Posts Tagged ‘Nazis’

It is 1942. Bonhoeffer is writing to a couple of close friends, musing on lessons learned after ten years of resistance to Hitler and the Nazis. His paragraph on “Trust” is  very personal.

“Few have been spared the experience of being betrayed. The figure of Judas, once so incomprehensible, is hardly strange to us. The air in which we live is so poisoned that we almost die from it. But where we broke through the layer of mistrust, we were allowed to experience a trust hitherto utterly undreamed of. There, where we trust, we have learned to place our lives in the hands of others; contrary to all the ambiguities in which our acts and lives must exist, we have learned to trust without reserve. We now know that one can truly live and work only in such trust, which is always a venture but one gladly affirmed. We know that to sow and to nourish mistrust is one of the most reprehensible things and that, instead, trust is to be strengthened and advanced wherever possible.
“For us trust will be one of the greatest, rarest, and most cheering gifts bestowed by the life we humans live in common, and yet it always emerges only against the dark background of a necessary mistrust. We have learned to commit our lives on no account into the hands of the mean but without reserve into the hands of the trustworthy.”

It is hard for me to read that sowing mistrust is reprehensible without thinking of donald trump. He rejects personal accountability at every level, yet dares to expect us to entrust our nation to him. He is truly reprehensible.



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After ten years of resisting Hitler and the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay asking the question, “Who Stands Firm?” What kind of people have proven able to see and resist Hitler with patience and persistence? By this time, December 1942, he has seen nearly every resistor fall by the wayside: The reasonable people, the fanatics, folk of sensitive conscience, those with a high sense of duty, those who value freedom above all, people committed to a private, individual sense of virtue. None of these have been up to the long struggle.

Who stands firm? Dietrich answered, “Only the one whose ultimate standard is not his reason, his principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue; only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call.” This was not some sort of religious bias on his part. He had seen religious people by the thousands succumb to Hitler. No, this was plain old experience on Dietrich’s part..

He also spoke of some of the reasons why the struggle had been so hard. One such reason was that resisting Hitler meant resisting his many, many followers. A very highly thoughtful person himself, he had learned that the supporters of a tyrant are not thoughtful but are enslaved to their own gut-feelings. In conversation they seem truly stupid. “Stupidity,” Bonhoeffer noted, “is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force.”

That observation is true in today’s American political scene as much as in Germany of the 1930s. Bonhoeffer could well have pointed out, however, that evil on the part of the leaders is itself extremely stubborn. Hitler induced a certain stupidity among the German people and that stupidity provided something of a protective wall behind which he could carry out he evil work.

Now in America, as the GOP Convention gets underway with donald trump the inevitable nominee to emerge from the proceedings, we need to remember the lessons of the Nazi era. I’ve been listening with great care for more than a year. For a long time I thought he was an amazingly accomplished liar.

Now my mind has changed. I no longer believe that donald trump has “truth” anywhere on his list of virtues. He does not care about truth, does not think about it, does not even recognize any particular difference between truth and falsehood. He is one of the most profoundly amoral men I’ve ever observed. He is a man of zero moral concern.

He loves to point out moral flaws in others, of course, while brazenly demonstrating again and again that he does not believe there are any moral restraints on him. to anyone of any moral sensitivity at all, donald trump is deeply repulsive.

The law is to be used for his own personal gain. Judges are to be intimidated. Politicians are to be bought. Foreign nations are to be put at disadvantage in their relations with us.

His lack of a moral dimension makes him evil and very, very dangerous.

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This is just a brief note to recommend a book review to be found in the London Review of Books online:


It makes clear for those not fully acquainted with Germany in 1933, just how Hitler amassed a power he never fully controlled.

I will comment more extensively on the article later. For now I’ll just make two comments:

  1. The article mentions that ex-Chancellor von Papen commented after Hitler has proven himself a vicious tyrant, “We engaged him for our ends.” A book review obviously cannot give a full and balanced view of Nazi Germany but I would suggest that any student of the era look more closely at von Papen and his remark. Hitler didn’t come to power by himself. He was “sponsored” by those who thought him controllable.
  2. The review should be read for insights not just into Hitler but into Trump as well, since the two are so extremely similar.


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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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