An encounter following a recent viewing of a documentary on Dietrich Bonhoeffer unnerved me. As discussion of the film about the German theologian and leader of Christian resistance to the Nazis drew to a close, an elderly gentleman stepped to the microphone and said simply: “I’m a Holocaust survivor, and I can tell you what year this is: It’s 1932.” He turned and left.
As a Christian ethicist I was struck by the implications of what the man said, especially in the context of the focus on Bonhoeffer, whose life and work were radically shaped by events in Germany during the early 1930s.
The elderly man’s unsettling judgment was echoed in a November 2004 speech by Fritz Stern, the prominent historian of modern Germany. Even a good historian’s reticence to draw historical parallels couldn’t suppress Stern’s sense that the early ’30s in Germany might be a prism for viewing some recent events. Germany is not the United States and the 1930s are not the present. Still, careful attention must be paid to Holocaust survivors who think this year somehow resembles 1932—and to historians who are uneasy.
The rise of National Socialism was not inevitable, Stern said in his speech. Some clearheaded Germans recognized emerging Nazism as a “monstrous danger and ultimate nemesis.” But there was also widespread “civic passivity and willed blindness.”
Still, Stern continued, these are only preconditions, which of themselves don’t explain “the triumph of evil in a deeply civilized country.” What then does?
As the 1930s dawned the German body politic was deeply divided. Moderates (largely secular democrats) faced off against extremists of both Right and Left. The Far Right—the National Socialist German Workers Party (“Nazis”)—portrayed Weimar Germany, with its hedonism, sexual revolution, and failing democracy, as a moral-political swamp vulnerable to the Left, by whom the Nazis meant Communists and Jews. The Nazis were not yet a major force, however. The party won less than 3 percent of the popular vote in 1928. By 1932, however, they came in first. What had happened?
The mesmerizing power of a charismatic individual, Adolf Hitler, is the standard explanation. Too facile an analysis, it omits critical movements that occurred before any mobs flocked to fascism. In the late 1920s, for example, a group of conservative intellectuals formed a common front. “Richly financed by corporate interests, they denounced liberalism as the greatest, most invidious threat, and attacked it for its tolerance, rationality, and cosmopolitan culture,” Stern said. Their antidote was a populist movement in the form of a nationalistic, authoritarian “Third Reich” (empire), promising renewed power and prestige, together with territorial expansion. At the same time, political conservatives, desperate to disable leftist movements, sought to co-opt right-wing populism by inviting the emerging Nazi Party to share power.
Religious leadership, too, was largely conservative. Many Protestant clergy shared the nationalism of the Nazis, their disdain for the “loose morals” of the ’20s, and their hostility to the liberal-secular state. Hitler in turn deftly employed God-talk to describe Germany’s calling and destiny. In his very first radio address he declared that “the National Government would preserve and defend those basic principles on which the nation has been built.” These principles, he said, “regard Christianity as the foundation of our national morality and the family as the basis of national life.” “Positive Christianity” was the tag-phrase the party used for its platform and “Kinder, Küche, Kirche” (“Children, Kitchen, Church”) became something of a mantra.
“It was [this] pseudo-religious transformation of politics,” Stern concludes, “that largely ensured [Hitler’s] success, notably in Protestant areas.”
Meanwhile, German moderates simply underestimated the power of Hitler’s Manichean unreason and the appeal of right-wing populism. In Stern’s words, “resentment against a disenchanted secular world found deliverance in the ecstatic escape of unreason.” German elites also imbibed “this mystical brew of pseudo-religion and disguised interest.” Though later kicked awake by events, the moment of truth for moderates came too late. Nationalistic conservatism in the military, the civil service, the universities, and the churches failed to oppose Hitler even when they found him unscrupulous and a clear and present danger to civil liberties. By then the party had state powers well in hand and a popular base seething with resentment.
Stern’s conclusion is that the principal lesson of this era “speaks of the fragility of democracy [and] the fatality of civic passivity or indifference. German history teaches us that malice and simplicity have their own appeal, that force impresses, and that nothing in the public realm is inevitable.”
What can we learn for our time from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reaction to the events of his day and from the anti-Nazi “Confessing Church,” to which Bonhoeffer belonged?
By his own testimony, one of the few major turning points in Bonhoeffer’s life occurred in 1933, when he became a committed disciple of Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount, rather than simply a university theologian of Christianity. In 1933, the Nazi Party leapt from the margins to the center of national power, and Bonhoeffer had a premonition that this meant demands for which the church was ill-prepared. He wrote to a friend, as cited in Eberhard Bethge’s biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “…the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became clearer to me how far that must go. Then came the crisis of 1933. That strengthened me in it. The revival of the church and the ministry became my supreme concern.”
Why this “supreme concern”? Bonhoeffer already sensed the crises in the church that, in this moment of Nazi triumph, would follow from the deep enculturation of German Protestant Christianity and its long-standing ideological and institutional alignment with the state. He gave classic expression to this in The Cost of Discipleship’s contrast of cheap and costly grace:
Like ravens we have gathered around the carcass of cheap grace. From it we have imbibed the poison which has killed the following of Jesus among us.... A people became Christian...but at the cost of discipleship, at an all-too-cheap price. We...absolved an entire people [“nation,” in some translations], unquestioned and unconditionally. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard.... Our church’s predicament is proving more and more clearly to be a question of how we are to live as Christians today.
In early 1933, a movement in the Protestant churches, dubbing itself the “German Christians,” rallied in support of the Nazi Party’s call for Aryan Christianity and the consolidation of the provincial churches into a single state-coordinated “Reich Church” headed by a “Reich Bishop.” The aggressive, anti-Semitic nationalism of these German Christians, their deference to Hitler as the rescuer of a humiliated Germany, and their support of the party’s platform alarmed other Protestants. Numerous Christians of Jewish heritage were in the Protestant church, and 37 of them were pastors. The state declared all of them “full Jews” and began stripping them of their civil rights and liberties. This racist push for Aryan Christianity precipitated a counter movement, soon called the “Confessing Church.” What would and could the churches do?
Bonhoeffer had written in April 1933 an essay on “the Jewish question” and three stages of response (call the state to fulfill its mandate of justice, care for any victims of state infractions, and wrest the wheel from the state if it fails in its duties as state). Now in light of the state’s action he wrote to his friend Erwin Sutz. Bonhoeffer said that the conflicting confessions of the German Christians and the Confessing Church meant that “a great reorganization of the churches is imminent,” only to add: “The Jewish question requires much action from the church, and here the most understanding people have completely lost their heads and their Bibles.”
These “most understanding people” who had “lost their heads and their Bibles” were the major German theologians of the day and many members of the Confessing Church itself. Across both theological disciplines and common piety, the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) had been eclipsed by the New Testament, the passion of Jesus had supplanted the passion of the People Israel, and the church as the New Israel had superseded “old” Israel as the elect People of God. In short, anti-Judaism in the churches and the universities flowed as a steady current within the broad river of anti-Semitism coursing through German society. Apart from Christians with Jewish roots, German Jews in all their diversity had little to do with “true” Germans except as “the other.” And as this “other” became the “despised other,” the tracks were in effect being laid for the Holocaust. Even the founding manifesto of the Confessing Church, the Barmen Declaration, omits mention of the Jews, an omission later much regretted by its chief author, Karl Barth.
“We were resisting by way of confessing, but we were not confessing by way of resistance,” wrote Bethge in Friendship and Resistance. Or, in Bonhoeffer’s simple formulation from prison, “The church is only the church when it exists for others.” When the Confessing Church did not intervene for Jews beyond its own membership, for gays and lesbians persecuted by the Nazis, for the euthanized, Roma (“gypsies”), and imprisoned socialists and communists, in that moment it forfeited being church.
In a word, the “most understanding people” did not take a stand because of their deep-seated Protestant acceptance of state authority in the traditional church-state alliance. As Bonhoeffer wrote Sutz in another letter, “An end must also finally be put to the theologically founded reservation regarding the action of the state—all of it is only fear. ‘Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves’ (Proverbs 31:8)—who in the church still knows today that this is the minimum commandment of the Bible in such times?”
Many of the same “understanding people” opposed efforts to develop an ecumenical peace ethic. Bonhoeffer called for an international peace council. However, German churches were anti-ecumenical. Citizenship loyalties and its demands trumped faith community loyalties and belonging to the global Body of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s words to an American audience in 1931 found little resonance in Germany: “You have brothers and sisters in our people, and in every people, do not forget this. Come what may, never forget that our Christian people are the people of God, that when we are in union, no nationalism and no hatred of race or class can complete its plans, and then the world will have its peace forever and ever.”
What are the lessons for the church from Bonhoeffer’s insights and Stern’s conclusions?
1) Because they were culturally captive, Protestant churches suffered confusion about true patriotism. Ideologically and institutionally aligned with the state, they were unable to take the measure of civic loyalties and faith community loyalties when these conflicted.
2) Given this entanglement of church, state, and culture, national turmoil generated church turmoil. Even the resisting church had to rediscover a faith to live and die by, and do it amidst fast-moving events. New ways to render faith publicly visible in discipleship practices—such as resistance, community, and institutional up-building, and rethinking the faith itself—became the task of ministry, all amidst crisis and war. Too much was asked of far too few.
3) The churches needed allies. They found some but didn’t create a genuine movement in sufficient time to counter the growing base of right-wing populism. A church community that resists by way of confessing is necessary; but short of a broad-based, cross-cutting movement of allies, both secular and religious, it does not suffice.
4) Moral-spiritual formation, with its powers of discernment, was a needed habit of life before crises arose so that fascism could be sharply challenged before it became entrenched. “Resist the beginnings” is the requirement. Resist the beginnings of compromises that dull the moral senses and take their ease in a life of cheap grace. Resist the beginnings that give evil, willed blindness, and civic passivity a foothold. Don’t let the right eye wink at complicity or the left hand abet it. Resist becoming unwitting accomplices to an errant leader. Resist all the places in your own soul that give way. A discerning spirituality is as vital as the right politics and indispensable to it.
Consider, by way of contrast to German churches, the Huguenot village of Le Chambon. First under the puppet regime of Vichy France and then under direct Nazi rule, roughly 5,000 farmers harbored a like number of Jews because it was simply “natural” to do so. But it was natural only for a people whose independent community’s faith and morality were already attuned to evil’s onset. In Le Chambon those sensibilities were rooted in long-standing practices of hospitality toward the alien “other” and the memory of their own suffering and that of their martyrs. Here were the people Bonhoeffer sought to be part of in his own church.
Larry Rasmussen is Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary in New York. A new edition of his book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance was published by WJK Press in 2005.