Between June 30-July 2, 1934, Adolf Hitler ordered that over 100 people be killed and over 1,000 arrested, for known opposition to his leadership and vision for the future of Germany. The event, though largely ignored by the international community, became known as The Night of the Long Knives. In defending his actions, Hitler masterfully appealed to the German sensibility of a strong state, saying:
“In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people…everyone must know for all future time that if he raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.”
Clearing the path of opposition, Hitler was then able to move much more swiftly and adeptly toward his gruesome vision for Germany. Many were swept up by his leadership, in glad submission; many were terrified of what he represented and the danger he posed to the German people, but remained too paralyzed to speak or act out publicly against him.
Almost two months after these horrible events, several pastors gathered together on the island of Fanø to discuss and formulate a response to a recently ratified edict stating that all future pastors must swear an oath of obedience to the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and that discussion of disputes between the church and state were illegal.
A few weeks before the conference, however, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to a bishop, who was scheduled to speak at the event. Bonhoeffer knew he was often regarded as a blunt object, so he appealed to the bishop to break the ice and prime the crowd before it was his turn to speak. With a prophetic sense of what was at stake, Bonhoeffer wrote:
“It is precisely here, in our attitude toward the state, that we must speak out with absolute sincerity for the sake of Jesus Christ and of the ecumenical cause. It must be made quite clear – terrifying though it is – that we are immediately faced with the decision: National Socialist or Christian…”
Corruption can be so powerful, and power so corrupting. This was the terrifying reality Bonhoeffer lived in – a reality in which people could be killed without due process or warning; a reality in which someone so powerful and corrupt could silence ideological opposition with relative ease; a reality completely under the control of one man. With each ideologically-opposed or non-Arian group Hitler targeted, fear spread throughout Germany. The greater the fear, the greater the premium and desire for peace and security.
Peace and security are good things. But given the circumstances, Bonhoeffer knew that there would be a great temptation to trade in a faithful Christian witness for the trappings of a safe life, and he would not let that spirit of idolatry come upon the church without a fight.
So, in his address at The Conference at Fanø, Bonhoeffer reminded those in attendance of the cross – the most dangerous and evil place in history – a place where obedience to God and the comfort of security could not be reconciled:
“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”
Bonhoeffer’s point was just this: peace is not safe, it must be won. And at the cross of Jesus, peace was won. When with his last breath Jesus said, “It is finished,” the full wrath of God was poured out on him, and peace was won. On the third day, when Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, peace was won. The unpeaceful and unsecure obedience of Jesus won ultimate peace and security with God for all who would believe.
May we, today, heed Bonhoeffer’s warning of the idolatry of security that sacrifices faithful obedience to God. And may this reality of ultimate peace and security with God give us the courage to live faithful, obedient lives, even if it costs temporal peace or security.
This post represents my summary and reflections of pages 230-41 in Eric Metaxas’ book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : a Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich.
Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : a Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. 230-41.
Two days after Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address on the topic of “The Fuhrer Principle” – the idea of a Leader who answers to no one. His speech was titled “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership.” Before he could finish the address, the program was pulled from the air. Many believe this was the work of Hitler himself, though this cannot be confirmed.
From Eric Metaxas’ summary of Bonhoeffer’s speech:
“The German notion of the Fuhrer arose out of this generation and its search for meaning and guidance out of its troubles [WWI & The Treaty of Versailles]. The difference between real leadership and the false leadership of the Leader [Fuhrer] was this: real leadership derived its authority from God, the source of all goodness. Thus parents have legitimate authority because they are submitted to the legitimate authority of a good God. But the authority of the Fuhrer was submitted to nothing. It was self-derived and autocratic, and therefore had a messianic aspect.”
From Bonhoeffer on true leadership:
“…if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his task and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the Leader will pass over into the image of the mis-leader, and he will be acting in a criminal way…The true Leader must always be able to disillusion…He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognition of the real authority of orders and offices…He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads.”
“Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached…Alone before God, man becomes what he is, free and committed in responsibility at the same time…Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God and the individual who stands alone before him, and must perish.”
There is a lot to learn from Bonhoeffer’s treatise on authority and leadership. Here are three things I think we can learn:
- Ultimate Authority Rests with God: Any attempt to lay claim to ultimate authority – be it human, ideological, or other – is seditious and treasonous in nature. Though Bonhoeffer witnessed this ever-so-clearly in the person of Hitler, we too witness idols (that we set up in our hearts) that we believe will ultimately satisfy us with whatever they offer. These idols are dangerous and will not be as explicit as Hitler in their messianic agendas.
- The Leader is Never Greater than the Mission: In other words, leaders point their followers toward mission not position. Though Hitler did everything in the name of a “better Germany,” it was all a ruse to acquire more power and to mystify the people with his cunning and leadership. Bonhoeffer’s point, however, is that the leader is never greater than the mission. The leader should always be humbly training the next generation to take his place. Otherwise, the focus is on the person not the mission.*
- Know Your Limits: Both in ability and by that which is legislated. Once in power, Hitler set up a government that could not restrict his sovereignty. He ruled swiftly and supremely. Therefore, he had no legislated limits to recognize…not that this was a good thing! However, he had plenty of personal limits which he should have recognized publicly but did not. As leaders we ought to know our strengths and weaknesses, and defer, when necessary, to those we trust who are strong where we are weak. Likewise, if the jurisdiction of our position is limited, we ought to respect our boundaries and work prudently within the scope of our given role. We can be informed and critical of other offices but we cannot be imperialistic.
*An absolute ruler who does not train the next generation is no better than having no leader to train the next generation. This expression of mis-leadership is evidenced all throughout the book of Judges in the phrase, “In those days there was no king of Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (Judges 21:25)
Metaxas, Eric. “Chapter 9.” Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : a Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. 141-42. Print.