This Day in History: The Worst of Sinners

Der ewige Jude Poster
Poster advertising the “Eternal Jew” exhibition — U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

November 8, 1923 – The Beer Hall Putsch in Munich
November 8, 1937 – The “Eternal Jew” exhibition opens (also in Munich)

It’s an important week for Nazi-related anniversaries. I’ve blogged earlier about the Putsch (on the 16th anniversary of which — November 8, 1939 — Georg Elser failed in his attempt to assassinate Hitler). The “Eternal Jew” (Der ewige Jude) exhibition, a collection of anti-Semitic propaganda, drew nearly half a million visitors (5000 a day) to the Deutsches Museum in Munich during its run there, from November 1937 to January 1938. An exhibition on “degenerate art” held at the same time, also in Munich, drew two million. (The “Eternal Jew” exhibition then moved on to Vienna and finally Berlin. A film by the same name premiered in late 1940.) Then November 9-10 marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass,” referring to the systematic smashing of Jewish storefront windows in Berlin and other cities), the pogrom that is often viewed as marking a key transition in the German treatment of Jews on the road to the Final Solution.

Coincidentally, this is also the week that we slow down our survey of modern European history in HIS354 at Bethel, in order to study in greater depth the period 1933-1945 in German and European history. Yesterday we studied the “Nazi Revolution” of 1933 and began to look at Nazi “coordination” of German society, focusing first on the role of propaganda like Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous film, Triumph of the Will. My students are reading Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men, a famous study of relatively unremarkable reserve military policemen (mostly from Hamburg, hardly a bastion of National Socialism) who participated in killing and deporting thousands of Polish Jews in 1942. Next Wednesday my students will put three of those “ordinary men” on mock trial for crimes against humanity.

Obelisk at Jozefow, Poland
Obelisk commemorating the Jews murdered at Jozefow, Poland by the members of Reserve Police Battalion 101 – Creative Commons (Piott)

In that process, and as they continue on to learn about collaboration, resistance, and the memory (and forgetting) of that period among Europeans after 1945, they’ll consider just how much ordinary Germans were aware of and complicit in the crimes committed by the Hitler regime.

That question has received new life this fall with the publication of a 940-page diary kept from 1938 to 1945 by Friedrich Kellner, a World War I veteran and avowed Social Democrat who served as a judicial inspector in the small Hessian town of Laubach. (The diary was originally displayed at the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library in 2005.) According to experts, Kellner’s meticulously kept chronicle — full of excerpts from speeches, obituaries, newspaper reports, and more — followed through on the goal he set in the very first entry, translated for the English edition of the German magazine Der Spiegel:

Friedrich Kellner
Friedrich Kellner (1885-1970) – Creative Commons (Robert Scott Kellner)

The purpose of my record is to capture a picture of the current mood in my surroundings, so that a future generation is not tempted to construe a “great event” from it (a “heroic time” or the like)…. Those who wish to be acquainted with contemporary society, with the souls of the “good Germans,” should read what I have written. But I fear that very few decent people will remain after events have taken their course, and that the guilty will have no interest in seeing their disgrace documented in writing.

Most significantly for many observers, Kellner’s diary provides additional evidence that ordinary civilians had access to firsthand reporting about the Holocaust from near its beginning. Reuters quoted from the October 28, 1941 entry:

A soldier on vacation here said he witnessed a terrible atrocity in the occupied parts of Poland. He watched as naked Jewish men and women were placed in front of a long deep ditch and upon the order of the SS were shot by Ukrainians in the back of their heads and they fell into the ditch. Then the ditch was filled with dirt even as he could still hear screams coming from people still alive in the ditch.

…There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts.

(Reuters doesn’t complete the quotation: “There is no punishment that would be hard enough to be applied to these Nazi beasts. Of course, when the retribution comes, the innocent will have to suffer along with them. But because ninety-nine percent of the German population is guilty, directly or indirectly, for the present situation, we can only say that those who travel together will hang together.” A translation of the full entry is available from the Bush Library.)

Three months earlier Kellner had passed along a report about the killing of developmentally disabled adults. Later entries report on the disappearance of Jewish families, calculate the shocking losses the German military was suffering on the Russian Front, and decry that other Germans were either too gullible, too nationalistic, or too lazy to see the truth in front of them.

Kellner somehow avoided arrest and survived the war. He went on to serve as Laubach’s deputy mayor and sat on the postwar denazification panels that determined which Nazi Party (and affiliate) members should be removed from their jobs. He died in 1970.

The diary is an important document of the time, giving remarkable insight into German society during World War II. It reinforces the suspicion that I’m sure most of my students, and most Americans, have: that ordinary Germans were either more knowledgeable about the Holocaust than they later claimed, or that their lack of knowledge required intentionality — that the information was unavailable only to those deliberately disinterested in learning it.

But while I believe this to be largely true, I also believe it raises a key problem with studying the Holocaust and similar acts of radical evil: telling ourselves that we would be incapable of such acts, pushed even to begin to understand them, we prefer to assume a moral high ground over the perpetrators we study, and so perhaps also incline to cast nets broadly in deciding who was responsible.

(Of course, this assumption that we — historians living decades later, thousands of miles away, and in a different society — would never have been capable of such acts is precisely what Christopher Browning so brilliantly dismantles in Ordinary Men. It’s not just that the men of Battalion 101 are ordinary Germans; they’re ordinary humans.)

This inclination to find lots of Germans responsible for the Holocaust, or at least our quickness to issue moral judgments on this chapter of history, is why I find the following verse such a significant passage of Scripture:

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. (1 Timothy 1:15)

Even granting whatever role he played in the persecution of those who followed “The Way” in his days as the zealous Saul, how could the apostle Paul think of himself as the “worst” of sinners? (Or, if you prefer, how could whoever wrote 1 Timothy assume that an early Christian audience would accept such a claim placed in the mouth of the church’s greatest evangelist?) Surely, Hitler, or Himmler or Heydrich, or Mengele or Eichmann, or Goebbels, or the SS guards who operated the gas chambers and ovens, or the military police who shot elderly Jews in the back of the head in Polish forests, or the doctors who snuffed out the lives of children deemed “unfit” for life, or the train conductors who took thousands to their deaths at Treblinka or Auschwitz… Surely any one of them is a worse sinner than Paul.

Perhaps there’s a degree of hyperbole in 1 Tim 1:15 (I guess it depends on whether you think all sins are equal), but I think the principle worth considering is that none stands without sin; all rebel against God, failing to love Him with our whole heart, and do injustice to others, failing to love neighbors as ourselves. So whether or not our particular sins are objectively “worse” than those of the Holocaust, I suspect that we ought not to begin to render moral judgments on, say, the complicity of ordinary Germans in those events unless we’re prepared to confess our own sins and seek forgiveness. Since

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:8-10)

So we started this section of HIS354 Modern Europe by reading from The Book of Common Prayer, first confessing our individual sins silently before God, then corporately reading this famous prayer:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We are truly sorry and we humbly repent. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

2 thoughts on “This Day in History: The Worst of Sinners

  1. Hey again, I’m the one who commented on your Micah 6:8 post telling you about the social justice debate between Wallis and Mohler — by the way, the audio and video is now archived at the website I linked to in that comment.

    But, regarding this post, you’re probably already aware that TPT will be airing a documentary this next week titled “Nazi Hunt: Elusive Justice.” Here’s a link to the program information if you didn’t already know about it.

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