The lawyer who defied the Nazis

Saturday, April 18, 2009 - 10:00

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

By Benjamin Carter Hett

Pier 9, 2009

349 pages, $45 (hb)

Hans Litten did not lack courage. Thinking nothing of his own safety by personally angering Hitler, this shy, cultured intellectual was the lawyer who took the future dictator to court in Berlin in 1931. He laid bare, in a penetrating cross-examination, the violence at the heart of the Nazi movement.

Crossing Hitler, Benjamin Hett's biography of Litten profiles a brave idealist whose adroit legal skills and commitment to the workers and communists, the first of Hitler's targets, made Litten both a prominent victim and resister of the Nazis.

Born in 1903 to a privileged background, Litten rebelled against his conservative law-professor father. In the 1920s he embraced life as a revolutionary socialist to the left of the German Communist Party (KPD). He was critical of the party leadership's subservience to Moscow, and he dedicated himself to the party's rank and file.

Moving to Berlin as a lawyer in 1927, Litten indulged his legal passion for political trials, both inside the courtroom and outside as a public speaker and writer.

He first took on the leaders of the "socialist" Social Democratic Party (SPD), including a private indictment of the Berlin SPD police chief for incitement to shoot communist protesters at a May Day rally in 1929, where 33 were killed and hundreds wounded. Litten himself was beaten and shot at.

Litten's focus changed, however, as the Nazi threat grew. The Nazi national parliamentary vote grew from 2.6% in 1928, to 18% in 1930 and 37% in 1932. Nazi paramilitary thugs, the SA (Sturmabteilungen), or Brownshirts, swelled to 260,000 members by 1931.

Litten defended young working-class Berliners in Nazi murder trials.

The highest profile case of these trials resulted from the SA shooting of three left-wing workers the Eden Dance Palace in November 1930 in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg.

The three wounded men retained Litten as a private prosecutor, alongside the state prosecutor's case against four of the Brownshirts for attempted murder. This "Eden Dance Palace Trial" was the arena for Litten's direct challenge to Hitler in May 1931.

Litten's prosecution aimed to show SA violence was essential to the Nazi program and thus puncture the Nazi veneer of legality that Hitler had adopted to woo middle-class support. Litten's cross-examination forced Hitler to commit perjury (lying in court) and undermine the Nazi's peaceful electoral facade. It was a humiliation that Hitler would cruelly avenge.

The Nazi press, highlighting Litten's Jewish paternity, spewed hatred and Litten was attacked in the streets by the SA. His safety was only ensured by a bodyguard from the KPD's Combat League Against Fascism.

A conspiratorial alliance would dominate the rest of Litten's life. Nazis and police (particularly the political police of the Prussian interior ministry which housed the future head of the Gestapo) arrested Litten and framed on attempted murder charges. He was made the target of a campaign by police, prosecutors, judges and ministerial authorities to drive him from the law.

After Hitler was made Chancellor in 1933, Litten's friends urged him to leave Germany, but he refused to abandon his growing list of clients because "the millions of workers can't get out, so I must stay here as well".

The Reichstag (national parliament) fire in February 1933 provided the pretext for the Nazi administration to seize power and Litten was one of the first arrested and taken into "protective custody".

So began a five year nightmare of brutal concentration-camp imprisonment, hard labour, prolonged interrogations, beatings and torture by Nazi guards.

Through the traumas of a broken leg, cracked jaw, knocked-out teeth, the loss of sight in one eye, and acute anxiety attacks, Litten was initially sustained by his photographic memory of Shakespeare and medieval poetry, his political instinct to resist Nazi authority in the camps and an international publicity campaign.

Litten twice attempted suicide to avoid revealing information under torture about his clients, most of them communist activists.

Increasingly unable to bear imprisonment and his physical and psychological scars, Litten hanged himself in Dachau concentration camp in 1938.

Litten's legacy has been scrapped over in succeeding decades.

Litten's mother, who courageously and doggedly pressured the Nazi regime to release her son, emphasised Litten's religious faith. Anti-Nazi lawyers celebrated Litten's legal challenge to Hitler but depoliticised him. The Stalinist regime of East Germany claimed Litten but excised his non-conformist political edges.

Hett's Litten corrects and balances these versions but also introduces an "anti-democratic Litten", describing his far-left politics and his legal prosecution of SPD leaders as "weakening the democratic state in the face of Hitler's challenge".

The SPD, claims Hett, were "the only unapologetic defenders of democracy" in Germany. Hett, however, ignores those like the SPD's first defence minister and self-described "bloodhound", Gustav Noske, who Litten later took to task for organising the bloody suppression of revolts by revolutionary socialist groups in 1918 and the murder of their leaders (including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht).

That aside, Hett's fine book ends with an impassioned answer to why Hans Litten still matters.

"Nothing that Hitler and the National Socialists did is unique, or particularly German. Other regimes have violated the norms of domestic and international law, and still do; other regimes have stripped minorities of their rights, and still do; ... other regimes have committed genocide and still do". These regimes, adds Hett, do not exclude countries like the US.

Hans Litten died fighting these abuses in Nazi Germany and his death can be best avenged if we continue his example wherever human rights are violated.

From GLW issue 791

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