“What did you do in the war, Daddy?” was the title of a wonderful book written by Sabine Reichel. Reichel was born in devastated post-war Hamburg in 1946 to Nazi-collaborator parents who were respected in their post war community but had never talked to her about what they had done during the war years. The truth only came out during Reichel’s young adult years.
“What did you do in the war” was the dreaded question that multitudes of guilty World War II-era German parents and grandparents faced when their children and grandchildren belatedly realized that war crimes had been committed by their nation in that war and that the harsh facts which had been censored out of their high school history books.
The gaps in the history books made many German children curious about the details that had been left out and so many of them started asking unwelcome questions of those family members who had survived the war.
Some wondered about what their parents had done while non-Aryan minorities were being discriminated against. What had their parents done while the Nazi thugs were torturing and murdering the “enemies of the state” during Hitler’s “thousand-year Reich”? Those questions usually elicited evasive half-truths in their weak attempts to cover up the guilt and shame or either being active participants or simply guilty bystanders—rather than resisters—of what was obviously a monstrous evil.
In both World Wars I & II, German patriots (the vast majority of whom were regular Christian church-goers) enthusiastically marched off to what they thought were justified wars, wars fought defending against various outsider groups who were accused of endangering the “holy” homeland. Conscription-age males eventually included child-soldiers and men up to the age of 60 because, eventually, most of the ideal-age young adult men had been used up. German men were told by their Catholic and Protestant bishops and pastors that it was their Christian duty to fight and kill for the Fuhrer. The women were told to support the troops and the war mission by having babies and otherwise sacrificing for the war effort.
Doing one’s duty to serve Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland
The patriotic duty for all patriotic Germans was to serve “Volk, Fuhrer und Vaterland.” Germany had a habit of waging aggressive wars that were later to be justifiably defined at the Nuremberg trials as crimes against humanity and international war crimes. The soldier’s sacred oath of allegiance to Hitler and his killing machine totally trumped the Golden Rule of the gospels and the Christic ethical principles of love of friend, neighbor and enemy, basic gospel truths that were never taught from German pulpits. That sad reality certainly seems to be true of American churches today and yesterday.
Most German Christians saw no contradiction between the demands of Jesus’ gospel ethic of love, mercy and forgiveness and the ruthless and cruel “gods” of war and wealth. There wasn’t even a hint of a gospel nonviolence movement among German Christians. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had come along far too late.
German Christians couldn’t have been expected to understand the practicality of the ethical teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. They didn’t make the connections between the stories of the early Christian martyrs (who knew Jesus best) and their total refusal to engage in homicidal violence, even against their enemies. It’s likely that none of the religious books that they had studied in Sunday School or seminary had talked about the satanic nature of war. German Christians may have understood that the presence of Christian chaplains in the military was an endorsement of the organized mass slaughter of war and therefore as somehow being compatible with the teachings of Jesus.
Going into battle with “Gott Mit Uns” on their belt buckles
Perhaps they were fooled by the fact that German soldiers in both World Wars went into battle with the words “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) inscribed on their belt buckles. Perhaps they were fooled by the well-oiled media machinery that consistently pumped out pro-war propaganda. Perhaps they weren’t aware that the antiwar, anti-fascist and socialist printing presses had been smashed and silenced. Given the glorious (or inglorious) history of Europe’s church-endorsed Reformation, Counter-Reformation and the Hundred Years War, Prussian militarism was regarded as somehow being normal, godly, perhaps even hereditary.
To illustrate how so many “Good Germans” were brainwashed into becoming accessories to murder, I include below an extended excerpt from a homily delivered by Father Emmanuel Charles McCarthy at Auschwitz, Poland, on the 50th anniversary of the August 9, 1942, gassing, murder and incineration of a Carmelite Catholic nun, Edith Stein. Stein was a brilliant Jewish feminist and scholar who had converted to Christianity prior to the institution of the “Final Solution.” She changed her name to Sister Maria Theresa of the Cross when she entered the Carmel at Cologne during the early years of the war. The homily is titled “Mission of Peace at Auschwitz.”
Mission of Peace at Auschwitz
“It is a truism of Christian existence that if the Gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in all its fullness except as it relates to the great spiritual failures of one’s own time, the Gospel has not been proclaimed. Failure to speak and act in a Christ-like fashion in relation to the diabolical operations of one’s own age can even make Christianity an accomplice in evil.
“Silence (or its sophisticated equivalent, open-ended ambiguous moral statements capable of an indefinite number of interpretations) gives consent. The Christian Church knows this. Hence, at different periods over her two-thousand-year history, she has taken a red pencil and underlined with maximal authority certain words of the Gospel which people inside and outside the church at a particular time were in dire need of facing and accepting.
“The cost for this underlining was often substantial. Yet, fidelity to Jesus’ Great Commission to the Church allowed for nothing less: “Go you, therefore, and baptize all nations in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19–20)
“So again this year, from Japan to Ireland, Christian peace-makers have undertaken the Annual Forty Day Fast for the Truth of Christian Nonviolence (July 1—August 9), which we conclude here at Auschwitz today, in order to intercede with Christ-God for the grace for the Church to take out Her red pencil and underline for Her own people and for all people on this blood-soaked planet Jesus’ teaching on the satanic activity of homicidal violence and enmity.
“The most obvious reality about Auschwitz is that Auschwitz is about homicide. Whatever else one wants to say about Edith Stein’s death, it is, like Jesus’ death, homicide. As the 20th century winds down, 100 million corpses of people who have been killed at the hands of other human beings bear witness to nine decades of unmatched homicidal savagery. This death toll is more than all the centuries of recorded history combined and, as of today, we are still counting. If the moral moment has not now come for the Church to take out her red pencil and underline Jesus’ teachings on enmity and homicidal violence and to inform her own people that they must stop their participation in the state-sponsored tournaments of homicide called war, then it is hard to see what level of demonic behavior would have to be reached for the Church to remove her people from those spirits and apparatuses of human destruction which are so contrary to all that Jesus was and taught.
“There is no such thing as a Christian military solution to the evil of homicidal violence. A Christ-like war is a lie. It is obviously not a Christ-like solution, if, instead of my child or friend being destroyed, someone else’s child or friend is destroyed. National military solutions without exception are willing to throw someone else’s child or friend into the flames and therefore cannot be in line with the teaching of Jesus, who would throw no one into the flames. Yet, the historical record is beyond dispute. Since the time of Constantine (312 c.e.) to this time of global radiation, Christians have been killing each other, as well as non-Christians, and have been blessed for doing so by other Christians. The Christian allegiance to the spirit and behavioral demands of state endorsed homicide has been nothing short of idolatrous.
“Over and over again the Church—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—has permitted her sacramental, catechistical and educational systems to become part of the Pantheon of “myths men kill by.” The following excerpt from an address by Bishop Franz Josef Rarkowski, the Catholic Bishop for the German Military, who was directly responsible for the moral and spiritual guidance of German Catholics in World War II, is illustrative and utterly normal in Church history:
“Each of you knows what is at stake for our Volk in these stormy days, and, in whatever is asked of you, each sees before him the shining example of a true warrior, our Fuhrer and Supreme Commander, the first and most valiant soldier of the Greater German Reich, who is even now with you at the battlefront. We will never forget that first day of September (1939) when he issued his formal call to arms to the entire Volk. You, too, were somewhere out there . . . your ears and hearts were witness to that historic moment when the Fuhrer stepped before the whole Yolk in his old military cloak of army gray. You heard his words and sensed in them your Supreme Commander’s love and concern . . . Thus, the example of the Fuhrer stands before you in brilliant glory.”
“This kind of anti-Gospel catechesis and rhetoric in support of homicide and enmity can be found in the mouths of most Christian pastors wherever on this globe the Church—Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant—has been established since the Fourth Century. Again, if the time is not here for the Church to pick up her red pencil and put an “X” through all of this sham Christianity, while simultaneously underlining in red Jesus’ teachings that reject enmity and homicide, when will the time be here for her to sever her alliance in homicide with the state?
“The flames of Auschwitz in which Edith Stein was incinerated were the bitter fruit of an ecumenical Christian effort. At least 90% of the people responsible for the immediate operation of Auschwitz, and for the civilian bureaucratic support systems that was absolutely necessary for its existence, were baptized Christians.”
German soldiers pledged their allegiance to Hitler and the swastika and to do their duty to ensure homeland security
Whatever the process, Germans were well-prepared to obediently follow their Fuhrer; and just as all soldiers everywhere solemnly take their oaths, pledge their allegiance to and salute the flag, obey orders (even illegal ones) and promise to fulfill their “duty to God and Country,” so did German soldiers pledge their allegiance to Hitler and the swastika and to do their duty to ensure homeland security.
Sadly but predictably, the military and religious leaders of all militarized nations throughout history do not exercise their duty to warn their prospective soldiers about the high likelihood of becoming victims of the usually permanent, brain-altering, soul-destroying, neurological disease known as “shell shock” (in WW I), “battle fatigue” and “combat stress” (in WW II and the Korean War) or, finally and more accurately, combat-induced post traumatic stress disorder (in Vietnam and beyond).
And so most of us sheeple vote for our representatives without knowing a thing about their susceptibility to intimidation by the Pentagon, the CIA, the FBI, the NRA and the NSA or whether or not they will accept bribes (aka campaign contributions) from antidemocratic institutions such as right-wing think tanks and megacorporations (especially weapons manufacturers, Big Banks and Big Oil). By our inability to directly question candidates for national office, we have already become dumbed-down enough to feel impotent and uncertain about the justifiability of our nation’s current or past wars. We therefore have become, just like average Good Germans in the Hitler era, preemptively unified in our willingness to make murder for the state when the next false flag is waved and the next war gets started.
If we want to avoid having to squirm or lie when our angry, soon-to-be-impoverished, education-deprived, malnourished, jobless and debt-ridden children ask us questions about what we did during America’s current wars of economic and military imperialism (“full spectrum domination”), and the on-rushing destruction and depletion of the planet’s resources, we must at least refuse to be complacent about the slaughter of our fellow planetary inhabitants that is being perpetrated in our name.
Members of antiwar, anti-imperialist resistance groups that are supporting or participating in the nonviolent Occupy Wall Street movement won’t have to be evasive when their children and grandchildren ask them “what did you do during the war?”
Instead, they will be able to proudly tell them about their nonviolent resistance efforts that might then give them hope or encourage them to follow in the footsteps of their altruistic mothers, fathers, grandmas and grandpas who did what they could do to stop the wealth-extractors, the polluters and the war-mongers before they could start the next war or poison the next river.
Hopefully it is not already too late.
Dr. Gary G. Kohls is a founding member of The Community of the Third Way, a Duluth-area affiliate of Every Church A Peace Church.