A Forgotten Hero in the Fight against Anti-Semitism

By Karl-Theodor Zu Guttenberg; John Henry Crosby | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), January 27, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Forgotten Hero in the Fight against Anti-Semitism


Karl-Theodor Zu Guttenberg; John Henry Crosby, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Seventy years ago this day Allied troops arrived at the concentration camp of Auschwitz, greeting what survivors remained and seeing for the first time an industrial killing machine of unprecedented scale and brutality. As the epicenter of the Nazi genocide, Auschwitz is synonymous with the vast network of death camps built up during the Third Reich. So it is fitting that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2006, takes place each year on the date of Auschwitz's liberation. It is a necessary reminder that humanity, for all its greatness, is capable of unspeakable evil. This year's commemoration is a particularly somber one. We are confronted with the fearful reality that anti-Semitism is not only still alive but on the rise, not least in Western Europe. European Jewry has been shaken to the core by the events in Paris, and in one recent survey of Jews in the UK, a majority of those polled expressed strong doubts about the future viability of Jewish life in Europe. Similar concerns have led 7,000 French Jews in 2014 alone to seek a new home in Israel.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of present-day anti- Semitism, terrorism, and genocide in different parts of our world. We are shocked by their continued existence. We may be tempted to believe that at bottom human beings - even members of highly civilized societies like the Germany that descended into the Nazi terror - are craven and cruel. But if Nazi Germany offers appalling instances of human callousness, we cannot forget the witness, great and small, of countless persons who opposed Hitler in word and deed, many of them even in Germany. It is in the testimony of their lives that we find the greatest moral resources for confronting the continuing existence of racism and anti-Semitism today.

One of these witnesses is only now being recognized. This is the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), who was not just one of Hitler's fiercest opponents but also one of his earliest ones. Most of the best and bravest Nazi resistance - we think especially of the heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, who was murdered after the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 - came only in the late 1930s and '40s. While these later heroes of conscience rose to the occasion toward the end of the Hitler regime, Dietrich von Hildebrand stepped forward in its earliest moments.

A star pupil of famed German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, Hildebrand in 1919 joined the faculty of the University of Munich where he would remain until Hitler's rise to power in 1933. But already in 1923, Hildebrand's open denunciations of aggressive German nationalism forced him to flee for his life during the so- called "Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler's failed first attempt to seize power in Munich.

Much as Hildebrand hated German nationalism and militarism, the fight against anti-Semitism lay at the heart of the young professor's critique of Nazism. He recognized that anti-Semitism, which thrived on stereotypes and antipathies deeply embedded in people's consciousness, prevented many Germans and Austrians from recognizing the horror of Nazism. "Anti-Semitism was the forerunner of National Socialism, he wrote in a 1941 essay. …

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