• 死得其所|戴啟思
  • 2020-10-24    

  • 死得其所|戴啟思

 

The Dangers of Cross-Examination-the Lawyer who took on Adolf Hitler


I rarely read books about lawyers. If the subject of the book was a master of cross-examination and won all his courtroom battles, it is a reminder of how modest are your own forensic skills. If the book is about a great judge, famed for wisdom and intellect, it is rather depressing to think that your own talents are so far below the subject.

However, in reading a history book about the Law in Nazi Germany, I came across the story of a remarkable criminal lawyer, Hans Litten.

He was neither a truly astounding courtroom performer nor a great judge. He was, however, utterly fearless. He did all that he could to defend his clients despite attacks on him, both in print and physically.

Hans Litten had the singular professional achievement of bringing Adolf Hitler to the witness box and subjecting him to a few hours’ cross-examination one day in April 1931. He later paid for those few hours with his life.

Litten came from a well-off family. His father was a distinguished legal academic who had converted from Judaism early on in life. His mother came from a solid middle-class background.

He was born in 1903. Despite showing gifts for studying literature, languages and, above all, fine art, he was persuaded by his father to become a lawyer. He qualified as an attorney in 1927 and passed up on a post in government legal service to work as an advocate in a law firm that specialized in handling cases that arose from what, in Hong Kong, we would call ‘Public Order Events’, street incidents involving clashes between protesters and the police.

Public Order Events in Berlin at this time were bloody and, occasionally, deadly affairs. The Communist Party was striving to achieve victories in elections. The Party looked to win the votes of working-class voters who had a jaundiced view of traditional political parties after suffering greatly in the post-World War 1 Great Depression as a result of losing the war.

Another political party was on the rise and competing with the Communist Party to win votes from this same electorate. This was the Nazi Party under Adolf Hitler. Both parties used violent methods to suppress the other. There was fighting in the streets and in bars and meeting halls. It was common for there to be multiple murders and brutal beatings after an especially violent clash.

Hans Litten’s clients were largely Communists. He was a belligerent advocate who relished battles in court. He had some successes and, by 1931, had a reputation for tenacity and toughness. He was not popular with the Nazis and their lawyers he came up against in the courtroom.

In 1931, members of a uniformed branch of the Nazi Party-the ‘Sturmabteilung’ or ‘SA’ attacked a dance hall which was known to be used by Communists. Three people died.

Litten began a prosecution against four members of SA who had taken part in the attack. He saw to it that Hitler was called a witness.

This was a clever move by Litten. In 1931 the Nazi Party was trying to achieve some electoral respectability. It hoped to make some inroads into the block of middle-class voters. It was starting to have some success and it wanted to distance itself from the bloody street battles which were calculated to terrorize and subvert the weak democratic institutions that existed in German at that time.

The tactic used by Litten in his cross-examination of Hitler was to go over reassuring statements made by Hitler to the effect that his party was committed to legal and constitutional change and then confront him with the reality of bodies and blood on the dance hall floor.

He confronted Hitler with statements made by his chief propogandist, Joseph Goebbels, that the Nazi party would make a ‘revolution’ and that the Weimar parliament could ‘go to the devil’. How could he employ Goebbels and at the same time commit in his public speeches to peaceful means to achieve power? It was a good question. Hitler fumbled for a convincing answer.

Hitler’s ordeal lasted just a few hours. The judge cut short further damaging questioning but the newspapers reported the Hitler’s court room discomfiture. It was terrible publicity.

Hitler, no respecter of lawyers and legal procedures, was thoroughly rattled by the experience of having to submit to close, careful and pointed questioning. It must have appeared to him to be a colossal impertinence for this half Jew and Communist sympathiser to be able to subject him to such an experience. He vowed not to forget the day.

After the trial, Litten was attacked in the Nazi press and suffered physical attacks as well. As the Nazi Party inched towards achieving political power in 1932, family, friends and colleagues urged him to leave Germany for his own safety. His reply was that he would stay along with the millions of people who could not afford to emigrate.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Four weeks later the German Parliament, the Reichstag, was destroyed in a mysterious fire. The Communists were blamed for the destruction of the building and emergency legislation was passed which suspended basic rights and introduced detention without trial.

The police arrested Litten a few hours after the emergency decree. It was obvious that his name had been included on a list of undesirables and anti-socials that had been prepared well before the Reichstag fire.

Litten passed into a regime of protective custody which started with incarceration in prison accommodation which, after a while, changed to concentration camp detention. He was never charged with an offence and so he never stood trial. He was beaten on many occasions. His injuries included a fractured jaw, a broken leg and the loss of teeth.

Litten hoped that he might be released but that hope faded after a a couple of years. He was moved to the main concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, in the autumn of 1937. The camp authorities treated him as a Jewish prisoner because his father had been born a Jew. The regime at Dachau wore him down so that in February 1938, after exactly five years of detention and il-treatment, he committed suicide by hanging himself with knotted clothing in a latrine.

After the war, Litten was largely forgotten. Neither West Germany or East Germany had much use for a legal figure in cold war ideological conflicts. That changed with re-unification thirty years ago. Litten then embodied a commitment to legal principles that all German lawyers could appreciate.

The Berlin Lawyers’ Association named itself after him and its building is on ‘Littenstrasse’. The German Association of Democratic Lawyers award a prize in Litten’s name every two years to a lawyer who has distinguished himself or herself by standing up for legal rights in confrontation with authority.

The story of Hans Litten deserves retelling. It serves to remind lawyers that just doing their job can be dangerous, deadly even.

By the Way



About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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