I’ve recently been reading My Battle Against Hitler, extracts from the memoirs and essays of German Catholic philosopher and theologian Dietrich von Hildebrand. Von Hildebrand was born and raised in a comfortable German family, but one in which there was only the faintest shadow of nominal religion. But God’s call on his life found its way anyway, and von Hildebrand and his wife were adult converts to Catholicism in their 20s. He spotted the perils of Nazism early – living in Munich, the location of the abortive putsch attempted by Hitler and von Ludendorf in November 1923 (the middle of the great hyperinflation), probably helped.
Von Hildebrand and his wife fled Germany in March 1933, settling in Austria where with initial financial support from the Austrian government he established a weekly articulating a Christian social philosophy, with a particular focus on staunch opposition to Nazism. The Austrian Chancellor, Dollfuss – who had supported von Hildebrand – was killed in an abortive Nazi coup in 1934. Although an academic philosopher by training and occutation, von Hildrebrand became a considerable thorn in the side of the German efforts in Austria. The editors of the book cite documentary evidence of German plans to assassinate von Hildebrand, and it was only because he also held a Swiss passport that von Hildebrand and his wife were able to escape Austria on the day of the Nazi takeover in March 1938 (hours ahead of a Gestapo raid on their apartment). They eventually made their way to the United States after the fall of France, where von Hildebrand taught at a Catholic university, dying in 1977. He wrote many books in the course of his career, but although my pile of them has been growing this is the first book of von Hildebrand’s that I’ve read.
Much of von Hildebrand’s effort in the 1930s was dedicated to trying to establish and communicate the fundamental incompatibility of National Socialism with Christianity, and with Catholicism in particular. He was particularly forthright in eschewing anti-Semitism, arguing that in face of the Nazi advances it was more important than ever that Christians not have a bar of a philosophy that judges people of one race better than others. Even though he must have had a strong sense that Austria was lost – it was perhaps never likely that little Austria would resist the advances of (Austrian born and raised) Hitler and his pan-German nationalism – he continued to put his life on the line to help steel the resolve of faithful Christians in Austria to oppose what was coming. In a sense, his task got harder not easier once the Nazis had taken office, and then consolidated that power of the following 12-18 months, culminating in the Night of Long Knives in June 1934.
By then, the Nazis were no longer a disreputable populist rabble. They were the established government, wielding power pretty ruthlessly, and with little prospect of being ousted in the foreseeable future. Against that backdrop, it was all too easy for people to decide to “make their peace” with the regime – perhaps reserving any dissent to the quiet of their own hearts. Fearing imprisonment, loss of office or reputation and – as time when on – even death, so many made excuses. They drew distinctions between the ideologues and apparent “pragmatists” or “realists”, put much more weight than was ever-warranted on occasional soothing words (or the presence of Catholics like von Papen, the former Chancellor, in office), or allowed longstanding, perhaps quite mild, social anti-Semitism to make allowances for the increased legal persecution of the Jews. Perhaps too some focused on the economic rebound – and associated lift in the national mood – after the awfulness of the Depression (which hit both Germany and Austria particularly hard). Whatever the motivation, whatever the straw that was grasped at, von Hildebrand urged people not to be fooled, not to lulled by the day-to-day mundane reality of life going on, but to recognize evil for what it was. As he noted, even if the regime had largely left the church alone, nothing changed the intrinsic evil of the philosophy Hitler and his regime propounded.
It was a brave and perceptive stance – occurring before any shots in Hitler’s wars of aggression had been fired, and before the Final Solution of mass extermination of the Jews (something that really only unfolded after 1941).
It is easy to look back, with the benefit of all that hindsight, and feel vaguely superior to those who made their peace – men and women who perhaps never took any active part in the regime, but kept quiet and went along. But I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the Nazi period over recent years as I’ve been prompted to wonder how modern Christians – how I – would react and respond in the face of evil in our own day. Perhaps if mass extermination had been announced in January 1933 there would have been a rebellion, but it wasn’t. Arguably there was no single decisive day which self-evidently marked the line that just could not be crossed, where Christian people could no longer keep quiet or just go along. And because there was no such day, each person had to make his or own choice, often enough almost alone, unsure who they could trust, or who would even sympathise – rather than feel threatened by the willingness of a erstwhile friend or colleague to take a stand.
At the end of the book, the editors reproduce selections from some of the essays Von Hildrebrand wrote in his Austrian periodical. One of these is “The Danger of Quietism” and another “The Danger of Becoming Morally Blunted” – in the latter in particular he urges his readers not to “get used” to the evil that was around them, but to foster a consciousness of good and evil, to avoid ever becoming so dulled to the evil, that it no longer really strikes them as such. To become used to evil is to be drawn, ineluctably, away from the awe-ful holiness that God calls us to.
And that prompted me to think about how I – and the Christian church today – need to take to heart the same lesson. In Western countries we don’t currently have governments of the directly repressive character of the 1930s Nazi type. Instead, we have a shared secularist consensus that treats so much that is evil as the norm, perhaps even a virtue. The abortion rate is perhaps the most striking example: in New Zealand alone 14000 babies are year are murdered in their own mothers’ womb, and yet the issue has no political salience at all. But worse, in most churches (especially perhaps) most Protestant churches, it seems to evoke no concern at all. I can’t recall the last time I heard a sermon – or even intercessory prayers – that stood against the evil. In my city, this mass murder goes on only a mile or two from here. And what do I – or others – do? Awful as it is, I find it too easy to come to treat it as normal – to no longer be shocked – and shrink from taking any sort of stand for fear of being marginalized or shunned. In the US the issue does still have some political salience – but we now have two major candidates, one of whom doesn’t seem to care about the issue, and the other of whom leads a part that seems now not just to treat abortion as some sort of regrettable necessity, but as positive good.
Abortion isn’t the only such evil – albeit perhaps the mostly in human terms. But we also increasingly come to treat homosexual practice not as the fruit of disordered desire – as theft, domestic violence, or adultery might still be seen as – but as something normal. So many of our children are born outside the bounds of marriage, and yet few politicians (or church leaders) or willing to stand for a traditional family. The legalization of gay (so-called) marriage seems to prompt many of our churches to want to tag along – as too much of the German Church did in the 1930s. Perhaps euthanasia will be the next brick to fall? And when the media was dominated last week by the events surrounding a rugby team and a stripper, where were church leaders in calling people back to standard of modesty and chastity – a profound respect of men for women, women for men, each made in the image of God.
We are fortunate in New Zealand that direct repression of the church, and practicing Christians, has not yet happened. Rod Dreher repeatedly warns that it is coming – at least in the US. But even in New Zealand the zone of acceptable public comment and debate is narrowing all the time. As the church has gone along quietly, it paves the way for the open articulation of traditional Christian views to, in time, simply be ruled unacceptable – “hate speech” – and for those who won’t go along with the prevailing ethos to risk loss of job, livelihood or status. Our leaders aren’t brutal thugs in the class of Hitler, and perhaps that just makes it easier for us to be lulled by the presence of evil. and to refrain from making a stand for that which is good and holy and of God. Where is the line? I don’t know. Perhaps it is something each of us has to find individually, but it might be easier for latter day Christians to avoid just going along, perhaps a little uncomfortably or perhaps enthusiastically, if church leaders provided a more authoritative voice. Too often it seems, they’ve been willing to accept a place as social service providers and advocates of “progressive” politics, all with a patina of religious terminology.