The most accurate indicator of the power of any method to uncover the truth is the fear it produces in the unscrupulous. Though it has been over 65 years since Adolf Hitler took his own life in a Berlin bunker, he remains the most monstrous, evil figure in all of history, causing the deaths of over 50 million people.
Yet, even with the rising power of the Nazi party behind him, Hitler was nervous when he was summoned to testify in a criminal trial in Berlin on May 8, 1931. The case involved a November 22, 1930 shooting of four young men in an attack by twenty or more Nazi SA storm troopers at a Berlin tavern called the Eden Dance Palace. Four of the attackers stood accused of criminal assault and attempted murder. A broader allegation also was made that this had been part of a plan of premeditated attacks and killings by the Nazi party itself.
Hitler had not yet seized total control of the government, so he was making strenuous efforts to present a much more moderate image in order to placate the German middle class. He had testified before in court cases, presenting the Nazis as committed to achieving their political goals through legal means. The Eden Palace trial would be different though, with the dogged pursuit of young lawyer Hans Litten putting Hitler on the defensive, causing him to lose control and then perjure himself.
Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels was “anxious” about the forthcoming court appearance by his boss, noting in his diary the potential for this to be “embarrassing.” His worry was well founded, as Hans Litten indeed put Hitler to rout.
Litten had been retained as private counsel by the three young men who had been shot that night, involved in the case alongside the prosecutor. Though the trial supposedly was about who shot whom, the implications went far beyond this, with an attempt to connect what happened that night with those higher ups Litten was determined to show in his cross-examination of Hitler that systematic violence was a regular part of the Nazi’s methods. Smart, cool and reserved, with a prodigious memory and knowledge of the law, Litten was just the lawyer to make this stick. While his questions always were delivered in a calm, even tone, they were noted by peers as being “penetrating,”
Hitler was confident, calm and under control when questioned by the judge. This all changed as soon as Litten took over, particularly when pressed about Nazi party support of a written statement by Goebbels advocating violence:
Q You said that no violent actions are carried out by the National Socialist Party. But didn’t Goebbels come up with the slogan “The enemy must be beaten to a pulp?”
A That is not to be taken literally! It means that one must defeat and destroy the opponent organizations, not that one attacks and murders the opponent….
Q Herr Hitler, you heard the question about appointing Herr Goebbels as Reich Propaganda Director [despite his statement in a training book advocating violence and revolution].
A I cannot say under oath whether I knew Goebbels’ book at that time…[he] must stay within the guidelines which I, as Party leader, give him.
Q Is it correct that Goebbels had already been made Party boss of Berlin in 1926?
A I cannot confirm the date. [it was correct]
Q You didn’t discipline or expel Goebbels, but instead made him Reich Propaganda Director. Mustn’t Goebbels’ example rouse the idea in the Party that the program of legality hasn’t gotten very far?
A [Hitler begins to stutter and search for an answer] The whole Party stands on the basis of legality and Goebbels likewise on this basis. He is in Berlin and can be called here at any time…
Q Has Herr Goebbels been forbidden to disseminate his text?
A I don’t know…
Q Did you promise Reich Chancellor Bruning to dissolve the SA in the event of your joining the administration….show[ing] that you yourself saw the SA as something illegal.
A [Hitler now is extraordinarily excited] I insist that Bruning has not offered me any participation in his government…Dissolving the SA would mean for me the end of the Party…
Q In your opinion, what is the spirit of the Free Corps [another Nazi subgroup]?
A The Free Corps spirit lived in those who believed that a change in the fate of the German nation could be brought about through….physical strength….
Q Do you also include the notorious crimes and killings that were committed by the Free Corps as a part of this spirit?
A [Hitler now is outraged]. I refuse to acknowledge that that kind of thing happened. The Free Crops committed no killings. They defended Germany.
Q Herr witness, is it correct that on the occasion of the so-called SA revolt last year you were accompanied on your tour of Berlin restaurants by armed SS men [for purposes of protection against the SA]?
A [Again outraged]. This is complete lunacy! In all the taverns I was greeted with stormy enthusiasm [Much laughter and merriment in the spectators gallery by Hitler’s unintended pun of “stormy enthusiasm” from the storm troopers.]….
Q I have just learned that this pamphlet is sanctioned by the Party, that it is sold at all Goebbels’ meetings and that it is available in all Party bookstores…
A [Hitler yells with a bright red face] Herr Advocate, how can you say that that is a call to illegality? That is a statement that can be proven by nothing!
Q How is it possible that the Party publisher took over this text, which stands in clear contradiction to the party line?
At this point, Hitler was saved by the judge, who overruled the question and refused to allow any further inquiry. The entry in Goebbels’ diary for that day shows just how shaken the Nazi higher-ups were by Litten’s cross-examination of Hitler. Goebbels admits that there was an “incriminating” sentence in his pamphlet and that the day began “gloomily.”
In keeping with his propaganda function, Goebbels’ attack on Litten led with anti-Semitism [Litten’s father, a law school dean, was Jewish, his mother was not]:
“The Jewish lawyer Litten has made himself guilty of an obvious deception of the court through his irresponsible claims. I leave the judgment of this to the public. I will permit myself to publish this letter in the press as soon as it is in the hands of the court.”
After Hitler’s dramatic appearance, the rest of the trial was anti-climactic. In closing argument, Litten argued that Hitler had perjured himself at least four times. The court’s decision ignored the Hitler element and focused on the inconsistencies of the fact witnesses, convicting three of the four defendants of breaches of the peace and trespassing.
Hitler never forgot this cross-examination, nor did his henchmen. Hans Litten was arrested on the night of the Reichstag fire, February 27, 1933. He was beaten and tortured for five years, with intermittent hard labor. He was transferred to a number of concentration camps, first as a political prisoner, then as a Jew. With no hope of release, only more of the same, despite being a member of a prominent German family, Litten took his own life at Dachau on February 5, 1938.
Although a number of memorials dedicated to Hans Litten exist in Germany and a few books have been written about him, he remains largely unknown today.
The basic information in this post came from Crossing Hitler, The Man Who Put The Nazis On The Witness Stand, by Benjamin Carter Hett, Oxford University Press(2008) .