Archive for May, 2016

Germany 1933 – part 3
Bonhoeffer’s Radio Address

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and in fact his whole family – read the times well and knew that Germany’s position in 1933 was very precarious. Not only were unsavory people gaining power amidst all the turmoil but the people themselves were ripe for tyranny. The old system run by a Kaiser (modeled to some degree after the Caesars of Rome) had failed in 1918. Now the new Weimar Republic was proving ineffectual and people were demanding substantial change.

No one, however, had the wisdom to know just what change was needed so the mood of the people tended merely to be negative: Get rid of the old in favor of who-cares-what. Very much like conservatives in America today.

Moreover, the people seemed to be wanting a Strong Man to simply take responsibility for fixing things and making Germany great again. Adolf Hitler was the only man brimming with confidence that he and he alone could fix everything.

In the days before Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer was preparing a radio talk to be delivered on February 1, 1933. In it he warned Germany of the true nature of its vulnerability.

The leader people seemed to be wanting was one who would lead by personal strength rather than by the authority of his office. This is important because the latter has built in limitations – he or she is only authorized to do certain things and not others. The former is exceedingly dangerous because the only limitations to his power, once granted, are by his own choice. If he has unlimited hubris – as does a certain candidate for president in the US today – he will think and act as if he had unlimited power.

This kind of domination, ironically, can happen only if the people permit it (though, once established, the people can do nothing to stop it). Bonhoeffer writes that in this dangerous situation,

The individual sees his duty in unconditional obedience to the leader. The individual is totally dissolved; he becomes a tool in the hands of the leader; the individual is not responsible; it is the leader who is responsible. In his faith in the leader, the individual surrenders ultimate responsibility to the leader, just as for Catholics their faith in their church includes belief in the justness of its commandments and its guarantee for my obedience. . . . The individual is renounced in favor of the leader. (Emphasis added)

The people become blind, dismissing the obvious faults of the leader in blind faith that he will do something, anything that will be different from the awful situation of the present. Anyone acquainted with the Germany of 1933 will be deeply worried about America in 2016.

Furthermore, because the tyrant’s authority is personal – that is, he is the one trusted, not merely his office – he tends to take every disagreement as a personal threat and overreacts, sometimes with deadly force. To the tyrant there are only two kinds of people, sycophants and enemies. The enemies must be destroyed either literally or at least in reputation.

A further mark of the tyrant is that, while seeking to gain authority, he speaks as the friend of the common people. It is only after he has gained their blind adoration that his true colors come out: he despises the “little” people and quickly proves to be quite ruthless against them.

There is no sense in trying to be subtle about this: Donald Trump is amazingly like Adolf Hitler. ‘Nuff said.


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On Memorial Day we remember with gratitude all those who offered their lives in brave service to our country and its ideals.

We also experience a double kind of sorrow. We mourn those who lost their lives or who were so wounded in body or spirit that the scars have never disappeared. At the same time, we must say to our veterans that we are sorry that we as a nation have never lived up to the two great values for which they fought: freedom and equality.

And yet we are proud of so many things about America that assure us we’re striving for freedom and equality and will never give up. We’re far from perfect but we’re on the way, despite many ups and downs along the path.

This afternoon I watched again a PBS special on the battle for Iwo Jima. It first aired last year but is worth watching a second or a third or fourth time. It will remind us of our cause for a healthy pride.

One of the most amazing scenes was an interview with one of the few surviving Japanese defenders of the island. He had been badly wounded, rescued by an American soldier, and given life-saving medical attention. This is what he said:

I was rescued by an American who showed no animosity toward me. I was his enemy but he saved me. I wonder if a Japanese soldier would have done the same for a wounded American. I don’t think so. I think if the situation were reversed, a Japanese soldier would have left his enemy to die. The American fighting man was unique. There is something about the national character that makes them merciful. It is to an American that I owe my life. And I wish to thank them in person.

There is a fourth quality which I hope is part of Memorial Day for us all: Resolve. I hope we can commit ourselves again and again to maintaining a high national character. I’m afraid we’ve not done well in the last half-century. We fired randomly on whole villages in Viet Nam. We carpet bombed whole cities in Iraq, not out of desperation but merely as a shortcut. We tortured prisoners of war in Iraq.

Our resolve is highly important in this election season. Will we commit ourselves to graciousness or selfishness, to mercy or to meanness, to love or to hate? Will we remember that the two ideas which have made America great are freedom and equality? Or will we instead limit freedom and deny equality altogether? Will we continue to be “the land of the free and home of the brave” or will we cower behind walls and fight to keep desperate refugees from challenging our compassion? Will we strive to deserve the respect of our international friends or will we choose instead the cheap alternative, intimidation?

This weekend is a time of remembering yesterday’s greatness. November is the time to commit ourselves to tomorrow’s greatness — a greatness of character.

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The Rise of Tyranny: Adolf Hitler

Few within Germany knew it but the fate of their nation was set on January 30, 1933, when President Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. There were not many powers allotted the President in the Weimar Republic but one – the choosing of the Chancellor to function with even more power than the Prime Minister in Britain – was of momentous importance.

The economy was in shambles and, maybe even more importantly, the morale of the people was very, very low. The Communists were finding Germany’s poverty creating opportunities for recruiting members. Countering them was the Nazi party on the far right, considered by most to be an awful alternative to communism.

Hindenburg, too aged to sort out matters himself, was in a difficult position. He had run for re-election in 1932 primarily to keep the Nazis from gaining any power in parliament and Hitler in particular from winning the presidency. By the end of January, having appointed and then dismissed two Chancellors in a matter of months, he found himself with no good candidates. Several of his advisors told him that Hitler was the lesser of the evils clamoring for power and that, once appointed, the parliament would be able to keep his extremism in check.

So Adolf Hitler became Chancellor and immediately proved to be a very domineering tyrant. Hindenburg never again had a voice in leading Germany. The parliament building, the Reichstag, was set ablaze and destroyed on February 27, 1933. Hitler – who may have been responsible for the fire – blamed the Communists, had Hindenburg declare martial law, and used the event as an excuse both to arrest all Communist leaders and to intimidate the Parliament. So in the first four weeks Hitler had neutralized three great blocks to his dominance of Germany: the Communists, the Parliament, and the rights of the people.

One of Hitler’s promises was to reduce crime in Germany. He did this in a very simple way: He jailed anyone caught in or suspected of committing a crime. It was a sign of his style: intimidation.

On March 23 the puppet Parliament, on Hitler’s demand, passed the Enabling Act, giving to the Chancellor the right to pass and enforce any laws he chose. With the rights of the people already denied, this Act formalized the dictatorship of Hitler and ended the Weimar Republic.

Here is part of the speech with which Hitler addressed the Parliament just before it passed the Enabling Act. His hypocrisy is monumental.

By its decision to carry out the political and moral cleansing of our public life, the Government is creating and securing the conditions for a really deep and inner religious life. The advantages for the individual which may be derived from compromises with atheistic organizations do not compare in any way with the consequences which are visible in the destruction of our common religious and ethical values.

The Government will treat all other denominations with objective and impartial justice. It cannot, however, tolerate allowing membership of a certain denomination or of a certain race being used as a release from all common legal obligations, or as a blank cheque for unpunishable behavior, or for the toleration of crimes. [The national Government will allow and confirm to the Christian denominations the enjoyment of their due influence in schools and education.] And it will be concerned for the sincere cooperation between Church and State.

The struggle against the materialistic ideology and for the erection of a true people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) serves as much the interests of the German nation as of our Christian faith. …The national Government, seeing in Christianity the unshakable foundation of the moral and ethical life of our people, attaches utmost importance to the cultivation and maintenance of the friendliest relations with the Holy See. …The rights of the churches will not be curtailed; their position in relation to the State will not be changed.

The references to Christianity are meaningless distractions from the real intent of the Enabling Act, of course, which was the granting of unlimited tyrannical powers to Adolf Hitler.

Meanwhile, there were some in Germany who recognized and resisted the great danger of Hitler, the Bonhoeffer family among them. On February 1 Dietrich was on national radio, delivering an address he had prepared some time in the prior week, even before Hitler became Chancellor. The talk was meant to be a warning to Germany that their desire for a strong leader to take responsibility for them was making them vulnerable to a potential tyrant. Though not mentioning Hitler by name and making a point that is true of all people in all times, Bonhoeffer knew full well that Hitler also recognized that Germany was ripe for tyranny and he wanted to be that tyrant.

In the next blog entry, we will examine Bonhoeffer’s radio address and ask how similar is our own situation in America today to that of Germany in 1933.

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On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler, one of the cruelest human beings in history, shot himself in the head, while Eva Braun, his bride of one day, crunched a cyanide capsule in her mouth. On May 1, the new Chancellor, Joseph Goebbels and his wife killed themselves after poisoning their six children. The next day Berlin surrendered to the Russians and the war at last was over. It had been twelve years and three months since Germany’s nightmare began.

As the year 1933 dawned in Germany, the mood of the people was a colorless drab. The First World War – the “war to end all wars” – had left Germany in a terribly weakened state. The Kaiser had been overthrown and Germany stumbled into an ill-fitting democracy which lasted only fourteen years. Whatever other problems a republic would have had in the context of the Germany mindset, the economic chaos created by the War was an overwhelming problem.

Barely reaching some sort of economic stability by the end of the 20s, Germany was devastated by the collapse of the American stock market in October, 1929. Their brief financial progress had been almost entirely dependent upon loans from American banks, whose failure plunged Germany into an economic morass far worse that America experienced during the Depression years.

The popular but very aged President of the Republic, Paul von Hindenburg, appointed Franz von Papen as Chancellor on June 1, 1932, hoping fresh leadership could protect Germany from the three greatest dangers it faced at the time: continued economic chaos, a Communist uprising on the left and a Nazi uprising on the right. Von Papen resigned in despair after five and a half months.

Hindenburg then appointed Kurt von Schleicher in December. He lasted just 57 days, being forced by Hindenburg to resign on January 28, 1933. In one of history’s ironies, Schleicher was dismissed by Hindenburg on the advice of those who argued that Schleicher wanted too much power for himself. Little did they know that in just forty-eight hours, Germany would be ruled by tyrant.

While all this unraveling of the German government was taking place, a young Dietrich Bonhoeffer, just short of his twenty-seventh birthday, was experiencing his own kind of inner turmoil as he wrestled with the feeble state of the church in Germany.

In January, he published a brief essay entitled, “What Is Church?” It reads rather awkwardly, as if it were a rough draft, quickly sketched out to be polished later. A number of Bonhoeffer’s writings in the early 30s have this quality, reflecting perhaps his own struggle to find a maturity of thought and expression. In strikingly blunt words he wrote,

Church is a part of the world, a lost, godless, cursed, vain, evil world; and evil world in its most potent form, because in it the name of God is misused, because in it God has been made into a plaything, the false idol of human beings, indeed eternally lost, the epitome of the antichristian world, praised when the church forsakes the final solidarity with the evil world and strikes up against the world.”

With a sentence like that, you know he’s a German! His point is that the church, humanly speaking, is a creation of society and as such has all the twists of human society built into it. And, in a way, the church is the worst part of society because it incorporates an image of God as if he were some ancient relic, having no real power but serving to make the church feel it is better than the rest of society.

However, viewed from a heavenly perspective, God has an almost subversive role in the church. (“Subversive” here is my word choice, not Bonhoeffer’s.) The church may think they have God captured in a reliquary, safe and harmless and under control, but God is in the church nonetheless, real, powerful, and subtle.

Church is the presence of God in the world; truly in the world, truly a present God. Church is not consecrated shrine; it is from God for the world called to God. Church is not consecrated shrine; it is from God for the world called to God, which is whey there is only one church in the world.”

We Christians think we have created the church as a social institution while God instead is using the church as a fellowship of proclamation, a fellowship in which his word is spoken and his self-revelation is announced to all the world. Sadly, this means that God is moving through the church in spite of what we have made of it.

It is very likely that Bonhoeffer, viewing the rapidly deteriorating society around him, knew that the imperfect church was about to face an enormous challenge in Germany. That challenge came within weeks.

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In 1930 a German church leader looked back over the previous decade in which many people had commented that the church in German was very weak. He declared quite to the contrary, asserting that the church was responding well to the challenges it was facing during the very difficult years after WW I. In fact, he said, “The conduct of church affairs in the last decade was a virtuoso performance.”

We know, of course, that in 1933, when Hitler came to power, the German church was one of his quickest and easiest conquests. It had no biblical or theological foundations and no moral fiber. One good shake from Hitler and the church proved to be nothing but chaff.

It did not take a Hitler, however, to expose the real situation of the German church. Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who was educated and was now teaching in Germany, was quick to respond to the 1930 boasting of the church leader. Barth wrote, “If we allow ourselves to be constantly addressed in this way, if we fail to protest, if this language is listened to and given credence, then in its inmost being the Church has already ceased to live.”

Jump ahead now to the church in America today. It is marked by great diversity so there are few remarks that apply to the whole. What I specifically have in mind at the moment is that religious/political alliance that the journalists call the Evangelicals. Literally, that word should mean the people of the Good News, the Evangel. In fact, however, it seems to indicate those thoughtless people who use God as a bludgeon to smash any who disagree with them about political issues.

We must protest both American journalism, which is amazingly poor-sighted when looking at Christianity, and those people who cannot distinguish between their faith and their politics. Instead of faith informing political views, their political views seem to shape their faith. And it seems their political views are racist, self-centered, and very short-sighted. They either cannot recognize or do not care about the ignorance and dishonesty with which the Republican Party is now infected.

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The words of those who lack integrity are not to be trusted but it is often important to notice them. Hitler, like all tyrants, was a man without integrity but there is an important statement about the church in his 1920 “Programme of the NSDAP.”

The relevant section reads:

“Article 24. We insist upon freedom for all religious confessions in the state, providing they do not endanger its existence or offend the German race’s sense of decency and morality. The Party as such stands for a positive Christianity, without binding itself denominationally to a particular confession. It fights against the Jewish-materialistic spirit at home and abroad and believes that any lasting recovery of our people must be based on the spiritual principle: the welfare of the community comes before that of the individual.”

Reading with the benefit of hindsight it is quite easy to see the dangers of such a statement, though until they saw Hitler in power, very few Germans understood what this paragraph meant.

First, of course, the anti-Semitism stands out. We know the deadly seriousness with which Hitler labeled the Jews as enemies of the Germanic state.

Second, the state has the right to rescind religious freedom for its own protection.In Hitler’s thinking, this meant that only a subservient church would be allowed to exist.

Third, the state is asserted to be the arbiter of what does or does not ‘offend the German race’s sense of decency and morality.” The assumption is that the “German race” rather than the churches will be trustworthy guides to that which is right and good and true.

In 1932, when Hitler was a rising force in German politics but had not yet come to power as Chancellor, Herman Sasse (a future leader in the Confessing Church) noted that Protestant doctrine constitutes a deliberate, permanent insult to the Germanic sense of decency and morality. Our doctrine of original sin precludes granting any state or race from claiming a pure view of decency and morality.

In America, we have made certain compromises between church and state which already hinder the church somewhat but which, under any leader with tyrannical impulses, could be seriously crippling to the church. I am thinking, for example, of the IRS ruling that pastor’s cannot take overtly political stances from the pulpit.

We tolerate such a rule not because it is actually legitimate but because it seldom makes much difference. With the rise of the Far Right, however, and its tendency to adore the mini-tyrant Donald Trump, that IRS ruling could become a major source of oppression in the not-so-distant future.

Ironically, the Right has already complained about just such oppression, claiming the IRS in recent years has targeted conservative groups for excess scrutiny. They do not seem to realize that, were a Trump to be elected — especially if the Republicans still dominate Congress — both sides of the aisle will be in danger. He is neither conservative nor progressive but is centered not on a political position but strictly on himself.

In Germany, there were a handful of people like Sasse and Bonhoeffer, who recognized early the dangers of a Hitler but his popularity even in 1932 was growing rapidly. There are a few people now who recognize the very serious threat of Trump to democracy in general and America in particular. . .but his popularity even now is growing rapidly.

A weak and vulnerable people, despairing of any other hope, will often turn to a Strong Man to take responsibility for them. And the results can be horrifying.

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By the start of 1933 Germany was desperately weak. Devastated by World War I, plunged into economic collapse by the bursting of the bubble in the American stock market, bewildered by a rapid succession of failed Chancellors, the German people were almost frantically looking for a dictator, a strong man who would take responsibility for all the people.

By the end of January of that year, they had their wish. And it turned out to be just the solution they needed. The early achievements of Hitler as listed by Erwin Lutzer, Hitler’s Cross, Moody Press, 1995) are impressive:

1. Revived a collapsed economy in 5 years
2. Erased Germany’s WW I shame by reclaiming Rhineland and ignoring Treaty of Versailles
3. Gave millions of Germans vacations through his Kraft durch feuede (“Strength through joy”) program.
4. Established training schools and achieved full employment.
5. Brought crime under control.
6. Built good roads and promised a car that everyone could afford (Volkswagen)
7. Gave Germans a reason to believe in themselves, to believe they could be great again

I would add that, contrary to the Treaty, Hitler began rebuilding the army. This gave the Germans a sense of strength and pride.

The oddity of it all was that it was quickly evident that Hitler was achieving his ends through draconian measures. He reduced crime by the severity of his punishments of criminals. He took the Germans’ bad feelings about themselves and refocused those feelings on the Jews.

Eventually Hitler’s cruelties and incredibly brutal ways were evident to everyone. And the people supported him all the more.

What is frightening about Germany is not that there were so many evil people but that there were so many ordinary people perpetrating evil.

When democracy ceases to function, when an elected government gets so entangled in petty struggles for power that no decisions can be made, the people — as Bonhoeffer warned just two days after Hitler became Chancellor — start looking for a strong-willed leader who will just made things happen. they tend not to be reflective about just what it is that will be happening, they just want someone to take responsibility for the situation and fix it.

Those with tyrannical personalities see such situations as opportunities and seize the moment, stoking fears, dividing people on the basis of racism and hate, making outlandish promises.

America in 2016 is in disarray. The ultra-conservatives have disrupted government by effectively shutting down our congress and blocking our President. It is no surprise that their is a tyrant rising in our midst and being cheered for his vacuous promise to make America great again by getting rid of any people who are “different” and by intimidating any opposition at home or abroad.

Donald Trump is a seriously dangerous man, an enemy of democracy. He cannot distinguish between being feared and being respected. He believes the old Machiavellian lie that a ruler can use words and showmanship to convince people he is making them happy, while in fact using and abusing them to fulfill his lust for power and glory.

Bonhoeffer would see right through him and so should we.

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