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?