Diane Rufino, August 4, 2016
This week, I re-read a fabulously detailed biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eric Metaxas. The book is titled BONHOEFFER. And I recommend it highly.
We talk about our precious rights and our great blessing to be living in a free country. But those of us who have enjoyed brighter, freer days often complain and warn others about the “changes” taking place in our country today. We are often laughed at and criticized as being alarmist and radical. We’re obviously not the ones who the new generation of Americans want to listen to. And so they write us off and demonize us and call us names. We highlight the encroaching progressive government mentality and its dangerous notion that individual rights and liberties must be reigned in or even surrendered so that it can best govern for the whole of society. Government knows best, our young generation believes. They naively believe it has their beat intentions in mind. When we warn of the parade of horribles that can happen once we allow the government to go down that road, they seem to prefer the temporary sense of security over the long-term security of freedom. When we ask them how will they know when their essential rights are violated by government, they have no answer. That’s because they haven’t lived in freer times, they don’t know our history, they don’t read the right stuff, and they haven’t bothered to care about the countries whose people have lost their freedom and who have been subjugated and even sacrificed at the alter of political expedience. This book, “Bonhoeffer,” details the rise of the Third Reich and its reign of terror over the German people.
If people think that they can identify evil and stop it in plenty of time before it can ever take hold in this country, they may want to have a conversation with any elderly person who lived in Europe during World War II. I would suspect that the ordinary German citizen in January 1933 would have felt he had nothing to fear from his government. After all, the government was defined and limited by a written constitution – the Weimar Constitution. The constitution established a democratic parliamentary republic governed by a president and parliament and included, among other provisions:
- Section 1, which established the German Reich (“reich” meaning “regime” or “empire”) as a republic whose power derived from the people (“The power of the state emanates from the people”), and which established a system of dual sovereignty (“With the exceptions of the subjects for which the Reich government has exclusive jurisdiction, the German states can govern their respective territories as they see fit”)
- Section II, which provided that the national parliament (Reichstag) would be composed of representatives elected by the German people by an equal and secret ballot open to all Germans aged 20 or older and that elections would be governed by proportional representation principles.
- “The rights of the individual are inviolable. Individual liberties may be limited or deprived only on the basis of law”
- “Censorship is prohibited”
In Germany, the stage would be set for a demagogue to emerge at the close of World War I. The victorious Allied Powers split up the Central Powers, but reserved the harshest of punishments for Germany, which they considered to be the principal instigator. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) forced Germany to concede territories to neighboring countries, established Danzig (with its large ethnically German population; today called Gdansk), demanded the demilitarization and occupation of the Rhineland, prohibited the build-up of an army and an air force, and established special status for the Saarland (under French control). But the most humiliating portion of the treaty for Germany was the “War Guilt Clause,” which forced the German nation to accept complete responsibility for initiating World War I. As such Germany was liable for all material damages, and France, for one, insisted on imposing enormous reparation payments. In fact, when Germany fell into economic hardship and couldn’t make the payments, France occupied the Rhineland, a highly industrialized region. The great loss of life combined with the extremely harsh and humiliating sanctions left Germany bitter.
Amidst political turmoil and internal stability from the Communists, Socialists (Social Democrats), Union workers, and German nationalists, Hitler would find his voice and perfect his rhetoric. On January 30, 1933, after the Nazi party achieved political gain, Germany President Hindenburg appointed Hitler as Chancellor. It was the beginning of the Third Reich. Immediately, Hitler hatched a scheme to consolidate his power while vilifying his political enemies. Only one month after he took office, he had the Reichstag (German Congress) set on fire and then he blamed it on the Communists. He demanded “emergency” powers to “deal with the threat from the communists.” And in just a few weeks, in March, the Reichstag gave him what he wanted. The Enabling Act of 1933 (“Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”) was passed which amended the German constitution and which allowed Hitler and his cabinet (you know, all the war criminals convicted at the Nuremberg Trials) to pass legislation without the Reichstag and to suspend the civil liberties of the German people. The next month, in April, Hitler would pass the first of almost 400 anti-semitic decrees to target Jews and segregate them out of the Aryan population and out of public life. The first decree forbid Jews from participating in civil service and limited the number of Jewish students in schools and universities. (By 1935, the decrees would begin to indicate Hitler’s ultimate plan for the Jews).
Hitler, of course, ruled by fear and intimidation. He created the SS (which were originally his bodyguards but then became his his terror organization) and the SA (the storm troopers, or “brown-shirts”) which spied on citizens, kept the people in line, and rooted out political dissidents. Concentration camps were set up immediately, first for political prisoners and then, of course, for the undesirables.
By the end of 1933, Hitler co-opted the Church, made it an arm of the State, and infused it with policies directed from Hitler himself. There was already talk of euthanasia for the mental defects and disabled, which Hitler termed “useless eaters.” Within a year or so, the SA would come for them and they would be killed. By the end of 1934 and especially 1935 (the Nuremberg Laws), Hitler began to focus on ethnic cleansing “for the protection of German blood and German honor and to safeguard the future of the German nation.” At first the scheme focused on intimidation, expulsion, confiscation of wealth and property, and encouragement to emigrate (with many countries not willing in accepting them). When World War II began in 1939, Hitler had the Jews rounded up and located in ghettos. By 1941, Hitler’s right-hand man Reinhard Heydrich, an SS official (second only to Himmler), was told to “come up with a new plan for the removal of the Jews.” Heydrich, the man known as the architect of the Holocaust, came up with the “Final Solution.” Within a span of only 6-7 years, an ambitious sick-minded leader was able to dupe a nation of smart people, defy a nation’s constitution, consolidate power, establish a regime of fear and intimidation, and torture and kill 11 million people.
While the book gives an excellent account of the rise of the Third Reich and the details of how Hitler was able to seduce and then terrorize the German people, the main focus is on the man, the personality, the mind, and the teachings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was an outspoken pastor and a key figure in the resistance to Hitler and his Nazi regime.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, because of his understanding of the Gospel, came to ask two questions: (1) What is the “Church”? That is, what is its role? And (2) How does one earn grace? That is, how does a Christian earn the grace of God – the favor of God, as manifested in the the bestowal of blessings and then eternal life? To the first question, he reasoned that the Church, first and foremost must remain true to the Word of God, as told through the Holy Spirit. To the second question, Bonhoeffer compared “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” As he explained: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price’, and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”
Answering the questions as he did would set Bonhoeffer on a course that would defy the mustached ruler himself, Adolf Hitler, and would define him as a heroic figure and as a martyr. He initiated the movement (1933-1934) to oppose Hitler’s efforts to nazify the German Protestant Church. He encouraged other pastors to break from the church and to establish the Confessing Church (confesses the word of God), which was free from state control and free from the “Aryan Paragraph” (anti-semitic decrees). Then, believing it was his duty (“costly grace”) as a Christian, he willingly took part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. In the face of evil, knowing what Hitler had in mind for the Jews, he believed his faith required him to act. “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” For his part in the assassination attempt, he was sent to a military prison, then transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, and then finally to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. On the morning of April 9, 1945, he was led out to the court yard where he was hung along with other conspirators. Two weeks later, the camp would be liberated by US forces and within the month, Germany would surrender to the Allies.
READ THIS BOOK!