Benjamin C. Hett


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

Cover Interview of February 10, 2009

A close-up

The central moment of Hans Litten’s life was his cross-examination of Adolf Hitler, and this moment forms the heart of the book as well.  In the narrative leading up to that encounter I try to show what made Hans Litten into the man who would do this; the last section of the book illustrates the dreadful consequences of arousing Hitler’s hatred.

The middle section of the book, “Crossing Hitler,” starting on page 65, relates the story of that cross-examination. It took place in what was called the “Eden Dance Palace Trial.”  The defendants were four Nazi storm troopers, members of what Nazis called the “SA”, who had attacked a dance put on by a Communist hiking club, firing blindly into the crowd and wounding three people.

Hans Litten thought Hitler’s testimony would show that the violence of the Nazi Party was systematic and carried out on Hitler’s orders.  He thought he could force Hitler to acknowledge the contradiction between this violence and Hitler’s repeated claims that his party was “strictly legal.”  The Eden Dance Palace trial in fact took place just after the Berlin SA, whose members wished to follow a more violent and revolutionary path, had rebelled against Hitler’s “legal” policies.  This background raised the stakes for Hitler.  Litten tied Hitler in knots over Hitler’s sacking of the Berlin SA leader Walter Stennes.  In April 1931 Hitler had published a newspaper article denouncing Stennes, accusing him, among other things, of having formed “roll commandos,” or hit squads to attack opponents.  What had Hitler meant by this? Was this not an acknowledgement of the Party’s violence?  Litten quoted from a pamphlet by the Berlin Nazi Party boss Joseph Goebbels, in which Goebbels had written of the Nazis’ goal of revolution and their desire to “crush the enemy to a pulp.”  How could Hitler allow official statements of this sort?  It was precisely as Litten had Hitler on the ropes with this line of questioning that the presiding judge intervened to save the Führer, insisting that the question was not relevant to the case.

Hitler wasn’t finished yet though.  In the summer of 1931 authorities investigated him for perjury for his testimony at the Eden Palace.  Hitler was forced to give a long deposition defending himself.  (He could refer here to his private transcript of the cross examination – he had brought a stenographer along with him).  In the end Hitler dodged the charges, but evidence from Nazi sources shows how serious the threat of this prosecution had been and how much it stoked Hitler’s hatred for Litten.