Hitler in the dock

Mark Hayhurst, writer of a forthcoming BBC drama and documentary, describes a remarkable episode in 1931 when the Nazi leader found himself fighting for his political future in a Berlin courtroom...

Hans Litten (centre) in court while representing communists, 25 August 1932. Litten’s decision to subpoena Hitler a year earlier was to cost him his life. (Photo by ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the September 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

It was a dream of Allied prosecutors in 1945 – and has been a fantasy for many human rights lawyers ever since – that they put Adolf Hitler in the dock and make him answer to a court of law.

The Nazi dictator, who hated the concept of law and detested lawyers as charlatans, escaped Nuremburg of course and was never made to account for his crimes. But he did not escape a lawyer’s grilling altogether. On 8 May 1931 a brilliant young German barrister called Hans Litten faced Hitler across the floor of Room 664 in the Berlin criminal court and subjected him to a gruelling three-hour cross-examination. It was an ordeal that Hitler neither forgot nor forgave. In 1931 Hitler was still in the process of becoming ‘Hitler’, and he had excellent political reasons for not wanting to appear in court. He especially had reasons not to be grilled in public by a resourceful and intellectually able Jewish anti-fascist, which is what Hans Litten was.

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