It is July 25, 1934. The scene is the chancellery of Austria.
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A man whom historians have not done justice lay on the floor, bleeding to death, while his Nazi executioners looked on in cold delight. He asked for a doctor. They refused. He asked for a priest, for the last rites. They refused. Two of the captured guards came to him and tried to stanch his bleeding with a bandage. He thanked them, and said, "I never wanted anything other than peace. We were never the aggressors. We were always forced to defend ourselves. May God forgive them."
The man was the Catholic chancellor of Austria, Engelbert Dollfuss. His words are recorded in the memoirs of the great Dietrich von Hildebrand, a part of which has now been published as My Battle Against Hitler.
But Dollfuss is characterized as "controversial" and "authoritarian" — a martyr at the hands of the Nazis!
Who else then fought the Nazis with such determination? As early as 1921, the young von Hildebrand was hated in Germany for saying that the invasion of Belgium had been "a horrible crime," and that the Nazi concept of race was foolish and wicked and utterly incompatible with Catholicism. Did he then win the hearts of Catholics for saying so? No more than Dollfuss has won the hearts of historians. This warrants consideration.
No Compromise with Falsehood
Some Catholics sought to influence Nazism from within, believing that its nationalism could be respected in part; but von Hildebrand saw through it. Nor had he any patience with puerile contempt for the Chosen People, the Jews. Where were the Western statesmen and intellectuals during the twelve years it took for Hitler to come to power? Maybe busy dallying with eugenics of their own, or unwilling to condemn what claimed to be the wave of a collective future. Maybe they were not keen to perceive Hitler's threat to the Faith that is the life of European culture, because they had given up that Faith, or had allowed it to become a conditional faith: not in what Jesus did or said, but in what they made believe he would have done and would have said, had he been a good socialist among them.
Engelbert Dollfuss was not an ambitious man. He jested that his growing deafness was a gift of God, because then he could retire sooner. He was a devout Catholic who wanted to see Catholic Austria standing free, independent, the voice of old Europe against the madness of Nazism and the inhumanity of collectivism. When he became chancellor in 1932, Austria bristled with socialist and nationalist parties, armed with militias and eager for violent revolution to get their way. Dollfuss saw that the ordinary machinery of democracy would prove worse than useless: the Nazis wanted disarray in Austria. So in 1933 he dissolved parliament and established the Patriotic Front, to unite all who sought first the independence of their nation and resistance against the Nazis.
Yet von Hildebrand says that Dollfuss stood like David against Goliath.
He and Austria would be almost alone: the League of Nations tried to mollify the Nazis, and radicals of all stripes cried out against his policies. Dollfuss knew that Mussolini in Italy favored an independent Austria, and (at that time) considered Hitler a disgrace. Dollfuss enlisted the Duce's support, though he knew that fascism was another form of the evil of the collective. Historians will not forgive him for that, either.
Yet von Hildebrand says that Dollfuss stood like David against Goliath. The comparison is apt. Dollfuss was called the "Millimetternich," standing barely five feet tall. He didn't take himself seriously; he did take truth seriously. He saw that politics had to address fundamental questions about the human person, his orientation toward community, and his destiny before God. Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States when Dollfuss was murdered, could hardly have conducted a sensible conversation with the chancellor about such things. "Hitler," said Dollfuss, "wants to draw on ancient German paganism, but I want to draw on the Christian Middle Ages." I'm trying to imagine how Western darlings like the atheist educator John Dewey, the self-styled prophet H. G. Wells, and the modernist George Bernard Shaw would have scoffed at that. But they were wrong, and Dollfuss was right.
The Journal Appears
To support Dollfuss and to refute the errors of Nazism and Bolshevism and other plagues, von Hildebrand published a new journal in Vienna, The Christian Corporative State. Dollfuss provided the title. He said he wanted to set Austria upon the firm foundation of Pius XI's social encyclical Quadrigesima anno. Dollfuss rejected both liberal individualism and the absorption of the individual into the state. The Catholic vision he promoted is no queasy compromise between those two, but something quite different: a way of life based upon the dignity of the human person as made in the image of God and oriented toward a life of love among others. He saw the ideal social life in terms of "corporations" — we may think of the Medieval university, bringing together masters and students. Dollfuss believed that owners and workers had shared interests, and could unite in a corporation to pursue them with justice and charity.
WAS WIR WOLLEN — WHAT WE WANT; that's the bold headline above the mission statement in the journal's first issue. The words are no less meaningful for us now than they were then: "The great teachings of classical Western thought have to be opposed to various false and confused conceptions, to economic materialism and to racial materialism, to liberal individualism and to pagan conceptions of unlimited state sovereignty."
The journal wielded great influence. Franz von Papen, a Catholic Nazi and ambassador to Austria, said that von Hildebrand was a dangerous man: "No one does more harm to us than he." Later he would plot to have the philosopher assassinated. No doubt he was apprised of the murder of Dollfuss. Who knows how many people von Hildebrand saved by his intellectual clarity and courage? Or how many millions might not have met their deaths at places like Dachau, had more Catholics been like Dollfuss and von Hildebrand? Once, when von Hildebrand was visiting his old friend Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII, he asked why Catholic prelates in Germany did not all stand up bravely against the stupidities of Nazism. Pacelli shook his head sadly. Martyrdom could not be commanded from Rome, he said. Martyrdom had to come from within.
Two Witnesses for Mankind and the Faith
Dietrich von Hildebrand, who had fled his ancestral home and his university in Munich, would soon have to flee Austria also. His father was an aristocrat and a renowned sculptor; the family was related to German composers and conductors; von Hildebrand had studied under the great German phenomenologist Edmund Husserl. He and his wife would leave all that culture behind, with no money in their pockets and no sure prospects for employment, with close calls on trains and at borders, to come to the United States, where he taught at Fordham University — a relentless searcher into the truth, and a humble and loyal son of the Church. Therefore he was ignored by secular academics, and when, in his old age, he warned against intellectual and moral errors entering the Church as if by a new Trojan Horse, he was ignored by many of his fellow Catholics too. But God does not ignore such faith and self-denying courage.
What would we have done in the days of Hitler? Ask instead what we are doing now against the massive wrongs and follies and betrayals of this time.
As for Chancellor Dollfuss, von Hildebrand could not understand how one could hate him "who was so noble, so kind, so well-wishing toward everyone, who fought against the Antichrist of National Socialism." The answer is not far to seek. He was hated because he was noble and kind. He was not hated because in 1933 he was compelled to put down a conflict that threatened to erupt into all-out civil war. He was hated because he sought to forgive his enemies, pleading with all men of good will to join him for their country's sake. His life of prayer and submission to the Church earned him no favor with such, just as a similar life now earns you little more than loathing from secular reporters, politicians, and educators — and many of those now, as their counterparts then, will have subordinated their Catholic Faith to the spirit of the age.
Let it not be so among us! Truth is truth to the end of time. Be not deceived. No falsehood under the sun is ever really new. What would we have done in the days of Hitler? Ask instead what we are doing now against the massive wrongs and follies and betrayals of this time. Let the diminutive statesman and that philosopher with the heart of a lion instruct us in the way of martyrdom.
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Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2017 Magnificat
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