World War II era German theologian Paul Althaus noted, “We Lutherans see Hitler as a gift and a miracle from God.” Why did most German Lutherans follow Hitler and not pastors like Dietrich Bonheoffer? And why did many Jewish Christians disastrously turn away from their Christian beliefs and follow Jewish nationalism in their rebellion against Roman rule between 66-73 AD?
These are questions raised in my mind when I recently listened to retired PLU history Professor Robert Ericksen speak about Martin Luther’s influence on Hitler’s Germany. The answer for both seems to lie in the enduring but baffling human tendency to think in black-and-white terms.
Professor Ericksen gave a fascinating account of how many Germans were enraged over the losses during what is now called World War I. The vengeful, greedy and stupid British, French, and Italian diplomats had punished Germany during the Versailles Peace talks that ended World War I and set the stage for World War II a generation later.
Germany had lost their leader, Kaiser Wilhelm, their army and navy, their African colonies, and part of their territory to Poland and France. They were forced to pay billions of dollars in reparations to France and Britain, and worst of all, they were forced to create a weak new democratic government called the Weimar Republic which was unable to deal with the many financial and social problems created by the end of the war. Germans justifiably felt they had been “”stabbed in the back” by the Allies at Versailles.
Following Hitler was a radical response to the anger and the wrongs engendered from Versailles. Most German Lutherans were conservative and patriotic, according to Ericksen. The Protestant regions of Germany were more pro-Hitler than were the Catholic areas. Most Germans saw loyalty to their country and to God as the same thing.
Jewish Christians were shocked and confused by the martyrdom in 61 AD of their strict and righteous bishop, James the Just, half brother of Jesus, at the hands of a Jewish Jerusalem mob. Many had lost faith that Jesus would return in their lifetimes, according to Professor Ernest L. Martin in his fascinating book, “Restoring the Original Bible.”
During this time thousands of these Jewish Christians turned away from Christianity and toward Jewish nationalism. They rose up in rebellion against Roman rule in 66 AD and, like the German Lutherans at the end of World War II were mercilessly crushed and defeated. Thousands died and their temple and city were destroyed in 70 AD. Most of the surviving Jews were sold into slavery and exile throughout the Roman Empire. The Jewish nation of Israel was no more, and would not return until the end of World War II with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
What do these nationalist movements have in common? Both were made up of people who could only see the world in black-and-white terms. There was no middle ground for either group.
The German Lutherans were used to the state doing their thinking for them. So too, were the Palestinian Jews whose thinking was ensnared in their strict orthodoxy. Neither had developed the ability to examine their thoughts and feelings rationally.
Neither could separate love of their nation from belief in their God. The freedom of choice offered by the Weimar Republic confused and frightened German Lutherans. So, too, for Jewish Christians, the security of their beliefs died with the martyrdom of James the Just and the “Great Disappointment” of Christ not returning in their lifetimes.
What lessons can we of the 21st century learn from these nationalistic movements? The answer is that we must leave the immature black-and-white thinking that is common with teens and become mature, being able to live between extremes. We must examine ourselves and challenge our beliefs, because we, like the German Lutherans and Jewish Christians are all prone to simplistic answers to complex problems.
Both nationalistic movements ended in absolute failure because neither group was able to see the world from perspectives other than their own. That’s the warning and danger of thinking in black-and-white. That danger we all need to heed.