Benjamin C. Hett


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

Cover Interview of February 10, 2009

The wide angle

I am a historian of 20th century Germany, not a journalist or an expert on current American affairs.  Yet there is no denying that the experience of the last eight years of American politics, law, and foreign policy has set me to thinking about how democracies respond to crises.  How do democracies protect civil liberties in an emergency?  What causes a democracy to sink into authoritarianism?  What kind of impact does public opinion, journalism, or the bar have on how courts do their jobs?  And so it is startling to read the words of Werner Best, one of the top officials in Hitler’s secret police, the Gestapo, explaining in 1935 why the Nazi regime would not allow concentration camp prisoners like Hans Litten to have lawyers: “The forms of procedure of the justice system are, under present conditions, absolutely inadequate for the struggle against enemies of the state.”  It is also startling to read that some of the tortures inflicted on Litten and his fellow prisoners – mock shootings, “stress positions” – were the same as those used at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo.

How did the German legal system sink into such a state?  Germany was, after all, a sophisticated modern country, with a proud cultural tradition.  Germans were notoriously law abiding, and even in the early 20th century the country had a comparatively low crime rate.  Its legal system had become steadily more democratic and rights-conscious since the late 19th century.  Part of the point of the book, for me, was to study the corruption of law in Germany, a corruption that set in before the Nazis came to power, and against which Hans Litten had fought with more determination than almost anyone else.

What I found was that the German legal system in the years before Hitler could not be insulated from the society around it.  The bitter political divisions, lively press, worried governments, and energetic lobby groups, all played their part in what happened in the courtroom.  As the economic and political crises of the early 1930s grew ever more severe, and as a succession of governments grew more authoritarian in response, Germans’ rights and freedoms were stripped away.  In the end, as I show in the book, Hans Litten himself became a victim of this process.  Even before his arrest, judges and prosecutors had arranged his expulsion from an important trial and were pushing to drive him from the legal profession altogether.

I was a trial lawyer myself for a few years – though certainly not as good a lawyer as Hans Litten!  I quit law to pursue the study of history, my real passion.  Along the way my interests in law and history merged.  I wrote my first book, Death in the Tiergarten (2004), on criminal trials in Berlin before the First World War.  I came across Hans Litten while working on this earlier project, and was immediately fascinated by his courage, his brilliance, and his selfless dedication to the causes he fought for.