When East and West Germany were reunified, the Berlin Lawyers Association needed to come up with a new name, and chose for itself the Hans Litten Bar Association. Some time earlier, in 1988, the German and European Democratic Lawyers Association created the Hans Litten Prize, awarded every two years to recognise lawyers who try to improve human rights.
But who was Hans Litten, and why did it take so long for him to be recognised?
Born in 1903 to a wealthy family, his father converted from Judaism to Lutheranism to help his career as a Law Professor (and later an adviser to the Prussian Government) and his mother came from a well established Lutheran family.
Although he remained a Christian, Hans showed an early streak of rebellion by insisting on taking Hebrew as one of his subjects at school, and joined a Jewish Socialist youth group. He was interested in politics from a very early age.
Although he was pushed into studying law by his father, he took his studies seriously and passed his exams in 1927 with such excellent grades that he was offered two lucrative positions, both of which he turned down to open a law office with his friend.
Despite being politically left wing, Hans was as critical of socialist and communist parties as he was of right wing parties like the Nazis, he once said “two people would be one too many for my party.”. Hans established himself as a lawyer who could fight the corner of workers, and became involved with the Rote Hilfe, an organisation that fought for workers’ rights until it was disbanded by the Nazis.
In 1929 the May Day rally in Berlin turned violent and th police fired into the crowds, killing 33 and injuring hundreds. When Hans went to the aid of the injured in order to take names and statements he himself was beaten by the police. Rather than pursue individual policemen for their actions, he filed lawsuits against the police and their commanders, trying to highlight the growing fascism in his country.
The trial that would shape his future came in 1931, for an incident a few months before in which an SA Rollkommando unit attacked the Eden Dance Palace, popular with left wing workers, killing 3 people and injuring many others.
During the trial Hans wanted to show that the Nazi party was using terror and violence, and summoned Hitler as a witness at a time when Hitler was trying to appeal to middle class voters.
When Hitler denied knowledge of the unit involved Litten interrogated him about his claim that his party was peaceful, using Goebbels’s book as evidence to show how the Nazis were not democratic or legitimate.
As Litten continued to question him for 3 hours, Hitler began to lose control and would jump to his feet and scream at Litten, unable to contradict his claims. However, just as it seemed as if Litten was proving in court that the Nazis were violent and undemocratic, the judge decided to throw the evidence out.
From then on Litten needed bodyguards when out in public because of the threats he received from the SA, but he continued to attack them in the courts. As the Nazis extended their power, Litten found himself being removed from trials and the high court, causing uproar among Berlin’s lawyers (even those who didn’t like him), and causing them to demand a change in the law to ensure defence lawyers are not impeded in their efforts.
Hitler never forgot, or forgave Litten, and on the night of the Reichstag fire in 1933 he was one of the first four people rounded up and taken to the concentration camps. For the next few years he was moved from one camp to another, often picked for cruel treatment by guards as they knew of Hitler’s personal hatred for this man.
Litten’s mother appealed to many people to have her son released, including Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia, but when the Prince approached Hitler about Litten his reply was “Anyone who advocates for Litten comes in the concentration camp, even you.”.
Hans was never released, and in 1938 he was found hanged in the Dachau concentration camp.
After the war his legacy was mostly ignored by the West because of his left wing politics, while at the same time he was also ignored by the Soviet Union because he had criticised Stalin’s communist regime.
Finally, over three quarters of a century later Hans Litten is finally getting the recognition he deserved, with books and dramas based on his life.