Saturday, October 11, 2008

Wessen Schuld?

I took three years of high-school German, and therefore (of course) I know almost no German, but there is one phrase I haven't forgotten: "Wessen Schuld?"

My German teacher was a retired Army colonel. Colonel Price had been a U.S. Army infantry lieutenant during World War II and his lessons in German diction were often sprinkled with his personal experiences from the post-war German occupation. One time he was explaining the difference between "leider" (pronounced "LIE-duh") and "entschuldigen Sie mir" (ent-SHOOLT-uh-gun zee meer), both of which can be translated as "excuse me". He told us that "leider" is an adverb meaning unfortunately or regrettably. It's a weak apology, the sort of thing one might say as he steps in front of a fellow theater-goer in getting to a seat, but "entschuldigen Sie mir" expresses culpability and actual regret for ones actions. Colonel Price went on to explain that the "Schuld" (pronounced SHOOLT) in "entschuldigen" is the German word for "fault" or "guilt". So "entschuldigen" literally means "to un-fault", "to un-guilt", "to pardon".

To illustrate the word "Schuld", Colonel Price explained how it was used by the Allies after the war to get Germans to acknowledge their complicity in the holocaust. All across Germany the Allies put up posters that showed scenes of Nazi death camps. Atop those photos were two simple words: "Wessen Schuld?" - "Whose fault?"



This propaganda campaign, designed to force the Germans to admit their complicity in the Nazi atrocities, was very effective. So effective that nowadays the word "Nazi" is universally accepted as a synonym for "evil". The word "Nazi" has become the insult of choice whenever your argument is so weak that you have to resort to impugning the character of your opponent. It puts an end to all rational discussion. (For example, calling President Bush "Chimpee McHitler" is not an invitation to discuss the merits of American Middle East foreign policy.) But "Nazi" wasn't always such a pejorative term. It certainly wasn't in 1933 pre-war Germany when the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei came to power.

Economically the situation today is similar to the early days of the Great Depression. Foolish/greedy speculation, aggravated by governmental interference in the market (i.e., the Smoot-Hawley Act of 1930 versus the Community Reinvestment Act), had created an unbalance in financial markets that the government only exacerbated with its attempts to fix. And in some ways this year's presidential election is similar to that of 1932. But the similarity there is merely superficial. I believe this election much more like the German election of 1932 which resulted in the appointment of Aldolf Hitler as Chancellor on January 30, 1933. One must note that, in the month following Hitler's ascension, the Reichstag was burned and that by July Germany had become a one-party state.

This rapid consolidation of power by the Nazis in 1933 was facilitated by the mood in Germany. Historically the Germans had been a deeply religious people. Based on their religious faith they had built a strong Protestant work ethic. On that work ethic they constructed an industrial machine; and on industry they had built a strong central government under the Kaiser.

But with economic and political gains came spiritual loss. In the closing years of the 19th century the Germans lost faith in their God; then they lost the Great War (and with it their Kaiser); then they lost faith in their money, and finally they surrendered all faith in their government. By the early 1930s Germany was desperately cynical. Of course, the Nazis were eager to exploit this deep well of cynicism: inviting the German people to place faith in a more modern god, a god who promised to restore all of Germany's fortunes.

But more than promising mere material blessings, this modern god promised commodities that Germany desperately and undeniably needed even more: "hope" and "change". The Nazis did a masterful job of portraying themselves as the likeliest source of these core needs. In 1933, National Socialism was - rather than "evil" - seen as (to sum it up in one word) "progressive".

In economics, National Socialism was middle Europe's middle road between the failed experiments of American capitalism and Soviet communism, but it was much more than the thinking man's economic choice. Nazi social policy was the distilled wisdom of social Darwinism, which held the philosophical high ground in Europe and was even endorsed by the humanist elite on this side of the Atlantic. Only narrow-minded religious reactionaries could fail to see that human evolution had raised us from the primordial slime, and that technology had given us the power to seize control of our own evolution. No one dared deny the "modern" truth that man, by means of man's own efforts, could (and ought to) make himself "superman".

A little background is called for here as explanation of that last sentence. Long before the Nazis came to power, men of stature throughout Western society openly supported the eugenic policies that the Nazis would later implement. In the years leading up to Hitler's election, eugenicists (including H. G. Wells [renowned author], George Bernard Shaw [respected playwright], John Maynard Keynes [prime architect of the New Deal], Julian Huxley [acclaimed scientist] and Margaret Sanger [founder of Planned Parenthood]) were lauded as the thinkers of their day. And even before the Federal government became the prime sponsor of social engineering, the work of these enlightened ones was well-funded by respected institutions such as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

In 1907 future president Woodrow Wilson championed legislation in Indiana that required the involuntary sterilization of genetically unfit persons. By 1930 similar laws had been passed in thirty states. And even for some time after Adolf Hitler's rise to power, such notables as Charles Lindbergh and Joseph P. Kennedy (Ambassador to England and father of future President John F. Kennedy) were among Hitler's staunchest supporters. National Socialism was not an instant phenomenon; it was merely the political manifestation of popular ideas that had been circulating for a half-century.

The humanist message was very simple: human life has no intrinsic value. Given this fundamental tenet, its corollary was thus undeniable: some unwanted persons are expendable. In this regard, 21st century America compares unfavorably with 1930s Germany. In 1933 the Germans were on the verge of exterminating 6,000,000 unwanted Jews whom they hated; we have already killed 40,000,000 unborn children whom we simply find inconvenient. In place of the Nazi's selfless goal of "eugenic progress", our rationale is the mere selfish motive of "personal choice". Instead of isolated, demonized Jews - the target has become our own innocent, womb-cradled babies. And (most damningly) the slaughter has lasted two generations, not just a decade. Today the issues are different than they were in the 1930s, but the apologists for evil are ever the same.

All this brings me to my real subject. National Socialism grew in soil well prepared for that hemlock seed. The soil of Western Civilization, broken with a half century of humanism, was seeking human solutions to humanity's problems. The people of Europe and the elite of America had long ago abandoned the religious tenet that all human life is the gift of God and that each of us is accountable to our Creator for how we use or abuse that gift. The simplistic morality of the Victorians had given way to a more modern wisdom: "Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil." Which is to say: man had arrogated to himself (not just the power to choose right from wrong) but the authority to define right and wrong.

This proud new generation of √úbermenschen had dispensed with outmoded notions of God - joining Nietzsche in declaring that man himself is all the god mankind needs. (Or as it's been more recently worded: "We are who we've been waiting for.") But the messianic promise of National Socialism wasn't merely that we are gods; it was that we could make ourselves "like the Most High."

My point, of course, isn't simply that our grandfathers erred, but that we are in the process of repeating their error. What I find most troubling aren't the solutions that are being offered for today's social problems, but the assumptions that are never questioned. Today's universal "truth" can be summed in one statement: "The government ought to do something about [problem du jour]." But if history teaches us anything, it's that governments are much more prone to causing problems than to fixing them.

Understand, I'm not saying that any American politician today is like Adolf Hitler. It's worse than that. I'm saying that America is now so desperate for a political messiah that we'll even accept someone who is so much less charismatic than Hitler was. The problem isn't that we have demigods running for office (for there's certainly nothing new about politicians' presuming to possess divine powers). The problem is: we expect these demigods to perform miracles for us. We have degenerated from dependence on the Bible's God of the universe, past a begrudging acceptance of Kipling's "gods of the copybook headings", to worship of the Chicago machine's skillfully crafted idol. Germany bowed to an inspiring orator who stood on a magnificent stage at Nuremburg. America worships a mumbling snob who stands before a Styrofoam Parthenon that was borrowed from some Hollywood back lot.

You may be thinking: "Gee, that's quite an extrapolation. How can you say that present trends will inevitably lead to a new holocaust?" I answer, "My mentioning 'broad is the way that leads to destruction' is not the same as predicting that society will follow that road to its end. Only God's victory is inevitable; we merely choose whether our fate is in our hands or God's."

And that's precisely what troubles me most. Where is the outrage over the slaughter of 40-million babies since Roe v Wade and why are we so indifferent to the rising tide of anti-Semitism? The Germans (untroubled in the 1930s by the hidden slaughter of the mentally and physically deficient) by the 1940s had not only accepted the wholesale slaughter of society's unwanted, but even gloried in their tattooed lampshades and dental bullion.

Of course, I find it very troubling that the ridicule of those who trust in God (of us who "cling to our guns and religion") is now in vogue, but the Christian faith was born and it has flourished under far worse Caesars. So I don't fret about the persecution of Christians (for the Light shines brightest in the darkness). But I do feel horrible dread for Israel. Christians are called as witnesses to God's faithfulness, but Israel is the living testimony of God's promise. Whenever a Christian speaks up, he exposes the world's idolatry. But so long as a Jew breathes, the world stands condemned. The Christian can be silenced, but the Jew - ah the Jew - that's a problem requiring a "Final Solution".

Our Jewish brethren have just ended their commemoration of Yom Kippur (the day of repentance), but for America our Day of Atonement lies ahead of us. Before we complete the job of turning America into a workers' paradise and Israel into death camp, let's confess our idolatry and consider the words we must never forget: "Wessen Schuld?"

9 comments:

ShalomSeeker said...

*Exhale* Whew. That was intense and articulate...and accurate. May God bring repentance and wisdom to a people who are so blind.
-J

Jerry said...

A buddy from work is often fond of saying: "We don't have enough ammunition."

I hope that he is wrong, but I am not holding my breath.

Bag Blog said...

It is amazing what people will give up for economic security.

An older German friend, who came to America in the 1950's, once told me that Hitler was an amazing speaker - as if that was all it took to sway a nation.

It seems that it starts with the idea to "spred the wealth." Then there will be more gun control and the snow ball starts rolling.

Hula Doula said...

Oh my...this is powerful. Still absorbing. My father saw the sights and the people in concentration camps up close and personal. I can tell you that it has scarred him for life.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully written post, Bob, but that's certainly some scary food for thought. I have my own concerns over the direction we're headed but you've done a great job of articulating things. Certainly far better than I could have done. Thanks!

- zonker

Bou said...

I meant to leave a comment when I first read this last week. This is a great post.

Anonymous said...

Bob, I have known you for alot of years and you still amass me. I plan to go back and read all of your blogs.

Anonymous said...

"My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice... And if there is anything which could demonstrate that we are acting rightly it is the distress that daily grows. For as a Christian I have also a duty to my own people."

-Adolf Hitler, in a speech on 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1 of 2, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)

Bob said...

Anonymous--
Are you sure that wasn't the Rev. Jeremiah Wright who spoke those words?