We are hoping to go to Germany sometime this Fall. I’ve been there once — more than thirty years ago I was able to visit Bergheim-Esch, near Cologne, from where my Burbach family emigrated in 1850. This time we hope to see the very small village of Weiburg northwest of Kassel in central Germany from which my mother’s German ancestry came in 1860.
Other attractions fill our wish list… I’ve never been to Berlin or what was East Germany. Everyone says the city is magnificent. As a child of the Cold War I am also motivated to see for myself that place which, like no other, symbolized the Iron Curtain. On a lighter note, we dream of doing the Sound of Music tour in Salsburg.
On Monday we saw the movie, Woman in Gold. Like the Sound of Music it recalls the terrifying days of the Nazi juggernaut. Woman in Gold also chronicles a dramatic escape to America. You will cheer the ultimate, improbable outcome and feel ennobled by the tenacity of those few who demand justice even after many decades.
Woman in Gold ironically awakened in me a deep personal desire to visit a concentration camp — most likely Dachau not far from Strasburg. Born in 1950 of German heritage, I have often wrestled with the unanswerable question: How could the insidious perversion of Nazism take hold in a culture so grand, a people so great? What is it in humankind, within my own DNA, that could give rise to such collective evil?
Seventy years ago today, April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler. There is no doubt of the Lutheran theologian and pastor’s “guilt” — he had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. Where did he find the courage? What inspired him when so many of his fellow Christians acquiesced?
Biographers point to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Among the friends he made was an African-American student from Alabama. His new friend introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.
Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable …when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.”
With the rise of National Socialism in 1933, Bonhoeffer had already devoted much thinking — and, ultimately, action — to the question of how the church must respond to racism and anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer declared “the church has an unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” and that the church was charged “not to just bind up the victims beneath the wheel, but to halt the wheel itself.”
How is it that such a devout Christian, who so often spoke and wrote about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, could partake in an assassination conspiracy? He saw clearly that what we profess to “believe” must be joined by responsible action in the real world in which we each live.
How could evil of Nazism happen? How could such perversion take hold among a “Christian” nation so grand and great? Could it happen again? What is in our DNA that makes human beings capable and culpable of such atrocities? I must return again to my German roots.
Like Bonhoeffer and the Jewish heroine of Woman in Gold, a very small remnant draw from some deeper source to challenge injustice against ridiculous odds and at great personal cost. What is that source, that strength, that conviction which upholds the greatness of human potential of which we are capable? I must return again to the Scriptures.
Seventy years may seem like a long time ago. Let us not forget or ignore the Gospel narrative being lived out by thousands of Christians being martyred in our own day.
Can it happen again?
I am indebted to Kirk O. Kolbo for his marvelous commentary in today’s Star-Tribune from which I quote and heartily recommend to you [here].