Hans Litten vs Adolf Hitler: To Stop a Tyrant


Hans Litten vs Adolf Hitler: To Stop a Tyrant

Documentary combining eyewitness testimony and expert interviews with original archive material to explore the story of lawyer Hans Litten's public attempt to challenge Hitler.


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Transcript


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On May 8th 1931, a sensational trial took place

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at the Berlin Central Criminal Court.

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The star witness was the leader of Germany's fastest-growing political movement.

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Two years before he came to power,

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Hitler was summoned to Berlin by a young Jewish lawyer called Hans Litten

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who forced him to account for the murderous violence of his followers in the city.

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What Germany requires is a revolution,

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which means a mental revolution, a spiritual rebirth.

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Who are you addressing?

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The court.

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He's taken on the task of cross-examining

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this extremely dangerous man, at this point, probably the most dangerous man in the world.

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I believe the court can hear you quite comfortably.

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Yes, it can. It is not necessary to shout.

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Or to harangue.

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An extreme anti-Semite. A brilliant young Jew.

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It was Hitler's worst nightmare.

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This guy's my uncle, or was my uncle.

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It's so close

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and yet it's so miles away.

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At stake in that Berlin courtroom was Hitler's political future.

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His brutal methods, his totalitarian ambitions were all exposed by the young lawyer.

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The acquisition of total power can make a dictator's rise to power seem irresistible.

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It never is. And it wasn't for Hitler.

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This is the story of one brave man's attempt to stop him.

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-Eden Palace. Depositions.

-Mm-hm.

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-The shootings?

-I know.

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-You always say, "Prepare the next case as soon as we've won the last one".

-I say that?

-You do.

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I must learn to relax.

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The man who challenged Hitler in the courts was just 27 years old.

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His name was Hans Litten. He was a poor man's lawyer and he was a rebel.

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Hans was born into a family whose Jewish father had converted to Christianity.

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Hans converted back again.

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He adored his mother, Irmgard,

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and took from her a life-long love of art and poetry.

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But he had no time for the bourgeois world he was born into and he abandoned that, as well.

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In Berlin, he lived with like-minded friends,

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including his oldest friend Max Furst,

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a socialist, a Jew, and a carpenter.

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Whatever Hans achieved in life, whatever dangers he faced,

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Max Furst was with him, giving him support.

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They were opposite characters somehow.

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Max was practical and sociable

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and Hans was intellectual,

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going through work very, very deep.

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The third member of the family was 19-year-old Margot Meisel

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whose uncle, the composer Edmund Meisel,

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had recently scored Berlin, Symphony of a City.

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CLASSICAL MUSIC

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Both men loved Margot.

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Max captured her heart and Hans got the consolation prize.

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Margot became his legal assistant.

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She was very spontaneous and sharp.

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She was very sharp. A real Berliner tongue to her like knives.

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And she would go to the end for everything she believed in.

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Ah.

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It's so incredible what these three people got through

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by living together in community,

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sharing the flat, sharing the life,

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sharing their political struggle.

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I had this crazy idea.

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"Did you, Hans?" Yes, I did, actually.

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Hans was kind of the third people in this matrimonial....situation.

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He was always present, sharing even the little family life.

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All our life, Hans was in our life

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and I remember him as being my second father.

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And what I remember when I was a little child,

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I used to call him, "the big man with the glasses"

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He was always with us somehow.

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He was walking side by side with my parents all their lives.

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And my parents would say, if they explained something to us about politics,

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"And Hans Litten would say this..."

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The days in Berlin are like some fantastic memory

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and memories coming back

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and the smell and everything... I know this place!

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The Berlin of Hans Litten and Max and Margot Furst

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was one of the great world cities.

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The only goose-steppers were the chorus girls.

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The only arms raised in salute were those designed to stop traffic.

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It was also home to a vast industrial workforce

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whose votes were split between the Social Democrats

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and, increasingly, the Communist Party.

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Throughout Germany, throughout Europe,

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the city enjoyed its reputation as Red Berlin.

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THEY SING IN GERMAN

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HE SINGS ALONG

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This was Weimar Berlin.

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Into this city, into these lives,

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the anti-Semites of the Nazi Party came in late 1926.

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The Nazis were a small Bavarian movement,

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provincial and insignificant.

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To make them national and a genuine force in German politics,

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Adolf Hitler needed to conquer Berlin.

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On November 9th 1926,

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he sent his lieutenant Josef Goebbels to the capital.

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Goebbels was a man who looked at clouds and convinced himself they were shaped into Swastikas.

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He was a sycophant who told Hitler,

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"I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time".

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But here, too, was a man who knew that political objectives could be achieved with guns and knives.

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Goebbels' arrival in the capital

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would change the face of Berlin.

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Goebbels was an inspired choice to be the party boss in Berlin.

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This was at a time, 1926, 1927, Nazis were trying to reach out

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to a constituency they hadn't reached before.

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They were trying to reach urban industrial workers

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and Berlin, of course, was a centre of that. It was a city dominated by the left-wing political parties.

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And Goebbels knew that the Nazis' challenge was to get attention in Berlin.

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The instrument that Goebbels used to conquer Berlin was the SA,

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the brown-shirted stormtroopers.

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THEY CHANT IN GERMAN

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These men were heavily armed

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with cast-off weapons from the First World War

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and they were led by officers who had made a cult out of violence.

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Goebbels knew they needed headlines and they would get headlines with violence and provocation,

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with moving into the neighbourhoods where the communists were strongest and stirring up trouble.

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And so the Nazis would move into a neighbourhood

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and they would set up taverns for their stormtroopers.

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His men came to this neighbourhood quite late in 1930,

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organised in a tavern, and they'd choose the tavern

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because it was quite near to this Red neighbourhood.

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That's the reason. They went to all the Red neighbourhoods

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and had their taverns there.

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This was a socialist neighbourhood.

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A lot of workers, or most of them, voted Communist or Social Democrat.

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There were about 30,000 people living here in this very small area

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and the Nazis called this, this was a Red Swamp area.

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And they wanted to clear it up.

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SHOUTING / SHOOTING

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SHOUTING / SHOOTING

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Hundreds of young Communists still said,

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"the only way to deal with a Nazi is to beat him up."

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One said "Yes, sir, we talk to Nazis for four hours

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"and the consequence were, at the end, we had to beat them up.

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"That's the only way to deal with Nazis."

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Hans Litten was pitched right into the middle of this struggle.

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Are you two lost? I don't mean philosophically. You're obviously that.

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He was the lawyer that the left turned to when they were in trouble.

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He prosecuted Nazis accused of attacking anti-fascists.

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And he defended anti-fascists accused of attacking Nazis.

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This work brought Hans into direct opposition to the Berlin stormtroopers.

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And one group in particular - Storm 33.

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And sometimes they marched along this street

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and were singing, "We are the Murder Stormtroopers 33".

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They were proud of the name given to them by the left papers.

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It was the men of Storm 33

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who were destined to give the battle for Berlin a new twist of viciousness.

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On a dark winter night in 1930,

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a group of armed and drunken men from Storm 33

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walked 200 yards from their headquarters

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to a popular left-wing social club.

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There was a dance in progress being put on by a communist hiking club called Wanderfalke.

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This was happening at the Eden Dance Palace.

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And the SA heard about this

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and they rushed to the Eden Dance Palace.

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The Eden Dance Palace in the heart of Charlottenburg.

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The events here on November 22nd 1930

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would set Adolf Hitler and Hans Litten on a collision course.

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The dancing has long gone from Eden, but the building still exists.

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Today it is part of Klaus Kaspar's hardware store.

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THEY SPEAK GERMAN

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Harald Marpe has studied the Eden Dance Palace atrocity

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but this is the first time he's been here.

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A lot of these stormtroopers were armed.

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Everybody had a knife and lots of them had guns,

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pistols, Mauser Parabellum.

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There were thousands of weapons from World War One, so it was no problem.

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If you spent 20 marks, you got a gun at this time.

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GERMAN MUSIC PLAYS

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It's a strange experience to be here.

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I read a lot about it, never been there,

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but books, and went to the archives.

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Now I'm here for the first time.

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And I try to imagine how it was on November 1930, on this very day here.

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SCREAMING / SHOOTING

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I look in his face. He was one of the stormtroopers.

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This guy is called Berlisch and he lived just round the corner.

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These are other guys who took part.

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Stormtroopers.

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His name was Hans Maikowski and the Nazis named a street after him.

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Everybody in Germany knew him.

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I have lots of photos of communists

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and I always think, "If I don't know who these people are, do I see a difference?

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It's difficult to answer.

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You can't judge by the faces, I guess.

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If you know he's a Nazi, you see his brutal face.

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But if you don't know, it would be difficult to say "Is he left-wing? Right-wing? What was this man?"

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All these guys, were... Most of them were unemployed.

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Their fathers had fought in World War I.

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A lot of them had died in the war.

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I think, in other countries, things didn't go this way,

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didn't happen this way.

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In Germany, it came to absolutely collapse of civilisation.

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And these guys were the ones who did it.

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These young men.

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Storm 33's assault on the Eden Dance Palace

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came at a critical time in the career of Adolf Hitler.

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Only two months before, in the September elections,

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the Nazi Party had made an astonishing breakthrough.

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Six and a half million votes

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had catapulted the Nazis from a lunatic fringe group to a major party,

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commanding 107 seats in the Reichstag.

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Almost literally overnight, Hitler had become a major figure in German politics.

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He was trying to turn himself from being sort of the demagogue,

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the backstreet orator that he had been known for through the 1920s,

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the man who had led a coup attempt in 1923... He was trying to reinvent himself as a statesman.

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Hitler had gone on to swear, on oath,

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that he and his party had turned their backs on violence.

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This appealed to Hitler's new friends in the middle classes

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but outraged his paramilitaries in the SA.

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Here was Hans Litten's great opportunity.

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Hans had been hired as the private prosecutor

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for the victims of the Eden Palace shooting.

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Call Hitler as a star witness and you can redefine the scope of your trial.

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Hans's audacious move was to subpoena Hitler as a witness in the trial,

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believing it would be impossible for the Nazi leader to defend the accused brownshirts

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without frightening off his millions of law-abiding, middle-class supporters.

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It would be the greatest show in Berlin.

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His stormtroopers in the dock.

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His new pals, the rich financiers, in the gallery. Both thinking they own Hitler.

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You bring them together in the same room for the first time,

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gawping at each other like cretins and wondering how they belong in the same party.

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What he wanted to do was not go after the little guys,

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he wanted to go after the big guy. What he wanted to do was illustrate,

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if possible through Hitler's own testimony,

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that what these stormtroopers were doing on occasions like the attack on the Eden Dance Palace

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was a calculated political strategy coming on orders from Hitler.

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He wanted to prove that the SA attack on the Eden Palace

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was a logical part of the systematic use of violence by the National Socialist Party

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and to call Hitler was, yeah, it was something else.

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It gave the whole scene a significance

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which it wouldn't have had before.

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The big day was 8th May 1931.

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The Central Criminal Court in Berlin stood poised to welcome Adolf Hitler.

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I think everybody was concerned about the importance of this day, of this moment.

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People used to look out of their windows for hours before

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because they knew Hitler is coming.

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This was so exciting to know that he was being summoned.

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You have to imagine there were thousands of stormtroopers

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up and down Turmstrasse here and in the side streets.

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There were several hundred police officers trying to keep control of them.

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As the morning wore on, the stormtroopers were chanting, yelling, "Sieg Heil!"

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eagerly awaiting the appearance of Hitler.

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Echoing off the buildings, echoing off the court here, it would have been deafening.

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CHAOTIC SHOUTING

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One of the things Litten wanted to do with the Eden Dance Palace trial

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was to put Hitler into a dilemma

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in which anything he said was going to hurt him.

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-The witness's name?

-Adolf Hitler.

-I call on witness Adolf Hitler.

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The court calls witness Hitler.

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'Either Hitler would have to go on the stand and say "our party is legal"

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'which Litten knew would raise a serious threat of a rift

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'between the stormtroopers and the political organisation of the Nazi Party.

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'Or he would have to embrace what the SA was doing and say,

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"Yes, this is what our party is about" and lose the middle-class voters he was trying so hard to get.

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Herr Hitler, let me ask you this.

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-What is the purpose of this SA?

-It is the party's sports section.

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It gives classes in self defence.

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Jujitsu! LAUGHTER

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I do not know the entire curriculum. It is possible jujitsu.

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And these two men, these students of jujitsu,

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-their vicious attack on the Eden Palace dance hall, was that self defence?

-Your Honour...

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'Hitler was not used to this role of being a witness

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'and being within this framework of criminal procedure,

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'whereas Litten was a very highly-skilled criminal lawyer.'

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So he was he was well-prepared

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and he worked with the rules of criminal procedures

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and this is what drove Hitler crazy.

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-Lawyer's trick.

-I beg your pardon?

-A typical trick.

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His kind trade in cunning and deception.

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That is a complaint about me, or perhaps my entire....profession?

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'In the anti-Semitic fantasy, lawyers are Jewish.'

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I mean, lawyer is the typical Jewish profession.

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'And so, in Hans Litten, those two anti-Semitic images converge.

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'I don't think that Hitler was able to perceive a personality behind the Jewish lawyer.'

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You do not decide the destinies of a nation...

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For three hours, Hans Litten dragged Adolf Hitler from one violent Nazi action to the next.

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But his master stroke was to turn to the life and works of Josef Goebbels,

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the man running Hitler's Berlin operation.

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Goebbels had written a pamphlet in which he essentially advocated

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a violent takeover by the Nazis of the German government.

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It had been printed by the Nazi Party's official publisher and bore the party stamp.

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In the pamphlet "Nazi-Sozi" pages 18 to 19,

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he answers the specific question of what would happen

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if the Nazis had the street-fighters on their side but not the majority of the German people.

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"We will clench our teeth and prepare ourselves", he says.

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"Then we will march against the State and become revolutionaries indeed.

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"We will chase the parliament to the devil

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"and base the State on the strength of German fists."

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I ask you, Herr Hitler, is all that a metaphor, as well?

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At the Eden Dance Palace trial,

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Hans Litten showed Germany who Hitler really was.

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Afterwards it was no longer possible for an adult German

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to pretend that the Nazi Party was either a party of the law-abiding middle classes

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or that it was a party of violent stormtroopers. It was clearly both.

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Litten believed Hitler would be crippled by this revelation.

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Hitler never forgot his ordeal.

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He was wounded profoundly this day.

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Unfortunately, it was not strong enough to make him get a heart attack right now,

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here in this place. That would be great.

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It was not strong enough so that he unfortunately could go on,

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fulfil his terrible...

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..dream of big Germany.

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It soon dawned on Hans Litten and his friends

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that Hitler's respectable supporters had not been swayed by the trial.

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They were prepared to overlook his violence,

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and in the following months, Hitler's star continued to rise.

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By 1933, he was worth 11 and a half million votes

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and Conservative politicians of the Weimar Republic began to court him.

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Believing that they could hire Hitler and that office would tame him,

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he was invited to join the cabinet,

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and with the blessing of the great and good, was sworn in as Reich Chancellor

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on January 30th 1933.

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That night, the stormtroopers gathered in the heart of Berlin.

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They gathered as if to say, "This is our city now".

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Hans Litten, Max and Margot Furst,

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any German who had raised their voice against the Nazi Party

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were now trying to guess what came next.

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But you always have to imagine, nobody could really think of

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what would go on after 33. Nobody.

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The Communists didn't know this, the Social Democrats.

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It's very easy, I think, for us to see in retrospect

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that Hans Litten should have read the signs and gotten out,

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but that is, of course, retrospect. It's virtually inconceivable to anyone who was there at the time

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that things were going to develop the way they were.

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-What's that?

-Open it.

0:26:240:26:27

Paris.

0:26:320:26:34

Well, thank you, Rudolf. But I cannot go.

0:26:370:26:40

'He couldn't. It's Hans.'

0:26:420:26:44

He couldn't do it. He really couldn't do it.

0:26:440:26:47

He always said, as far as I know, that he couldn't leave his clients,

0:26:470:26:53

that he couldn't let them...

0:26:530:26:56

..on their own, he felt guilty. Not guilty, responsible for them.

0:26:570:27:01

If you are working as a lawyer, you live here, you have your job, you have your clients.

0:27:010:27:06

I think for Hans Litten, it was absurd.

0:27:060:27:08

The idea of leaving the country, leaving his clients was absurd. So he stayed.

0:27:080:27:13

Feb 27th 1933.

0:27:190:27:22

Across the city, rumours were circulating

0:27:220:27:25

that the Reichstag building, housing the German parliament, was on fire.

0:27:250:27:29

Why and how this had happened nobody yet knew.

0:27:290:27:34

But it was clear to all that someone would have to pay.

0:27:340:27:37

For most of its people, the Berlin night of February 27th was like any other Berlin night.

0:27:460:27:52

DANCE MUSIC

0:27:560:28:00

But in the working-class districts, it was like no other.

0:28:010:28:04

Into these areas, the stormtroopers came.

0:28:040:28:08

And now they were carrying police badges.

0:28:080:28:11

Hitler had decided that the Reichstag had been set alight by the Communist Party

0:28:110:28:16

and so here was the chance to crush them once and for all.

0:28:160:28:21

Most of the leaders living here in our neighbourhood, they were arrested.

0:28:250:28:29

They were taken by the SA.

0:28:290:28:33

The SA was, erm, like a police.

0:28:330:28:37

Goering said, "You have the same rights as the police"

0:28:370:28:40

and they worked together.

0:28:400:28:43

It was just revenge.

0:28:430:28:45

Where should all these poor workers go to?

0:29:160:29:19

Most of them were unemployed, they didn't have money to buy a railway ticket

0:29:190:29:23

to Switzerland or wherever. They had to stay here.

0:29:230:29:26

To stay in Germany, as Hans Litten did,

0:29:290:29:32

now meant trying to exist without the protection of a constitution.

0:29:320:29:36

Even as the fires were burning in the Reichstag,

0:29:360:29:39

the Nazis took the first significant step towards creating a totalitarian state.

0:29:390:29:44

"There you see the Reichstag, the German house of parliament in Berlin,

0:29:440:29:49

"which has been seriously destroyed by fire.

0:29:490:29:52

"The main hall in which the deputies conducted their debates has suffered most.

0:29:530:29:58

"Hitler, now chancellor, has announced that the fire was the work of communists

0:29:580:30:02

"and in consequence, Germany has been placed under a system of martial law,

0:30:020:30:06

"a decree having been signed which aims at the total destruction of Communism."

0:30:060:30:11

The Decree for the Protection of People and State, as it was called,

0:30:130:30:18

allowed the Nazis to use the police to round up their chief political opponents.

0:30:180:30:23

Hans Litten was one of them. He was arrested and taken to Alexanderplatz Police Station.

0:30:230:30:29

For some Communists, it was an advantage to be arrested by policemen.

0:30:310:30:36

Hans Litten was arrested by police so he was quite lucky, quite lucky.

0:30:360:30:40

Nobody really knew at that time what would happen now.

0:30:420:30:44

I mean people, even Max Furst were not so... and Margot, were not so worried,

0:30:440:30:50

cos it had happened before and the police was not as bad as the SA.

0:30:500:30:54

But the regular police had Hans only for a short time.

0:30:570:31:02

By March 1933, the man who put Hitler in the dock was handed over to the SA.

0:31:020:31:09

He had not been charged with a crime. He never would be charged.

0:31:090:31:14

Very few political prisoners were.

0:31:140:31:16

He and the men around him were being held in protective custody.

0:31:160:31:22

Protective custody, or the German word "Schutzhaft", was a euphemism

0:31:240:31:27

that the Nazis used to describe what they were doing to their political opponents.

0:31:270:31:32

The Nazis' cynical message was they were only taking these endangered people into custody to protect them

0:31:320:31:39

from what might happen to them outside from the wrath of the people if they were out and free.

0:31:390:31:45

When, of course, that's utter nonsense. They were arresting them to neutralise them politically.

0:31:450:31:51

Before Auschwitz, before Treblinka, before Bergen-Belsen and Dachau,

0:31:560:32:02

the name that summoned the horror of Nazi rule was Sonnenburg.

0:32:020:32:07

30 miles east of Berlin, on the site of an old penitentiary,

0:32:070:32:12

a concentration camp, a new word in Germany, had been founded.

0:32:120:32:17

On 6th April 1933, Hans Litten was sent there.

0:32:170:32:22

Artists, intellectuals, lawyers, trade-union leaders,

0:32:230:32:28

they could all be found at Sonnenburg.

0:32:280:32:31

And the place was run by Storm 33.

0:32:370:32:40

Hans was put into the hands of his worst enemies.

0:32:420:32:45

Not only in the hands of the SA,

0:32:450:32:47

but in the hands of exactly those people that he had been fighting against in court,

0:32:470:32:53

the famous SA Storm 33. So that was really private revenge that happened then.

0:32:530:33:00

It's safe to say that, of anybody at all that the members of Storm 33 hated,

0:33:000:33:05

Hans Litten had to be right at the top of their list.

0:33:050:33:07

So unbelievable. I mean, what they did to him. And not only to him, to all these intellectuals.

0:33:090:33:15

But, I think, really especially to him.

0:33:150:33:18

He was beaten so that one of his eyes was damaged and he almost couldn't see out of it,

0:33:180:33:23

the bones were broken. His skull, his mother reported, was somewhat misshapen.

0:33:230:33:29

Terrible things had happened to him. His whole face was swollen.

0:33:290:33:33

It was torturing...

0:33:330:33:35

..humiliating, beating,

0:33:370:33:40

not outright killing him, that would be too easy,

0:33:400:33:44

he really had to go through the most horrible of torture.

0:33:440:33:48

Some SA men entered my son's cell at night, saying,

0:33:550:33:59

"Now you are going to be shot. You will be photographed as the shots are fired."

0:33:590:34:05

A revolver was pressed against each temple. The flashlight was ignited.

0:34:050:34:10

The shutter clicked, but no shots fired.

0:34:100:34:14

With such jests, the SA men amused themselves for hours, even for days.

0:34:150:34:20

I think the shock was very big because, being...

0:34:240:34:28

Even if you despised the legal system of the bourgeois state,

0:34:280:34:31

you still had a legal system.

0:34:310:34:33

And people had been raised in it and had studied it and lived in it and had believed in it.

0:34:330:34:39

And all this was gone within weeks.

0:34:390:34:41

And even when you were beaten up by someone, there was no-one to appeal to.

0:34:410:34:45

Irmgard Litten tried to appeal, but she had to find out that all this had vanished within weeks.

0:34:480:34:54

So I think that was a real shock, to be unprotected suddenly.

0:34:540:34:59

And she...

0:34:590:35:01

..was so incredible.

0:35:030:35:06

She went to I don't know how many people to help Hans out of the situation,

0:35:060:35:12

or to at least make his life a little less horrible.

0:35:120:35:17

But nothing, nothing worked

0:35:170:35:20

because everybody told her, even people who said,

0:35:200:35:25

"Yes, we would like to help", they said, "We can't."

0:35:250:35:29

The moment we mention the name of Litten...

0:35:290:35:32

..no, it's, "We can't do anything for you."

0:35:330:35:36

Five weeks after Hans's imprisonment at Sonnenburg,

0:35:390:35:42

the Nazis boasted to the world that they were book-burners.

0:35:420:35:46

On May 10th 1933, in Opernplatz in the centre of Berlin,

0:35:480:35:53

a highly-publicised event was staged in front of cameras by the new regime.

0:35:530:35:58

A country existing without the rule of law

0:35:590:36:02

now decided it had no need for the written word.

0:36:020:36:07

Over 40,000 books had been collected by the Berlin SA.

0:36:230:36:27

Books whose words, or whose authors, offended the Nazi mind.

0:36:270:36:32

Each one was committed to the flames.

0:36:320:36:35

SINGING IN GERMAN

0:36:580:37:01

Now there is a monument to that and it is an extremely poignant and powerful one.

0:38:050:38:10

If you walk along the square in Bebelplatz, formerly Opernplatz, where the book-burning took place

0:38:100:38:16

you will come to a glass opening in the square. And you look below ground and see empty bookshelves.

0:38:160:38:24

That too, in a sense, captures what the Nazis were about. Empty bookshelves.

0:38:250:38:30

The books were burned, the life of the mind is gone, the life of the mind has been expunged from Germany.

0:38:300:38:35

Wherever books are burned by civil or military governments,

0:39:170:39:21

women gather outside the headquarters of the secret police,

0:39:210:39:25

and demand to know where their missing children are.

0:39:250:39:28

In 1933, Irmgard Litten became a familiar face

0:39:530:39:58

outside the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin.

0:39:580:40:01

Irmgard Litten, Hans's mother, was a remarkable person in her own right,

0:40:040:40:09

incredibly brave, incredibly stubborn, incredibly determined.

0:40:090:40:13

And she would pitch herself in a certain way, she would write, for instance,

0:40:130:40:17

"I am a German mother for whom the Fatherland means more than anything else."

0:40:170:40:22

She would very much downplay Litten's politics,

0:40:220:40:25

in fact, she would say he was not politically motivated at all.

0:40:250:40:28

To get him out, she would have done anything, anything.

0:40:290:40:35

She was a person who taught her children not to lie,

0:40:350:40:39

always to say the truth.

0:40:390:40:42

Whatever you do, not to sell your soul.

0:40:420:40:46

But she realised she had to play their game.

0:40:460:40:51

So she raised up her hand and she shouted, "Heil Hitler!",

0:40:510:40:56

but with a smile, with an inner smile.

0:40:560:40:58

She was smiling in their face with an attitude of,

0:40:580:41:04

"OK, you never will know what I'm thinking."

0:41:040:41:08

"If the Nazis ever come to power," Hans Litten said during the trial,

0:41:110:41:16

"they will reduce the law to the whim of one man."

0:41:160:41:20

This is now what happened.

0:41:200:41:22

Independent organisations were banned.

0:41:230:41:26

Hitler was exalted.

0:41:260:41:29

And the party anthem, written by a recently-murdered stormtrooper from Berlin,

0:41:410:41:46

became a national anthem for the whole of Germany.

0:41:460:41:50

THEY SING IN GERMAN

0:41:500:41:53

Horst Wessel was the dead man's name. The anthem, the Horst Wessel Song.

0:41:590:42:05

THEY SING IN GERMAN

0:42:250:42:28

THEY SING IN GERMAN

0:42:350:42:38

As the first draft of prisoners, including Litten, were being taken to the prison at Sonnenburg,

0:42:490:42:54

the guards amused themselves by making these left-leaning men

0:42:540:42:58

sing the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Song.

0:42:580:43:01

Everything about the Nazis was primitive,

0:43:010:43:04

their treatment of prisoners, the symbolism of making their defeated enemies sing their songs.

0:43:040:43:09

And if they refused to sing, they were beaten.

0:43:090:43:11

The Nazis would continue to sing their hymns to the SA.

0:43:130:43:16

But in April 1934, Hitler murdered their leaders.

0:43:160:43:21

Hans Litten's old adversaries were liquidated,

0:43:210:43:25

their functions handed over to the SS, a less volatile organisation.

0:43:250:43:30

Their violence was rooted in law and sanctioned by the courts.

0:43:300:43:35

The SS also took control of the concentration camps,

0:43:350:43:39

as Hans Litten discovered when he was shifted to Lichtenburg camp.

0:43:390:43:44

The principle of hope drove her on, and in front of the Gestapo,

0:45:200:45:26

she said, "All the world knows what happens

0:45:260:45:31

"concerning torture and your political prisoners."

0:45:310:45:36

They told her, "You better didn't say this.

0:45:360:45:41

"We didn't understand this, what you were saying."

0:45:410:45:44

And she said, "Then I'll repeat it. I'll repeat it and I'll repeat it and I'll repeat it.

0:45:440:45:51

"That this is something

0:45:510:45:54

"that is against all human dignity,

0:45:540:45:59

"what you are going to do.

0:45:590:46:02

"And the world has to know it, and if you don't stop it, I will tell them."

0:46:020:46:07

But Hans offended, offended,

0:46:070:46:12

wounded Hitler in a way he never ever could forgive.

0:46:120:46:16

Vast crowds now attended all Hitler's public appearances.

0:46:250:46:29

They were some of the strangest crowds ever seen.

0:46:290:46:33

Not a soul heckled. Everyone saluted.

0:46:330:46:36

None were exempt.

0:46:380:46:40

Only the brave said no.

0:46:400:46:43

Heil Moscow!

0:47:220:47:25

In the trial, Hans Litten had predicted that the life of the mind

0:47:440:47:48

would be obliterated if Hitler ever came to power,

0:47:480:47:51

and that without the rule of law, independent thought would be extinguished.

0:47:510:47:56

These things are durable in human beings, however.

0:48:000:48:03

At Lichtenburg, even an SS officer reported that Hans, "was a miracle of learning".

0:48:070:48:13

At Lichtenburg, Hans Litten was given a job as a bookbinder and he ran a library.

0:48:150:48:21

And he worked away on very erudite projects

0:48:210:48:25

like a translation into modern German of medieval German poetry. He wanted to produce a book

0:48:250:48:30

that was a reader for high-school students on medieval German poetry,

0:48:300:48:35

but rendered into modern German

0:48:350:48:37

that was more comprehensible to young people.

0:48:370:48:39

He couldn't get books about politics or things like that.

0:49:230:49:28

Nobody said anything about art.

0:49:280:49:31

Probably modern art he couldn't get, so he got the other art. But art was art so he used it.

0:49:310:49:37

He had something to hope for. Because art gives hope.

0:49:400:49:44

This was Litten resisting the Nazis as best he could, even within the walls of a concentration camp.

0:49:470:49:54

By living the life of the mind in this very determined way,

0:49:540:49:58

that, in itself, is one of the most anti-Nazi things you can do,

0:49:580:50:01

precisely because the Nazis were so anti-intellectual.

0:50:010:50:06

20th April 1935 was Adolf Hitler's 46th birthday.

0:50:090:50:15

And all Germany was expected to celebrate.

0:50:150:50:18

At Lichtenburg, the prisoners were each ordered to produce something lovely to commemorate the great day.

0:50:180:50:25

Hans Litten's choice was lovely.

0:50:250:50:28

All around them there are guards. You have to imagine SS men in black and, of course, with guns.

0:50:300:50:36

The prisoners are supposed to present something.

0:50:360:50:38

What did Litten decide to do? He decided to read a poem called "Thoughts Are Free",

0:50:380:50:43

"Die Gedanken Sind Frei."

0:50:430:50:46

Die gedanken sind frei.

0:52:100:52:12

By February 1936, Hans had been Hitler's prisoner for three years.

0:52:220:52:27

And in that year, Irmgard Litten made a last desperate bid

0:52:290:52:33

to persuade the dictator to release her son.

0:52:330:52:36

She looked to Britain.

0:52:360:52:39

She was able to get a very prominent group of British politicians

0:52:390:52:42

to write a petition to Hitler asking that Litten be freed.

0:52:420:52:47

And the reply is a very long example of Nazi propaganda,

0:52:470:52:51

in which perhaps the most absurd claim

0:52:510:52:54

is that the Nazi revolution would be seen in later years as a model revolution,

0:52:540:52:59

such as can only be carried out by people at the very highest level of culture.

0:52:590:53:03

And he went on to say that, because Litten was such a dangerous communist,

0:53:030:53:09

it would be far too dangerous to let him out.

0:53:090:53:12

The headline with which this was published in the German press sums it up.

0:53:120:53:17

"Litten is staying where he is."

0:53:170:53:20

Hitler had taken a brilliant young lawyer, a man who warned his country against fascism,

0:53:220:53:28

a man deeply loved by other people, and utterly destroyed him.

0:53:280:53:32

And in October 1937, Hans was moved again,

0:53:330:53:38

this time to Dachau.

0:53:380:53:41

Irmgard Litten was permitted to visit him there.

0:53:430:53:45

She had not seen her son for three years.

0:53:450:53:49

"It is like a small, fortified city.

0:53:500:53:53

"A long wide street runs through the middle of it,

0:53:530:53:56

"and on either side are long barracks.

0:53:560:53:59

"It was like a street of the dead.

0:53:590:54:02

"I saw only one prisoner. He was cleaning a window and an armed sentry was standing by him.

0:54:030:54:10

"A cart came towards us.

0:54:130:54:16

"It was being pushed by about a dozen prisoners.

0:54:160:54:19

"One man stared at me as though I were an apparition."

0:54:210:54:24

When Hans was brought before his mother, she saw for the first time

0:54:270:54:32

that a yellow star had been stitched onto his prison uniform.

0:54:320:54:35

She saw he had to wear the Jewish star.

0:54:370:54:40

In the eyes of the SS, as having a Jewish father,

0:54:400:54:43

they said, "He's also a Jew because his blood is Jewish."

0:54:430:54:47

He was registered as a Jewish prisoner

0:54:470:54:51

and he was treated like the other Jewish prisoners.

0:54:510:54:54

And they were treated even worse than the other prisoners in Dachau concentration camp.

0:54:540:54:59

He was isolated with the other Jewish prisoners.

0:55:010:55:04

One prisoner wrote, "The wind blew from a different direction at Dachau."

0:55:060:55:09

The guards were that much more brutal.

0:55:090:55:12

In a sense, the guards had succeeded in breaking down the solidarity of some of the prisoners.

0:55:120:55:18

Dachau was, at that time, significantly worse, significantly harsher for prisoners

0:55:180:55:22

than any of the other concentration camps.

0:55:220:55:26

They were not allowed to touch each other, to take, to embrace Hans.

0:55:260:55:31

She had to be separated.

0:55:310:55:34

There was a table between them and an SS guy watching everything.

0:55:340:55:39

She only saw his hat.

0:55:390:55:43

She felt he hardly couldn't speak anymore.

0:55:470:55:50

His eyes were not shiny, shining anymore.

0:55:500:55:53

And he made a remark

0:55:550:55:57

that she afterwards knew,

0:55:570:56:00

it was his bye-bye.

0:56:000:56:03

But still there, in the big isolation,

0:56:030:56:07

they had no newspapers, no books, nothing anymore.

0:56:070:56:10

He was reciting,

0:56:100:56:14

hours and hours and hours,

0:56:140:56:18

to the other prisoners

0:56:180:56:20

Rilke poetry...by heart.

0:56:200:56:25

And just make them forget for a few minutes.

0:56:250:56:29

He must have grown so big

0:56:320:56:36

and so strong.

0:56:360:56:39

That is really something that touches me

0:56:390:56:42

even more than his fight against Hitler.

0:56:420:56:46

Because to keep your dignity

0:56:460:56:50

in such a circumstance,

0:56:500:56:53

by having no teeth left because they were kicked out,

0:56:530:56:59

by being almost blind because they hit you so often,

0:56:590:57:05

having your legs broken several times,

0:57:050:57:09

having big heart problems.

0:57:090:57:12

He shared everything he had.

0:57:120:57:16

Because he always said, "It's not necessary for me, I've got my poems."

0:57:160:57:20

On February 5th 1938, Hans was sent for interrogation.

0:57:250:57:30

He was accused of concealing important information about a fellow prisoner.

0:57:300:57:35

Thoughts are free.

0:57:350:57:38

But the SS now set about beating them out of him.

0:57:380:57:42

That night, knowing he could stand no more,

0:57:420:57:46

Hans ended his own life.

0:57:460:57:48

You would find Hans Littens in Argentina in the 70s,

0:57:550:57:58

when 200 lawyers were killed by the dictatorships.

0:57:580:58:03

You will find them in Chile, you will find them later on, in Columbia, in Mexico.

0:58:030:58:08

In Syria maybe? It comes to my mind first.

0:58:080:58:12

I mean, we have so many countries with oppression and political persecution.

0:58:120:58:19

I mean, you can pick many countries, I would say.

0:58:190:58:22

Perhaps we would find people like this in Russia.

0:58:220:58:26

There are lawyers like this who carry on human-rights advocacy in countries like Iran.

0:58:260:58:30

Any country where there is a problematic government,

0:58:300:58:34

we hope, at least, that perhaps there will be a brave lawyer, like Litten,

0:58:340:58:37

to come forward and challenge them.

0:58:370:58:40

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:58:430:58:47

E-mail [email protected]

0:58:470:58:51

Documentary which reveals the story of German lawyer Hans Litten's public attempt to challenge Adolf Hitler. It examines Litten's life and work, the circumstances which prompted him to take such an extraordinary risk with his own safety, and the fate that awaited him after his historic confrontation with Hitler in a Berlin courtroom.

This study of courage, politics and humanity combines original archive material and interviews with Litten's friends and family, survivors from the street-fighting political landscape of 1930s Berlin, and historians and lawyers to illuminate Litten's tactics and choices. The documentary also explores Litten's story after the trial, his arrest and torture by the Nazis, and his courage in the concentration camps as Hitler's first political prisoner.

So what drove a 29-year-old lawyer with his whole career ahead of him to challenge fascism so directly, pursuing the man at the top and forcing Hitler to account for the violence of his massive private army?


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