Surviving History

ADVENTURE, WAR, MURDER, SLAVERY, ESPIONAGE: from the internationally bestselling author of Nathaniel's Nutmeg and eight other history books. New post each Tuesday.

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Tuesday, June 14, 2011


He was small, plump-cheeked and going bald - a lawyer who had long defended the underdogs of society.
Hans Litten: completely forgotten
Now, in May 1931, Hans Litten was taking on the most formidable foe in his entire career.
In the dock before him stood Adolf Hitler, who was accused of waging a systematic and brutal warfare against the enemies of Nazism. Litten was determined to prove Hitler guilty.
Hitler: scared of Litten
The Eden Dance Palace trial was to prove one of the most dramatic legal showdowns in history. Yet it is these days almost completely forgotten.
Hans Litten, born of Jewish parents, was appalled by the brutality and lawlessness of Hitler and his supporters. Now, he was given an opportunity to silence Hitler once and for all.
In the previous November, a SA Rollkommando - a small paramilitary unit - had launched a savage attack on a night club frequented by Communists. Three people were killed and 20 badly injured in an attack that had clearly been planned in advance.
Litten detested the Third Reich
The police investigation made little headway, so infuriating Litten that he took it upon himself to investigate.
He centred his case on four of the injured, convinced that he could secure a conviction for manslaughter against their attackers. If guilty, they would spend years behind bars.
But Litten hoped to achieve far more than this. He wanted to prove that the Nazis were deliberately and systematically using terror tactics to destroy the Weimar Republic. If he could prove this, then he knew that the Nazi’s days would be numbered.
Hitler had already appeared in court in the previous September. He was called as a witness in a case against two army officers who were members of the Nazi party. (At the time, it was forbidden for army officers to be party members.)
Under oath, Hitler had said that his party operated in accordance with the law. He described its paramilitary wing as an organization of ‘intellectual enlightenment’.
SA: Hitler's thugs. Litten almost convicted them - and Hitler
Litten was not impressed: now, he got his chance to challenge Hitler in person. He summoned him to the witness stand on May 8, 1931.
He began by arguing that that SA unit Storm 33 - which had attacked the Eden Dance Palace - was a paramilitary unit. Furthermore, he said that the attack had been undertaken with Hitler’s full support.
Hitler greatly feared being confronted in court by Hans Litten, with good reason. Litten had a brilliant intellect and a near photographic memory. He spoke many languages - including English, Italian and even Sanskrit. He was to use all his intellectual resources in his attempt to destroy Hitler’s credibility in court.
Litten repeatedly asked Hitler about the role of the rollkommando unit.
Accused and in the dock: Herr Hitler
Hitler responded by denying any knowledge of its existence.
Litten then asked why - if Hitler preached non-violence - did he allow Goebbels to use the slogan, ‘one must pound the adversary to a pulp?’
Hitler, clearly rattled, said that Goebbels was merely using a metaphor. What he had meant to say, claimed Hitler, was that the Nazis needed to ‘dispatch and destroy opposing organizations’
Litten chipped away at Hitler, constantly referring to the fact that Goebbel’s violent and anti-semitic propaganda was endorsed by the Nazi party.
He cited Goebbel’s revolutionary journal, The Commitment to Illegality as an example of a party-sanctioned publication.
Hitler realised that Litten was steadily getting the upper hand. He produced scores of examples of Nazi sponsored violence.
Unable to control his anger, Hitler suddenly shot to his feet and started screaming at Litten.
‘How dare you say, Herr Attorney, that is an invitation to illegality? That is a statement without proof!’
Dachau gates: a one-way journey
Just when it seemed as if Litten had the upper hand - and Hitler’s reputation was in tatters - there was a most unexpected and unwelcome development. The judge suddenly halted Litten’s questioning and brought the trial to a dramatic close. He said that Litten’s interrogation was not relevant to the attack on the Eden Dance Palace. At the last minute, Hitler was saved the ignominy of being found guilty of sponsoring violence.
In less than two years, Hitler would be chancellor of Germany. Yet he would never forget the humiliation he received at the hands of Litten. He turned bright red at the very mention of Litten’s name and once shouted at Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia: ‘Anyone who advocates for Litten goes in the concentration camp, even you.’
Litten’s glittering legal career did not last long after the Eden Dance Palace trial. He had one more attempt at prosecuting the Nazis, in January, 1932, but this was no more successful than the last.
Litten: a true hero
He must surely have known that the writing was on the wall. On the night of the Reichstag Fire, less than a month after Hitler became chancellor, Litten was arrested and incarcerated in Spandau Prison.
For the next five years he was brutally beaten, interrogated and tortured. In the summer of 1937 he was send to Dachau Concentration Camp and realised that the end was near.
On 5, 1938, in the middle of the night, he took his own life.
Hitler was to be haunted for many years by the memory of Litten’s cross-examination.
Long after his death in Dachau, he forbade anyone from ever mentioning Litten’s name in his presence.

UK paperback

Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War available here for just £5.30

And for my American readers, it is now published under the title: The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WWII available here
Newly published US edition
'Idiosyncratic and utterly fascinating... an extraordinary tale of hardship, horror and amazing good fortune' James Delingpole, The Daily Mail 

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating story about an event that I was totally unaware of.