forgiveness • peacemaking • reconciliation
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Who Would Have Stopped Hitler?

July 7, 2017 by

military poster

As a Christian pacifist, I am often asked what I think about just war. For example, recent terrorist attacks in London beg the question, Don’t we have to take military action against such extremists?

How can I believe that war is never justified? What about defending one’s country? And who would have stopped Hitler?

I would like to respond with a question of my own: How did a mass-murderer and a despot like Adolf Hitler gain power and remain in power when 95 percent of Germany’s citizens were Christians?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young pastor in the Confessing Church in 1930s Germany. Already in the early part of that decade he told his congregation, “The Protestant church is in its eleventh hour. The German church is dying or is already dead.” But, as Eric Metaxas writes in his book, Bonhoeffer, “few took him seriously.” Metaxas continues:

The Bonhoeffers saw through Hitler from the beginning. In the spring of 1933, Bonhoeffer was declaring it the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews. Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions – that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary – were too much for almost everyone. But for him they were inescapable. In time, he would do all three.

When Hitler was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, he required German pastors to take a service oath. They had to pledge allegiance to the Führer above Christ. Bonhoeffer was among only a handful of church leaders who refused to take the oath. He was accused by the Reich church (Hitler’s state church) of being a pacifist and an enemy of the state. His was often a lonely stand. For a while, German Christians believed Hitler would redeem Germany from the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty post World War I. Even fellow pastor Martin Niemöller had faith in Hitler. But soon it became clear how wrong they were. Hundreds of German pastors were arrested for subversive activity; Niemöller spent seven years in Dachau concentration camp.

If Christians in the US military would obey Jesus' commands, the military machine would fold.

Impelled by conscience, Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, a German intelligence agency. Under the guise of an intelligence agent, he helped smuggle Jews out of Germany and travelled outside his country to tell foreign officials what was happening under Hitler. Bishop George Bell, a good friend of Bonhoeffer’s in England, tried to get the message to the British and American governments. Britain and the United States refused to help the resistance movement in Germany; Germans were the enemy. Churchill had just made an alliance with Russia and he didn’t want to offend his allies by interfering in Germany. President Roosevelt never responded. The nations wanted war. After all, war makes money for Christians and non-Christians alike.

The dying church in 1930s Germany was not unique. For well over a thousand years the church has moved further and further away from the clear teachings of Jesus. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matt. 5:38–39; 43–44).

What does the Bruderhof think about nonviolent resistance?

The early Christians put Jesus’ words into practice. They loved their enemies both foreign and domestic. They refused to support and defend the Roman government by fighting in the army. Writing in the 3rd century, Origen replied to Roman authorities:

We are urged [by the pagans] to help the king with all our might, to work with him in the preservation of justice, to fight for him.… Our answer is that we do, when occasion requires, give help to kings, but in a divine way, “putting on the whole armor of God.” We do this in obedience to the injunction of the apostle, “I urge, therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving be made for all men – for kings and for those in authority.” (I Tim. 2:1–2)
How much more so that while others are engaged in battle, [Christians] too should engage as the priests and ministers of God, keeping their hands pure.… By our prayers, we vanquish all demons who stir up war.… In this way, we are much more helpful to the kings than those who go into the field to fight for them.… And none fight better for the king than we do. Indeed, we refuse to fight under him, even if he demands it. But we do fight on his behalf, forming a special army – an army of righteousness – by offering our prayers to God. (David Bercot, Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up: A Look at Today’s Evangelical Church in the Light of Early Christianity.)

Since the 3rd century A.D., the church, once so bold in her convictions, has compromised with governments, powers and principalities. The church has lost its radical influence on society by pledging allegiance to the state.

Christians must become a transforming element in society or we risk not only irrelevance, but complicity.

Today, traditionally Christian nations such as the United States and Britain have massive militaries and massive defense budgets. According to a survey taken in 2008, 77 percent of U.S. military personnel are Christians. What would happen if 77 percent of the U.S. military followed Jesus’ message to love one’s enemies? The military machine would fold. Talk about a radical influence! But the persecution endured by the early church would not be far behind. Are we ready to suffer for the gospel of Christ?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in April 1945 for standing up to Hitler’s regime and for following the dictates of his conscience. He was thirty-nine years old. Years later, another Christian who fought for justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was shot and killed in April 1968 for speaking out against the war in Vietnam and for loving his enemies both at home and abroad. Dr. King challenged the church in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 1963):

At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist…. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.…”
There was a time when the church was very powerful – in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.

Bonhoeffer and King gave their lives as faithful witnesses to the radical gospel of Jesus. They are still speaking to us today. Pacifism does not mean lethargy or cowardice. Pacifism means boldly defending peace without taking life. It means a courageous – and often lonely – stand. It means being willing to sacrifice one’s own life for the sake of others. Jesus is the ultimate example for Christians to follow.

The question of stopping Hitler was and is asked far too late. Were we as Christians truly living Jesus’ commands, the occasion for such a question would not arise. Hitler would not have had the support of 95 percent of German citizens: the Christians. As followers of Jesus, we must become a transforming element in today’s society or we risk not only irrelevance, but also complicity.

Emily Hallock lives at Beech Grove, a Bruderhof in Kent, UK with her husband and three children.


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  • I think there is a fine line between between a freedom lover and pacifist. Very few people love war, but it`s because of these few, we cannot afford to be a pacifist. We shouldn`t look for trouble, but we need to defend the weak and we need to defend our families when we have to. It is for this reason that Christians in Asia minor should have defended themselves, like they did in Vienna and Spain when the Islam armies aggressively attacked, and the Japanese armies aggressively attacked mainland Asia. It is at the point when you still owe someone, you can turn your other cheek, not when you don`t owe someone, because then it becomes weakness, cowardice or even stupid

    Frans Baatenburg
  • Emily - you are incorrect when you state that "Hitler was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933"(sic!) He was appointed chancellor by President von Hindenburg, at the end of January, 1933 -- and that only very reluctantly, after Hindenburg had first appointed two other individuals (first von Papen; and then von Schleicher), as chancellors, neither of whom, however, proved able to control the parliament. After Hindenburg's death, and the Reichstag Fire (which the Nazis themselves almost certainly staged), Hitler then declared a state of emergency and seized absolute power. But the Nazi Party never actually received a majority of the votes in free elections...

    Ibn As-Sabil
  • Great reflection Emily. Thanks for taking the time to research and write this article. And thanks for urging the Church to once again forsake the myth of redemptive violence and embrace Jesus' enemy-loving approach to peacemaking.