Hans Achim Litten was born on 19 June 1903 in Halle (on the Saale), the son of Fritz Litten, a lawyer, and his wife Irmgard. In 1906 the family moved to Königsberg, East Prussia, where Hans’ father came from. Hans’ grandfather Joseph had been the head of the Jewish Community there, but his father had converted to Christianity for professional reasons. Fritz Litten was a professor of law and dean of the faculty of law at Königsberg University, a patriotic German National, and an authoritarian. Hans was closer to his mother, who came from a family of theologians, was interested in the arts, and more liberal in outlook. In his youth, Hans developed an interest in Judaism and socialism, both red rags to his patriarchal father. In 1920, Hans joined the Königsberg Jewish youth league (Jüdischer Jugendbund), which was incorporated into the German-Jewish ‘hiking league of comrades’ (Deutsch-Jüdischer Wanderbund Kameraden) shortly afterwards. Taking a prominent role, he rose to become one of its recognized leaders in East Prussia and eventually across the German Empire. The bond between the “youth [movement] and politics”, as he wrote in an article of 1925 in the Comrades’ national gazette, was to remain important to him all his life. In 1925, he and his friend Max Fürst initiated an offshoot movement of the Comrades known as the ‘black bunch’ (Schwarzer Haufen or SH), committed to fighting for a socialist society. Following some controversy, the SH was barred from the Comrades and broke up the following year. By that point, Hans, who had bowed to the will of his father and studied law, was working as a junior lawyer in Berlin. Having found his political home in oppositional communist and anarchist circles, he became one of the leading lawyers for the German Communist Party’s prisoner aid organization, Rote Hilfe. He went on to defend workers arrested in connection with the violence of 1 May 1929, which he had witnessed firsthand, while also trying to bring those responsible to justice, including Berlin police president Zörgiebel. Following the Nazis’ first significant electoral successes in autumn 1930, the SA and Nazi opponents frequently clashed in working-class areas of the city. During a hearing concerning one such SA-provoked brawl, in September 1930 in Charlottenburg’s Edenpalast, Hans Litten summonsed the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler, before the court. Litten questioned Hitler on 8 May 1931 with the aim of proving that the Nazis intended to seize power by violent means.
While Litten put Hitler under severe pressure, he could not have known the significance of the encounter for the rest of his own life. Hitler sidestepped the charges by affirming on oath that he would adhere to legal means. Hans Litten, though, became a prime target of the Nazi Party, vilified in Nazi publications and at Nazi assemblies.
During his Berlin years, Hans Litten lived in August Straße before moving in 1930 to Koblank Straße 1a (now Zola Straße), directly behind the Volksbühne theatre, with Max and Margot Fürst.
As well as participating in many ‘minor’ hearings, Hans Litten acted as defence counsel or representative of a joint plaintiff at several high-profile trials: the “Felseneck trial”, the “Richard Straße trial” and the “Röntgen Straße trial”, each of which dealt with conflicts between the SA and anti-Fascists. As one of the Nazis’ most vehement opponents, he was arrested in the night of the Reichstag fire and sent to Spandau prison. In early 1933, he was transferred to Sonnenburg concentration camp, where he was physically abused and tortured by the SS and the SA. Thanks to the intervention of various people, primarily his mother Irmgard, who did everything she could to get him released, he was able to return to Spandau. But while living here, he was threatened with renewed torture, prompting him to attempt suicide a first time. In autumn 1933 he was sent to Brandenburg concentration camp, where he was again abused and humiliated. In spring 1934 he was re-transferred, this time to the moorland camp at Esterwegen. While performing forced labour here, a wagon severely injured his leg. He gained some months’ respite while recovering in hospital but was then transferred to Lichtenburg concentration camp near Torgau (on the Elbe). Here, however, he was able to work as a bookbinder and run the prisoners’ library. He also managed to continue some of his studies on medieval literature and pass on knowledge and encouragement to younger prisoners. When the male camp at Lichtenburg was dissolved, in summer 1937, Hans Litten was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, which was still under construction. Here he was once again severely injured by a wagon while working. Under the “Nuremberg Laws”, all Jewish and “half-Jewish” prisoners in German concentration camps, including Hans Litten, were transferred to Dachau concentration camp from autumn 1937 on. The Jewish prisoners were made to perform the most arduous physical tasks while repeatedly subjected to block detention: Windows and doors were locked, and the prisoners forced to spend weeks inside. Utterly demoralized, severely ill, and without any hope of release, Hans Litten ended his own life in the night of 4-5 February 1938. His mother Irmgard, who had fought constantly for his release, moved to England and wrote a book about her struggle to save her son. His friends Max and Margot Fürst managed to emigrate to Palestine in 1935 but returned to Germany in 1950.