She snapped to attention, executed a salute, and exclaimed “Heil Hitler!” That’s how my professor responded in 2003 after I observed that George W. Bush had been re-elected and she hadn’t moved to Canada yet. How did I react? Stunned! Like, What the heck just happened? She just called me a Nazi! Fast forward a decade and I was in graduate school studying the ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer–a German theologian and pastor who was executed by the Nazis–when things started to dawn on me.
In 1943 Bonhoeffer wrote After Ten Years attempting to take stock of the lessons he had learned living under Nazi rule for a decade. In this paper he asks the question “Who stands fast?” Who was it that recognized the evil of the Nazis and did something about it? The tragic fact is that the vast majority of Germans did not. Even more tragic was the fact that the majority of German churches had not. Religion, as it had been practiced by the German Christians, had failed to produce the kind of people who could discern evil masquerading as good and take responsible action against it. But how could this be?
As it turns out, Hitler had his own theologians. Influential men like Emanuel Hirsch, Paul Althaus, and Gerhard Kittel were engaged in ecclesiastical infowars against Bonhoeffer and his Confessing Church movement. Here’s an example I came across in my course notes from 2013:
In 1933 Paul Althaus spoke of Hitler’s rise as “a gift and miracle of God,” and of 1933 as “the year of Grace…the Easter moment.” He wrote “The German Hour of the Churches,” and ideologically united theology, nationalism and the Church resulting in a nationalistic deification of the State. Hitler was equivalent to Martin Luther and even Christ himself. German Christians were to become “Nationalistic Christians” and this movement brought about the “Reich Church” and its “Deutsche Christen theology.” Germany was the new Israel. The churches gloried in their patriotism, displayed national flags and honored the war heroes. The Nazi Stormtroopers often married in the Deutsche Church with the symbols of both Church and State. Althaus believed the Christian church had become too feminine and wanted instead a “muscular Christianity.” Those attracted to this movement were strongly anti-intellectual and anti-theological.
Creepy, right? Dr. Gene, if you’re out there, I think I finally get your 2003 Nazi salute (she must have literally exploded when Trump got elected). So then, which German Christians were able to recognize and stand against the evil of the Third Reich? Bonhoeffer answers:
Only the [person] whose final standard is not [their] reason, [their] principles, [their] conscience, [their] freedom, or [their] virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when [they are] called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible [person], who tries to make [their] whole life an answer to the question and call of God.
This is definitely worth thinking about.