The Third Reich is everywhere in today’s political pandemic rhetoric. This rhetoric warns that the pandemic is turning America into Hitler’s Germany. A constant comparison to Nazi Germany is a dangerous theological ethical move, not because the Holocaust didn’t happen, but precisely because it did. Today we are more influenced by Hollywood in our moral conception of Nazi Germany, and this is a problem.
Nearly 80 years after the fall of the Third Reich, our collective moral imagination in the West is agreed: Nazi Germany carried out evil acts. But do we understand just how these evil acts were carried out? Do we understand how the historic cultural, political, and theological realities made Hitler possible, even inevitable? Do we understand how seemingly good and respectable people became what Bonhoeffer called “silent witnesses to evil deeds”?
Those who see COVID-19 through the swastika or the yellow star want the moral imagery and moral authority associated with a nearly universal moral condemnation of Nazi Germany. Today it is common to see Nazi Germany as a negative moral absolute, and a moral high ground from which to legitimize COVID-19 arguments. The problem is, Nazi Germany functions more as a moral category in these cases than it does a historical reality. This diminishes the witness and suffering of the actual victims of Nazi tyranny.
The Evangelical moral imagination must move past treating Nazi Germany as a type for absolute evil, one that fits hand-in-glove with our trend of Manichaeistic moral certitude. If we need evidence for this, look no farther than Eric Metaxas’ treatment of German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his political rhetoric surrounding President Trump, and comments on the vaccine. Let’s also not forget that white evangelicals in the US are one of the leading vaccine resistant communities. We cannot discount the moral reasoning and historical revisionism contributing to these realities.
Those who rush to compare every new mandate to Hitler’s Germany fail to grasp the complexities which gave rise to Hitler and the carrying out of the Final Solution. I say this primarily from the vantage point of theological ethics. Historians can wrestle with variables like the political currents of nationalism, the fear of Bolshevism, and the national mood of Germany which made Hitler’s rise possible. But theological ethics calls us to be curious at how invoking Nazi Germany as a moral category serves a quest for moral authority. It also can lead us to be concerned at what this trend conceals in ourselves.
German pastors who would not join Hitler’s Reich Church formed what they called the Confessing Church. These churches, relying on Karl Barth, penned the Barmen Declaration in 1934. It called German churches to a ministry of remembrance: “the church reminds men of God’s kingdom, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility of the rulers and the ruled.” But in 1938, nearly 70% of these Confessing Church pastors signed an oath of loyalty to Hitler.
We all have the capacity to forget, to act in ignorance, or to justify ourselves. This human capacity was on display historically in Nazi Germany. Any current invocation of Nazi Germany as an an absolute moral category for evil should not bulldoze our grasping of the particulars which made Nazi Germany possible, socially, politically, culturally, and theologically.
German church historian Klaus Scholder’s comments on the Barmen Declaration are worth repeating, “If the church does this; if we Christians, do this, actively and passively, reminding and being reminded, then we are doing the most important thing that can be done against being led astray and our capacity to be led astray.”
By fearing a historical reality we do not fully grasp, we are positioning ourselves to make moral judgments with a misplaced confidence, one disconnected from the moment, then and now.