Benjamin C. Hett


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

Cover Interview of February 09, 2009

In a nutshell

Crossing Hitler is a biography of Hans Litten, a German lawyer who devoted his legal practice to fighting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the late 1920s and 1930s, as the Nazi movement was moving toward power in Germany.  The climax of Litten’s career came in the spring of 1931, when he summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in a trial of four Nazi storm troopers.  In a three-hour cross examination, Litten was able to catch Hitler in many contradictions and expose the lies at the heart of the Nazi movement – above all, that Hitler exhorted his storm troopers to a systematic campaign of violence against the party’s enemies, while at the same time posing for middle class voters as a thoroughly legal and constitutional politician.  Litten’s cross-examination forced Hitler to choose between appealing to the violent revolutionaries among his storm troopers and the middle class electorate he would need to reach power.  In the aftermath of the cross examination, authorities were investigating him for perjury.  Litten had come tantalizingly close to halting Hitler’s rise.

Litten paid the price.  Hitler came to power in January 1933, and on the night of the infamous Reichstag Fire, Hans Litten, like many others, was arrested.  The Nazis sent him to a series of concentrations camps, where he was beaten, tortured, and forced into hard labor.  He attempted suicide on one occasion so that he would not betray his clients’ secrets.  His captors revived him.  Appeals for his release from prominent people inside and outside Germany ran up against Hitler’s desire for revenge.  Broken and in despair, Litten took his own life in the Dachau concentration camp in 1938.

Litten himself was a complex man, who embodied all the contradictions of Germany in his time.  He had a brilliant intellect and a photographic memory.  He read English, Italian, even Sanskrit, and could speak about the music of the Middle East as well as the European classical tradition, or recite the complete works of favorite poets like Rainer Maria Rilke.  At the same time, he was an eccentric cultural conservative.  Litten’s father, Fritz, had been born into a Jewish family, but converted to the Lutheran church to make possible his successful career as a law professor.  Hans Litten’s mother Irmgard came from an established Lutheran family.  As a student, Litten made a point of practicing the Judaism his father had abandoned, eventually becoming one of the leading figures in the German-Jewish youth movement.  But at other times, as many friends and former fellow prisoners attest, he considered himself a Christian, more in a Catholic than Protestant sense.  In politics Litten stood far to the left, and yet he was a loner and an individualist who often said “two people would be one too many for my party.”  His socialist and internationalist outlook coexisted with a deep love of his native Prussia.

The book is the story of one man’s noble fight against barbarism. It is also the story of a fateful moment in human history – the descent of the democratic Weimar Republic into Hitler’s Third Reich.