Saturday, 27 August 2011

The Forgotten Trial

The Man Who Crossed Hitler

From the Sunday Times, August 21, 2011. By Jeff Dawson

Given the turf war raging across Berlin, the Eden Dance Palace shootings of November 22, 1930 were unremarkable. On the night in question, a band of Sturmabteilung (SA) — stormtroopers or “brownshirts” — burst into this grandly-titled beer hall, actually a Communist hangout, spraying bullets. They killed three “Reds” and wounded twenty. Hardly a sophisticated operation. Four men were arrested and due to stand trial.

To the idealistic letwing lawyer prosecuting the case, it amounted to far more than a routine dissection of thuggery, however. Amid the turmoil of the Weimar Republic, 27-year-old Hans Litten saw an opportunity to spear a bigger fish. Adolf Hitler might not have been personally involved in the attack but the Nazi leader’s incendiary rhetoric made him indirectly culpable, he claimed. Litten was thus entitled to summon Hitler as a witness.

Sending down the SA became secondary to the political theatre of putting Hitler in the dock. By rigorous cross-examination, Litten would expose the would-be Führer as a charlatan. Hitler had forsworn violence after his botched 1923 coup attempt, the Beer Hall Putsch. Proving his continued sponsorship of it would destroy his credibility before his wealthy backers. Better still, he’d perjure himself. Or so Litten believed.

What happened on the morning of May 8, 1931, in the Berlin-Moabit courthouse remains a historical curio. Before a packed chamber, Mr. A. Hitler of 45 Briener St., Munich, dressed in a civilian suit (uniforms were verboten), took the stand. He endured a three-hour grilling by Litten, forced under oath to account for his manifesto. In his diary, Goebbels confided at being “anxious”. With good reason. According to non-Nazi reports, Litten, at times, made Hitler squirm (the Berlin Morning Post likened Hitler to “an oily barber”).

Till recently, both Litten and the trial were forgotten, failing, for example, to gain a single mention in William L. Shirer’s The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, regarded as the definitive work on the subject. Perhaps they were just engulfed by all that followed.

Eighty years on, the BBC seeks to correct that with The Man Who Crossed Hitler, a 90min docudrama starring Ed Stoppard as Litten and Ian Hart as Hitler. Directed by Justin Hardy, it fits with his company’s ethos of viewing history through an alternative prism. “Looking for the microcosm at the centre of a cataclysm,” as Hardy puts it.

Four years ago, Hardy Pictures came up with The Relief Of Belsen, the story of a British army ambulance unit uncovering a humanitarian tragedy beyond their comprehension. Their big entre was 2005’s Trafalgar Battle Surgeon (Hardy is descended from the kiss-me captain of HMS Victory), the Royal Navy’s triumph experienced entirely from the gloom of the orlop deck.

No doubt that the “history” here is Hitler, not yet the familiar, polished ranter of Nuremburg, but, at 42, still a minority leader, albeit growing rapidly in popularity. “A work in progress,” as Hart describes, drawing a parallel, in terms of charisma, with a certain British militant. “Derek Hatton… You know, the person on the margins of a political party, taking it in a certain direction. A very persuasive individual. And very showy.”

If Stoppard is more dashing than the pudgy Litten (nicknamed Grizzly Bear by his best friends Max and Margot Fürst), then it can be excused for dramatic licence. The film also presents events as a direct courtroom duel when, in fact, many of Litten’s questions were relayed by the judge. (Litten’s mentor, Rudolf Olden, floats like a legal Obi-Wan Kenobi, whispering to his protégé, “Lean into the bends.”)

It does not diminish what is an intriguing screen confrontation — Hart’s Hitler a bundle of barely suppressed rage as Litten skewers him on the semantics of the Nazi avowal that “the enemy must be mashed to a pulp”; Stoppard’s Litten, with the swagger of one who thinks he can save civilisation, scoffing at Hitler’s suggestion that the SA is just a Nazi keep-fit club.

Litten secured prosecutions against the brownshirts, but it was a Pyhrric victory. As the day wore on, the ineffectual judge (Kurt Ohnesorge, played by Bill Patterson) indulged Hitler’s tendency to play to the partisan gallery. Hitler never forgot his interrogator — he was said to fly off the handle at mere mention of his name — nor the fact that his father was a converted Jew. Litten was arrested in the mass round-up of opponents after the Reichstag fire and spent five years in concentration camps, tortured endlessly. He hung himself in Dachau in 1938.

Though there have been several books written about Litten, notably Crossing Hitler by Benjamin Carter Hett, who served as a consultant, most of the original archival material was missing, including court transcripts, destroyed in the fall of Berlin or looted by the Soviets.

Screenwriter Mark Hayhurst found much of his information in the accounts of the 34 newspapers reporting the trial. “The Times and the Manchester Guardian covered the case in some detail,” he says. “Litten became a cause celebre in the 1930s.” (Litten’s mother had fled to England to campaign for his release.)

There were, too, the memories and letters of Patricia Litten, Litten’s niece, and Birute, the Fürsts’ daughter (Margot had acted as Litten’s legal assistant). Jews themselves, the Fürsts escaped to Palestine in 1935. Stoppard, the son of playwright Tom, brought his own familial experience of Mittel-European Jews taking flight from the Nazis.

Whereas, once, all actors aspired to play The Dane, The Austrian, it seems, can provide a challenging alternative. In recent years Ken Stott, Noah Taylor and Robert Caryle have all strapped on the armband, following the likes of Charlie Chaplin (in caricature), Alec Guinness and Anthony Hopkins. Bruno Ganz was lauded for his portrait of the broken Hitler in the bunker denouement of 2004’s Downfall.

The pre-Third Reich model has been dramatised less often, glimpsed only in things like the movie Max, with the young ex-corporal as Viennese painter (“An entire apartment in one afternoon,” to quote Mel Brooks. “Two coats!”), or Uncle Adolf, which documented Hitler’s strange infatuation with his niece Geli Raubal.

In The Man Who Crossed Hitler, the moustache is fuller, the head adorned with an ugly “pimp’s haircut” as Litten calls it. Hart was almost an exact match in terms of height and build, says Hardy, the only problem his sticky-out ears which had to be pressed back between takes.

This is a Hitler deprived of “the oompah bands and the light show” as Margot Fürst says, but also of his acolytes. One of the few informal audio recordings of Hitler, the bootlegged “Mannerheim conversation” of 1942, reveals a man droning ad nauseum to his generals, everyone too scared to interrupt. “One of the reasons that Hans Litten was such a threat to him was because Litten says, ‘I’m going to engage him in a dialogue,’” explains Hardy. (“Who are you addressing?” asks Litten as Hitler gets on a roll. “The court,” says Hitler, phrased almost as a question.)

For Hart, who has delved into the politics of the era in Ken Loach’s Land And Freedom (about the Spanish Civil War) and has essayed real-life characters Conan Doyle and John Lennon, the biggest challenge was blinkering the hindsight. “When I did Backbeat it was about John Lennon before The Beatles had been signed and could have one of many bands who didn’t[ital] make it. They hoped they would become the biggest thing in the world. Turned out they did[ital] become so, but none of that was to be known. My obligation was not to satisfy what everybody thought[ital] they knew.”

That said, the pointers are all there, reminds Hardy — “the anti-Semitism, his ability to charm children, how he handles his right hand men and the industrialists. There are the seeds. They would ultimately be allowed to flower.”

On television, the plethora of WW2 documentaries has been dubbed “Hitler porn”. Certainly there has been no dampening of the ardour for the monumental events in the middle of the last century (although Hart jokes that his videostore has since replaced the Hitler rack with a John Hughes section). No surprise that several films have come out of Germany as the passage of time enables a re-examination of its past.

A subset of these films has been those focusing on the “Good (or contextually Good) Germans”, a challenge to author Daniel Goldhagen’s nation of “Willing Executioners”  — most famously, Schindler’s List and, more recently, Valkyrie, Good and Sophie Scholl, the story of the White Rose resistance. The new BBC drama is no different in “trying to honour Germans who put up the storm signal,” says Hayhurst. “Partly it’s a homage to them.”

Where some, like Claus von Stauffenberg, were arguably opportunistic, there is no question that Hans Litten was a true hero. Germany’s Bar Association has been renamed in his honour.

In reality Hitler was no stranger to the courtroom, having been up before the beak in 1921 and jailed for treason in 1924, during which time he wrote Mein Kampf, making him far from small fry but the most prosperous author in Germany. Seven months before Litten’s cross-examination, as the drama mentions, he had been a witness at the Reichswehr trial where, similarly, kidding Mr. Hitler assured that the National Socialist party was one of “intellectual enlightenment”.

Litten was to maintain his challenge to Nazi legitimacy, culminating in the Felseneck trial of 1932, by which time even some of the legal establishment had started to turn on him. In the film, Ohnesorge, in a veiled piece of anti-Semitism, snips at Litten’s “cleverness” and its lack of attraction “to Germans.”

The Man Who Crossed Hitler opens with a caption that speaks of “failing democracy” and “economic meltdown”, the vernacular of our present day. The most fascinating, and sinister, aspect of the drama is, given the right circumstances, just how quickly events can turn.

In 1928 the Nazi Party commanded just 2.6% of the popular vote. In less than five years, Hitler was Chancellor. With better luck in the courtroom it might have been very different… Or would it?

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