Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Witness of Dietrich Von Hildebrand

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Witness of Dietrich Von Hildebrand

Article excerpt

Now that the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project has been founded with a view to republishing the works of this great thinker and in some cases translating them from German for the first rime, it is worth recalling who Dietrich von Hildebrand was. Born in 1889, he studied philosophy in the phenomenological school of Edmund Husserl. He converted to Catholicism in 1914, partly under the influence of the great Catholic thinker Max Scheler. By 1930, he had become an important voice in German Catholicism, perhaps best known for his pioneering work on man and woman, and on marriage. One can trace the chapter on marriage in the second Vatican Council's Gaudium et Spes back to Hildebrand's writings in the 192Os, in which he argued that the marital act has not only a procreative meaning but also a no-less-significant unitive meaning. But he was in those years also distinguishing himself in other ways: through his writings in moral and social philosophy and also through his original religious writings, especially his Transformation in Christ, which has become a kind of classic.

Hildebrand has the distinction of being one of the earliest opponents of National Socialism; already in 1923, when Hitler tried to seize power in Bavaria, Hildebrand's name was on a short list of enemies. He seems to have had from the beginning an unusual insight into a kind of gestalt of evil in Nazism. He tells in his memoirs that many of his contemporaries, including the German bishops gathered in Fulda in 1933, would seize on "positive elements" in Nazism, such as the recovery of German national pride after the humiliation of World War I and Versailles, or such as the exercise of real authority after postwar years of political indecision and drift. Some Catholics apparently wanted to distinguish between mainstream Nazism and the radical fringes of the movement, saying that, though the radical elements were certainly beyond the pale, the mainstream still had some good substance and was susceptible of being influenced in a Christian direction. All these "positive elements" made no impression on Hildebrand; they were for him nothing but so much dust thrown in his eyes to distract him from the fundamental reality of Nazism. He increasingly spoke of the face of the Anti-Christ in Hitler.

Hildebrand left Germany for Austria in March of 1933. He saw in the Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss the only statesman in Europe who was willing to stand up to Hitler. Hildebrand had always loved the Catholic identity of Austria, and now he thought that Catholic Austria, which had stopped the advance of the Turks in the seventeenth century, might stop the advance of Hitler in the twentieth. If Austria under the leadership of a resolute Catholic statesman was going to resist being annexed by Germany, then Hildebrand had found the battle he wanted to fight. It was not just a battle for the independence of Austria-similar to battles for the independence of Ireland or Poland-but a battle for Christian civilization against the antiChristian barbarians in Berlin. So he moved to Vienna and founded a review in which he would do battle with the Nazi ideology at the level of philosophical and theological first principles. In the pages of his 'Viennese review, Hildebrand, living in constant danger of assassination, bore a witness that must not be forgotten.

One of his articles is entitled "The Struggle for the Human Person," a tide that well expresses the issue that, according to Hildebrand, stood at the center of the conflict. He said "the signature of the age" was a certain anti-personalism. One expression of this antipersonalism was collectivism, the philosophy that takes human beings as mere parts in some collectivity. Hildebrand held that each human being, as a person called by God and answerable to God, is always more than a part in a social whole; as a person, each exists before God as his own whole and thus refuses to be completely contained in any social whole. …

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