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Dietrich von Hildebrand (1889-1977)

I was born in Florence on October 12, 1889, the son of the famous German sculptor Adolf von Hildebrand, and his wife, Irene Schaueffelen. My parents lived in a beautiful house, a former convent of the Fratres Minimi, situated on the outskirts of the marvelous town of Florence. I grew up in these glorious surroundings, sheltered in the superabundant love of my mother, and of my five sisters, all rarely gifted personalities. Everything was pervaded by the genius of my father who was, not only great as an artist, but also as a personality. My youth was one of the happiest one can imagine.

Though my parents had no Christian faith, and religion played no role at this period in the lives of my five sisters, all older than myself, the great gift of faith in the divinity of Christ and the love of Christ, was granted to me at the age of five. My parents, fulll of respect for every interest arising spontaneously in the souls of their children, never tried to shake my convictions.

I always had private tutors; I attended the classes of the Theresien Gymnasium in Munich only the last three months before making my Abitur. Already at the age of fifteen, it became evident to me that philosophy was my vocation, and this conviction was never shaken in me thereafter.

At the age of seventeen, I entered the University of Munich; I was taking the courses of Theodor Lipps, and I was especially enthusiastic about his course on ethics. Lipps had assembled around himself a group of highly gifted pupils, some of them already assistant professors of philosophy, such as Alexander Phaender and Moritz Geiger. But this entire school had turned away from the psychologism of Lipps, under the influence of Husserl's Logische Untersuchungen. They all became adherents of Phenomenology, not in the idealistic sense given to the term by Husserl later on, but in the sense of a strict objectivism and realism. The contact with this circle, which assembled every week for conferences and discussions, as a philosophical association, was a great source of inspiration to me. Already during my first semester at the University, I gave a lecture in this circle on the topic of Subject and Form in Art. During the second semester I lectured again on the topic of Depth and Perfection in Art. Both lectures were highly successful, and after the second, I was elected president of the association. This was a mistake, since I never was a good administrator. But the most important event in this period of my life was my acquaintance with Max Scheler at the end of my second semester. We met at a party; I was sitting next to him, and we spoke together for the entire evening. It is difficult to describe the intellectual enchantment which I experienced in meeting him, and how much I was under the spell of his irresistible personal charm. During that evening there began an ever-growing friendship with this man of genius, which ended only when he, whose magnificent treatise on the Catholic ethos played a great role in the path leading to my conversion to Catholicism, tragically left the Church in 1924.

My conversion took place, however, only in 1914, a year after I had assisted at the first holy communion of one of my five beloved sisters, in the Catacombs of St. Calixtus in Rome. My wife, Margaret Denck, whom I had married in 1912, was received into the Church with me, by a Franciscan Father.

From 1909 to 1911 I studied at Goettingen with Edmund Husserl and Adolf Reinach. It is especially to Reinach - a man of extraordinary philosophical power-- (unfortunately killed during World War I in 1917), that I am most indebted for my philosophical formation. In 1912, I completed my Ph.D. under Husserl. In 1916 my first philosophical work, Die Idee der Sittlichen Handlung, was published. In 1918 I became privatdozent at the University of Munich, and in 1924 an associate professor. In between, in 1921, my second philosophical work, Sittiichkeit und Ethische Werterkenntniss, appeared.

During the war I worked as a kind of medecin malagre lui with a surgeon; because of the scarcity of physicians, he trained me as an assistant surgeon and so I cooperated in numerous operations in the military hospital as well as in various civil hospitals in Munich.

An important event in this period of my life was the acquaintance with Friedrich Wilhelm Foerster, the great pedagogue and untiring fighter against German nationalism. I had great admiration for his cha racter and shared red his views on the danger of German nationalism. I was also privileged to come to his defense on several occasions when he was attacked.

During the years 1923 to 1933, I wrote the following books: Reinheit und Jungfraueulichkeit (1927), translated as In Defense of Purity (Sheed, 1931); Metaphysik der Genleinschaft - Metaphysics of Community (1930); Liturgie und Persoenlichkeit (1933), translated as Liturgy and Personality (Longmans, 1943); Zeitliches in Lichte des Ewigen - Actual Questions in the Light of Eternity (1931); Der Sinn Philosophischen Fragens und Erkennens - The Essence of Philosophical Research and Knowledge (1934); Ethische Grundhaltungen (1933), translated by Alice M. Jourdain as Fundamental Moral Attitudes (Longmans, 1950).

Due to the Nazi proscription of my works, my Die Umgestaltung in Christus (1940), was written under a pen name (Peter Ott) and published in Switzerland. It was translated as Transformation in Christ (Longmans, 1948).

One of the great privileges in my life was the close contact with the Nuncio to Germany, Cardinal Pacelli, the late Pope Pius XII. I had the opportunity of discussing several questions with him, either in his palace or in taking walks with him. He also came to our home once. His personality emanated an intense spiritual life, which impressed everyone who came in contact with him. He was one of those personalities who in their sublime spirituality seem to be free from the weight of matter. On the other hand, he had a keen interest in the most varied problems, approaching every question in an unconventional way, which was extremely inspiring. I still remember with joy our discussion when I was preparing my first lecture on marriage. It was published later under the title Die Ehe (1928) and translated as Marriage (Longmans, 1942).

From 1924 to 1930, every second week, we had a reception in our home in which, after having served refreshments, I introduced the theme of a discussion on a religious topic. Among the most outstanding of the theologians who took part in these discussions were Erich Przywara, S.J., Monsignor Martin Grabmann and Monsignor Ct. Preising, the most faithful participant of
my meetings, who later became Cardinal of Berlin. Besides the clergy, the public who attended included members of the royal family, aristocrats. diplomats professors, students, social workers, secretaries, etc. By 1930, the audience had increased to a hundred and seventy-six persons. These discussions became an important rallying center in the intellectual and spiritual life of Munich. I also tried to make these meetings an island of the supernational spirit in the midst of the heated nationalism which poisoned the air during this period.

In 1921 I was invited by Marc Sangneir to attend a democratic congress for peace in Paris. In public assembly there I declared that the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 was an atrocious crime, which declaration aroused fury in Germany and made me guilty of high treason in the eyes of the German nationalists. The newly founded Nazi party put me on their black list; thus
I was forced to flee from Munich on the occasion of Hitler's Putsch in 1923. But my second escape from the Nazis, in 1933, had greater consequences: though no longer under such an immediate threat, I realized after the Reichtagbrafld, that it was impossible for me to remain in a country where I had no choice but to keep silent while witnessing the injustices and crimes being committed or to face imprisonment in a concentration camp. So I decided to give up everything: my position at the University, my beautiful home the company of my beloved relatives and friends; and I left Germany for good, with fifteen dollars in my pocket and went to Italy on March 13, 1933.

When I saw that small Austria, under the leadership of the noble Chancellor Dolfuss, had the courage put up a fight against Nationalist Socialism, I went Vienna and offered the Chancellor my services. With his help, I founded the anti-totalitarian Catholic Weekly, Der Christliche Staendestaat, in which I wrote some seventy articles devoted to the ideological warfare against Nazism. In 1935 I was appointed a professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna. Suddenly I was told by the Chief of the Secret Police: "You know it would be rather disagreeable to me if a political murder by the Nazi underground were committed in Vienna." I replied that it would be rather disagreeable for me too. And then he advised me as to how to protect myself against the decision of the Nazis to murder me.

On March 11, 1938 my wife and I left our apartment at 8:45 P.M. and crossed the border into Czechoslovakia. Five hours later, in the middle of the night, three Gestapo agents came to my apartment to arrest me, and found it empty. I had the honor of being the first on their list of arrests, after the heads of the government.

By way of Hungary and Italy, we fled to Switzerland. After a brief stay at the home of my beloved friends Baldwin Schwarz and his wife at Fribourg, we were invited to the Ecole Normale in Hauterive. From there I went to France as a professor at the Catholic University of Toulouse at the invitation of Monsignor Bruno de Solages. Then came the collapse of France. I shall never forget our desperate situation: we were standing on a street in Bayonne in the pouring rain, the Spanish border had been hermetically sealed, the German army was expected to arrive at any moment, no trains were running, and all the roads were barred by cordons of gendarmerie. Suddenly a French officer addressed my son. I recognized him as a Dominican who served as a lieutenant in the army. An hour before he had returned by plane from Norway. He managed to put us up in the Red Cross car of his company, which was moving into the unoccupied zone of Pau. After hiding for weeks in the slums of Toulouse, we were rescued through the charity and courage of a man who had not even known us before and who is today one of the most intimate associates of Charles De Gaulle, France's Minister of Justice, Edmond Michelet. I should mention too the charity which the Dominicans at Marseilles bestowed on us.

Finally, on September 7, 1940, we got an exit visa. Arriving in Lisbon I found a letter informing me that I was one of the hundred European scholars which Professor Alvin Johnson, with the help of the Rockefeller Foundation, had invited to come to the United States. By way of Brazil I landed in New York on December 23, 1940, and learned that I had been appointed a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Fordham University. And so, since February of 1941 I have taught at Fordham, and in the most inspiring surroundings.

These years have been fertile, too, in philosophical publications: Christian Ethics (McKay, 1952), The New Tower of Babel (Kenedy, 1953), True Morality and Its Counterfeits, with Alice M. Jourdain (McKay, 1955), and Graven Images, also with Alice M. Jourdain (McKay, 1957). And in preparation, a book on the Sacred Heart and another on Love.

I am deeply indebted to my friend and colleague Robert C. Pollock for his understanding help in the editing of my works in English.

My wife Gretchen, the courageous and uncomplaining companion of my adventurous life, died in July of 1957. In July of 1959 I married my colleague and philosophical collaborator Dr. Alice M. Jourdain, who teaches philosophy at Hunter College.

In looking back over my life, I find many reasons for gratitude to God, not the least of them the opportunity of being associated with so many deeply spiritual personalities and for having had so many of them as friends; they have been and still are a model and incentive to me. I have also been granted the grace to witness many conversions, my five sisters, two brothers-in-law, and
innumerable friends and relatives, totaling about a hundred persons. Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo.



[Editor's note: Dr. von Hildebrand retired from teaching in 1960 and spent the remaining 17 years of his life writing. He died January 26, 1977. His autobiographical writings, edited by his wife, was published in 2000 by Ignatius Press]

Originally published in The Book of Catholic Authors, Walter Romig, Sixth Series, 1960.


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