Cyber Book Club: Week 10–Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too. —HEINRICH HEINE

The sadness begins in earnest now. Soon after Hitler became Chancellor, Nazis embarked on a campaign to “synchronize” their society to the their own worldview spelled out, in part, in the notorious “Aryan Paragraph”.

Anti-Semitism had existed for decades among the students of German universities, but now they expressed it formally. That spring the German Students Association planned to celebrate an “Action against the un -German Spirit” on May 10. * At 11: 00 p.m. thousands of students gathered in every university town across Germany . From Heidelberg to Tübingen to Freiburg to Göttingen, where the Leibholzes lived, they marched in torchlight parades and were then whipped into wild-eyed enthusiasm as Nazi officials raved about the glories of what the brave young men and women of Germany were about to do. At midnight the whole thing roared to grand effect in a great Säuberung (cleansing) where huge bonfires were lit and into which the students hurled thousands of books.

Metaxas, Eric (2010-04-20). Bonhoeffer: A Biography (p. 162). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Thus Germany would be “purged” of the pernicious “un-German” thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and H. G. Wells . Of course Erich Maria Remarque’s books were included, as were those of many others, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1821, in his play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the chilling words: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt , verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.” Heine was a German Jew who converted to Christianity, and his words were a grim prophecy, meaning, “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too.” That night across Germany his books were among those thrown into the crackling flames . Sigmund Freud, whose books were also burned that night, made a similar remark: “Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.”

Metaxas, Eric (2010-04-20). Bonhoeffer: A Biography (p. 162). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

While the landscape of his country changed before his eyes Dietrich spent time clarifying just what the church was and what its role should be in a nation.

Then he moved on to clarify that the church does, nonetheless, play a vital role for the state . What is that role? The church must “continually ask the state whether its action can be justified as legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and disorder.” In other words, it is the church’s role to help the state be the state. If the state is not creating an atmosphere of law and order, as Scripture says it must, then it is the job of the church to draw the state’s attention to this failing. And if on the other hand, the state is creating an atmosphere of “excessive law and order,” it is the church’s job to draw the state’s attention to that too.

Metaxas, Eric (2010Metax-04-20). Bonhoeffer: A Biography (p. 153). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

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.

Metaxas, Eric (2010-04-20). Bonhoeffer: A Biography (p. 155). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Hienrich Heine.  1797-1856

Hienrich Heine. 1797-1856

Heinrich Heine’s famous words about the book burnings are often quoted and today are inscribed at the Opernplatz as a memorial of the ghastly ritual. But another passage from Heine’s works is perhaps more eerily prophetic of what would take place in Germany a century hence. They are the concluding words of his 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany:

Christianity— and that is its greatest merit— has somewhat mitigated that brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. . . . Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. . . . [W] hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.

Metaxas, Eric (2010-04-20). Bonhoeffer: A Biography (pp. 163-164). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Questions for Discussion:

How can a people protect themselves from following ruthless leaders?

Do you agree with Bonhoeffer’s description of the role of the church in state matters?

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