by Frans van Liere.
The author’s grandfather, C. van Liere, in 1922.
Last week, I received an e-mail from a former student. “Professor, I’m really struggling with fear, and I’ve been looking to history in order to understand how it may repeat itself in the very near future. […] I’d love to hear some of your wisdom on what we as citizens can do to prevent oppression.”
There are good reasons to be scared. In Trump’s inauguration speech, we heard the ‘establishment’ discredited and derided. From now on, ‘the people’ were back in power. In Trump’s words: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.” As someone who grew up in Europe, I cannot hear these words without hearing a scary echo of the slogans of the National-Socialist movement in Germany in the 1930s.
Christian reactions to the new president vary. Some rejoice over what they see as the beginning of a new era in which their values will triumph over the secular tendencies that undermine their vision of a Christian America. Others are not so sure. Some voted for Trump mainly because they saw no good alternative. They are still ambivalent, but they mask the nagging voice of doubt with pious quietism, saying, “God is in control.” He knows what is best.
I am skeptical about the ability of the past to hold concrete lessons for today. So many variables are different. However, sometimes the study of the past surprises. If today we say that Hitler was an absolutely evil tyrant, we can do this with the benefit of hindsight; the changes that he brought to German society at the time were gradual and went unnoticed by a large segment of the population. Only a few prophetic voices stood up against him.
One of these was Martin Niemōller, who was put on trial by the regime for sedition in 1938. On my desk is a copy of Niemōller’s autobiography, printed in 1934, a year after Hitler came to power. It belonged to my grandfather, and it has his underlining and annotations. Only recently I learned the background to this copy, and became aware of the connection that tied my grandfather to Niemōller’s story.
My grandfather was born in 1881. That means that he was exactly my age when Hitler rose to power. How did he react to the political events of his day? He was a teacher of German at the HBS (high school) in Zaltbommel, a sleepy provincial town on the majestic Waal river, about half an hour south of Utrecht. I found a school picture with my grandfather, dated 1929. The name of one of his colleagues caught my eye, Menno ten Braak. He was an influential avant-garde Dutch novelist and film maker, who when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940 made a failed attempt to flee to England. He committed suicide the day the Germans carpet-bombed the city of Rotterdam.
My grandfather had studied German language and literature in Groningen (my own alma mater, in the Netherlands) and Bonn, Germany. From that time, he maintained a number of friendships with German colleagues. They kept him up to date on the situation in Germany. My grandfather was especially interested in developments in the German Church after Hitler’s rise.
From 1935 to 1938 he gave regular lectures on the topic of the German Kirchenstreit (Church struggle) at Dutch church meetings and political youth conventions (the “Vrijzinnig Democratische Jongerenbond”). In 1938, he wrote a long two-part article in the journal Het Kouter about the trial of Niemōller. He saw in the developments in Germany a powerful warning for Dutch Christians: “The swastika has only one mortal enemy: the Cross of Christ.”
Christians in Germany in 1938 felt under siege. However, they saw in National Socialism not their enemy, but a potential ally in the struggles that concerned them most: against the secular forces of communism and social democracy and against the influence of the Catholic Church, which often sided with the more progressive elements in politics. Hitler promised a return to “positive Christianity” as the basis for a new German state; a faith based on masculinity, patriotism, and national identity. Many Christians saw in Hitler the supporter of the conservative Christian cause.
My grandfather had actually read Mein Kampf, and begged to disagree. To think that Mein Kampf was compatible with Christian values, he said, showed an “extraordinary weakening of the ability for critical judgement.”
The Nazis advocated for the strong influence of Christianity as a cultural force, while downplaying Christianity as the message of God’s self-revelation to a world enslaved to sin. While the Nazis loved to talk of Christianity’s traditional moral values, they had no use for ‘weaker’ values such as love and biblical justice – justice was subordinate to the needs of the ‘people’ embodied in the party and presented by the Führer.
In the end, “positive Christianity” turned out to be nothing but paganism masquerading under the guise of socially conservative Christianity. Too late many German Christians discovered that the Christianity they had embraced was in fact a form of idolatry. At the time, the Gleichschaltung of the German church gave it political influence and even an increase in membership. Only members of the “Bekennende Kirche” (Confessing Church) such as Karl Barth and Martin Niemōller saw that it was a devil’s bargain. In fact, my grandfather observed, in its desire to find allies in the struggle against Communism, the Christian Church had welcomed a Trojan horse in its midst.
My grandfather cites the Theological Declaration of Barmen, the confessional document drafted by Karl Barth and adopted by the Bekennende Kirche in 1934: “As Jesus Christ is God’s assurance of the forgiveness of all our sins, so in the same way and with the same seriousness is he also God’s mighty claim upon our whole life. Through him befalls us a joyful deliverance from the godless fetters of this world for a free, grateful service to his creatures. We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords—areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him.” This was the moral compass that helped him negotiate the political developments of his time; even though he was of course yet unaware of the cataclysmic events that were to come.
For my grandfather, the struggle of the German Christians was part of a larger struggle: between God’s revelation through Jesus Christ and the powers of this world, between Christian faith and modern paganism. The devil’s bargain that Hitler offered Christians back then is also offered to us. American Christians should realize that “America First” is a sentiment that runs contrary to the voice of the Gospel, and that our first allegiance is to Christ, not the rulers of this world.
 Martin Niemöller, Vom U-boot zur Kanzel, Berlin: Martin Warneck Verlag, 1934.
 C. van Liere, “Zin en betekenis van het proces-Niemöller,” Het Kouter. Onafhankelijk Tijdschrift voor Religie en Cultuur 3 (1938): 100-113 and 143-155, here 155.
 Van Liere, “Zin en betekenis,” 149.
 Van Liere, “Zin en betekenis”, 153.
 Theological Declaration of Barmen, 2. English translation online at: http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf. Cited by Van Liere, “Zin en betekenis”, 155.
Frans van Liere is Professor of History and director of the Medieval Studies program at Calvin. He teaches world history, medieval history, and history of the book. He grew up in the Netherlands and studied theology and medieval studies at the University of Groningen. His research interests are medieval biblical exegesis, twelfth-century intellectual history, and the late medieval papacy. He lives in Grand Rapids, MI with his wife, two teenage sons, and a cat named Lancelot.