Seventy years ago Allied troops arrived at the concentration camp of Auschwitz, greeting what survivors remained and seeing for the first time an industrial killing machine of unprecedented scale and brutality. As the epicenter of the Nazi genocide, Auschwitz is synonymous with the vast network of death camps built up during the Third Reich. So it is fitting that International Holocaust Remembrance Day, established by the United Nations in 2006, takes place each year on the date of Auschwitz's liberation. It is a necessary reminder that humanity, for all its greatness, is capable of unspeakable evil.
This year's commemoration is a particularly somber one. We are confronted with the fearful reality that anti-Semitism is not only still alive but on the rise, not least in Western Europe. European Jewry has been shaken to the core by the events in Paris, and in one recent survey of Jews in the UK, a majority of those polled expressed strong doubts about the future viability of Jewish life in Europe. Similar concerns have led 7,000 French Jews in 2014 alone to seek a new home in Israel.
It is easy to feel powerless in the face of present-day anti-Semitism, terrorism, and genocide in different parts of our world. We are shocked by their continued existence. We may be tempted to believe that at bottom human beings even members of highly civilized societies like the Germany that descended into the Nazi terror are craven and cruel. But if Nazi Germany offers appalling instances of human callousness, we cannot forget the witness, great and small, of countless persons who opposed Hitler in word and deed, many of them even in Germany. It is in the testimony of their lives that we find the greatest moral resources for confronting the continuing existence of racism and anti-Semitism today.
One of these witnesses is only now being recognized. This is the German philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977), who was not just one of Hitler's fiercest opponents but also one of his earliest ones. Most of the best and bravest Nazi resistance we think especially of the heroic Claus von Stauffenberg, who was murdered after the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 came only in the late 1930s and 40s. While these later heroes of conscience rose to the occasion toward the end of the Hitler regime, Dietrich von Hildebrand stepped forward in its earliest moments.
A star pupil of famed German philosopher, Edmund Husserl, Hildebrand in 1919 joined the faculty of the University of Munich where he would remain until Hitler's rise to power in 1933. But already in 1923, Hildebrand's open denunciations of aggressive German nationalism forced him to flee for his life during the so-called "Beer Hall Putsch," Hitler's failed first attempt to seize power in Munich.
Much as Hildebrand hated German nationalism and militarism, the fight against anti-Semitism lay at the heart of the young professor's critique of Nazism. He recognized that anti-Semitism, which thrived on stereotypes and antipathies deeply embedded in people's consciousness, prevented many Germans and Austrians from recognizing the horror of Nazism. "Anti-Semitism was the forerunner of National Socialism," he wrote in a 1941 essay. "Anti-Semitic propaganda, conscious or unconscious, means helping Hitler and breaking the moral defense line against Nazism."
But anti-Semitism was not just incompatible with everything Hildebrand believed about human dignity and basic rights. It was also deeply at odds with his convictions as an ardent Catholic. And herein lies one of his lasting contributions, for he showed with almost prophetic clarity the essential incompatibility of Christianity and racism. To fellow Christians who became infected by anti-Semitism he said that "G0D is equally offended by the murder of a Jew, a socialist, or a bishop." Catholic-Jewish relations were transformed following the Second Vatican Council, due in no small measure to the groundwork prepared by Hildebrand and others who purged anti-Semitism where it had taken root within Christian thought and practice.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Hildebrand decided to leave Germany, not to escape Nazism, but to fight it from Austria where he established the premier journal for the intellectual and cultural battle against both Nazism and Communism hardly an obvious joint target at a time when many embraced Communism as the alternative to Nazism. In abandoning his beloved Germany, he gave up all of his worldly security, his career and above all his family and many friends.
In July 1933, by now already outside of Germany, Hildebrand received a questionnaire from the University of Munich requiring him to indicate his race. To the question "Are you of Aryan descent?" he could have said "yes." He indeed had a Jewish grandmother, but by Nazi race laws he still qualified as being Aryan. Nevertheless he wrote a defiant "no." "I was loath even to recognize the distinction and to join the ranks of the non-persecuted 'Aryans,'" he writes in his memoirs. A few months later the Nazis fired him from the University in response to his submission. But this caused him no regrets: "I was proud at this moment to belong to the non-Aryans."
Hildebrand went on to publish his journal until Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938. During the more than four years he spent in Vienna where, in the words of the Nazi ambassador Franz von Papen, he became "the worst obstacle to Nationalism Socialism in Austria" he lived under constant threat of assassination. After two harrowing escapes from the Nazis, in 1938 and in 1940, he arrived in New York Harbor as a refugee on Christmas Eve 1940.
For his solidarity with the Jews and his leadership in the Nazi resistance, Hildebrand sacrificed all of his worldly possessions. Yet his words and deeds endure thanks in a special way to the recent publication of his anti-Nazi papers. May his voice be a much-needed source of courage, hope, and moral wisdom as we on the occasion of International Holocaust Memorial Day recommit ourselves to fighting uncompromisingly against anti-Semitism and racial hatred.
John Henry Crosby is founder and president of the Hildebrand Project. He is also principal translator and editor of My Battle Against Hitler, Dietrich von Hildebrand's newly published anti-Nazi papers.