“If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord [the Creator God] has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who are willing to turn to him.”– Clement of Rome at the end of the First Century CE
In 1929, Germany was considered by many Europeans to be the most progressive, civilized, highly educated, and scientifically sophisticated nation in Europe. Its historical cultural attainments were also highly admired. Theologically, it was considered the leading Christian nation.
It had been over ten years since the end of the Great War of 1914-18. Germany had greatly struggled to find itself following the catastrophe of crushing defeat and the ensuing social and political revolution. The Versailles Peace Treaty had been so vindictive that many Germans were unable to accept all the territorial and financial penalties and limitations on their status as a Great Power which it had imposed. But as 1929 dawned, it seemed that Germany had adapted and was finding a new future as a peaceful, once-more prospering nation in the international community.
Many Germans were still angry about how the Allies had treated the Fatherland and imposed a diktat which made Germany the scapegoat for all the terrible things that had happened since 1914. But reasonable, liberal people were leading the country and seemed to have found a road back to respectability and reintegration in the international community. Even the onerous reparation payments had been renegotiated with the Allies and made more tolerable. The economy was once more humming, workers were once more getting a living wage for their families, and German culture was once more regaining its leading edge among the enlightened nations of the world.
Then came the Great Crash of October 1929. Within a year, Germany faced economic Armageddon – six million unemployed in an adult male workforce of about 22 million, millions of pauperized families destitute, thousands of businesses gone, banks going bankrupt, and on and on went the tale of woe.
The lurking forces of extremism rapidly thrust themselves front and centre after having spent the previous five years in the political wilderness. A quirky, brooding, charismatic fringe-party leader with a Charlie Chaplin moustache catapulted into national prominence with electrifying oratory and promises of German redemption and the restoration of all Germany’s old, lost greatness.
His more outlandish views about Jews and other undesirables could be ignored as demagoguery if you didn’t know any better, which 95% of Germans didn’t. A few restrictions on “those people” wouldn’t hurt anyway, eh? And if you really thought about it, history and culture really did show that Germany was a superior nation and Germans were superior people – compared to the half-barbarians of the East and the mongrel nations to the south, or even southern France. The Nordic nations and England were the only countries that could racially compare.
Hitler thundered that Germany had been cheated and betrayed from within by those wretched connivers and manipulators – the Jews and Communists. Germany had not really lost the Great War because of military defeat; internal enemies had undermined the nation’s effort, sapped morale, and engineered a socialist revolution which still threatened to destroy the German people and rob it of its true destiny.
So went the tale, and, over the next two years, it sounded better and better to millions. The fiery, hypnotic orator with the funny moustache and mesmerizing eyes looked more and more like the man who could lead them out of their wretched national condition and give regular folks a new chance to have secure jobs and a country able to protect and provide for them.
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler, who had become the most powerful politician in Germany, was constitutionally sworn in as Germany’s Chancellor (Prime Minister) by octogenarian President Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, the icon of the old leadership establishment. The Old Guard thought they could control and use the ex-corporal; within two months they learned that they could not. He used and completely outwitted them, and, with Hindenburg dead in August 1934, his hold on power became absolute. Der Fuhrer had arrived!
Twelve years later in May 1945, Germany lay in utter ruin, along with most of Europe. The German people had lost at least six million war dead, not counting the “subhumans” previously removed from the population. The country was completely occupied by the victorious Allies, who quickly fell out among themselves while dividing Germany into two – West and East. The two halves were fashioned in the image of the occupiers – the democratic, capitalist West, and the Communist, totalitarian East.
The division ended in 1989 when the Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe collapsed, the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain were torn apart, and Germany proclaimed its own reunification. Some trembled at the thought of a reunited Germany in the heart of a Europe where the old Occupiers had faded away. The new Germany (Fourth Reich?) was born with a pledge to be democratic, peaceful, and dedicated to cooperating with its neighbours to build a European Community where all were equal and could prosper. The government swore that the new Germany would never allow the old ultra-nationalism and racism to once more raise its head. It seemed reassuring that the leading party in Germany was (and still is) the Christian Democratic Union Party.
In contrast to East Germany before reunification, West Germany emerged into prosperity and repentance and reconciliation with its former enemies in the period 1949-89. Its first Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, was a deeply committed Christian. Although the general population of West Germany was still too numb and absorbed with recovery to follow in his spirit for the first twenty years, he led West Germany to full recognition and relationship with the new Israel. He negotiated generous annual reparation payments to the Jewish state as early as 1951, and reached out to other nations to seek reconciliation.
From 1965-68, there was a series of West German trials of SS war criminals and Nazi officials who had operated the most notorious death-camp of Auschwitz between 1941 and 1944, and later of other death camps. This marked the full acceptance in West Germany of what had happened, and taking full responsibility for it within the populace. From that point on, the people and country embarked on a road to make amends. After 1989, that effort moved into the former East Germany, however reluctantly, and it continues in all Germany to this day, both by deliberate government policy and at the grass roots level, where it had really begun even before the Frankfurt Trials in the 1960s.
Jesus once said, “By their fruits you will know them.” We also say, “Actions speak [much] louder than words.” Germany has produced fruit pointing to the nation’s true repentance. The Nazi past has been accepted and repudiated; Nazi criminals have been brought to justice; Israel has had firm support and received (and continues to receive) generous reparations to Holocaust survivors and other aid from Germany; Germany has endeavoured to reach out to its neighbours for reconciliation and with practical help; Germany is the backbone of the European Union and has been more than generous in helping the other members when they have been in crisis.
While not every German owns what happened in 1933-45, there is a large majority that do and abhor it. What can we learn from the German example? Many things, but we can only mention a few here.
First, pious apologies at an official level for historic wrongs mean little or nothing. In the last two decades, it has become a bit of “a thing” for Western governments to issue official apologies to ethnically oppressed and victimized minorities, throwing conscience money along. Here in Canada successive federal governments have apologized to all kinds of groups and minorities for racism and neglect and victimization by the majority European stock population over the last four centuries. But does this signal repentance and a real acceptance of and desire for it? The lack of meaningful action that leaves so much as it has been suggests otherwise.
Some other states have done better at this than Canada. Some have done less. None have approached Germany’s effort. What is the missing ingredient?
Repentance! And how does one truly repent? That comes from within, in and of the spirit, the full acceptance of what an awakened conscience shouts at our hearts. It cannot be contrived by an intellectual process or a superficial emotional response of regret and remorse. Political posturing does not constitute repentance, as necessary as political action is at the national level. In Germany, there was, from the beginning of the movement, an underlying spiritual movement. It came out of the country’s long-neglected Christian roots.
Repentance is not a “one and done” deal. It is an inner disposition which initiates and sustains action over the long haul. After all, “sin” (missing the mark, falling short, committing moral offence) is a problem that has to be dealt with all the time since we all continue to miss the mark. When we are speaking of the sins of a nation, the terrible damage runs very deep and very wide. The repentance must be commensurate with the offence.
There remain at least two major aspects of this subject to discuss before we conclude.
Next time, we will look at some other national situations in the light of what we have noted so far in this exploration.
Finally, we will apply whatever we have gleaned to the individual, personal level.