Updated: Oct 20, 2022
I have often, when thinking about World War II, wondered how could the German people go along with Hitler and the Nazis? Especially people who call themselves Christians? How could they not fight that tyranny? Why did they allow it to happen?
I am reminded of this as I plug away re-reading Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. (affiliate link)
Today I read this in chapter 10 and I am again shocked.
The next paragraph begins "The aggressive attacks from the German Christians during April shocked a number of pastors and theologians into action." (Note: A group that was behind Hitler began calling themselves "German Christians." A misnomer don't you think?) Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already written an essay in March 1933 and delivered it to a group of pastors in Berlin. In it he had said the church (universal body of believers) should question the state, help the state's victims, and work against the state, if necessary. In this essay, Bonhoeffer stated the church "has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community." The church was to be the place where Jews and Germans stand together.
Bonhoeffer's essay was not well received by his fellow pastors.
Most of the Christian leaders "were convinced that if they bent their theology a bit, it wouldn't matter - the results would be all right in the end." I want you to think about that. Deeply. If we don't stand up for the victims of our society, for the persecuted, for the downtrodden - no matter what faith they are - can we really call ourselves Christians?
It isn't easy to answer the question why the German people initially went along with Hitler.
First of all some of them didn't. But how do you fight a power like that? Many were terrified. Many resisted. Many paid dearly for their convictions. Bonhoeffer was one of those. He played a role in the plot to have Hitler assassinated. Caught and imprisoned. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hung April 9, 1945 - just fourteen days before American infantry liberated Flossenburg camp.
But many Germans did get swept up in Nationalism. The answer to the why is very complex. It begins with World War I and after Germany lost they did all that the Allies asked. The kaiser had abdicated his throne. A democracy was set up - albeit not a very good one. And then came the Versailles Treaty. The Versailles Treaty required the Germans to give up territory in France, Belgium, and Denmark and all of their Asian and African colonies. And Germany had to give up most of their territory in Poland. They were also required to pay astronomical reparations. Under the weight of the payments, Germany's economy began to crash. Inflation spiked. In 1921 75 marks = $1/ by 1923 7,000 marks = $1/ and by November of 1923 4 billion German marks = $1! The German people made an outcry that their situation was unbearable asking their government to do something!
And being swept up into Germans' nationalism came about in part because of all of the political maneuverings of the new democracy which didn't live up to the German people's expectations. There were many political parties where no one gained a majority and bickering ensued. Nothing could be accomplished. The people were fed up with the demands put on them after World War I, the poor shape of their economy, and the inability of their government to accomplish anything. They wanted a leader who would make change. And Hitler promised that.
It also came about because of the German people's heritage. Their view of themselves as superior. Their perception of their industry, scientific achievements, cultural arts and educational training as that as being far more accomplished than the rest of the world. They were proud to be German and what that represented and they were resentful of the situation they found themselves in.
And where were their Christian leaders? Where was their Church? As said, some Christian leaders opposed the new regime. But many of them went along. Some went along initially until they realized what had happened and then it was too late to stop the machine. The church in Germany was run by the state. So in 1933 when the state said anyone with Jewish decent who had been baptized a Christian was excluded from the German Church - sadly the Christian leaders went along and the point of no return began. By October 1934, six thousand pastors across Germany had became members of the Pastors' Emergency League and formally stated their opposition to the German Church on 4 points. But the opportunity had passed. They had missed the chance to stand up for their brothers and sisters in Christ and for the Jewish people.
It is high time we broke with our theologically based restraint towards the state's actions - which, after all, is only fear. "Speak out for those who cannot speak." Who in the church today realizes that this is the very least that the Bible requires of us?
~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer
My friend as she was reading Bonhoeffer years ago kept telling me I had to read it. And so I did. I think it took me 3 months to read it the first time. This friend, who is a mature Christian, and I decided to re-read Bonhoeffer slowly and meet every month to discuss 2-3 chapters. We get together and spend 2-3 hours discussing just a couple chapters! As the book has 31 chapters, it could take us a long time to get through it this second time. But we are plugging away.
Our conversation frequently goes to the similarities between then and now. I think my friend is a Democrat although I don't think I have ever specifically asked her. She has leanings that way. I am a Republican. We don't see eye to eye on many political policies. But we both do see profound similarities to what is happening today nationally and what happened in Germany in the 1920's-1940's. And before you jump all over me and assume I am saying something I am not - hear what I am saying.
The similarities come first in our attitude about ourselves. America's attitude that we are superior. That we are number one. That it is us against the world. Us against other people. I'm all for being patriotic and respectful of our country. We are a great nation. Much sacrifice has been made in giving us our freedom. But when we pit ourselves against other nations and maintain this attitude that we are better than them - we are on a slippery slope. There is nothing humble about a Christian who thinks they are superior.
Secondly (and this probably goes with how we view ourselves) is this way we have of putting ourselves first and not coming to solutions which could really help others - even if it means sacrifice on our part. Look at our ugly fights on refugees and immigration. Our racial divide in this nation. Again, the us against them attitude. And it is being fueled. It permeates our very lives now. While many of us don't agree with the powerful stance taken by many in leadership, we feel helpless to affect any change. We wonder why our elected officials don't lead us. We wonder why they can't hear our voices. Why they can't work together for the good of our nation. Why the leaders seem to say to us - 'It is my way or no way.' Common sense and kindness seems to be drowned out by the shouting of propaganda. A Christian should give mercy and put other's needs ahead of their own.
Thirdly, the American Christian Church should be influencing our sphere to be the hands and feet of Jesus. For the life of me I don't get how people call themselves Christians and then take some of the stances they do. Where are the Christian leaders who would admonish such behavior and thinking? Although last June the Southern Baptist Convention did pass an amendment that they "decry every form of racism, including alt-right white supremacy, as antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ." A powerful statement, but how will they put their words into action? Perhaps it is a start though.
[Link to Amendment]
American Christians will bicker over Calvinism versus Arminianism, over theoretical things; but yet be strangely quiet on some of the trying issues we face. Just as the German Church was so fractured in the years leading up to World War II, so are we. And we have already begun to bend our theology. We desperately need Christian leaders who will call an injustice an injustice and teach and train us to do the same. Christian leaders who will renounce people who do not treat others with kindness and grace. A Christian should respect the governing authorities, but stand against injustice and be united with other Christians in helping those who need our help.
It is the tone of this country which is so very scary right now.
And that tone is eerily similar to that of Germany before World War II.
We are a nation who is crying for change, disillusioned with our leaders, angry, and buying into the propaganda of it is us against them.
The fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority... we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1933
But I have not lost hope in this country.
We have great minds who can come up with real solutions. We have people who will emerge and who will step up to the plate and lead us. Americans will come together. Eventually. Remember how we felt and treated each other after 9/11? We will once again unite like that. We will once again be kind to each other and extend that helping hand. Hopefully it won't be something as horrific as that which will unite us.
In the meantime we feel so helpless. Ah, but we are not helpless. We pray. Fervently. Continually. Consistently. We ask God to change our thinking and hearts to line up with His and to show us how we can make a difference in our sphere of influence. We pray for our leaders that they will be innovative and bold and courageous and righteous and lead us along the right path to solve our myriad of problems. We pray for His will to be done here on earth. We pray for revival of our Church. We pray for this generation and the coming generations. And we trust God to do His thing.
Where a people prays, there is the church,
~Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1928
Adolf Hitler was wrong when he said, "You can't wage war with Salvation Army methods."
Not only can we, we will.
Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas is challenging to read. It is long, 544 pages in 31 chapters, has lots of German names thrown at you, lots of history, and it takes awhile to get through. It is a slow read. I am finding it helpful to keep a notebook containing all of the names and my thoughts as I read and also to highlight and write in the book. This book is also challenging to read simply because of the subject matter. It is both difficult to wrap your head around its accounts of how the perfect storm within Germany erupted into World War II, but also the deeper questions of what is our responsibility as citizens of a country versus our responsibility to Christ? And Bonhoeffer gives us a role model of someone who had deep convictions and practiced what he preached.
You should read Bonhoeffer. It will give you insights into why the German people went along with Hitler and the Nazis and the failure of the church, but more importantly it may give you some thoughts on how we can work together to keep history from repeating. Where do we stand firm? Where do we compromise? Where do we have compassion? Are our beliefs in-line with Scripture? How do we live our convictions? What does that look like?
You won't regret tackling it.
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