The parallels to Hitler’s Germany are abundantly clear

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Iraq crisis

By Al Staggs,
The Baptist Standard, March 3, 2003


Note:  The following commentary was first published in the weekly newsjournal of Texas Baptists on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US forces and smaller contingents from the UK, Australia, and Poland.

I’ve been involved for the past 20 years with the life of the German pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My introduction to the life and writings of Bonhoeffer began through the influence of Professor Harvey Cox in 1983 at Harvard Divinity School.

Bonhoeffer, a young German pastor and theologian, was executed by the Nazis April 9, 1945, at the Flossenburg concentration camp for his part in the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. I am convinced Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy have particular relevance for the decisions we are making as a nation regarding the possible pre-emptive attack on Iraq.

In Germany in the 1930s and 40s, there was no lack of religious support for Adolf Hitler and his policies. As history bears witness, Germany’s nationalism and the Nazi ideology were aided and abetted by the churches. Pastors and churches swept up in the nationalistic fervor draped their sanctuaries and their buildings with the swastika. It was common for the liturgies of the churches to utilize troops carrying swastikas down the aisles of the churches as part of worship.

We Americans may be repelled at such a nationalistic demonstration within the context of the church’s worship. However, the patriotic demonstrations that we have observed taking place within American churches during the past year are no less disturbing. Without noticing it, a number of pastors and churches have allowed the symbols of the flag and the cross to become intertwined and indistinguishable.

Bonhoeffer rightly called this an idolatry, and he based that prophetic view upon the first commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” His view was that the state was attempting the usurp the place of God by equating the purposes of the state with the purposes of God. One of Bonhoeffer’s concepts that has particular relevance for Christians in the United States is his belief that no nation can claim ultimate allegiance for any Christian.

A Christian’s highest and final allegiance, according to Bonhoeffer, is to God and God alone. This would mean that if the state launches into actions which are deemed immoral by a Christian, the person of faith is bound and obligated to disobey the state. Bonhoeffer would go even further, especially judging by his actions within the resistance, to support actions that impede the immoral and unjust actions of the government.

The noted Jewish theologian and post-Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg coined the phrase, “Perpetrators, victims and bystanders,” which became the title of his outstanding book on the Holocaust. Hilberg notes that in German society during the years of the Third Reich, every person in Germany fell under one of those classifications.

The particularly discomforting label for American Christians should be the identity of the “bystanders.” These were the “good” people who said and did nothing to avert the policies of war and hate perpetrated by the Nazis. Eli Wiesel, the noted Holocaust survivor and author, stated, “Silence is the friend of the perpetrator.” Bonhoeffer said the church “has been guilty of silence while evil was taking place.”

Pastor Bonhoeffer was convinced that if one called oneself a follower of Christ then that person was bound by the concept of responsibility for those who became victims of an oppressive state. To be a follower of Christ meant to act with courage and faith in opposing the forces of injustice and violence.

Who will be the victims in an attack on Iraq? A pre-emptive attack against the citizens of a nation that has not provoked that attack through any aggressive action would clearly be seen as victims. Whatever we may think, the world will view the Iraqis as victims, just as the Polish were seen as victims of the German army’s attack on Poland in 1939. The United States will be the perpetrators.

And who are the bystanders? This group will include the millions of Americans who could not be bothered to speak their views against the attack on Iraq. Bonhoeffer would say that all of these people, moral as they may appear, are nonetheless complicit in the guilt of the senseless and needless deaths of innocent people in Iraq, not to mention the lives of our own troops.

Once again, the legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds me that for a Christian, there must always be a clear distinction between one’s allegiance to the state and one’s allegiance to God. I am alarmed by the capitulation of so many public Christian leaders and pastors to this decision by President Bush to attack the nation of Iraq. I am equally alarmed and dismayed at the apparent lack of moral courage on the part of millions of Americans who seem to be voiceless in this debate.

The parallels to Hitler’s Germany are abundantly clear. At the height of Hitler’s power, he stated, “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” Hitler was thus able to co-opt the language of faith and at the same time rally the unquestioning support of the majority of Christian leaders in Germany.

That is in no way to intimate that there is a parallel between President Bush and Hitler. It is, however, to place the emphasis on the parallel between the unqualified nationalism of German Christians and the hyper nationalism of many American Christians.

Theologian Robert McAfee Brown warned, “Since it is the great failure of the German church to wait too long before engaging in significant protest, the great challenge to the American church is to avoid that failure and to speak loudly and clearly at the first telltale signs of national idolatry, so that its development can be arrested before it is too late.”

Labeling ourselves as a Christian nation gives us no special privilege to make war at will. If anything, God and the world will hold us much more responsible for our willful ignorance, our national arrogance and our despicable deeds should we go to war. Bonhoeffer’s legacy reminds us, especially the many Christians in our nation, that we have a “Response-Ability” to do everything we can to prevent this attack on an independent nation that poses no immediate threat to us.

As a Vietnam-era veteran, the father of a career soldier and a Baptist minister, I will continue to speak, work and pray against our nation’s grossly unjust policy of resorting to war for reasons that smell of catering to our lust for oil and our lust for world dominance.

Al Staggs, a Baptist minister and performing artist, lives in North Richland Hills


Source: The Baptist Standard, March 3, 2003 (

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