The Fighting Philosopher: Dietrich von Hildebrand

I have just finished reading Alice von Hildebrand’s memoir of her husband Dietrich (The Soul of a Lion, Ignatius Press) and must put it down as one of the best intellectual biographies I have come across in recent years. Von Hildebrand (1889-1977) was an important German philosopher and was declared a “20th Century Doctor of the Church” by Pope Pius XII.

The Soul of a Lion is easy to read despite occasional effusiveness. To her credit, however, Alice von Hildebrand does not hesitate to note some of her husband’s shortcomings. He was emotionally impetuous as a youth and throughout his life this brilliant scholar was quite naive in his dealings with others. But providence seemed predisposed to intervene in favor of this man of childlike faith and generosity whenever things seemed hopeless. An example of this is how he and his family barely escaped from the Nazis during Hitler’s occupation of Austria in 1938 and again as refugees in France as the German army invaded in 1940.

Von Hildebrand’s contributions were more than theoretical. The philosopher understood the threat posed by Hitler long before he became a major political force and was so outspoken about Nazism that he was placed on Hitler’s “most wanted” list. Had he not left Germany he would have been killed along with other Catholic anti-Nazis in the 1934 purge.

The most interesting period for me deals with von Hildebrand’s sojourn in Austria (1933-38). During this time von Hildebrand edited a Catholic journal which opposed both Hitlerism and Communism. The German philosopher enjoyed the support of Austrian Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss whose time in office (1932-34) was cut short by assassination during a failed putsch by Austrian Nazis. Dollfuss’ career has been unfairly neglected by postwar writers. While he is frequently condemned as an “authoritarian” leader, he was also the first Western statesman to vigorously oppose Hitler’s ambitions. I find Alice von Hildebrand’s portrait of him informative and balanced.

Dollffus was succeeded by Kurt Schuschnigg, a well-meaning but ineffectual leader, who could not prevent Hitler’s annexation of his country. The author’s treatment of contemporary German and Austrian leaders (both political and religious) is often scathing, and no doubt deservedly so. As we see today, moral complacency in name of expediency and popularity is a recurring temptation. By contrast, Alice von Hildebrand lauds the efforts of Pope Pius XII who, like Dietrich von Hildebrand, was an early opponent of totalitarianism.

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