(Edmund Burke, 1727-1797)
Perhaps there is nothing quite as seductive as the idea that God is on our side.
Virtually anything can be justified if we believe this lie. Any violence, terror or act of torture can be rationalized. No cruelty is beyond the pale. Not if we are God's people, not if we speak for God, not if our actions are unequivocally endorsed by God. Thus seduced, we come to believe that we are God's hands wielding not our own bloody swords, but God's instruments of righteousness.
No faith has a clean conscience when it comes to this seduction. At some time or the other, probably every faith under heaven has convinced itself that God's way and their way are indistinguishable. And, every people, every land, every nation, I am sure, has had its own version of this myth. It is simply too useful a lie not to believe. It is so appealing. But it is a lie, and it has been a plague upon the world. This is why even the most innocently pious prayer of even the humblest patriotic citizen, however justifiably proud of his homeland, can carry within it a pathogen that can be that nation's undoing and a curse to those who live in other lands.
Soldiers on opposing sides in war after war have remarked upon the irony of both armies calling upon God. Abraham Lincoln famously reflected on this irony, observing with his characteristically tragic sense of humor, that it is just possible that God is on neither side, but stands merciful and just beyond the reach of both. In the mid-twentieth century, soldiers who pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to this "one nation under God" took deadly aim at Wehrmacht soldiers whose belt buckles reminded them Gott mit uns. Often the soldiers, more than their supporters, took such slogans with a grain of salt; their duty, they knew, was more pedestrian, though bloodier.
The piety of the most fervent patriot, however fraught it may be, stands innocent beside the much graver peril of nationalistic or tribal or racist idolatry, hoping not that we seek to align ourselves with God's will, but convinced that God is our fellow partisan. Herein lies the danger that faith in God will be bent, twisted and perverted to fit the bent, twisted and perverted causes of mankind rather than remaining an indispensable and incorruptible yardstick, a true plumb line, a just scale and unimpeachable standard against which every human being and every human nation must ultimately find itself measured.
"Render unto Caesar the things that belong to Caesar," said Jesus of Nazareth. "And unto God the things that are God's." But there have been Caesars who have claimed more than their due, lusting to own that which belongs to God alone. There have been Caesars who were not content to receive the duties symbolized by a coinage bearing their image, but who demanded hearts, souls, minds and strength. There have been Caesars who wanted to lay claim to the totality of human existence.
Relatively few Christians in Germany understood early on during Hitler's rise to power that he was such a "totalitarian" Caesar. They recognized in the cult of personality surrounding him the hallmarks of totalitarian tyranny. They saw reflected in the faces of his followers the fears and angers that stoked not a responsible electorate, but a mob. They understood that in Hitler's demagoguery, the masses had found a vessel to receive and make effective their most vile and violent impulses.
Although Dietrich Bonhoeffer's initial reaction to Hitler's political rise was typical of a churchman schooled in the traditional German Lutheranism of his day, which gave wide berth and generous latitude to political leaders provided they allowed churches plenty of room to exercise their ecclesiastical and spiritual authority, Bonhoeffer's views rapidly evolved when laws appeared expressing the venality of Nazi anti-Semitism and its racist and nationalistic mythologies, sometimes thinly masquerading as "Christian." So did some others, though only a few.
In 1934, Adolf Hitler expressed his contempt for German Protestants, in general, to a group of Nazi insiders. Hitler said of Protestant Christians in Germany: "You can do anything you want with them. They will submit. ... They are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs, and they sweat with embarrassment when you talk to them."1
Hitler's skill as a bully and manipulator worked particularly well with many of the Christians of Germany, at times charming them by playing on their prejudices, or upon their fears, upon their hatred of people who did not share their faith or their tribe. At other times, Hitler cajoled and dominated and threatened them. If the carrots of bigotry and corruption didn't do the trick, Hitler did not hesitate to use the stick of naked brutality. He could play both good cop and bad; at one moment a madman, at another coldly rational; unpredictability itself was an instrument in his hands to gain his ends.
We sometimes forget that Hitler used the democratic political processes to achieve power. But we also, and perhaps even more often, fail to note that while thirteen million Germans supported his policies, and while his core fanatical Nazis numbered about a million, he could never have succeeded if the Protestant Christians of Germany had united against him in a timely manner.
When Hitler rose to power, there were about forty-five million Protestant Christians in Germany, most of whom belonged to some twenty-eight Lutheran and Reformed groups. Two-thirds of these Protestants did not align with the pro-Nazi "German Christian movement" which supported the Nazi Party's explicitly anti-Semitic views and the party's demands that "un-German impurities" be removed from the Bible. These "un-German impurities," incidentally, included the whole of the Old Testament and everything that Jesus taught that did not "conform entirely to the demands of National Socialism". However, while this vast majority of Protestants did not actively align with the Nazi Christian movement, they also refused to take a stand against Nazism by aligning with the "Confessing Church movement" to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller belonged.2
Tragically, the overwhelming majority of Protestants in Germany tried to balance themselves precariously on the fence, hoping neither to be identified with Hitler's henchmen nor to attract their ire. Like the Laodiceans of John's Revelation, they were neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm as they staggered toward the apocalypse (Revelation 3:13-17).
The battle for the hearts, minds and allegiance of the larger share of Protestants in Germany would be fierce throughout this period.
The German Christians held their first national convention in early April of 1933. Their theme was: "The State of Adolf Hitler appeals to the Church, and the Church must hear his call." At the close of this pro-Nazi convention, a statement was adopted which said (among other things): "God has created me a German. Germanism is a gift of God."3
Leaders of the Confessing Church movement did not remain silent.
One of the notable leaders in the Confessing Church was the Reverend Martin Niemöller, pastor of a congregation in the Berlin suburb of Dahlem. Niemöller was one of the most highly decorated German heroes of the First World War and a former U-boat captain who became a minister. Niemöller, like many patriotic conservative churchmen, initially supported Hitler's rise to power. In Niemöller's popular autobiography, From U-Boat to Pulpit, he described the era of the German republic following World War I as "the years of darkness" in contrast to which Hitler's political triumph heralded the return to the light of "National revival." Less than two years after Hitler came to power, however, Niemöller regretted his support of the Nazis.4
At a major meeting in opposition to the Nazis, a meeting held in Niemöller's own church on November 8, 1934, Niemöller was clearly recognized as a leader of the anti-Nazi Protestants. Toward the end of the gathering, he told the audience that for them, the question which must be faced squarely now was "which master the German Protestants are going to serve. Christ or another."5 Indeed, as Robert McAfee Brown has noted, in case anyone missed the point which Niemöller was trying to make, he published a book of sermons titled: Christus ist mein Führer.6
One can only wish that Christians had joined with people of other faiths earlier and more vigorously to prevent Hitler's rise to power. By the time they were alarmed enough to act it had become a case of far too little, much too late.
2Shirer, pp. 150-151.
3Jack Rogers, Presbyterian Creeds (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1985), p. 182.
4Shirer, p. 151-152.
5Shirer, p. 153.
6Robert McAfee Brown, Unexpected News: Reading the Bible Through Third World Eyes (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984), p. 59.