A German man died on this day in 1938. A very good one.
His name was Hans Litten. His father was a lawyer, and was a decorated WWI veteran.
Hans grew up in the difficult years of WWI and postwar Germany. Although his family was wealthy, from the start he had great sympathy for the less fortunate. In an episode that greatly upset his father, Hans took food from their kitchen to give to a beggar... and addressed the beggar as "sir." As he grew older he became increasingly involved in issues affecting workers and the disenfranchised.
Although he wanted to study art history, his father pressured him to become a lawyer. While reluctant, Hans threw himself into his studies and quickly moved to the top of his class. Upon graduation he was offered 2 good jobs, one with the German Ministry of Justice, the other with a renowned law firm. He declined both, going into private practice with a friend.
In the late 1920's he was alarmed by the increasingly nationalistic tide in Germany, seeing right-wing thugs get away with increasing violence against Jews, immigrants, and manual laborers. He took cases representing those who'd been attacked or discriminated against, and was successful.
He worked closely with charitable organizations that supported the needs of ordinary workers in the difficult post-war year, providing them financial and legal assistance.
As a person, he was brilliant. He spoke fluent German, English, Italian, Hebrew, and Sanskrit, and had a tremendous knowledge of art, classical music, and poetry. He particularly enjoyed music, spending many evenings at the symphony.
In 1929 a traditional May Day rally in Berlin turned violent, with the police firing randomly into the crowd (killing 33) and beating many more with truncheons. Several workers were charged with inciting the demonstrations, and Litten defended them. He took many similar cases, trying to bring to light the increasingly heavy-handed tactics of the German government.
On the night of November 22, 1930, a small paramilitary group, secretly working for the nascent Nazi party, attacked the Tanzpalast Eden, a dance hall that was popular with immigrants. They killed 3 and injured 20... and the subsequent police investigation was intentionally slow and fruitless.
Litten accepted the case on behalf of 4 injured plaintiffs, trying to secure criminal convictions against the attackers and show that the attack was intended to further destabilize German society in favor of the Nazis. Although their later history is well known, at this point the Nazi party was publicly distancing themselves from their secret armed squads in order to appeal to moderate Germans.
And, to help his case, Litten had the court summon Adolf Hitler to the stand.
In what (in retrospect) must have been a truly remarkable day, Litten aggressively cross-examined Hitler for 3 hours, forcing him into several contradictions. Under oath, Hitler defended the brown shirts as being devoted to non-violent "intellectual enlightenment." It also included this exchange:
Litten: You said that there will be no violent acts on the part of the National Socialist Party. Didn't Goebbels create the slogan, "one must pound the adversary to a pulp?"
Hitler: This is to be understood as "one must dispatch and destroy opposing organizations".
Litten Since you've named Goebbels as Reich Minister of Propaganda, are you aware of the passage from his book where he declares that fear of the coup d'état cannot be permitted, that parliament should be blown up and the government hunted to hell, and where the call to revolution was made again?
Hitler: I can no longer testify under oath, if I knew Goebbels' book at the time. The theme is absolutely of no account to the Party, as the book doesn't bear the Party emblem and is also not officially sanctioned by my Party
Litten: Is it correct that Goebbels' revolutionary journal, The Commitment to Illegality, has now been taken over by the Party and has reached a circulation of 120,000? The journal is sanctioned by the Party.
Presiding judge: Herr Hitler, in point of fact, you testified this morning, that Goebbels' work is not official Party material.
Hitler: And it isn't, either. A publication is an official Party organ only when it bears the emblem of the Party.
Litten: Then, how is it possible that the Party publishing house takes over a journal that stands in stark contrast to the Party line?
Hitler (shouting, red-faced): How dare you say, Herr Attorney, that is an invitation to illegality? That is a statement without proof!
Hitler was badly rattled when he left the stand, and forbid others from ever saying "Litten" in his presence again. When the name was mentioned he became irate. He was subsequently investigated for perjury, though managed to evade charges.
As Hitler rose to power, it was obvious that Litten's time was running out. Family and friends told him to flee Germany, but he refused because clients still needed him. On the night of February 28, 1933 he was arrested at his apartment, and would never be seen in public again.
Over the next 5 years he was moved from prison to prison and repeatedly beaten and tortured. He lost the sight in one eye and hearing in one ear. Most of his teeth were knocked out, and one leg was broken so many times it became useless. His jaw was broken in multiple places. Often he was so battered that fellow prisoners weren't allowed to see him.
In 1935, during a rare interaction with other inmates, he recited one of his favorite childhood songs, "Thoughts are Free." Their guards failed to realize the significance of the words.
In 1937, although baptized and raised as a Christian, Litten was classified as Jewish on the grounds that his paternal grandparents were Jews. He was moved to Dachau concentration camp, where, on the early morning of February 5, 1938, he hung himself in the bathroom.
He was 35 years old.