July-August 2015

My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth, and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich.  By Dietrich von Hildebrand. Translated and edited by John Henry Crosby with John F. Crosby. Image. 352 pages. $28.

The scholars at the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project are dedicated to presenting to the English-speaking world the thought and witness of “an original philosopher, ardent Christian, fierce foe of Nazism, and fervent champion of beauty.” Their initiative to translate and publish Dietrich von Hildebrand’s memoirs has given us My Battle Against Hitler, which covers the remarkable events of his life from 1921 to 1938. He, who in post-war years would break new ground as a Christian personalist thinker, must first battle tyranny in his beloved homeland.

My Battle Against Hitler is designed for ordinary readers who love history but need explanations of names and background events. A helpful introduction and copious notes flesh out behind-the-scenes pictures of the action. Editor Crosby identifies everyone von Hildebrand mentions. While the biographical narrative is a personal story, the whole thing reads like a suspense novel. Take one example: “Theodor Georgii was told by Franz von Papen, the Nazi ambassador to Austria: ‘That damned Hildebrand is the greatest obstacle for National Socialism in Austria….’ What Georgii could not have known at the time was that von Papen was then hatching a plot to assassinate von Hildebrand.” The manner of von Hildebrand’s escape from Germany, and later his flight from Europe, leaves no doubt that his life was on the line.

Sadly enough, von Hildebrand struggled not simply against Nazi ideologues but also against certain Catholic priests who believed they could draw good out of the situation by becoming friendly toward Hitler. Von Hildebrand found himself opposing the very men who should have been his most ardent supporters. He constantly had to discern friend from foe. Status as a Catholic, or even a Catholic priest, did not automatically mean that a person was wise or committed to the truth. Once, during a dinner discussion, the provincial of the German Dominicans stated, “We have no reason to reject Hitler when he stresses the idea of authority and the value of the nation. Above all, he keeps speaking about God.” Von Hildebrand’s response: “Hitler is so stupid that he does not even know what the word, ‘God,’ means; when he uses the word, in no way does it mean that he is professing the true God.” Von Hildebrand would rely on truth born of reason for support rather than on loyalty and friendship. In fact, the first person to suggest that von Hildebrand be assassinated was a Catholic priest who saw him as a threat to Germany and all Hitler had to offer. Von Hildebrand understood this as a tragic betrayal but in no way a commentary on the truth of the Church.

Von Hildebrand faced evil with courage. He said, “Better to be a beggar in freedom than to be forced into making compromises against my conscience.” A convert to Catholicism, he lived his convictions through simple acts of love and charity. He forgave wrongs done against him, but he never abandoned the truth, for he knew that the truth is a manifestation of God Himself. Von Hildebrand would never cower before the forces of nations when matters of the soul were at stake. He writes, “The fate of states, nations, and peoples as such is incomparably less important than the eternal salvation of a single immortal soul.” For him, eternal life is the point of human existence.

Physical, mental, and spiritual struggles against tyranny are perennial. If Dietrich von Hildebrand were alive today, he would argue against the dangers of liberal agendas, individualism, and the loss of our Christian ethos. As Crosby explains, von Hildebrand speaks of “the weariness felt by many people with ‘individualistic liberalism.’ By liberalism he means a certain approach to the human person that detaches man from God.” We suffer society-wide from this detachment. Von Hildebrand observes, “The relegating of all modern life to the periphery of existence — modern life with its haste and its hurry, its inner impatience which no longer leaves any time for an event to develop from within; in a word, its so-called ‘Americanism’ — all this has devalued the person.” The remedy: “Only the rehabilitation of the human being as a spiritual person, as a being with an immortal soul destined to eternal community with God, can save us from being dissolved into a mass and lead us to genuine community.”

Dietrich von Hildebrand defied Hitler. His arena was large, yet he uncompromisingly followed the Divine Master and was blessed with a profound understanding of and love for his fellow man. His struggle during the build-up to World War II was great, and it certainly did not offer him material benefit. He suffered for his convictions, yet in the end was a richer man than those who opposed him.

- Ann Frailey



The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber: A Guide to Notable American Converts to the Catholic Church.  By John Beaumont. Fidelity Press. 1,013 pages. $69.

Marshall McLuhan foretold that electronic technology would dominate modern culture. He is known as the prophet of the Information Age and the father of media studies. That he was a Catholic convert is not well known. At the same time, it isn’t surprising, given his philosophy and his ideas. Raised Baptist, McLuhan moved toward the Catholic faith while studying at Cambridge; he cites reading G.K. Chesterton as his turning point. McLuhan became a popular public intellectual, sought after on college campuses and visited by the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. All the while, he lived a devout, sacrament-centered life, urged the preaching of hellfire, and even lamented post-Vatican II changes to the Mass — the priest looking at the congregation “with his face hanging out” and the use of microphones, which completely changed the focus of the liturgy. McLuhan applied his famous aphorism to the faith. “In Jesus Christ,” he wrote, “there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message. It’s the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same.” McLuhan also wrote, in a private letter, that the “modern media are engaged in a Luciferian conspiracy against the truth.” You won’t hear that one in your college freshman-level communications course!

Stories such as McLuhan’s are found in The Mississippi Flows into the Tiber, John Beaumont’s guide to notable American converts, a follow-up to Roads to Rome, his guide to British and Irish converts [reviewed in the Sept. 2011 NOR — Ed.]. These American converts, Beaumont says, have “gone to great trouble in arriving at their decisions,” so he puts their diverse accounts in one place, for the sake of apologetics. He presents each subject’s relevant life details in reference-book style and provides excerpts from autobiographical and biographical material. As for influences, the names of “proto-converts” like Chesterton and Cardinal Newman come up often, as do credits to the Church’s consistent teaching on abortion and Bl. Pope Paul VI’s proclamation of Humanae Vitae.

Although a great many men of letters read their way into the Church, this is not the only road to Rome. Writer Robert Gordon Anderson, upon conceiving of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral as Christ Himself, with the Host on the altar as the heart, found that “he was writing himself into the Church.” The Gospel in stone worked through Anderson’s own creativity to touch its mark. Poet, historian, and biographer Daniel Sargent was influenced by the Catholic chaplains he encountered while active with the ambulance corps of the French army during World War I. Sargent admired how the priests worked unselfconsciously to deliver God’s sacraments, not placing their own personalities between the dying men and God. Sargent says he “caught sight of the divinity of the Church, not in a book, but in a drama of which I was a part.”

Many converts, seeking truth, have passed through the trial and error of men’s schemes. Dale Vree, editor emeritus of this magazine, came through the civil-rights and peace movements, and Marxism-Leninism, before landing in the Church. In Catholicism, Vree “could emphatically affirm both the rights of labor and the ancient creeds, reject both abortion and the use of nuclear weapons, affirm both lifelong marriage and the dignity of the poor, reject both laissez-faire capitalism and do-your-own-thing morals.” Oh, what relief could be had by unchurched moderns who look solely to politics for answers even to earthly questions!

Harlem Renaissance poet and writer Claude McKay for a time professed communism and atheism but came to believe in God and to love Catholicism. In the March 1946 issue of Ebony, the newly converted McKay warned black Americans to beware “the materialistic Protestant god of progress,” and he called the Church “the greatest stabilizing force in the world today — standing as a bulwark against all the wild and purely materialistic ‘isms’ that are sweeping the world.”

Historian Ross John Swartz Hoffman says the one important conversion question is, “What think ye of Christ?” Hoffman took upon himself an exercise to compare the personality and philosophy of Jesus with his own worldly experience of men and ideas. He concluded that Jesus is “not to be explained in terms of humanity alone,” and that the explanation of the “riddle of Christ” is: He is what He claims to be. Since Hoffman’s approach is historical, after finding God he also finds Holy Mother Church.

Especially relevant for our times is the “revert” story of poet Dunstan Thompson, who came to reject his homosexual lifestyle and withdraw from the world of literary ambition. After returning to the faith of his upbringing, he remained a devout Catholic and lived a “platonic life of friendship” with fellow writer Philip Trower. His earlier exit from the faith had been “mainly a matter of morals”; his re-entry resulted from an earnest search for truth. On studying the Gospels, he concluded, “Just as Our Lord didn’t say: ‘I am founding several churches, and any one of them will do,’ so He didn’t say: ‘There are exceptional people who can love Me without keeping My commandments.’” The blunt style of converts makes for great quotes, just as religious conversion — a kind of birth that one chooses — makes for great stories.

Writers are well represented in Beaumont’s collection of nearly 500 American conversion stories, but he includes a wide range of characters. Mathematician-physicist John Louis “Johnny” von Neumann stands out. According to one who knew him, the common impression of Johnny — child prodigy, Ph.D. by age 22, principal member of the Manhattan Project, and inspirer of the Dr. Strangelove character — was that “smart people found him the smartest person they had ever met.” This genius converted on the occasion of his first marriage but fell away from the faith for years. In middle age, while in the hospital suffering from terminal cancer, Johnny invited Fr. Anselm Strittmatter, O.S.B., to “visit him for consultation,” and the priest administered last rites to him.

Beaumont’s tome, while riddled with typos and saddled with a cumbersome title that doesn’t resonate, contains more than enough inspiration for fishers of men. In the book’s afterword, convert-maker Fr. C. John McCloskey III repeats a frequently asked question: How do we “make” converts? Answer: By praying for, loving, and sometimes simply asking another, “Have you ever thought of becoming a Catholic?” According to McCloskey, you’ll generally be surprised at how flattered people are at the question!

- Barbara E. Rose





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