Lessons from the Bonhoeffer: Crisis Exploitation

A compilation of my thoughts after reading “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas ~

On January 27, 2013, the 68th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation, President Obama added his voice to the throng of countless others who demand “never again.”

He said,

“On this day, we recall the courage, spirit, and determination of those who heroically resisted the Nazis, exemplifying the very best of humanity… The United States, along with the international community, resolves to stand in the way of any tyrant or dictator who commits crimes against humanity, and stay true to the principle of ‘Never Again.'”

We shake our heads at the unfathomable atrocity of the Holocaust, and cling to the President’s comforting words. Unfortunately, never again can become again and again if we fail to understand the progression from a “Christian” nation to a Nazi regime.

To realize our vow of “never again,” we must learn to recognize Hitler’s patterns, identify the specific, initial mistakes of the German people in responding to Hitler, and we must refuse to repeat them.

Travel back in time with me to Germany. The First World War is over; Hitler has not yet come to power; Germans seethe against the unfairness of the Treaty of Versailles. Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas describes the situation like this: “The First War and the subsequent depression and turmoil had brought about a crisis in which the younger generation, especially, had lost all confidence in the traditional authority of the kaiser and the church.” (141) He adds, “Many thought [the Weimar Republic] an unpleasant political hash forced on them by their enemies, who knew nothing of German history and culture, and who wanted Germany to be weak anyway… Many Germans longed for a return to some kind of leadership and were increasingly less fussy about what kind of leadership it should be” (88-89). Germans were looking for change.

Their answer came in the form of Adolf Hitler, a leader who would fundamentally transform Germany.

Hitler began by telling people what they wanted to hear. When necessary, he lied.

For example, in his speech after his election to chancellorship, Hitler opened with the words, “We are determined, as leaders of the nation, to fulfill as a national government the task which has been given to us, swearing fidelity only to God, our conscience, and our Volk” (qtd. in Metaxas, 143). Hitler went on to speak of Christian morality and to invoke the blessing of a God he didn’t believe in. Based on his private communication, we know Hitler despised Christianity. To Hitler, then, the Christian guise was only a political tool, a lie that appealed to the people.

Hitler also exhibits a pattern of seizing power in “emergency” situations. Perhaps Rhamm Emmanuel thought of Hitler’s rise to power when he said, “Never let a serious crisis go to waste…it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” This was exactly Hitler’s strategy one month after his election when he dealt with the burned Reichstag. Metaxas writes “[Nazis] would start a fire at the Reichstag, the seat of German democracy. Then they would blame it on the Communists!  If the Germany people believed the Communists had tried to burn down the parliament building, they would see the need for extraordinary actions on behalf of the government. They would welcome giving up a few liberties to preserve the German nation against Communist devils” (145).

The day after the Reichstag burned, Hitler convinced Hindenburg, Germany’s president, to sign the Reichstag Fire Edict which read, “Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communication;  and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed” (qtd in Metaxas, 149). In effect, Hitler wiped out the individual and civil liberties of the German people. They didn’t notice. Or they thought that the government would only use this power to address national threats—communists, terrorists. They trusted the government to use its power correctly. It was a mistake.

Over his subsequent years in power, Hitler took the strategy of crisis-exploitation even further. When there wasn’t a legitimate crisis around to exploit, Hitler contrived one. For example, when Hitler decided to attack Poland, he had to arrange an excuse for the invasion. Enter Hitler’s Poland “crisis.” Metaxas writes, “The plan was for the SS, dressed in Polish uniforms, to attack a German radio station on the polish border. To make the whole thing authentic, they would need German ‘casualties.’ They decided to use concentration camp inmates, whom they vilely referred to as Konserve (canned goods). These victims of Germany would be dressed as German soldiers. In the end only one man was murdered for this purpose, via lethal injection, and afterward shot several times to give the appearance that he had been killed by Polish soldiers… In ‘retaliation,’ German troops marched into Poland at dawn on September 1″ (347). Hitler lied to the German people, “You know the endless attempts I made for a peaceful clarification and understanding of the problem in Austria…it was all in vain…This night for the first time Polish regular soldiers fired on our own territory. Since 5:45 a.m. we have been returning the fire, and from now on bombs will be met with bombs” (qtd. in Metaxas, 348).

You should also remember the Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass when thirty thousand Jews were arrested and deported by the gestapo. The week began with the perfect crisis-excuse when “a seventeen year old German Jew shot and killed an official in the German Embassy in Paris. The young man’s father had recently been put on a crowded boxcar and deported to Poland. For that and for the Nazis’ other abuses against the Jews he had his revenge…As with the burning of the Reichstag, the shooting was just the pretext that Hitler and the Nazi leaders needed” ( Metaxas 315). The Jews had “threatened” Germany, Hitler retaliated.

If there is anything we learn from Hitler’s pattern, we must learn to watch crises very carefully. We mustn’t let the government snatch away our rights in the name of protection. The time will come when we need those rights to protect us from the government.


To be continued in “Lessons from the Bonhoeffer: The Church”

Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Print.

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