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How the Cross Was Used to Promote the Nazi Agenda
By Erwin W. Lutzer
Moody Publishers Copyright © 2016 Erwin W. Lutzer
All rights reserved.
WAITING FOR HITLER
Rudolf Hess, the son of a German wholesale merchant and student at the University of Munich, wrote a prize-winning essay answering the question: "What Kind of a Man Will Lead Germany Back to Her Previous Heights?" When he met Hitler in 1920, he was struck by the parallels between what he had written and the man who was now in his presence. Hitler was stirred by the essay and impressed with the man who had such uncanny insight. Little wonder they became close friends.
First and foremost, said Hess, this individual had to be a man of the people, a man whose roots were deeply embedded in the masses so that he would know how to treat them psychologically. Only such a man could gain the trust of the people; that, however, was only to be his public image.
Second, in reality such a man should have nothing in common with the masses; for when the need arose, he should not shrink from bloodshed. Great questions are always decided by "blood and iron." The public image must be kept separate from the actual performance.
Third, he had to be a man who was willing to trample on his closest friends to achieve his goals. He must be a man of terrible hardness; as the needs arise, he must crush people with the boots of a grenadier.
Hitler vowed he would be that man. He would give the appearance of being one of the masses, but in reality he would be quite another. When brutality was called for, he could act with force and decisiveness. He would do what the individuals among the masses could not. He would not shrink from cruelty.
Privately Hitler prepared for war; publicly he gave speeches about his desire for peace. Privately he enjoyed pornography; publicly he insisted on right conduct, no swearing, no off-color jokes in his presence. At times he could be charming and forgiving; most other times he was monstrously cruel, as when he insisted that those who conspired against him be "hung on a meat hook and slowly strangled to death with piano wire, the pressure being periodically released to intensify the death agonies." Privately (and sometimes publicly) he prided himself in his honesty, yet often he reveled in his ability to deceive. "The German people must be misled if the support of the masses is required," he mused.
Hitler engineered the atrocities seen in Schindlers List, a movie that dramatized but a small slice of "the final solution." He was a cauldron of contradictions. During his days in Vienna he saved dried bread to feed squirrels and birds and just months after coming to power signed three pieces of legislation to protect animals; yet he worked himself into a frenzy of delight over the pictures of great capitals in Europe in flames. He was especially ecstatic at the bombing of Warsaw and London, and angry with the commandant of Paris for not setting that city on fire.
He could weep with tenderness when talking to children and rejoice over the completion of another concentration camp. Compassionate and even generous with family and friends, he would become filled with vindictive rage at anyone — including close friends — who stood in the way of his agenda. He could be charming or brutal, generous or savage. "He who spoke the words of Jesus," said Robert Waite, hated all mankind.
Hitler holds a fascination for us because his dictatorship enjoyed such wide support of the people. Perhaps never in history was a dictator so well liked. He had the rare gift of motivating a nation to want to follow him. Communist leaders such as Lenin or Mao Zedong arose to power through revolutions that cost millions of lives; consequently, they were hated by the masses. Hitler attracted not only the support of the middle class but also of university students and professors. For example, psychologist Carl Jung grew intoxicated with "the mighty phenomenon of National Socialism at which the whole world gazes in astonishment."
Hitler arose in Germany at a time when the nation was a democracy. He attained his power legitimately, if unfairly. The nation was waiting for him, eager to accept a demagogue who appeared to have the talent needed to lead her out of the abyss. The people yearned for a leader who would do for them what democracy could not.
THE EARLY MIRACLES
Hitler's report card was filled with such astounding achievements that many Christians saw him as an answer to their prayers. Some Christians, I have been told — yes, I said Christians — took the picture of Christ from the wall in their homes and substituted a portrait of Hitler. Winston Churchill observed Hitler in 1937 and said that his accomplishments were "among the most remarkable in the whole history of the world." Here is a partial list of what he was able to do without the obstructions inherent in a democracy:
1. He revived a collapsed economy in five years.
2. He erased the shame of Germany's defeat in World War I by reclaiming the Rhineland and discarding the unfair Treaty of Versailles.
3. He gave millions of Germans attractive vacations through his Kraft durch Freude ("Strength through joy") program.
4. He established training schools for those who were unskilled and brought the nation to full employment.
5. He brought crime under control.
6. He built freeways and promised the production of a car that ordinary Germans would soon be able to afford.
7. He gave Germans a reason to believe in themselves, to believe that they could become great again.
If he had died before World War II, one historian mused, he would have gone down in history as "Adolf the Great, one of the outstanding figures in German history." But Hitler didn't die before World War II; he didn't die until the German people had surrendered their personal rights, until laws were enacted that led to the extermination of more than 8 million people, and until Germany and several other countries were destroyed in a war that killed 50 million people in the greatest bloodbath in history. He didn't die until thousands of pastors joined the SS troops in swearing personal allegiance to him.
Of course the Germans did not know that it would turn out that way. But let's not overlook the fact that they wanted a dictatorship; they yearned for a strong leader who would bypass the slow pace of democratic reform. People were starving, political crimes were multiplying, and Germany found herself under a cloud of national shame. The democratic process was stalled with more than two dozen different parties vying for political power. Democracy might be preferable when times are good; a dictatorship works best when times are bad. For Germany the times were bad, very bad.
But we are still left with a nagging question: Why did the German people, and more particularly the church, not part ways with Hitler once his real agenda became known? We might understand their initial deception, but why did so many hundreds of thousands of Germans directly or indirectly participate in the atrocities that became so much a part of the Nazi agenda? These multiplied thousands of otherwise decent Germans boycotted Jewish businesses, participated in mock trials, and brutally controlled the prison camps. In short, Hitler had helpers, millions of helpers, who did his bidding no matter how despicable their assignments became.
Is it true, as some have suggested, that the Germans of Hitler's era were somehow half-man and half-demon, the likes of which will never appear on the earth again? Was historian Friedrich Meinecke correct when he suggested that the Nazis were a "fluke" or "accident" of history that will, in all probability, never recur? Or were the Germans not only human but fully human, simply human without the veneer, human without the constraints of society and God?
The answer, as we shall discover, is that the Germans of the Nazi era — indeed Hitler himself — were all too human. Just read headlines about atrocities in Sudan, starvation in North Korea, or the strangulation of children in our neighborhoods, and it becomes clear that raw humanity is not very pretty. Evil held in check often erupts when the conditions are right. When the restraints are gone, when people are desperate, and when power is up for grabs, the human heart is laid bare for all to see. We are naive if we think Nazi Germany cannot happen again. In fact, the Bible predicts that it will.
THE CONFLICT OF CHURCH AND STATE
The story of how Hitler crushed the church in Germany is, of course, the primary focus of this book. In passing, we should note that he banned prayer in schools, changed Christian holidays into pagan festivals, and eventually forced the church leadership to accept his outrageous demands. His political machine swallowed the church whole because the church had lost its biblical mission. Thus the state not only interfered with religious practices, but controlled them. A powerful state has always been a threat to the existence and influence of the church. Whether the threat be Nazism, Communism, or humanism, a state that is hostile to religion will always attempt to push the church toward forced irrelevancy.
Even without a dictatorship a state can marginalize the influence of the church. As the state expands its powers, it can initiate laws that limit the church's freedoms. Consider the phrase "the separation of church and state." Interpreted in one way, it can mean that the church should be free to exercise its influence and practice religion without interference from the state. That kind of separation is exactly what the church in Germany so desperately needed.
However, here in America the phrase "separation of church and state" is given a sinister twist by civil libertarians. To them it means that religious people should not be allowed to practice their religion in the realm that belongs to the state. Religion, we are told, should be practiced privately, the state must be "cleansed" of every vestige of religious influence. By insisting that the state be "free for all religions," organizations such as the ACLU in effect make it free for none!
Here in America, where church and state are separate, our conflict is quite different from the predicament of the church in Nazi Germany, where religion and politics had always been wedded in a close, if stormy, marriage. Yet this study of Germany will force us to grapple with the same questions the German people faced seventy and more years ago.
What is the responsibility of the church when the state adopts unjust policies?
For Christians, where does patriotism end and civil disobedience begin?
Is silence in the face of injustice the same as complicity?
Are small compromises justified if they might prevent the state from crushing religious freedom?
How can the church effectively spread the gospel while fighting an unpopular battle for social justice?
What warning signs are there when the church buys into the culture of the day and can no longer stand against prevalent evils?
What is the relationship between a church's theology and its ability to withstand the crushing power of the secular state?
The answers to these questions are not easy. Whether in Europe or America, tension has always existed between church and state. To appreciate the struggle in the Third Reich, we must understand the history of the First and Second Reichs, where the seeds of the church's deception were planted. And the Third Reich will help us to understand a coming Fourth Reich that will dwarf Hitler in the magnitude of its scope and cruelty.
That word reich is best translated as "empire" or "kingdom." To the German ear it has almost a sacred tone. How well I remember my parents, German-speaking people who emigrated to Canada, teaching us the Lord's Prayer: Dein Reich komme, dein Wille geschehe ... For the Nazis that word reich would come to express the mystical and eternal German kingdom.
Join me as we take a quick tour of the relationship between the church and reich in European history.
THE FIRST REICH (800-1806)
Charlemagne (Charles the Great) was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day in the year 800. Charlemagne was praying in front of a crypt in Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome while Leo sang the Mass. Then without warning, Leo placed the crown on Charles's head as the congregation gave its blessing. Charles was both surprised and pleased; he left St. Peter's determined to use the sword to build the one universal, Catholic church. His conquests brought unity to Europe and began the Holy Roman Empire (an empire that Voltaire said was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire).
Nevertheless, Charlemagne cemented the growing unity of church and state that was begun during the days of Constantine (274-337). During the first two centuries ad, the church was persecuted by the Roman Empire; when Constantine conquered the city of Rome in 312, the church married its enemy and became corrupted by it. The sword of steel (the state) would now exist to promote the sword of Scripture (the church). The coronation of Charles the Great was the high point of the fatal marriage.
Though Charles had mistresses and a limited education, he saw his role as the protector of the doctrines of the church. Since infant baptism was the law of the land, anyone who was baptized as an adult upon profession of faith in Christ was persecuted and even put to death. It was not that Charles was interested in theology; rather, he believed that the universal church had to remain universal, encompassing everyone within the boundaries of the empire. Religion unified the diverse countries, and infant baptism would keep future generations "Christian."
Of course the state also persecuted those who differed in their interpretation of the Mass and those who spurned the authority of the pope. Such "heretics" were tried, imprisoned, or even put to death. Interestingly, many true believers claimed that little changed when the Roman Empire was "christianized." Previously, they were persecuted by pagan Rome; next they were persecuted by religious Rome. Either way, the sword hurt just as much!
This uneasy relationship between church and state (sometimes cozy, sometimes competitive, and often corrupt) did not end with the Reformation of 1517. Even today the church in Europe (both Catholic and Protestant) is supported through taxes. Of course the so-called golden rule often applies: Whoever has the gold has the rule! In my opinion, the marriage of church and state is always detrimental to the mission of the church. Either the church will change its message to accommodate the state's political agenda, or the political rulers will use the church to their own ends. Regardless, the purity of the church is compromised.
This unholy unity contributed to the paralysis of the church during the Hitler era. At the very moment it should have been condemning the politics of the day with one unified voice, the church found its existence dependent upon the goodwill of the state. The church had a history of allegiance to its militaristic Prussian heroes. In the fourth century Constantine had the cross of Christ emblazoned on the shields of his soldiers; in the twentieth century, the Nazis wrapped the Cross in the swastika, making the cross a weapon to further Hitler's agenda. But I'm ahead of the story.
To return to the history of the First Reich: From 1273 to 1806, the Holy Roman emperors were, for the most part, Germans from Austria, known as the Habsburg dynasty. The conflict between church and state continued until the last centuries of the empire, when the emperors lost much of their power and rival kingdoms arose throughout Europe.
Where does Germany fit into all of this? During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the territory of Brandenburg/ Prussia arose and was ruled by a succession of powerful kings. The Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin was built in honor of the territory that bears its name. The beautiful palaces of the Prussian kings can still be admired today on the outskirts of Berlin. Prussia, as we will learn, became involved in a series of wars and eventually brought unity to the German-speaking people of Europe.
In 1804, the pope tried to crown Napoleon Bonaparte in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but Napoleon snatched the crown from the pontiff and crowned himself, signifying that, unlike Charlemagne, he had won the right to be emperor on his own merits! Napoleon's goal was to substitute a French empire for the German one that had dominated Europe for so many centuries. After crushing Austria, he turned on Prussia; and when he marched victoriously into Berlin, the First Reich had come to its end.
However, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the state of Prussia was recreated, and French dominance soon ended. In fact, Prussia rebounded from French rule with a deepened sense of nationalism and, through a series of wars, unified Germany. Thus the conditions were right to inaugurate a Second Reich.
THE SECOND REICH (1871-1918)
Picture Germany as a collection of about three hundred independent states, each having its own organization, often its own currency, and even separate weights and measures. What might be done to bring unity to the fragmented German states?
Excerpted from Hitler's Cross by Erwin W. Lutzer. Copyright © 2016 Erwin W. Lutzer. Excerpted by permission of Moody Publishers.
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