When History is Forgotten

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.

This excerpt from an autobiography of open of history’s most prolific ministers tells of how the NAZI party came into power. It rings true of how the Democrat party of the Unites States are dividing our nation, and will soon bring about the fall of the Republic. Many who call themselves Christian, like then, are at a cross road.

The Burning of the Reichstag But how would the Nazis “carry on the fight”? First, they would burn down a building. Arson was the first part of their plan to consolidate their gains and, ultimately, to do away with the German constitution and give Hitler the rights of a dictator. It was a scheme at once foolproof and foolhardy: they would start a fire at the Reichstag, the seat of German democracy. Then they would blame it on the Communists! If the German people believed the Communists had tried to burn down the parliament building, they would see the need for extraordinary actions on behalf of the government. They would welcome giving up a few liberties to preserve the German nation against the Communist devils. So the fire was set and the Communists blamed and the Nazis triumphed. But just how it happened that night remains a mystery. In his monumental chronicle of the period, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, historian and journalist William Shirer stated that the Nazi leaders were taken by surprise: “Out at Goebbels’ home, Chancellor Hitler had arrived to dine en famille. According to Goebbels, they were relaxing, playing music on the gramophone and telling stories. ‘Suddenly,’ he recounted later in his diary, ‘a telephone call from Dr. Hanfstaengl: “The Reichstag is on fire!” ’ ” 146 But Goebbels had to consider the source of the information. Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl* was a “strange but genial Harvard man” whose money and connections had greatly helped Hitler’s rise to power over the last decade. In his undergraduate heyday he had composed numerous songs for the Harvard football games. One of them had been played just a month earlier when the SA Brownshirts** marched down Unter den Linden in Hitler’s victory parade. Shirer described Hanfstaengl as an “eccentric, gangling man, whose sardonic wit somewhat compensated for his shallow mind,” and whose raucous piano playing and “clowning soothed Hitler and even cheered him up after a tiring day.” So when Goebbels took the call that night, he was convinced that Hanfstaengl was simply having a few laughs. But the lanky goofball was deadly serious. First to the fire scene was the corpulent Hermann Göring, perspiring and puffing as he exclaimed, “This is the beginning of the Communist revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot where he is found. Every Communist deputy must this very night be strung up.” The flabby fellow had been in on the plan to burn the building, but now was not the time for sincerity. A shirtless Dutchman of some mental deficiency was arrested on the spot and accused of the crime, but how he figured into things will probably never be clear. Marinus van der Lubbe was a twenty-four-year-old pyromaniac with Communist leanings, but it’s highly doubtful that he was part of a larger Communist plot, as the Nazis claimed. But whether he was acting on his own unbalanced accord or was simply a Nazi dupe is hard to say. One thing was clear: he had used his shirt as tinder. But suddenly the Bonhoeffer family found itself in the center of the national controversy. Karl Bonhoeffer, Berlin’s top psychiatrist, was now called upon to examine Van der Lubbe. And Dietrich’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi was named an official observer at the trial. Many people believed Göring’s henchmen were behind the fire and hoped the incorruptible Karl Bonhoeffer would give evidence to support that belief and perhaps use his position and credibility to denounce the Nazis, whom he loathed. The major and vitally important trial was moved to Leipzig and then later, back to Berlin. 147 The affair weighed heavily on the family that year. Karl Bonhoeffer visited Van der Lubbe twice in March and six times that fall. His official report, later published in Monatsschrift für Psychiatrie und Neurologie, stated:

 [Van der Lubbe] was violently ambitious, at the same time modest and friendly; a scatterbrain, without any demand for intellectual clarity, but nevertheless capable of unwavering determination, incorrigibly closed to contradictory arguments. He was good-natured and not resentful, but he resisted all authority. This fundamentally rebellious tendency was probably his most questionable characteristic, and the one most likely to set him upon the disastrous road which he took. The early conversion to Communistic ideas certainly contributed to the same effect; but the undisciplined elements in his temperament made it unlikely in any case, that he would follow a quiet and orderly pattern through life. Something which was unusual in one way or another was to be expected from him. But he was not for that reason to be regarded as mentally ill.

 This clinical and lucid report contained no mention of guilt or innocence, and for this reason Dr. Bonhoeffer received irate letters, presumably from both sides. Years later, he recalled his role:

 I had the opportunity of meeting some of the leading Party members. A large number of them had gathered to attend the proceedings in the Supreme Court at Leipzig. The faces I saw at this gathering were unpleasant. During the hearings, the impassiveness and painstaking objectivity of the President of the Court was a pleasant contrast to the undisciplined manner of the Party members in the witness box. The other defendant, [Communist Party leader] Dimitroff, gave an impression of intellectual superiority, which set Minister President Göring, who had been invited to attend, in an incomprehensible fury. As for Lubbe, he was, in human terms, a not unsympathetic young man, a psychopath and a muddleheaded adventurer who, during the proceedings, reacted with a kind of stupefied defiance that he lost only shortly before his execution. 148 In 1933, Germany effectively lost the rule of law when Hindenburg signed Hitler’s emergency decree the day after the Reichstag fire, but in many ways it still remained a nation where, at least in the courtroom, the Reichstag president, Hermann Göring, and the working-class arsonist were essentially on equal footing. Acting as his own lawyer, the brilliant Dimitroff, who later became Bulgaria’s prime minister, could openly taunt and ridicule the vain, red-faced Göring and get away with it. The whole world was watching, so the Nazis could not do as they liked. Not yet. For a time they still must suffer these grave indignities. The international press reported the trial and relished Göring’s humiliation. Time magazine’s accounts were fulsome in their mockery, saying that the “bull-throated” premier’s voice had risen to a “jittery scream” when Dimitroff got the better of him. Their account of Göring’s statements speaks for itself:

 Folding his great arms and brooding for a moment like a brown Jove, General Göring exclaimed, “I regret exceedingly that certain Communist leaders have been saved from the gallows. . . . So surprised was I when I heard the Reichstag was burning that I thought faulty electric wiring must have started some small fire. . . . As I rushed to the Reichstag in my car someone shouted ‘Incendiarism!’” As though hypnotized by this word, Witness Göring paused for a long time, then rolled it out again, “Incendiarism!—when I heard that word the scales dropped from my eyes. All was perfectly clear. Nobody but the Communists could have done it!”

 Van der Lubbe was found guilty and beheaded at the Leipzig prison, but there was not enough evidence to convict the leading Communists, who were exiled to the Soviet Union and welcomed there as heroes. The trial shone enough light on what had happened to lend evidence to the idea that the Nazis had unscrupulously been involved in the fire. But by the time the trial was over, it was all too late. The Reichstag fire had served Hitler’s cynical purposes and provided the cover to ensure that his grip on the country was irreversible and total. Indeed, it was on the very day after the fire, when the Reichstag was still smoldering, that he pressed the eighty-five-year-old Hindenburg to sign the Reichstag Fire Edict, a decree officially suspending those sections of the German constitution that guaranteed individual liberties and civil rights. The senescent Hindenburg’s signature in a stroke turned Germany from a democratic republic with a would-be dictator into a dictatorship with the hollow shell of a democratic government. The democracy itself had gone up in smoke, and the symbolism of the gutted parliament—now a charred, empty husk—was bitterly apt.

The words of the decree, produced and signed into effect before anyone had had time to think carefully about it, made possible most of the horrors ahead, including the concentration camps:

 Restrictions on personal liberty, on the right of free expression of opinion, including freedom of the press; on the rights of assembly and association; and violations of the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications; and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

 Within days the Nazi storm troopers were in the streets, arresting and beating their political opponents, many of whom were imprisoned, tortured, and killed. The ability to speak against them in the press was gagged; the ability to assemble publicly against them was illegal. But Hitler was not through. To formally and legally place the whole power of the government in his control required the Reichstag to pass the so-called Enabling Act. The Reichstag was functioning, albeit in a greatly restricted way. But this Enabling Act would formally take away its powers—for the good of the nation, of course—and for four years place them in the eager hands of the chancellor and his cabinet. And so, on March 23, like a snake swallowing its own tail, the Reichstag passed the law that abolished its existence. With the tools of democracy, democracy was murdered and lawlessness made “legal.” Raw power ruled, and its only real goal was to destroy all other powers besides itself.

Bonhoeffer (pp. 145-149). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.