The lawyer who put Hitler in the dock

Hans Litten
Hans Litten

To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, Connor Beaton tells the inspiring and moving story of Hans Litten, the German lawyer murdered by the Nazis after cross-examining Hitler.

He was everything Hitler hated: an intelligent Jewish lawyer who defended communists and spoke truth to power about the Nazi Party’s violent, hateful ideology.

Hans Litten was not your typical Berlin lawyer in the 1930s. Pressured into studying law by his father, he quipped in his diary: “When the ox in paradise was bored, he invented jurisprudence.”

He passed his exams with flying colours, but turned down lucrative job offers from the Government and a leading firm - instead going into practice with his friend Dr Ludwig Barbasch, a left-wing radical who narrowly escaped a death sentence for his part in a communist revolt.

The pair quickly established themselves as “advocates of the working class”, defending workers from the brunt of the police and the state in the dying days of the Weimar Republic.

But it was an electrifying courtroom encounter with Adolf Hitler, head of the nascent Nazi movement, that sealed Litten’s fate.

Representing four workers injured during an attack by Nazi paramilitaries on a popular dance-hall, Litten had Hitler - then attempting to carve out a respectable reputation among Germany’s middle-class - called into court on the morning of 8 May 1931.

Litten’s three-hour cross-examination of the future dictator thoroughly shook and humiliated Hitler, who fumbled and contradicted himself when challenged on his party’s violent actions and rhetoric.

For years to come, Hitler lashed out at anyone who dared to mention Litten’s name - and when the Reichstag fire allowed the Nazis to assume total authority in 1933, Litten was one of the first people to be arrested.

He spent the rest of his life in prisons and concentration camps, beaten and tortured by Nazi authorities in a bid to have him betray friends and colleagues who posed a threat to the fascist order.

Those who languished in prison with him recall a man who was well-liked for his knowledge and love of culture - someone who fought valiantly to keep others’ spirits high in desperate circumstances.

Sadly, Litten eventually took his own life in Dachau on 5 February 1938, becoming one of millions who were driven out of this world by a fascist movement that committed mass murder on an unprecedented industrial scale in the final years of World War II.

To this day, Berlin’s district court and the German Bar Association can be found on the German capital’s Littenstrasse.

This Holocaust Memorial Day, we remember the dangers of leaving racism, anti-Semitism and fascism unchallenged.

And let’s recall this verse from Die Gedanken sind frei, which Litten defiantly sang to his fellow prisoners while SS officers watched:

And if I am thrown into the darkest dungeon,

all these are futile works,

because my thoughts tear all gates

and walls apart: Thoughts are free!

  • Hans Litten’s story is also re-told in the 2011 BBC film The Man Who Crossed Hitler, now available on DVD.
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