When I was a kid my first job was in a library - at a theological seminary, preparing restored books for circulation. I remember names like Barth, Bonhoeffer, and Niemoller. This was a time not long after World War II. The books were published while the world was still asking, "How could a Christian nation like Germany allow the rise of a Nazi dictator?"
As the Nazi Party was gathering its power in 1931, Christian churches enjoyed a special position in German society, including public subsidies. Church leadership was nationalistic, anti-socialistic, anti-Semitic - and profoundly respected secular authority. Even so, by 1933 the rhetoric of the Nazi Party alarmed some church leaders, who became increasingly vocal in their resistance.
In 1933, Nazis assumed control of the Deutsche Christen - the DC - a super-denomination established two years earlier to organize the German churches and direct them toward the goals of the party. When the DC became a de facto arm of the state, the opposition established the Confessing Church. This movement gained momentum among leaders who, in 1935, refused to comply with the government's demand to defrock any clergyman of Jewish heritage or who was unsympathetic to Nazi dogma. Predictably, a split ensued - and then a crackdown.
Karl Barth was a leader of the Confessing Church even though he was Swiss. But as professor at the University of Bonn in 1934, he published a declaration rejecting the influence of Nazism on the church - and even sent Hitler a copy. He was forced out of his position, and returned to his homeland to continue his resistance.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor and a leader of the Confessing Church. He resisted Nazi influence by writing about the responsibility of Christianity to influence the secular world and to resist evil. The Gestapo arrested him in 1943. He was hanged at Buchenwald in 1945.
Martin Niemoller was a founder of the Confessing Church. In 1936 he sent a letter to Hitler protesting the policies of the Nazi regime. In response, the state arrested much of the church's leadership and restricted its operations. Niemoller himself spent much of the next decade in prison, interned at Dachau until 1945.
These three gentlemen weren't saints. Their views reflected the anti-Semitism of their time. And their initial resistance was motivated as much by outrage at Nazi interference in church matters as by moral principles. But they stood against evil - at great personal cost.
Neither the DC nor the Confessing Church enjoyed a large popular following. Most Germans attended their Lutheran and Catholic services and passively accepted growing Nazi secular power and insidious influence over sacred institutions.
Christian churches everywhere are by nature conservative and authoritarian. But here in America there are added distinctions. German Christians were Lutherans and Catholics of the stoic tradition - not the wild-eyed, bible-thumping fundamentalists shouting "Lock Her Up!" No, while most German Christians passively accepted their Fuhrer, American Christians have been seen campaigning for their tormentor and bullying the opposition.
And yet, the majority of American Christians passively accept the threat of mass deportation of undocumented immigrants and the forced registration of religious minorities. Many overlook the invective that dehumanizes women and minorities. And many embrace the authoritarian involvement of secular authority to discriminate in matters of religious practice.
So does it stop here? Will this be the end of it? Or is it the beginning of the end?
"First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
...Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
...Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
...Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me."
- Martin Niemoller
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