Lessons from History Part 1: World War II, National Socialism and the Church

Matthew 5:14 “You are then light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.”

This week marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II on September 2, 1945. There is much to celebrate of America’s heroic battle against evil. But there are lessons we must also never forget.

“First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by then no one was left to speak up.”

Although Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984) was one of the few pastors who eventually stood up against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Socialist Party, resulting in his imprisonment in concentration camps from 1937-1945, he is best remembered for the above quote, spoken after the war ended, where he confessed the Protestant church’s guilt through silence in watching the Nazis murder millions of innocent people.  

“We can talk ourselves out of our need for atonement with the excuse that ‘it would have cost me my head if I had spoken out’,” Niemöller said. “We preferred to keep silent. We are certainly not without guilt or fault and I ask myself again and again, what would have happened, if in the year 1933 or 1934, 14,000 Protestant pastors and all Protestant communities in Germany had defended the truth until their deaths?”

In her book “Awakening Conscience: The Pastor Martin Niemöller Story”, Dr. Victoria Barnett (Director of the Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) explains: “In1933, Niemöller was one of those Protestant clergy who welcomed the rise of National Socialism. He saw this with a great deal of optimism. He supported Hitler and even voted for him in the last free election. Where Niemöller began to turn against the regime, and this came very early, was in response to both the state pressures on the Churches and most particularly the battle about the Aryan paragraph within the German Protestant Church.

What changed him was a January 1934 meeting of Adolf Hitler, Niemöller, and two prominent Protestant bishops to discuss state pressures on churches. At the meeting it became clear that Niemöller’s phone had been tapped by the Gestapo (German Secret State Police). It was also clear that the Pastors Emergency League (PEL), which Niemöller had helped found, was under close state surveillance. Following the meeting, Niemöller would come to see the Nazi state as a dictatorship, one which he would oppose.”   

But when Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a fellow pastor in the newly-formed “Confessing Church”, demanded Christians to action against escalating Jewish persecution, Niemöller opposed him, saying the Church must first protect itself before standing up for others. At this stage, the Confessing Church was more motivated over fighting for autonomy from Nazi State Church control, not over the immorality of Jewish persecution.  

By 1937, Niemöller, Bonhoeffer and other pastors were in concentration camps. With their leaders in prison, the Confessing Church voted in 1937 to cooperate with the state church and even thank Hitler for revitalizing of German life! Whatever remained of the church bowed to Adolf Hitler’ Nazi Socialism. To Hitler, Christianity was a religion fit only for slaves. He detested its ethics in particular. Its teaching, he declared, was a rebellion against the natural law of selection by struggle and the survival of the fittest.

How could the Church stay silent as the National Socialist Nazi Party murdered millions? As Jesus explains in this week’s verses, the Church was no longer salt and light. In His famous Sermon on the Mount, which begins in Matthew chapter 5 and ends at chapter 7, this son of a local carpenter taught with greater authority than the scribes or Pharisees. He has become the most influential figure the world will ever know.

Verse 14 is part of 3 verses where Jesus explains that His followers bring glory to God because their lives will stand out in the midst of a corrupt and evil world: “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light so shine among men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Niemöller confessed Jesus as his Lord and Savior, but no good works can come where there is no light.

The Evidence of Faith’s Substance – Article #414

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