22 July 2004

Idealism and reality, part two

Two days ago, many Germans marked the 60th anniversary of Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg's attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Von Stauffenberg was part of a network of conspirators that also included famous German mostly-pacifist Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For decades, von Stauffenberg was regarded as a traitor, but in recent years, with the passing generations, his legacy has been reexamined in a positive light. Rather than seeing him as an aristocratic opportunist, German interpreters' emphasis has shifted  to his apparent revulsion toward crimes against humanity, the criminalisation of the proud German army, and the realization that the rule of law could not be restored during Hitler's rule.

I am half German, half Norwegian - although I usually emphasize the Norwegian half, from my father. My excuse for that emphasis is that I was born in Oslo, Norway, so that ought to weigh a bit more. However, maybe there is the slightest Nazi-era sensation that to be Norwegian is just a percentage point or two more honorable.

My mother's father Paul Schmitz was a civil engineer in Japan before and during the Nazi era, and joined the Nazi party - for career reasons, I am told. My grandmother Emma refused to join. My mother was involved in Nazi youth activities in Osaka before going off to the German girls' high school in Tokyo. (The family did not leave Japan for the motherland until 1948, during the American occupation.) Most of their relatives were still in Germany. I met some of them in my childhood, and they seemed to be perfectly normal to me. So ... I am one of the many who wonder what possessed the German people, with its millions of well-educated and perfectly normal people, to accept Hitler's rule.

Two books really fed this fascination for me. One was Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners, several of whose theses seemed persuasive to me: first, that the forced-labor and death regime required many tens of thousands of workers. The Nazi genocide was not just a matter of a criminal class at the top and a relatively small sector of demented or fanatical followers. Secondly, these many thousands of cogs in the wheels of the death machine were not necessarily there out of sheer terror. Goldhagen documented an impressive number of cases of people who refused to be involved with roundups and massacres, and who were transferred to other duties without incident. Thirdly, the anti-Semitism of the Nazi era was so pervasive (even self-destructive to the Third Reich in the sense that the genocide system diverted precious resources from the war effort) because it reflected a culture and theology whose poisoning had begun many years earlier. I was impressed by Goldhagen's analysis of anti-Semitism in church history, and its various metamorphoses from theological to tribal to primal antipathy. (My words, not his - whoever borrowed this book from me should return it!) I don't know that my relatives signed on to this program, or perhaps passively accepted it, but statistically it would not be surprising if they were among those who did.

The other book was Hitler's Diplomat: The Life and Times of Joachim Von Ribbentrop by John Weitz. While Goldhagen's book is a macro-scale survey, Weitz examines the social origins and context of one Nazi leader, a supremely ordinary if self-important representative of the business-oriented middle-class, precisely my own class in Germany. Although Ribbentrop had more ambition than brains, he was not so stupid, in Weitz's portrait, that he didn't realize quite early in the war that Germany had provoked a mortally powerful coalition into being and that eventual defeat was certain. However, unlike von Stauffenberg, von Ribbentrop managed to patch together enough self-delusion and devotion to soldier on and eventually win a place on the Nuremburg gallows.

As a Christian whose understanding of discipleship doesn't include lethal force, I honestly don't know what I would do with a dilemma of the magnitude of the choices facing Bonhoeffer and von Stauffenberg. But the German part of me is ready to acknowledge their heroism, their stubbornness unto death in refusing to accept that a demonically charismatic criminal could warp an entire country beyond recognition, even though millions of others from their own social classes seemed to be quite ready to be warped.

Anti-Semitism is a specific type of violence, a way of objectifying and dehumanizing others, made even more diabolical among Christians by its subversion of spiritual language. However, in that sense of objectification, its roots are the same as other forms of violence - in the clenched fist of Cain. Pacifists are sometimes challenged, "What would you have done in Hitler's time?" I don't accept that hypothetical box; why should we be treated like doctors who are only called in when the case is already terminal? Our analysis should be thoroughly systemic, going back even beyond Cain to the first disobedience in the Garden, where the myth of objective reality led Adam and Eve to put on fig leaves. Our evangelism is based on the power of the second Adam, Jesus, to point us back toward that Garden. We should respond with love to the emergencies of the present age, and agonize with victims, and plan and plot for justice, but we should not let those emergencies fool us into thinking that that familiar primordial distortion of God's plan, violence, can ever provide a lasting remedy.

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