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.
“What happened to Hans Litten is a warning: a warning of what happens to a society when fear, crisis, and a sense of emergency drive people to lose faith in human rights and the rule of law.”
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.
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.
“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.”
My hope is that readers will take several things from this book.
The first is simply that I want Hans Litten to become better known on this side of the Atlantic. He was as brave as other well-known resistance fighters against the Nazis – Sophie Scholl or Count Claus von Stauffenberg – and he paid the same price for his courage. But his memory has been neglected since the Second World War. Much of the reason for this neglect lies in his own complex character and beliefs. But Litten is finally starting to receive some of the honor due to him. Since 2001, the German Bar Association has had its headquarters in the Hans Litten House on Hans Litten Street in Berlin. Every two years, a German and a European lawyers’ association together give a prize for human rights advocacy in Hans Litten’s name (the 2006 winner was an American, Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights). I hope with my book to contribute to the spread of Hans Litten’s name – and the names of his equally brave friends, such as Max and Margot Fürst, who risked their lives to save him from a concentration camp.
The second thing is that what happened to Hans Litten is a warning: a warning of what happens to a society when fear, crisis, and a sense of emergency drive people to lose faith in human rights and the rule of law. A lawyer who knew Hans Litten once wrote that the powerful are always inclined to get along with law if they can; law is the tool for the rest of us. This is a timeless danger, and a timeless warning.
Benjamin Carter Hett worked as a trial lawyer in Canada for a few years before leaving the law to do a Ph.D. in history at Harvard University. Since 2003 he has been on the faculty of Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is also the author of Death in the Tiergarten: Murder and Criminal Justice in the Kaiser’s Berlin (2004), and was awarded the 2007 Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History by the Wiener Library in London for the manuscript of Crossing Hitler. He lives in New York.