Have We Learned From History? -by Jeff Olson
The hostilities of World War II began 80 years ago this week (September 1) when Germany invaded Poland, but its foundation was set years earlier with a slow and subtle decline and transformation of Germany’s culture. As with all wars and other human events in history, there are lessons to be learned. German philosopher Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is noted for stating that “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” He definitely has been proven right many times, and my case in point here may be another example of the truth of his statement.
The origins of any nation’s stability and longevity can usually be traced to her religious roots which give rise to her culture. America is no exception to this, but yet she is an exceptional example. Her greatness can be credited to several sources, but the Biblical precepts of the preeminence of human life in the created order, the doctrine of original sin, individual freedom, the rule of law, and liberty of conscience are among the leading ones. Most of our Founders rejected the Enlightenment myth of the innate goodness of man; a myth which has been confirmed as such throughout history, but emphatically so by the French Revolution (1789-1799). Fast forward to 1930s Europe, and specifically Germany. These had been predominantly Christian cultures, but this was a period when faith in the social sciences and in intellectual solutions to moral problems had been on the rise. Christian Scientists believed all evil to be an illusion that could be eliminated by the exercise of the mind and government control, and the harshness of human evil from earlier wars no longer seemed real or even relevant to the present time or future.
Within this environment: Adolph Hitler, upon his acceptance of the chancellorship of Germany in 1933, established an absolute dictatorship with a purpose and determination to implement his socialist/collectivist-based economic policies which eventually would buttress Germany’s capability to achieve many of Hitler’s military goals. In so doing, he totally disregarded government’s God-ordained and delegated purpose and role. To him the state was everything and he was its god. In the face of his tremendous popularity, practically all institutions of society succumbed to his control and failed to challenge him. This was statism and tyranny at their worst. Only the church had the independence and the institutional power to stand between Hitler and absolute totalitarianism, but the church was alone and divided from within. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Christian leaders failed to see the impending cultural revolution and its moral implications brewing in Germany, and consequently the church neglected to provide an independent moral compass and failed to hold the state to account.
There were a few exceptions, the greatest among them being Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Bonheoffer made a strong effort in appealing to these leaders, but they could not or would not understand what the church struggle in Germany represented. The church was unfortunately caught up in the trends of the day, surrendering its influence as the moral voice and conscience the country so desperately needed. In Bonhoeffer’s words, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The Nazis had no tolerance for Bonheoffer’s bold Christian message of truth nor for his faith and courage. He was executed (hanged) at the concentration camp at Flossenbürg.
This dark era of history serves to remind America (and the world) that, in a constitutional republic and free society, the citizenry must be a virtuous people who know their history, are informed on current issues and events affecting their culture, and are proactive in applying their knowledge and instilling their core values into the civil/social order and political process. This is true regardless of who our leaders are. Otherwise, history will certainly repeat itself from consequences born out of apathy, ignorance of history, misplaced faith, neglected personal responsibility, misunderstood institutional roles of church and government, the devaluation of human life, and the refusal to acknowledge the fallen nature of man.
Of course we still face evil today, but too often we look for it or see it in the wrong places and people – perhaps in political figures or maybe in those we vehemently disagree with. The truth is, evil lies dormant in each and everyone of us – especially so in those for whom the one true God is foreign and His Son Jesus is considered at best only “a good Man.” Evil must be defined by the standards of God, recognized and called out for what it is, confronted boldly, and defeated decisively. This is a spiritual war, even more so than it is a cultural, political or military one. No less will do if we are to survive as a culture and nation. That has never changed, and it never will.