When they came for… or why I’m late to the Bonhoeffer party

I confess that I’ve been late to the Bonhoeffer party because I know too much. I have a PhD in modern European history, specializing in Nazi Germany. How often have I heard the famous quote by Martin Niemoeller:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.

This quote is supposed to make me feel inspired, and yet it makes me cringe because it leads away from rather than toward an understanding of Nazi Germany and “how could that happen”.

1. It posits a problematic dichotomy of I/they that promotes a wrong understanding of Nazism as “totalitarianism”. Some external force called “they” is lording over us by terror, and forces us not to speak out. The vast majority of Germans simply did not experience Nazism this way. To the contrary, they were members of the “national community” that the Nazis had set out to build, and were enthusiastic about the new opportunities, the new pride, the new sense of direction and community that the Nazis created – if you were part of the “in” group.

2. When “they” came for the communists, most Germans – including folks like Niemoeller – were part of the “they”. He was an anti-communist who supported Hitler in the early days. Pastors like him urged their flock to vote for Hitler. When “they” came for the first three groups in the quote, that was seen as a “good” thing. Only when they came after his sacred cow – when the German Lutheran church was “coordinated” (gleichgeschaltet) with the other German evangelical church organizations and placed under state authority – was assaulted did Niemoeller wake up and stop being part of the “they”. (NB: To his credit, although he was a “traditional antisemite”, part of Niemoeller’s motivation was to protect Jews who had converted to Christianity.)

3. If folks like Niemoeller were like their socio-economic contemporaries such as Martin Heidegger and Carl Schmitt, they tended to be excited about the “authentic” community feeling brought about by the Nazis, as well as the breaking of the political deadlock so that the “good ideas” of the professional middle class could be put into practice, albeit in the service of Nazi ideology. You should read Goetz Aly’s book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries, until this point is driven home. This is the sense of community that Bonhoeffer critiques in Life Together, calling it an inauthentic “hothouse flower”. This was very much a minority opinion in Nazi Germany. That sense of community was the glue that bound the state to its Volk until the end (or until mid-1943, when fear of Soviet revenge took over).

4. There was a lot of “I/they” talk among German intellectuals vis-a-vis the Nazis because they had a complex relationship. The Nazis knew they needed intellectuals but criticized them as nitpickers and ineffectual types; intellectuals looked down on Nazis as inferior intellects but tended to admire their action-orientation. (I worry that this statement posits a separation between “Nazis” and “intellectuals” that was in reality fluid, and more of a mental construction on the part of the players in the game than a real distinction between “Nazis” and “intellectuals”.)

So here is how I would rework the quote:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I agreed with them.

Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I agreed with them.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I agreed with them.

Then they came for me,
and no one spoke for me because few agreed with me.

After all of this, I should emphasize that this is why I shied away from taking the Confessing Church folks more seriously in the past. Now I tend to think of them more heroically because:

1. They did actually resist in some form or another when precious few did.
2. They didn’t flee from their work but sacrificed themselves for the sake of righteousness when few other Germans even agreed with them.
3. As such they offer a practical example of what it means to be a Christian in the world.

To expand on those points, finally in July 20 1944, the national conservative opposition to Hitler finally managed an assassination attempt on Hitler. This coup attempt did not go so well. Most everyone who was part of it was captured and executed – including Dietrich Bonhoeffer. You would think these people would be heroes. Instead, the families of the martyrs were treated as pariahs even after the war. It was so bad that the West German government had a welfare program to support the families.

When you think of the Nazis, the naive think of an all-encompassing police state coercively keeping down “the people”. Then you tell them that the famed Gestapo policed a country of 65 million with about 10,000 agents, and that most of its work was carried on by voluntary compliance of the population, turning in “national traitors” often for revenge and profit.

I hope that this last example plus the statements above it about July 20 help to drive home just how expansive “they” were, and just how much overlap there was between the “Nazis” and the “national community” they served.

September 16, 2013 in Life
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