The Treason of Silence: A Lesson from Nazi Germany

On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in Flossenbürg concentration camp for his resistance to Nazi Germany.  He had been involved in a conspiracy to assassinate the Führer–to “not just bandage the victims under the wheel” of the Third Reich (as he said), but even “to jam a spoke in the wheel itself” (quoted in Christian History, issue 32).  It failed, but his legacy as a pastor and political resistant remains.  What obligation do fellow citizens have regarding the oppression of the weak by an evil government?

Personally, I find several aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life difficult to embrace.  His book Life Together has moved me deeply, but his neo-orthodox background disturbs me.  His courage in the face of danger–especially his return from America on the last ship into Germany before the war–challenges me, even though I wonder about the legitimacy of individuals acting without authorization, even it must come from another government.  Apparently he also had questions, for according to one documentary I saw, he had asked some fellow ministers at one point if they would grant absolution to the murderer of a tyrant.  At any rate, some questions can be set aside for now, for one large question remains: Will we be silent in the face of unjust oppression of others? Here is a significant way Bonhoeffer speaks to us today.

Have we not each faced such situations?  At a board meeting, in the classroom, in the cafeteria–the dominant begin to malign the lonely persecuted, while the rest of us stand silent, scared that speaking up would turn their hatred toward us.  It may not be the Kaufen Sie nicht beim Juden (“Do not buy from Jews”) of Nazi Germany, but the feeling is the same.  Should I speak up?  Will I speak up? To my shame, I have not always; but I must.  Where demanded, let it be with respect–even with a question, if necessary–but never with silence.

With respect to government, the question of legitimacy arises.  Who has the right to tell the authorities of their wrong?  In America, the Bill of Rights has preserved for each one of us the right to speak our mind–to help keep the government in check, to help prevent tyranny from usurping the liberty of the people.  Now, regardless of the legitimacy of our egalitarian system, this much I know: Jesus Christ rules over all, and His word is the final say in the affairs of men.  In America, the church has the greater obligation to speak up in the face of unjust oppression of others; and of all churchmen, the pastors have the greatest obligation.  That is one reason why I admire Bonhoeffer.

Consider with me the words of Pastor Martin Niemöller, a fellow Berliner, who served seven years in concentration camps for statements such as declaring that Jesus Christ was his Führer:

First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out – because I was not a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out – because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Woe to us if we keep silent!  “If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; if thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doeth not he that pondereth the heart consider it? and he that keepeth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?” (Proverbs 24:11-12).  O God, help us!  In Jesus’ name, who forgave a cowardly Peter and then empowered him at Pentecost, Amen.

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