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The sin of silence

Where was the church as Germany careened toward tyranny 100 years ago?

Adolf Hitler speaks at the site of the Munich Beer Hall Putsch on Nov. 8, 1937. Associated Press

The sin of silence
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One autumn day in 1923, Max Erwin Scheubner-Richter, along with his National Socialist (Nazi) comrades Adolf Hitler, Rudolph Hess, and Hermann Goering, led an armed revolt on the Bavarian state government. Scheubner-Richter was shot dead, pulling to the ground the man he was marching arm-in-arm with. That man was Adolf Hitler. Had Hitler been the one that died that day 100 years ago, history might have been very different.

Historians call the event the “Beer Hall Putsch” because the revolt originated in a beer hall in Munich. In the ensuing trial, Hitler’s oratory made him a media sensation. Though the revolt failed, it propelled Hitler to the leadership of the Nazi party, and ultimately, Germany itself. The reason Hitler was successful is that he seemed to provide answers and inspiration to the great issues of his day. Sadly, German Christianity had abdicated its responsibility long before.

Why did they attack the provincial government? They were responding to a period of communist insurgency and the political and economic chaos of the Weimar Republic. Today, few recall that what goaded the kaiser and his advisors to finally stop fighting in November 1918 was the fall of Russia to Soviet communists, the mutiny of Germany’s fleet at Kiel, and massive communist demonstrations in German cities. During this time, a Corporal Adolf Hitler was fighting on the French front, where he saved his company commander’s life (receiving the Iron Cross) and was gassed.

In the months after the armistice, German cities faced a small civil war as communists attempted an armed takeover. As that threat was beaten back, Adolf Hitler, along with many others, debated “What went wrong?” How did they lose the war, despite there never being a battle fought on German soil? Why did they have to accept “war guilt” and pay reparations? How did communism come to infect some of Germany’s youth and working class? And, importantly, what should be the right model for an authentically German society and government?

These questions were pressing by the time of the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. For instance, in August 1922 the German mark was 2,000 to one U.S. dollar, but within a year hyperinflation drove it to 4,000,000:1!

At the time, it seemed as if the three alternatives were tyrannical communism; some weak and unstable form of social democracy; or an ethno-nationalist Aryan fascism informed by racial hierarchy, investment in science and pseudo-science (e.g. eugenics), with a state-driven model of infrastructure and economic investment. Hitler and the other putsch leaders were inspired by how Benito Mussolini’s fascists had taken over power with a March on Rome a year earlier.

The rise of the Nazis, as well as their communist antagonists, reminds us that few Germans turned to Christianity to debunk Nazism.

It is noteworthy that a spiritual renewal of Christian principles was not a major alternative. Surely Germany could have gone the way of the early United States with a Christianity-informed representative form of government? As Mark David Hall has written, America’s founders such as Washington, Adams, Franklin, Madison, and Jefferson, as well as later observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, all explicitly expressed the Christian underpinnings for establishing America’s law and morality. How else does one arrive at “all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights” and Washington’s admonition that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to political prosperity?

Not Germany. By the mid-1800s Germany’s theologians had largely turned in the direction of so-called “higher criticism,” dismantling the Bible as true, inspired, and supernatural. By the end of World War I Germans lacked a vital Christianity, both as a philosophy for life and society as well as for spiritual succor, community, and faith-affirming practice.

The Beer Hall Putsch’s trial transformed those who died into martyrs and sent Hitler to a comfortable jail cell for much of the next year, where he composed Mein Kampf (My Struggle). He faulted communists, weak leaders, and Jews (who played prominent roles in Soviet communism) for stabbing Germany in the back. He envisioned a glorious future for a militant, disciplined Teutonic nation. He promised that the Nazi party would act, rather than dither, to restore German greatness.

Christianity? The Nazi platform of 1920 declared, “We demand the freedom of all religious confessions in the state, insofar as they do not jeopardize the state’s existence or conflict with the manners and moral sentiments of the Germanic race.” In other words, Christianity was irrelevant as a structure for German customs, culture, or morality.

The rest is history. The rise of the Nazis, as well as their communist antagonists, reminds us that few Germans turned to Christianity to debunk Nazism. We should not make the same mistake. Christianity is vigorous enough to fight the lies of Marxism, ethno-nationalism, and the twisted radical autonomies of our time.

Eric Patterson

Eric Patterson is president of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, D.C., and past dean of the School of Government at Regent University. He is the author or editor of more than 20 books, including Just American Wars, Politics in a Religious World, and Ending Wars Well.

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