Cross­ing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Wit­ness Stand

Ben­jamin Carter Hett
  • Review
By – January 3, 2012
Cross­ing Hitler is an impor­tant con­tri­bu­tion to our under­stand­ing of the tur­bu­lent years of the Weimar Repub­lic before the Nazi seizure of pow­er in 1933. The bru­tal­i­ty of the Nazis and the Com­mu­nists both toward one anoth­er and toward the demo­c­ra­t­ic Weimar gov­ern­ment is told through the brief but trag­ic life of Hans Lit­ten, the son of a Jew­ish con­vert to Chris­tian­i­ty who, because of his estranged rela­tions with his father, embraced his Jew­ish eth­nic­i­ty from his teen age years until his death in Dachau. 

Hett, Asso­ciate Pro­fes­sor of His­to­ry at Hunter Col­lege, has writ­ten a riv­et­ing account of Litten’s life. A left-wing lawyer with an affin­i­ty for defend­ing Com­mu­nists, and pos­sessed with a strong sense of social jus­tice, Lit­ten was a fer­vent anti-Nazi. At the age of twen­ty-nine, Lit­ten rep­re­sent­ed two Com­mu­nist work­ers stabbed by Hitler’s Nazi Storm Troop­ers. The so-called Eden Dance tri­al which fol­lowed in 1931 is mem­o­rable because Lit­ten called Adolf Hitler as a wit­ness and grilled him for two hours, forc­ing Hitler to make state­ments that, had it not been for the inter­ven­tion of the pre­sid­ing judge, would have result­ed in his per­jur­ing him­self, pos­si­bly lead­ing to a prison sen­tence. Hett spec­u­lates that had Hitler been found guilty of per­jury and sen­tenced to jail time, it might have cost him enough polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, espe­cial­ly with mid­dle class vot­ers, to derail his polit­i­cal future and pos­si­bly alter the events that result­ed in his appoint­ment as Chan­cel­lor in 1933. Hitler nev­er for­got Litten’s humil­i­at­ing cross-exam­i­na­tion and soon after becom­ing Germany’s Chan­cel­lor in Jan­u­ary exact­ed his revenge against his court­room foe. In the after­math of the Reich­stag Fire in 1933, the SS arrest­ed Lit­ten, charg­ing him with being an ene­my of the state, and sent him to the Son­nen­berg con­cen­tra­tion camp where he was bru­tal­ly treat­ed both as a Com­mu­nist, which was untrue, and as a Jew, which he nev­er denied. Despite world-wide protest on behalf of Lit­ten, and per­son­al appeals by his moth­er, Hitler refused to par­don him. 

Sub­se­quent­ly Lit­ten was trans­ferred to sev­er­al oth­er con­cen­tra­tion camps cul­mi­nat­ing in Dachau where in 1939 he com­mit­ted sui­cide. Through his biog­ra­phy of Lit­ten, Hett focus­es on the broad­er themes of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem in Weimar Ger­many, the inter­sec­tion of pol­i­tics and anti-Semi­tism, the bru­tal­i­ty of the Nazi con­cen­tra­tion sys­tem in the pre-war years, and how the rule of law col­lapsed in the 1930s.” 

In 1988, two Ger­man orga­ni­za­tions, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lawyers and the Repub­li­can Lawyers’ Asso­ci­a­tion, began In 1988, two Ger­man orga­ni­za­tions, the Asso­ci­a­tion of Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lawyers and the Repub­li­can Lawyers’ Asso­ci­a­tion began award­ing a bien­ni­al Hans Lit­ten Prize to lawyers who dis­tin­guish them­selves through work for human rights, and who stood for a coura­geous defense of democ­ra­cy and law. The irony sur­round­ing the award, states Hett, is that in the words of his close friend, Max Furst, Lit­ten was against democ­ra­cy, who thought no use­ful pol­i­tics could be con­duct­ed by vot­ing, and who voiced noth­ing but con­tempt for the Weimar Republic.”
Jack Fis­chel is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of his­to­ry at Millersville Uni­ver­si­ty, Millersville, PA and author of The Holo­caust (Green­wood Press) and His­tor­i­cal Dic­tio­nary of the Holo­caust (Row­man and Littlefield).

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