Okay, so - almost a week ago I handed in an essay for my history class on the response of the German churches to the Nazi regime. I have been planning for a while to write about it on this blog because I found it so absorbingly fascinating, but I have an aversion to posting my essay on here, for anyone to plagiarise, and also I think it would be pretty boring for a blog-reader to wade through 2,597 words of essay-style writing.
My conclusion, all the same, was this: that the churches in general did not respond admirably to Hitler. It was embarrassing and puzzling reading what happened in Germany, although in many ways I can see exactly how such inaction came about. The only times the church as a whole, or the majority of its leaders, acted against Nazi policy was when it threatened their own independence. Not much was said against genocide; nothing was said against the persecution of Communists. Some of their actions did force the regime to change things, such as stopping the euthanasia programme, but all this shows, to me, is that had the church done more, they could possibly have prevented the worst crimes of the Nazi regime. This essay was obviously therefore very challenging to my own standards. How would I respond? Having done more study on it, I'm not too quick to say that I would definitely have responded better. I just don't know. What they were up against was just so frightening and threatening in its brutality; why the church in the main responded the way it did is understandable, though shocking.
Which is why I have developed a deep admiration for certain individuals within the German churches who consistently opposed the Nazis, at great personal risk, from a strong ideological standpoint. The one that came up in my study the most was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, although there are others as well who were equally obnoxious to the Nazis. Having seen how many Christians behaved in those times, it makes people like Bonhoeffer, Lichtenberg, and Delp, who died rather than betray their faith, stand out even more. I just wanted to share some of the things about Bonhoeffer which amazed and fascinated me the most when I came across him in textbooks. The following is quoted/paraphrased from pages 205-207 in On the Road to the Wolf's Lair: German Resistance to Hitler, by Theodore S. Hamerow (Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1997):
From the very beginning Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a consistent and persistent
opponent of National Socialism. From the start he argued Nazism was incompatible
with Christian beliefs. After the establishment of the Third Reich he had to be
a little more careful. But there could be no question about his views. In an
article ('The Confessing Church and the Ecumene') in summer 1935, he deplored
the erosion of sense of religious universality within German Protestantism. "The
fact attested in the New Testament and in the symbolical books that the Church
of Christ does not stop at national and racial boundaries but transcends them
has been all too easily forgotten and denied under the assault of a new
In January 1936 his eulogy at his grandmother's funeral became a
bitter condemnation of Nazi teachings. "With her a world is disappearing for us
that we all somehow carry within us..." Her last years were saddened, moreover,
by "the great sorrow she felt regarding the fate of the Jews in our nation, a
fate she shared and pitied." And yet, "that legacy, for which we thank her,
imposes a duty on us." Those listening must have understood what he meant.
The most eloquent and moving protest against Nazism's inhumanity was
Bonhoeffer's sermon of July 11, 1937, concerning Psalm 58, the "Psalm of
Vengeance". He lamented the "evil times", "when the world silently allows
injustice to take place, ... and when the persecuted community in its greatest
needs calls on God for help and on men for righteousness and no word is heard on
earth to provide it with justice." Bonhoeffer repeated the words of the psalmist
denouncing acquiescence of society in wickedness: "Do ye indeed speak
righteousness, O congregation? do ye judge uprightly, O ye sons of men?" He
condemned Nazi bigotry without naming victims - there was no need to. It was
enough that they were "human beings who are the creatures of God like you, who
feel pain and misery like you..." Yet those in power offered them only "pitiless
and biased" words, judging them by their status, not justice. Bonhoeffer had
become an impassioned Old Testament prophet decrying the iniquity of the proud
I don't know about you, but having studied a bit more of what Nazis did to those who opposed them, reading something like that sends shivers up my spine. As soon as I read this part of the textbook, I got out my Bible and looked up Psalm 58, and realised how extremely apt it was for the Nazi leaders, and how courageous one would have to be to use it against them. Here it is:
Do you rulers indeed speak justly?
Do you judge uprightly among men?
No, in your heart you devise injustice,
and your hands mete out violence on the earth.
Even from birth the wicked go astray;
from the womb they are wayward and speak lies.
Their venom is like the venom of a snake,
like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears,
that will not heed the tune of the charmer,
however skillful the enchanted may be.
Break the teeth in their mouths, O God;
tear out, O LORD, the fangs of the lions!
Let them vanish like water that flows away,
when they draw the bow, let their arrows be blunted.
Like a slug melting away as it moves along,
like a stillborn child, may they not see the sun.
Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns -
whether they be green or dry - the wicked will be swept away.
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
Then men will say,
"Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth."
I don't know how well I've done at painting a little picture of people like Bonhoeffer. I don't know as much about him as I'd like to know. All the same, it thrills me reading such passages of the Bible to see people in modern days acting on them, and it saddens me at the same time to see people ignoring them, as the majority did in Nazi Germany. The example of Bonhoeffer and other such martyrs makes me want to stand up just as he did, and I hope and pray that if I had to I could.