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Kevin Rudd
Cover: October 2006

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine’s conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. He was a man of letters who was as well read in history and literature as he was in the intensely academic Lutheran theology of the German university tradition. He was never a nationalist, always an internationalist. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This year marks the centenary of his birth. This essay seeks both to honour Bonhoeffer and to examine what his life, example and writings might have to say to us, 60 years after his death, on the proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world.

In both George Bush’s America and John Howard’s Australia, we see today the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of the conservative incumbency. In the US, the book God’s Politics, by Reverend Jim Wallis, has dragged this phenomenon out of the shadows (where it is so effectively manipulated by the pollsters and spin-doctors) and into the searching light of proper public debate. US Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now engaged in a national discussion on the role of the religious Right. The same debate must now occur here in Australia. As Wallis notes in his introduction:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.


Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer been at Oxford, he would have been one of the gods. He was at 21 a doctoral graduate and at 23 the youngest person ever appointed to a lectureship in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, in 1929. His contemporaries saw his career as made in heaven. Along Unter den Linden, just beyond the faculty walls, however, the living hell of the Nazi storm-troopers was being born.

At the core of Bonhoeffer’s theological and therefore political life was a repudiation of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As James Woelfel has noted:

According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as ‘orders of creation’ to be obeyed until the final consummation.

These debates may seem arcane in twenty-first-century secular Australia, but in the Germany of the 1930s they were central to the decision of the majority of German Lutheran ministers to submit to the Reichskirche (resplendent with swastikas on their ecclesiastical stoles) and to retreat into a politically non-threatening quietism as the political repression of Hitler’s post-1933 chancellorship unfolded. Equally, it was Bonhoeffer’s theological dissent from the perversion of this Two Kingdoms doctrine that led him, at the tender age of 29, to establish in 1935 the German Confessing Church, with its underground seminary.

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The Plot to Kill Hitler; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick; HarperCollins, 192 pages, $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

28594377Patricia McCormick, a two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the fascinating true story of the German pastor and theologian who was executed for his role in the plot to kill Hitler in this suspenseful, beautifully written and meticulously researched book. McCormick paints a vivid picture of “a big rambunctious family,” a happy household of eight children, in a home in Breslau, the family’s pet goat with free run of the house. Dietrich was the dreamer in a family of overachievers (his father was a psychiatrist, his oldest brother a genius at physics).

The death of his brother Walter in World War I was the driving force in Dietrich’s interest in theology and big questions about Christianity and the meaning of life. McCormick offers a clear explanation of Bonhoeffer’s theology and his belief that the church was not a building or a dead institution but a living force for good in the world, a belief that would later involve him – despite his pacifist beliefs – in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

McCormick brilliantly combines the “big picture” historic and political backdrop with the anecdotal, as Bonhoeffer struggles in vain to convince his fellow Lutheran pastors of the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and then his role in establishing the breakaway Confessing Church. A particularly interesting chapter documents Bonhoeffer’s study at Union Theological Seminary in New York and his friendship with African-American classmate Frank Fisher, who took the young German to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. (McCormick notes that Winston Churchill, alerted to the possibility of an effective plot against Hitler, dismissed Bonhoeffer with “I see no reason whatever to encourage this pestilent priest.”)

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Donald Trump is not like Adolf Hitler. Hitler was a monster who was responsible for millions of deaths.

Wow! Talk about the teapot calling the kettle black!  Without mentioning President Trump,  during a Q&A session before the Economic Club of Chicago Tuesday night, former President Obama compared President Trump’s treatment of the press, and “America first” policies to that of Adolf Hitler.

Allow me to state clearly that neither the present or past president has the depravity, the extreme wickedness on the scale of Hitler, who can be considered one of the evilest men ever to set foot on this planet.

Ironically though, during his eight years in the Oval Office Barack Obama exhibited a hatred of Jews and the liberal love of government control that is also found in the Nazi-Fascist philosophy, although not close to being on the same plane as the evil Hitler.

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian most known for his book The Cost of Discipleship and his involvement in the plot to assassinate Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler, suffered a great deal at the hands of the Nazis, including his eventual execution. In the summer of 1937, just as the Gestapo was arresting Bonhoeffer’s friends, the pastor preached about God’s judgment in Psalm 58 — but he didn’t say what a modern American might expect.

“The wicked are perverse from the womb; liars go astray from their birth. … O God, break their teeth in their mouths; pull the fangs of the young lions, O LORD. Let them vanish like water that runs off; let the arrows they aim break in two. … The righteous will be glad when they see the vengeance; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked. And they will say, ‘Surely, there is a reward for the righteous, surely, there is a God who rules in the earth'” (Psalm 58:3, 6-7, 10-11).

So how did Bonhoeffer, a Christian who lost his life trying to assassinate Hitler, apply this verse to his own life? Did he rail against Hitler’s evil? Not exactly. (For the full letter, read Meditating on the Word, a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s works compiled and translated by David McI. Gracie.)

“Is this fearful psalm of vengeance to be our prayer? May we pray in this way? Certainly not! We bear much guilt of our own for the action of any enemies who cause us suffering,” Bonhoeffer declared in a sermon on July 11, 1937

This message is powerful, given what had happened to Bonhoeffer in the months — and even days — before. In January 1936, he lost his grandmother — who defied a Nazi boycott of Jews by shoving through brownshirts to buy strawberries from a Jew. Throughout 1937, the Gestapo carried out interrogations, house searches, confiscations, and arrests against Bonhoeffer’s seminary students. Ten days before this sermon, they arrested his friend and fellow pastor Martin Niemöller (the man famous for the “first they came for the Jews …” poem).

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A sign above the entrance of the former Dachau concentration camp reads in German, “Work makes you free.” (Photo: Michael Dalder/Reuters/Newscom)

It’s November 1938, and the Nazis have confiscated a silk factory owned by the same Jewish family for over a decade, arresting the owner.

Fast forward to 2014, and a state official has compared a Colorado Christian baker to the same group that took away what belonged to the Jewish silk factory owner—the father of my grandmother’s cousin, Godofredo.

This in a country founded by people who fled religious persecution.

While America, the country that mostly turned away Jews fleeing Adolf Hitler, is thankfully not on a course to repeat the Holocaust’s atrocities, some of its citizens have taken to comparing matters of individual freedom—such as a baker refusing to make a same-sex wedding cake—to the actions that led to the deaths of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews and 1.5 million children.

Colorado Civil Rights Commissioner Diann Rice said, “Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the Holocaust.”

Especially as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, my message for Rice and for those who make religious liberty comparisons to the Shoah is simple: Stop it.

The late Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who survived the Holocaust, warned against comparisons like this. He said:

Only Auschwitz was Auschwitz. I went to Yugoslavia when reporters said that there was a Holocaust starting there. There was genocide, but not an Auschwitz. When you make a comparison to the Holocaust it works both ways, and soon people will say what happened in Auschwitz was “only what happened in Bosnia.”

Apply that logic to the case of Colorado baker Jack Phillips: Only Auschwitz was Auschwitz.

I went to Colorado where a baker refused to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. I personally think it’s a shame, but it’s a private business refusing to bake a cake for a purpose of which the owner doesn’t agree.

It was a denial, not an Auschwitz. When we make a comparison to the Holocaust, it works both ways, and soon people will say what happened in Auschwitz was “only what happened in a bakery.”

To cheapen the Holocaust by making such comparisons is to convolute and deny its atrocities.

The Holocaust, which only started with the discriminatory Nuremberg Laws only to end up in genocide, didn’t happen so much because of a hatred of a religion, but rather an explicit hatred for a people. This hatred extended to people who helped those the Nazis targeted, like the family who hid my only living grandmother when she was a child in France.

In fact, once Hitler took power, he sought to reduce Christianity’s influence on German society.

Rice’s comment was nothing but perverted and bigoted. I dare her to tell my living grandmother that what the Colorado baker did compares to the atrocities at Dachau, of which her late husband survived (his father perished there), and about which Phillips’ father wrote notes regarding the atrocities there and other places like Buchenwald, which he helped liberate.

Hypocritically, those on the left, like Rice, cite the plight of Jewish refugees during World War II as a reason for why the U.S. should take in refugees from war-torn places like Syria. Apparently they failed to learn about the Holocaust, which consisted of Jewish bakeries and other businesses being looted on Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass,” let alone being sent to concentration camps.

(Important side note: Where is the outrage from the left over the atrocities in Rohingya, Darfur, Tibet, in Iraq against the Yazidis, and other persecuted groups in the Middle East? Those conflicts are severe compared to a bakery refusing to bake a same-sex wedding cake.)

Intolerance was part of the Holocaust. Blatant discrimination was part of the Holocaust. Concentration camps and gas chambers were part of the Holocaust. Death marches were part of the Holocaust. Indifference was part of the Holocaust.

Bakers refusing to bake same-sex wedding cakes were not part of the Holocaust.

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A white supremacist carries a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, August 12th. Some Pennsylvania residents say they support the white supremacy march there. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
A white supremacist carries a Nazi flag into the entrance to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va. on Saturday, August 12th. Some Pennsylvania residents say they support the white supremacy march there. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Eric Epstein

Godwin’s law, coined in 1990 and named after Mike Godwin, states that lengthy online discussions will ultimately degenerate into Hitler comparisons. Given enough space and time, the probability of  referencing Hitler – no matter the issue -becomes more likely.

Eric Epstein (PennLive file) 
Eric Epstein (PennLive file) 

Democrats have been comparing  President Donald Trump to Hitler since 2015. After the inauguration, U.S. Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-Virginia) took to twitter and compared Trump’s immigration polices to Adolf Hitler’s.

Three days later, former Democratic presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley tweeted, “Now is not the time for reconciliation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t reconcile with the Nazis. MLK didn’t reconcile with the KKK. Now we fight.”

Prior to his inauguration, Donald Trump compared leaks on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election to be like living in “Nazi Germany.”

Now comes state Sen. Scott Wagner’s stereotyping of George Soros, as a “Hungarian Jew” who hates America.

Soros survived the Holocaust in Hungary, a nation where 435,000 Jews were murdered with meticulous precision from March 1944 until August, 1944 in Auschwitz.

Soros also survived fascism and the siege of Budapest

We need to focus on the real problems facing our state, like fixing our education system, making our state more business friendly, plugging the pension gaps and creating more better-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians.

Countless Pennsylvanians were tuned in to Wagner’s most recent rant. How many nodded in approval or absorbed the verbal abuse without deploying a distortion filter?

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by Stanley Hauerwas

Bonhoeffer For Us?

“Yet one may wonder how Bonhoeffer should be read by those in the ministry in our time. The challenges he faced are so different from the everyday tasks incumbent on those in the ministry in our day. Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazis and Hitler – it is hard to imagine a more dramatic conflict. Dangerous though it may have been, those confronted by the Nazi’s knew what sides they needed to be on. We seldom enjoy such clarity. The result is often a stark divide between activities associated with pastoral care and the social witness of the church.

Those in the ministry today must negotiate a very different world than the world Bonhoeffer encountered. We are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have an enemy. We lack the clarity Bonhoeffer enjoyed – which, of course, is not a bad thing. But it leaves us confused about how to discern in the world in which we live what the primary challenge facing the church may be. Bonhoeffer saw quite early who the enemy was, though he was surrounded by many who did not see what he saw in the Nazis. Indeed, one of the interesting questions for Bonhoeffer’s relevance for pastors in our time is what enabled him to see the threat Hitler represented.”

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“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

“If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church
by Wendy McElroy

A destructive myth haunts World War II. It is that a flaw within the German character allowed the rise of Hitler and Nazism. How else can you explain the Holocaust coming from one of the world’s most cultured nations? Oddly, no one seems to consider Mussolini to indicate a flaw within Italians or view Stalin as proof of a Russian defect.

The ‘German character flaw’ is a destructive myth because it deflects attention from the crucial task of analyzing the dynamics that allowed Nazism to rise. It permits other nations to believe “it could never happen here.” But totalitarianism can happen anywhere, to any nationality. Understanding the evolution of totalitarianism involves institutional analysis, especially of the interrelation between institutions that were active or complicit in creating tyranny.

Two institutions are commonplace and powerful around the globe: the state and the church. In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly, many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. For example, the German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority who supported the Nazis, either explicitly or implicitly, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.”

No man spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in ‘the Confessing Church’ that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious body in protest.(Konfession is German for denomination.) Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage in every nation. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.

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