Through the character of the revolutionary lawyer Hans Litten “Crossing Hitler” brings to life not only Litten but the years immediately preceding Hitler’s and the Nazi takeover of Weimar Germany. By focusing on the cast of characters, defendants, prosecutors, judges and politicians involved in some of the cases in which Litten participated, Hett allows us to see in a personal and palpable way the broader issues underlying the end of democracy in Germany. Hett is an especially good story teller, and has written a page turner that demonstrates the complexity not only of Litten but of the period preceding the Reichstag fire and the takeover of Germany by the Nazis.
It is impossible to read “Crossing Hitler” without making comparisons to some of the post 9/11 violations of rights that have been visited upon us by the Bush administration especially detentions without trial and interrogations through torture. Litten was taken into so-called protective custody, tortured and never tried for a crime. No court that could hear his case. He was in executive detention. If it sounds familiar it should. From Guantanamo to those held at secret sites, Litten’s story should serve as a warning of the dangers and the price a society pays for leaving behind fundamental human rights.
A few years ago I won the Hans Litten prize in Germany given to lawyers for their human rights advocacy. It was primarily for efforts to have the Guantanamo cases heard in a court. I had never heard of Litten, but did know that the Berlin Bar association was in the Hans Litten House on Hans Litten street. I read what i could find about Litten, which was very little. I had a one dimensional view of him as the courageous human rights lawyer who cross-examined Hitler. “Crossing Hitler” is a revelation. Litten was complex, but it is a complexity that was much suppressed even by those who loved him. He was a human rights lawyer, but also a revolutionary. He was a Christian, but also a Jew. For the first time, the cross examination of Hitler is set forth and analyzed. The issues Litten raised went to the heart of whether the Nazi’s prior to the Reichhstag fire were a legal party trying to gain power through legal means or an illegal party employing force and violence to achieve power. Litten had Hitler in a bind on the witness stand. Hitler never forgot that cross examination and Litten. On the night of the Reischstag fire, Litten was taken into so-called “protective custody,” tortured and ultimately committed suicide.