Let us hope that the great German philosopher, Hegel, was wrong when he said neither people nor governments learn from history, or act by principles learned from it. Or if he has largely been right, let us hope he will not always and everywhere be right.
Or maybe Hegel was indirectly saying that people only do what seems, at that moment, in their best interest to do. That would eliminate principles from their lives. It would doom them, perhaps, to always be repeating the same actions, however tragic, over again. That is what another famous philosopher said.
Turning to the recent past, let us consider the fate of different individuals and groups who faced an awesome, but evil state power. There is little more frightening in life than that. What can we learn from their fates or even their fame? What do these things tell us about life? The times are the 1930s and 40s, and in general, what came after.
Some groups so challenged the basic relationship of church and state on the one hand, and of church to society on the other, that they had to be persecuted under the Third Reich and ignored after it. This parallels, for related reasons, what happened to the memory of those brave men and women whom a very significant German called the nations’ “true elite.” They were its resistance fighters.
That man was Professor Doctor Günter Hirsch, the former President of the German Federal Supreme Court of Justice (2000-2008), who said: German resistance fighters were forgotten and the memory of their lives and deeds suppressed after World War II. To quote the honorable Judge:
“Let me conclude these explanations by quoting what Golo Mann said about forgetting and suppressing the men and women of the resistance, the “true elite” of Germany, in the post-war era:
“Thus they were ignored and forgotten twice… The indifference of the nation strangled the living and forgot the dead. By making the attempt of saving the purpose, continuity, and honor of German history, all of which was not able to be saved anymore, they also are part of a closed chapter of history, and their fame before God is far greater than that which well-meaning authorities labor to eke out for them in the eyes of posterity.“1
He is talking about the individuals who actively opposed Hitler and the Third Reich. He is talking about thousands of lives blotted out of the rolls of living memory.2 So for us the question becomes — because it sheds light on our situation — why are some figures from that time “ignored and forgotten twice” and others acclaimed and lionized? Because not all resisters to the Third Reich faded into oblivion as the many that President Hirsch refers to. Consider the famous Martin Niemöller, for example.
Many others, obviously, were victims of “The indifference of the nation [that] strangled the living and forgot the dead.” Consider the Jehovah Witnesses or a far smaller group, the Bruderhof. There are perhaps countless others who were, of course, literally strangled and then forgotten.
Conviction was the road less taken
For example, only the free sects consistently opposed Nazi policies. That is, they were both sects, unpopular groups, and also, they were free since they weren’t funded by the state, like the Protestant and Catholic Churches. He who funds controls is a simple and wise axiom.3 Each, church and state, massively supported one another. But there were those outside their ranks. There still are.
Of the bravest of the free sects the historian Paul Johnson writes:
“Only the free sects stuck to their principles enough to merit outright persecution. The bravest were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who proclaimed their outright doctrinal opposition from the beginning and suffered accordingly. They refused any cooperation with the Nazi state which they denounced as totally evil. The Nazis believed they were part of the international Jewish-Marxist conspiracy. Many were sentenced to death for refusing military service and inciting others to do likewise; or they ended in Dachau or lunatic asylums. A third were actually killed; ninety-seven per cent suffered persecution in one form of another. They were the only Christian group which aroused Himmler’s admiration: in September 1944 he suggested to Kaltenbrunner that, after victory, they should be resettled in the conquered plains of Russia.”4
Such men and women spoke courageously against the ways of thinking, such as Luther’s “Two Kingdoms”5 teaching, that allowed so many to compromise fundamentally both conscience and Scripture. For Luther God’s kingdom is a kingdom of mercy, forgiveness, and consideration for others. The other, the kingdom of this world, noticeably lacks these traits. It is a kingdom of wrath and severity, with only punishment and repression. Since the Christian lives in both, he is free to act in his private life in an upright, kind way, and in his public life with wrath, severity, and condemnation. This teaching is over and above any command of the New Testament.
Once such compromise was accepted, people were capable of doing great evil. But these persecuted ones actively, on the other hand, on the basis of principle, opposed the evils of Germany’s policies. They opposed them on both the basis of conscience — their innate knowledge of right and wrong — and the plain testimony of Scripture. And this opposition to the state’s policies is why they were unpopular then and unpopular now.
This is the situation we find ourselves in, too, knowing what is right both in our consciences as parents and what is in obedience to the Scriptures as disciples. We have done nothing wrong in the matter of which we are being persecuted, but it is precisely because we obey both conscience and Word that we suffer. We must indeed obey God rather than man if that is what it comes down to. Read the Bible and see this statement once in Acts 4:19 and again in Acts 5:29. Martin Luther said this:
“Peter says, Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men.” Thereby he clearly sets a limit to worldly government, for if we had to do all that worldly government demands it would be to no purpose to say, “We must obey God rather than men.”6
- Hirsch, Günter, original in German: 100. Geburtstag Hans von Dohnanyi, translation at “There is a Higher Law than the Written Law.” ↩
- As Professor Doctor Hirsch says: “He (Hans von Dohnanyi) was murdered by criminals who called themselves judges. Ultimately, the perpetrators were acquitted of this judicial murder by a judgment of the German Federal Supreme Court in 1956, with the consequence that not one of the judges who had passed 50,000 death sentences during the Nazi rule, was held accountable.” How many of these died for opposing the evil of the regime? We may never know, but the fame of the righteous stands forever with God. ↩
- As Paul Johnson relates, “‘Why should we quarrel?’ Hitler asked. ‘They will swallow everything in order to keep their material advantages. Matters will never come to a head. They will recognise a firm will, and we need only show them once or twice who is the master.’ The churches were on Hitler’s pay-roll. Both Evangelicals and Catholics, as state churches, benefited from public taxation. Hitler pointed out, in a speech in January 1939, that the two churches were, after the State, the largest landowners in Nazi Germany, and that they had accepted state subsidies which rose from 130 million marks in 1933 to 500 million in 1938; during the war they further increased to over 1,000 million. In fact, both churches (Protestant and Catholic), in the main, gave massive support to the regime.” The History of Christianity (Atheneum, 1976), p. 487-488. ↩
- Johnson, P. ibid, p. 489. ↩
- The “Two Kingdoms” teaching overspreads Luther’s thought, clarifying for him how the believer should behave and what he should expect from life, especially the government. Here is an example: “There are two kingdoms, one the kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of the world. I have written this so often that I am surprised that there is anyone who does not know it or note it. . . God’s kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy, not wrath and punishment. In it there is only forgiveness, consideration for one another, love, service, the doing of good, peace, joy, etc. But the kingdom of the world is a kingdom of wrath and severity. In it there is only punishment, repression, judgment, and condemnation, for the suppressing of the wicked and the protection of the good. For this reason it has the sword, and a prince or lord is called in Scripture God’s wrath, or God’s rod (Isaiah 14). . . Now he who would confuse these two kingdoms — as our false fanatics do — would put wrath into God’s kingdom and mercy into the world’s kingdom; and that is the same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell.” Luther, M, “An Open Letter Concerning the Hard Book Against the Peasants,” Works of Martin Luther, Vol. IV, pp. 265 ↩
- Luther, M. “Secular Authority: To What Extent Should it be Obeyed?” (1523) ↩