In the Eden Dance Palace trial of 1931, in which four Nazi storm troopers stood accused of criminal assault and attempted murder, a lawyer for the prosecution requested the presence of Adolf Hitler as a witness. Who was this fearless lawyer? Hans Litten. In Crossing Hitler: The Man Who Put the Nazis on the Witness Stand, Benjamin Carter Hett an Associate Professor of History at Hunter college and a former trial lawyer, tells the story of this historic confrontation, as well as the man who for a brief moment posed a serious threat to the Nazis rise to power. In the excerpt below we learn a little about who Hans Litten was.
Who was Hans Litten? Years later his closest friend, Max Fürst, remembered him as “more than a brother…’a part of myself,’” but also as a fanatical warrior who fought with the desperation of “one who fights the last battle.” Countess Marion Donhoff, editor in chief of the Die Zeit (Time), believed that Litten was “one of those righteous men for whose sake the Lord did not allow the city-the country, the nation-to be entirely ruined.” Kurt Hiller, a friend from Berlin political circles and later a cellmate in a concentration camp, called him “a true Christian by nature, and also by conviction.” Another fellow prisoner was more sardonic: “A definite genius, but not easy to live with.”
Photographs show a serious, bespectacled young man, already growing portly and inclined to a double chin, with thinning hair combed back from a widow’s peak and worn unusually long for the time (“Only soldiers and slaves get their hair shorn,” he liked to say). He was tall: his closest friends’ small daughter remembered him as “the big man with glasses,” and a youth movement friend described him as a “tall, pale young man.” Beyond his height, the photos do not suggest a man who would be striking or memorable. Yet people meeting Litten for the first time invariably gained a strong impression. Rudolf Olden, a distinguished lawyer and journalist, remembered the first time he saw Litten. It was in 1928 at a meeting of the League for Human Rights (Lifa für Menschenrechte), a very modern kind of political lobby group that had grown out of a left-leaning association called New Fatherland founded during the First World War by Albert Einstein and the future mayor of West Berlin, Ernst Reuter. Litten asked a question during the discussion. “The speaker had a striking head, a smooth face, rimless glasses over round bright eyes. He work his shirt open at the throat, and short pants, below which the knees were bare.” Olden took the young man for a schoolboy. After the debate, one of Olden’s friends, smiling, told him that the “boy” was in fact the Assessor, or newly qualified lawyer, Hans Litten. The next time Olden saw Litten was in a courtroom. Olden was struck by the contrast between the “childlike face” with the eyes that “gazed pure and clear through the glasses,” and the calm expertise of the lawyer who refused to let anyone intimidate him…
…In her later years his still-grieving mother would remind anyone who listened that “Hitler’s first victims were Germans,” and there were many reasons why, almost from the beginning, the Nazis condemned Litten to imprisonment in a concentration camp, hard labor, prolonged interrogations, beatings, and torture. To the Nazis Litten was half-Jewish, as he was the product of what Germans in the early twentieth century called a mixed marriage. In politics he stood far to the left. And he was a lawyer, a profession for which the Nazis had scant regard.
But above all it was Hitler’s personal fear and hatred that landed Litten in the concentration camps, and this fear and hatred stemmed from the handwritten summons of April 1931. For when Hitler appeared in court in May 8, Litten subjected him to a withering cross-examination, laying bare the violence at the heart of the Nazi movement. The Eden Dance Palace trial exposed Hitler to multiple dangers: criminal prosecution, the disintegration of his party, public exposure of the contradictions on which the Nazis’ appeal was based. It was only through luck that Hitler survived with his political career intact..
…Litten’s resistance to the Nazis went on after the “seizure of power” of January 30, 1933. Although he was one of the first to be arrested after Hitler was made chancellor, Litten fought back even from the concentration camps.