Hans Litten stands in the forefront of courageous advocates. In 1931, when he was 28, he led the prosecution of two SA men who had been part of a fatal attack on a group of Communists gathered in the Eden Dance Palace in Berlin. In order to prove the true nature of National Socialism he subpoenaed its leader, Adolf Hitler, and subjected him to three hours of cross-examination (until the judge stopped it), demonstrating the violent, extra-legal nature of his movement and exposing Hitler to a perjury charge. It could have been a turning point in German history. Refusing to leave Germany after Hitler became Chancellor, Litten was picked up four weeks later after the Reichstag fire and held in “protective custody” allegedly so that Nazis could prevent other Nazis from wreaking revenge on him for what he had done in court. Despite the heroic efforts of his mother to get him freed, he was moved from one concentration camp to another, and was subjected to repeated torture. Finally categorised as a Jew (his father, a jurist and holder of the Iron Cross, was a convert) he wound up in Dachau where he hanged himself in 1938. His mother and brother (a theatre director) escaped but chose to return after the war, and died in East Berlin.
The story has recently twice been told in English, in Crossing Hitler by Benjamin Carter Hett in 2008 and dramatised on the BBC in 2011. The new play which transferred to the Theatre Royal Haymarket from Chichester is unlikely to have added anything new. It pruned the story down to a series of tableaux interspersed with direct speech to the audience: Hans Litten in a camp with fellow political prisoners, Irmgard Litten doing her best outside, with one touching scene between mother and son towards the end. Googling Martin Hutson, the actor who plays Litten, one is startled to find a picture of him in Nazi uniform. Indeed he played the mirror image of this role in Collaboration, also at Chichester, in 2009, when he interrogated the composer Richard Strauss. Penelope Wilton, one of our greatest actresses, plays his mother. We largely see her in a series of dialogues (endless cat and mouse games) with a suspiciously unthreatening Gestapo officer who reassures her over ice cream in the park that her son is now in a “model” camp. He shows his true colours in due course. False hope is raised by the arrival of Lord Allen (David Yelland who played the Prince of Wales in Chariots of Fire and has perfected this effortless performance), a Labour peer and pacifist who took up Litten’s cause all the way to Hitler but failed to understand who he was dealing with.
The problem with the play was not in the actors but in the play itself, which came over as both unremarkable and undramatic. The real people may not have appreciated what was really happening but the audience does. Of course Litten would be incarcerated. There were no “model” camps. Hitler never forgave his enemies. Even before the Krystallnacht being in Dachau as a Jew was an end game. History has given this story a tragic inevitability so it is up to the playwright somehow to instil a false hope or even a sense of irony. It doesn’t happen. One is left admiring the indomitable spirit so splendidly portrayed by mother and son (the father drifts through the play but his role in the family and elsewhere is never quite clear). Lawyers will particularly appreciate the scene where Hans enacts a portion of the famous cross-examination. The witness, in voice-over, is played by Roger Allam who illumined the role of Hitler in Speer years ago at the National Theatre. Hutson brilliantly conveys the sense of febrile excitement as he realises that he is getting just what he wants out of the witness, that he is doing this because it is right and regardless of any consequences to himself. It is why people become advocates.
Contributor David Wurtzel
Counsel Editorial Board Member