested and sent to a concentration camp. Guards bashed him repeatedly until he had to be transferred back to a prison in order to recover.
For the next five years his mother spared no effort to seek his release, calling upon high-ranking members of German society whom she knew through her family’s various connections. Prominent people outside Germany, particularly British Labour politician Clifford (Lord) Allen, also lodged protests. However, Hitler, remembering his public humiliation at Litten’s hands in 1931, adamantly refused to grant him an amnesty.
During his captivity Litten seriously contemplated taking his own life. After his transfer to Dachau, the most vicious concentration camp, he was threatened with a severe beating and actually attempted suicide. Early in the morning of February 5, 1938, Litten was found dead. Although the likely cause of death was suicide, murder by a member of the SS cannot be ruled out.
The final chapter of Crossing Hitler is arguably one of the most interesting parts. In it Hett compares and contrasts the various portraits of Litten that emerged in the years following his death.
His mother’s account, written in exile in England, portrayed him as a German Christian martyr, completely downplaying his defence of Communists. Hett notes that while Litten had faith, he did not have a strong personal identification with the Lutheran faith in which he was raised.
In East Germany after the war, he was portrayed as a Communist martyr. However, although Litten was sympathetic to Communists, he was highly critical of their party’s subservience to Moscow and refused to join it.
German reunification has not diminished Litten’s memory. Even before reunification, members of the West German legal profession expressed renewed interest in lawyers practising in the late Weimar period. Litten was regarded as an outstanding example of someone who fought for people’s legal rights.
Crossing Hitler is an engaging account of a courageous and complex man who dared to stand up to the Nazis and who paid the ultimate price for doing so.
He succeeded not only in exposing the Nazis for the violent thugs they really were, but also in retaining his humanity. During his time as a concentration camp prisoner, when he was constantly confronted with the prospect of torture and humiliation, he continued to read widely and develop his appreciation of art and literature.