Last night I had the pleasure of attending a reception in honor of the unjustly neglected Dietrich von Hildebrand. Not only was he one of the leading Catholic philosophers of the twentieth century, I learned, he was also a great moral figure. The German thinker was among the first to warn publicly of the dangers of Nazism and the wickedness of its anti-Semitism, and as early as the 1920’s was calling Hitler “evil.” Such morally courageous outspokenness led to his financial ruin and threats upon his life. Upon Hitler’s becoming dictator in 1933, van Hildebrand fled to Vienna, where he founded and edited the anti-Nazi weekly paper Der Christliche Ständestaat. (Meaning “The Christian Corporate State,” the title was not his choice.) Ultimately, he would have to flee from Austria, eventually making it to New York, where he spent the rest of his life as a professor at Fordham University.
One of the special treats of the evening, which was organized by the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, was hearing von Hildebrand’s widow, Alice, speak about the man she memorialized in Soul of a Lion, her biography of him. A formidable philosopher in her own right, the sharp-as-a-razor 85-year-old told a number of revealing stories of her husband. In one, he had to fill out a form to continue teaching at the University of Munich. Forced to check one of two boxes—”Aryan” or “Not Aryan”—he wrote in, as a demonstration of his solidarity with Jews, “Not Aryan,” and was subsequently dismissed from the school.
In many ways, Dietrich von Hildebrand was the anti-Heidegger. Both were preeminent German philosophers who had studied under and were strongly influenced by Edmund Husserl, the (Jewish) founder of phenomenology. The diametrical opposite of von Hildebrand, Heidegger turned from Catholicism to Nietzschean atheism, and became an unrepentant Nazi who advocated National Socialism in his philosophy. Under the Third Reich, he even removed from his magnum opus Being and Time the dedication to Husserl. The philosopher Karl Popper said of Heidegger, “This man was a devil. I mean, he behaved like a devil to his beloved teacher [Husserl], and he has a devilish influence on Germany.”
Von Hildebrand, by contrast, strove to be an angel in the midst of darkness.