For the last few months, I have been teaching a course on the rise of Nazism in Germany.
It is a complex subject – frustrating for every educator, lecturer, teacher or professor who has ever tackled the subject, for he must begin by unpicking the ideas that his students have uncritically hoovered up out of the cultural fabric.
At the outset, I impressed upon my students the need for them to dispense with their ideas of Nazism derived from Hollywood, and from school, and to set aside their reflexive condemnation of Hitler as “insane” or “a madman”. Such a superficial approach is designed only to make modern individuals feel more comfortable – for here is a handy-dandy explanation of great evil – but does not bring us toward any meaningful measure of objective truth.
An enlightened mind will naturally seek a nuanced and fine-grained understanding of these past episodes, and to do so through a critical historiography that recognises that these were real events, real people, who had real ideas and convictions. They were not “insane”, at least, not in the classic psychiatric sense of term. And even within Nazi Germany, life was not populated with a Disney-esque binary of heroes and villains. Despite examples of moral whiteness and moral blackness, there were far more shades of moral grey than even postmodern people like to imagine.
Nazi Germany is much more than a study of moral and political evil. It is more than an exploration of social complicity or a look at the destructive potential of human ideology. It is more than an interesting insight into the corruption of absolute power. It is more than any of this. For it provides us with one of the most illuminating illustrations of a society that reorganised itself on purposefully, teeth-clenched-in-determination, profuse, robust repudiations of the commandments and instructions God has given us in Holy Scripture.
And in the process it raises the critical question that is present in every generation of true Christians: How then, shall we live? How should Christians live in an evil time? How should true Christians function in an age of governance that celebrates wickedness, and destroys good? In our time, how then, shall we live?
This is a critical question because we face a future in which governments (of any persuasion) now come to office with a de facto hostility toward Christian doctrine. The difference lies only in the degree of hostility from one party to another. Moreover, on a broader level, the Western World has lapsed into a collection of secular states which have embraced the ideologies of radical personal autonomy. As faith fades; as churches hold their final parish meetings before dissolving themselves; as denominations shut their doors in rural places and retreat to the urban centres, we are left with the prospect of living as minorities – a kind of religious enclave – within a social, cultural and political context that is inimical to any true and meaningful Christian expression.
Therefore, by looking at how Christians lived (or should have lived) under famously abhorrent regimes, we may learn some lessons for our own time. Not that our lands are yet proximate to the evil of a 1940’s fascist state – that certainly is not my argument, and any predictions that we are shortly to plunge into a new form of Nazism are certainly unhinged and intellectually unworthy. Nonetheless, we must face the reality of increasingly oppositional and disdainful government. We can learn something about how to live rightly in these conditions coming upon us, by studying how other Christians live for Christ in truly difficult times.
This is not easy work. For all the information humankind possess, he is not wise. And he has quickly forgotten to take the past seriously. No wonder nearly the entirety of Israel or Judah could depart from the Living God within a generation or two of great deliverance. Inter-generational arrogance has a tendency to reduce the past to forgettable nuggets, and thus, cease struggling to grasp it. Christians themselves often imbibe this attitude.
In contradistinction, previous generations of Christian philosophers, theologians and thinkers tried to come to terms with the unprecedented scale of evil and error of the Second World War. They really tried to understand the sociological forces and currents released within societies that later perpetrated great atrocities, but at the same time to also acknowledge that “our” democratic societies were responsible for horrors as well. Less in scale, to be sure, but blots and blemishes that cannot be erased from the record nonetheless.
In fact, even seriously secular intellectuals once struggled to deal with these events. I can remember one of my history professors explaining that the First World War did grave damage to the Old World of Europe, but the Second World War finished the culture forever. “Whose values,” he said, “could come to terms with the Holocaust and the atomic bomb? Whose values could be adequate for such things?”
In our generation the bar has been definitely lowered. These events have become the stuff of movies, of “Second World War for Dummies” books, and are less raw and confronting. Young people regard it almost as a dark fairy tale. At the same time, populist writers and news organisations have done a great disservice to their viewers and readers by using Nazi Germany as an ideological truncheon; a clever strategic move in the culture wars, or a means of putting the wind up an opponent in the political contest. It has emptied an entire historical episode from its truly significant moral content; coarsened people; and turned a momentous period of history into a comic facade of heroes and villains.
I want to approach this topic seriously, and to investigate what scripture would teach us, and how true Christians actually behaved in the face of Nazism. It should be a difficult and confronting topic. It should hopefully produce humility and worthwhile lessons.