Lessons from My Grandfather

by Frans van Liere.
Black and white photo of balding man at a table surrounded by books.

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.[4]

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.”[5] 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.


[1] Martin Niemöller, Vom U-boot zur Kanzel, Berlin: Martin Warneck Verlag, 1934.

[2] 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.

[3] Van Liere, “Zin en betekenis,” 149.

[4] Van Liere, “Zin en betekenis”, 153.

[5] 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.

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Sixty Years Ago, A Different Refugee Crisis

by Doug Howard.
Sepia toned image of a young man wearing a suit coat and tie.

Gustav Bayerle in 1957. This photo was stapled to his University of Rochester application.

My teacher, Gustav Bayerle, died in October. Watching the unfolding refugee crisis this winter has reminded me of Gustav’s experiences, sixty years ago in another refugee crisis, brought on by the 1956 Hungarian revolution. When the revolution was suppressed by the tanks and troops of the Soviet army, nearly 200,000 people left Hungary, about 2 percent of the population of the country. Most were men, and most were young, half under 25 years of age. The vast majority became permanent expatriates, the largest number (some 44,000) in the United States. Gustav was one of these.

Gustav spoke little about his experiences, except on a memorable evening in 1989. News of his death reminded me that he had told his story to the student newspaper at the University of Rochester. I called the archivist at Rochester, Melissa Mead, and she produced scans not just of the story (in three parts) that Gustav himself had written for the Campus-Times, in March 1957, but also an article about his arrival (December 1956) in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and, to top it off, a copy of Gustav’s handwritten application for admission to the university, dated 23 May 1957. Asked his reason for leaving his previous university, he had written laconically, “Hungarian Revolution.”

The revolution was largely student-driven, started by students at the University of Szeged and, in Budapest, urged on through a list of national demands drawn up by students at the Technical University. It began on October 23 when protests at the parliament and the state radio were met with violence. Gustav’s role at first was helping publish the revolutionary student newspaper, but a few days later he went to see his parents in the suburbs and there joined the Freedom Fighters. The communist government collapsed, Russian troops withdrew, and “the week that followed was one big victory festival.” Hungary left the Warsaw Pact and announced its neutrality.

When Soviet tanks and troops returned, Gustav fought alongside others in the doomed battle to defend Budapest. When the urban combat ended, “The city swam in a smoky, sickening cloud,” he wrote, that “carried a mixture of the odor of burning houses and slowly decaying corpses.” Gustav’s unit threw down their arms in a church and disbanded. One of their group disappeared overnight. Gustav and others fled, helped by families in villages along the way. After hiding in a haystack for a day and a half, they were led to the border in the middle of the night by a farmer. Running through the last fields with flares firing overhead at one-minute intervals, using the “creep-and-sprint” technique they had learned in the army, they came to the river and crossed into Austria. They reached safety at Naschensdorf, where “the whole village was illuminated to prevent the refugees from losing their way.”

Arriving in New York with financial help from Lutheran World Federation World Service and World University Service, Gustav entered an intensive English course at Bard College, and then was offered a fellowship at the University of Rochester, one of two grants initiated “to repair some of the terrible human damage done by the tragic events in Hungary,” in the words of Louis Beck, dean of the Graduate School. Gustav’s learning curve was steep. He wrote in his Rochester application, “I am experiencing the difference between a dictatorial and a democratic system.”

What do these old stories have to do with what we’re going through now? I want to say both, “very little,” and “a lot.”

History’s precedents are never precise, the parallels never perfect. There are differences of scale—the number of Syrian refugees living today in Turkey alone swamp the total number of Hungarian refugees by ten times. Today, a third of the prewar population of Syria is displaced. And of time frame—the Hungarian revolution was put down by force two weeks after it began. The Syrian civil war has been going on for six years. Yet there are similarities, especially in the reality of oppression, suffering, resistance, defeat, loss, and the permanence of change. Anyway politicized comparisons always oversimplify and miss a larger point—to me, the lessons of Gustav’s experience were always personal.

After earning a degree at Rochester, Gustav went on to Columbia University, where he did a PhD under an earlier Hungarian émigré, Tibor Halasi-Kun. In 1966 Gustav was recruited by yet another Hungarian émigré, Denis Sinor, to join the faculty of the Department of Uralic and Altaic Studies (now Central Eurasian Studies) at Indiana University. He taught for thirty years, eventually succeeding Sinor as department chair. An early computer advocate, he got one of the university’s first PCs for the departmental office and liked to envision research projects that harnessed its power, such as my own dissertation, whose data analysis was impossible without it.

The conversation in which he told me his story took place in the summer of 1989, in Budapest, my first time in Hungary. Gustav had organized (with György Hazai) a collaborative project of Hungarian and American historians to publish Ottoman historical sources, funded by the International Research and Exchange Board (IREX). I was one of the Americans. The first symposium of our little group was planned without knowing that all across Eastern Europe the Iron Curtain would be coming down that summer and the Cold War ending. We flew into Budapest three days after the public reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of 1956. Can Gustav have imagined, on arriving in New York in 1956, that thirty-three years later he would be narrating his story over coffee with his student, in a McDonald’s restaurant on Régiposta utca? Can he have imagined that evening that this student would return to Hungary many times, bringing his own students? That the collegial relationships forged that week would bear fruit in research over decades? That one of those Hungarian colleagues would hold the Turkish Chair at Gustav’s own former university, and come to America in 2014 as a Fulbright fellow at Calvin College?

I am the same age now as Gustav was in 1989, and I don’t think we get better at imagining. But these examples are not meant to be trivial, petty, self-indulgent—they are the whole point. I have no doubt that the protestors at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and at Gerald R. Ford Airport in Grand Rapids last week were there for similar personal reasons. Refugees bring their world to us, and they take us to their worlds, over long periods of time, in ways we find hard to imagine. I am grateful for the life and teaching of one such refugee.

Doug Howard is a professor of history at Calvin College. His History of the Ottoman Empire, has just been published.

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Thinking About History as a Christian: Jay Green’s Outstanding Work

by Ron Wells.
Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. By Jay D. Green. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015.

Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions. By Jay D. Green. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2015.

I am a member of the founding generation of the Conference on Faith and History (CFH). It was exciting when, as a very junior scholar, I was able to be present when the CFH was launched. Back then, no one in the American Historical Association (AHA) or elsewhere was talking much about how a person might be a Christian and a historian, and how the two callings might connect. It is one of the great graces in my life to have seen the growth and development of the CFH and to have had a part in its maturation. Among the bright young people to assume leadership in recent years has been Jay Green, Professor at Covenant College.

This outstanding book by Green, president-elect of the CFH, shows how far we have come in these nearly 50 years. Green’s range of reading is immense. His analytical skills are acute. His writing is crisp and accessible. It is an enormous pleasure to look over Professor Green’s shoulder, as it were, as he thinks for us in writing Christian Historiography: Five Rival Visions. He asks, then illumines fully and deeply, the question we founders of CFH were trying to formulate: what does it mean to be a Christian with a vocation as a historian? Let’s listen in; this is going to be good.

The five versions of Christian historiography provide the outline for the book. They are: History that takes religion seriously; History seen through the lens of Christian faith commitments; History as applied ethics; History as Apologetics; History as a search for God. The author sees much from which to benefit in the first three; not so much in the latter two. Let’s take then in turn.

History that takes religion seriously. For historians in this version, being a Christian historian meant to write about religion. As is well known, the academy in the twentieth century was largely hostile or indifferent to religious subject matter as the stuff of history. While there were a few well-known scholars of religion – Dawson, Latourette and Harbison – most historians were silent about religious phenomena. But, as Green points out, the neo-Evangelical revival of the second half of the century also gave us a generation of outstanding historians, who wrote about religion and who were themselves Christians. There were many who wrote fine books, but the leading lights were, e.g., Timothy Smith, George Marsden, Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and later, Barry Hankins and Randall Balmer. Yet, as Green points out, while being a Christian helped the historians to write good books in religious history, it didn’t afford them insights about religion that non-believing scholars might have missed.

History through the lens of faith commitments. For historians in this version the subject matter was not necessarily religion. Rather, their writing turned on “Christian world-view thinking.” Thus, Christians would be able to see things that other, presumably secular, scholars might not see. [Fair disclosure: in the “through the eyes of faith” series published by Harper for the CCCU, I wrote History Through the Eyes of Faith]. This viewpoint came mostly from scholars in Presbyterian/Reformed colleges, in which there is an affirmation that Christ is lord of all academic work, not just religion; as Abraham Kuyper famously intoned, “there is not a square inch” of the world that does not belong to God. Therefore, there are no neutral parts of academic work. But, as Green points out, not everyone in the CFH or in CCCU colleges (especially Anabaptists) was happy with the dominance of Reformed scholars in the project. Further, friendly critics like Daryl Hart and Michael Hamilton wondered if “perspectival history” went beyond being rhetorically satisfying to make any real impact on the secular consensus in the profession. Unfriendly, indeed ungracious, critics like Christopher Shannon and Roger Schultz went further than merely doubting how much impact history from a perspective had made; they impugned the motives of such scholars, suggesting that in offering supposedly “outrageous ideas” they were feathering their own nests in the secular academy.

History as applied ethics. Jay Green makes an especially good contribution in this section, as this area is not as well-known as that in the two versions discussed above. For historians in this area, the intent of their work is to have moral impact on the reader. For historians on the Left, it means that history should incline towards social justice; to those on the Right it means to point to the right ordering of society on Christian principles, and most often a return to “Christian foundations.” Social justice scholars like Richard Hughes (the maltreatment of minorities) and James Juhnke and Carol Hunter (America’s propensity toward violence and warfare) hope, on the basis of their Christian convictions, to offer an alternate reading of American history. In the end, they hope readers will act for justice on the basis of that reading of history. Right-leaning writers like David Barton (recovering a Christian nation) and Marvin Olasky (warning about the national effects of a “decline” in morality) see their Christian convictions as also offering an alternate reading of history. They also hope, like the Left-leaning writers, that their readers will act in what they regard as the morally acceptable way. Jay Green agrees with historians David Harlan and Michael Kugler that moral inquiry is a vital and unavoidable part of a properly-conceived Christian historiography. Green is rightly cautious, though, and sounds the tocsin against going too full-bore towards moral inquiry because historians are called to value the past on its own terms, not just as providing past examples to given instruction to the present.

History as apologetics. For completeness sake, Jay Green offers this section, and once again his wide reading and keen analysis are on display. But for the scholars here, who want their work to prove Christianity correct, Green seems less than impressed (rightly, in this reviewer’s estimation). There are some familiar names in this section among the scholars – Edwin Yamauchi and John Howard Yoder. But mostly it is about non-academic writers with a religious axe to grind – e.g., Dinesh D’Sousa, Greg Singer and Francis Schaeffer. Mark Noll has referred to much of this writing as “tribal history,” that is, showing who’s in and who’s out. Green agrees: “such history often reduces Christian scholarship to a species of propaganda.”

History as a search for God. Historians in this section look to see God’s hand in history. While Green rightly points out that hardly any professionally trained historians do this sort of writing, it is a major cottage industry for non-academic writers who believe that God did not stop acting after the era of the Bible. For example, books like The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manual have garnered little if any acceptance among academic historians, but it has been powerfully instrumental in energizing parents to support Christian education, both for school-goers and home-schoolers. This book has also generated a populist anger against Christian academics, who, it is often said, are “deceiving” Christian parents who want their children to believe in the providence of God, not only for biblical times but for American history too. Jay Green, the careful and judicious scholar, seems almost exasperated with this, saying that this sort of advocacy isn’t really history at all. Rather, he says, it is “a rhetorical strategy” for “worldview maintenance.” No wonder he, almost ruefully, concludes that “there is little in providentialism worth salvaging.”

The conclusion of Christian Historiography is challenging, and the author is to be commended for not going back on his earlier point that there is no one right way, but multiple ways, to do faithful history. As we have seen, Green does not see much for us in either history as apologetics and history in the search for God. On the other hand, a majority of members of the Conference on Faith and History are practitioners of religious history. But, religious history, as such, doesn’t say much about the Christian vocation of the scholar. The other models – world view and ethics – do. But, as Green forthrightly argues, one wonders if arguments in those areas have been played out. While I doubt that is fully so, I am willing to hear what Green offers. He thinks a new and fruitful line of argument turns on the concept of vocation.

In this last section Green draws especially on the interesting work by the Lutheran scholar, Douglas Schuurman and the Reformed scholar, Cornelius Plantinga – and many other known to members of the Conference on Faith and History. His discussion it too rich and deep to be summarized quickly, but I’ll just say here that it is a rewarding way to conclude this good book, and to encourage faithful historians. It may well be the catalyst that prompts a new conversation about being a historian of faith.

Yet the two examples with which Green concludes – Tracy McKenzie and Arthur Link – seemed jarring to me in their juxtaposition. They represent the extremes on the continuum of what historians of faith might be called. McKenzie, a past president of the CFH, had been a tenured professor at a major research university (his dissertation advisor, a close friend of mine, was very proud of him). But, McKenzie experienced a major crisis of vocation. He wasn’t at all happy with being in a university setting and producing monographs. He talked and wrote about this crisis quite openly. Taking direct aim at George Marsden, McKenzie said he didn’t want to “fit nicely” (Marsden’s term) in secular academe. Rather, he wanted to do something, as he said, “sacred and redemptive.” He later moved to a tenured position at Wheaton College, where he could more openly exercise his Christian vocation as he sees it. Importantly, Jay Green does not say that this resolution of McKenzie’s personal crisis is normative.

The other example, with which the book closes, is the life and work of Arthur Link, arguably, as Green says, one of the most distinguished American historians of the twentieth century. Link was a very seriously committed Christian, who saw his vocation clearly and fully to be the best historian he could be. He was no less sure of his vocation than Tracy McKenzie is of his. But Link resides on the polar opposite end of the continuum. Green’s writing rises to a kind of crescendo in asking a series of questions about Link and his work; the last question is “Can the regenerate historian abandon the rules of conventional history to produce something better?” As Green writes, and to all the questions, and especially the last one, Link would answer a resounding “no.” In short, the vocational alternative offered by Link is essentially what George Marsden suggests and McKenzie deplores, i.e., to “fit nicely” into the university. But, the essential point for Link, and I suppose Marsden, is that they fit into the university self-consciously as Christians. That makes all the difference for Arthur Link – and, by extension, for us – because Link sees the normal rules and practices of historians, in Christian hands, as somehow netting something more than that which comes from a non-believer making use of the same practices.

While there is more to be said on all these issues, Jay Green’s offering of his rich and nuanced discussion of vocation seems likely, to this seasoned observer, to provide a new departure in the ongoing conversation we all began a half-century ago in trying of work out our Christian calling as historians. In sum, this is a very important book for all historians of faith.

This review was originally published in Fides et Historia. It is republished here with permission.

Ronald A. Wells is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Calvin College, Michigan. He is now mostly retired in Tennessee, and lives in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where he has part-time position directing the Symposium on Faith and the Liberal Arts at Maryville College. He is a layman in the Episcopal Church, and is a member of the Church of the Ascension in Knoxville.

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