Nov 2011 Journal

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Opponents of Hitler

On 21 August 2011, BBC Two broadcast The Man Who Crossed Hitler, a TV film based on the story of Hans Litten, a left-wing lawyer of half-Jewish parentage who in 1931 had Hitler appear under subpoena in a Berlin court. At the trial of two SA men accused in connection with the violent Nazi attack on a Communist gathering at the Edenpalast Dance Hall, a particularly brutal incident in which three people were killed, Litten subjected Hitler to a hostile and humiliating cross-examination that left the Nazi leader struggling to maintain his political credibility and, in effect, reduced him to perjury. Hitler never forgot the experience and Litten paid for his courage after January 1933, when he was arrested and held for five years in several camps and prisons until, after constant brutal mistreatment, he committed suicide in Dachau. He was 34 years old.

The circle around Hans Litten included a number of notable enemies of Nazism, who have, like Litten himself, remained undeservedly little known. Foremost among them was his remarkable mother, Irmgard Litten, née Wüst. A non-Jew whose family had been Protestant pastors and academics from south-western Germany, she had married Fritz Litten, a converted Jew who had made a successful career as an academic at Königsberg University in East Prussia and was deeply conservative in his politics. Irmgard Litten did not share her husband’s disapproval of their eldest son’s choice of a career as a lawyer defending Communists and other left-wingers. Uninterested in politics until 1933, the arrest of her son and his detention without trial galvanised her, and she conducted an unremitting campaign for his release, or at least for an improvement in the conditions under which he was held, heedless of the danger to which she thus exposed herself.

After Hans Litten was found hanged in Dachau on 5 February 1938, his mother and her second son, Heinz, realised they had to flee Germany. (The Nazi authorities feared that, once Hans Litten was dead, there would be nothing to hold his mother back from speaking out about his treatment in detention.) They left that same month for London, where Irmgard, now aged 58, embarked on an energetic and high-profile anti-Nazi campaign. As Marian Malet has described in an article in the 2011 volume of the Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, ‘Beyond Dachau: Irmgard Litten in England’, Irmgard started by recording her eldest son’s experiences during the period of his imprisonment; she also had to provide for the subsistence of herself and her second son.

In 1940, she had arranged for her book Die Hölle sieht dich an: Der Fall Litten to be published by a small left-wing émigré publishing house in Paris, but the German invasion of France put paid to this. However, the project was rescued by the British publisher Stanley Unwin, of the leading publishing house Allen & Unwin, who had the book published in English in August 1940, under the striking title A Mother Fights Hitler. In Dr Malet’s words, the book ‘is a remarkable account of almost exactly five years of close oppositional engagement between Irmgard Litten and the Nazi machine at all levels’. It appeared in the USA under the title Beyond Tears and in a Spanish edition in Mexico. Its author went on to broadcast frequently and effectively for the BBC’s German-language service and played an active part in the German refugee community in London. After the war, she returned to Germany, but her treatment in the West led her to settle in East Berlin, where she died in 1953.

Heinz Litten, two years younger than Hans, had embarked on a career in the theatre and was working as stage director at the Städtisches Theater in Chemnitz in 1933, when he was dismissed. After fleeing with his mother to Britain, he enlisted in the Pioneer Corps of the British Army in 1940, serving until 1943. From 1943 until 1946, he directed theatrical productions for the Freier Deutscher Kulturbund (Free German League of Culture - FDKB) at its aptly named Kleine Bühne (Small Stage) in Upper Park Road, Belsize Park, and elsewhere. The FDKB, one of the most important refugee organisations founded by and for the refugees from Germany in Britain, was a left-leaning, Communist-influenced body that saw its task as the preservation of German culture in exile during the years of Nazi ‘cultural barbarism’; it also encouraged its members to return to Germany after the war to help build a new, democratic Germany.

Heinz Litten duly returned to Berlin with his mother in 1946, residing first in the West but settling in East Berlin. Initially, his career in the theatre of the newly established German Democratic Republic flourished, and he became manager of the Berlin Volksbühne. But the onset of the Cold War soon caused serious problems for those who had returned to the GDR from the West, as their contacts with the West made them suspect to the ruling group around Walter Ulbricht, who had spent the war in Moscow. Litten’s prospects of obtaining artistic work became increasingly restricted, and in August 1955 he committed suicide.

Also featuring prominently in The Man Who Crossed Hitler was the lawyer, journalist and author Rudolf Olden (family name Oppenheim). Born in 1885, Olden had, like Hans Litten, acted as defence lawyer in trials with political overtones, most notably those involving the celebrated pacifist and left-wing journalist Carl von Ossietzky. Ossietzky, like Litten, was a particular target of the Nazis; arrested immediately after the Reichstag fire of 28 February 1933, he was detained until his death in 1938, despite having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1935. Olden, who had fled Germany for Prague on the night of the Reichstag fire, orchestrated a vigorous campaign to have Ossietzky, gravely ill with tuberculosis, freed.

Olden settled in Britain, where he threw himself into anti-Nazi journalism. His elder brother Balder, also an author and journalist, was an anti-Nazi activist in France. Rudolf Olden became Hon. Secretary of the German PEN Club in London and wrote one of the first studies of Hitler, which appeared in English in 1936 as Hitler, the Pawn; it ranks alongside Konrad Heiden’s pioneering Hitler: A Biography, which appeared in the same year. But in 1940 Olden was interned on the Isle of Man. He had been offered an appointment at the New School for Social Research in New York, and was released by the British authorities. He sailed for America on board the City of Benares, which was sunk by a German submarine on 17 September 1940. Olden and his wife Ika drowned. Balder Olden, who re-emigrated to Uruguay, committed suicide there in 1949.

Anthony Grenville

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