Clear Thinking

I first heard of Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich before it found a publisher.  Even at that point I found the idea fascinating.  My knowledge of the Second World War isn’t deep.  I was born less than two decades after it happened, so it was still heavy in American consciousness, but as a child I wasn’t much interested in history.  (I was a fan of monsters even then.)  Like many people, since November of 2016 I’ve had a renewed interest in how the Nazis rose to power, and how a highly intelligent nation could follow someone as unstable as Hitler.  When I spotted Blitzed on a discount table at the Moravian Book Shop I figured it was a good opportunity to learn more.

Never a drug user myself, I grew up in a culture where such use was prevalent.  I had never realized, however, just how ubiquitous drugs were in Nazi Germany.  Ohler begins by noting the use of crystal meth in keeping German soldiers awake and alert for days at a time, thereby allowing Blitzkrieg to take place.  The offensive on the western front would likely not have worked without it.  The story gets seedier from there.  Hitler, a vegetarian who eschewed drugs and alcohol, had a personal physician who began giving him daily injections of vitamins and what we’d likely recognize as placebos for a number of physical ailments.  Even as decisions were made for genocide, der Führer was being injected with hard drugs of the opiate family, eventually becoming an addict.  Decisions about the fate of an entire nation were being made by a leader so high that straight thinking wasn’t a possibility.

Ohler is careful not to claim that Hitler’s excesses of hatred and megalomania were the results of his drug use.  They were there well in advance of his decline.  Outside the bunkers in which Hitler spent much of the war, drugs were widely used, and abused, in the German military.  In order to try to entice young men into what would become suicide missions, high doses of drugs were provided, often enough to prevent the effective outcome hoped for.  This is a fascinating, sordid story.  It’s a side of the tragedy of the war that we don’t often hear, and it’s a further indication of just how easily madness spreads.  Reading the descriptions of Hitler’s personality, in this particular era, was frightening.  Especially since history has a nasty tendency to repeat itself.

May Care

The thing about the Devil is that evil is no laughing matter.  Darren Oldridge had no easy task limiting the dark lord to The Devil: A Very Short Introduction.  He nevertheless does an admirable job packing lots of provocative stuff into a small package.  The historian of religion part of me found his short history of Satan in chapter 2 a compelling synthesis of the character’s background.  Longer sources get tangled in theological weeds once the New Testament’s over, what with erstwhile saints being recast as heretics over some minute point of doctrine.  Lots of ideas about the Devil were floating around in those days, even as they are today.  A particularly important point, however, is made early in this book: even during the Enlightenment most intellectuals—including scientists—assumed the reality of the spiritual world.  It was only when materialism alone came to reign that there could be no Devil because there could be no spirits.

A vast disconnect continues to exist between “public intellectuals” and hoi polloi.  The vast majority of people in the world are religious.  Even in, especially in, the United States a great number of people believe in the Devil.  Many of those same people can’t recognize political evil when it stands naked before them.  Here’s the irony of it all: Oldridge discusses how an evil system, let’s say Nazism, blinded many otherwise decent people to the evil they were asked to perform.  Rhetoric that demonized the other, when dispersed over large crowds, has historically had that effect.  Today we see “Christians” claiming that a social system of helping those in need is of the Devil.  The greatest weapon of the prince of darkness is the sincerely believed lie.

Lies have always been associated with the Devil.  When the number of untruths coming from the White House has broken the very meter for measuring lies, those who claim the name of the crucified man who advocated care for the poor shout all the more loudly.  Not at the lies, but at those who don’t accept them.  Historically, the reign of facts has kept some checks on the Devil.  Even Jesus accused Herod of watching Fox—or was it being a fox?—too bad there are no facts to check.  Oldridge doesn’t tip his hand as to whether there is an actual Devil or not.  Society has, however,  no trouble making up its mind.  All they need to do is turn on the television.

Cheap Faith

“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” Many of my conservative Christian friends may be surprised to learn that these are the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Evangelical hero and firm believer in costly discipleship, Bonhoeffer lived, and died, during the Nazi takeover of Germany. A promising young theologian, he escaped Germany to come teach at Union Seminary in New York City. Increasingly disturbed by what was taking place back home, he forsook safety and returned to Germany to try to wrench the hands of Hitler from the steering wheel. Bonhoeffer didn’t write empty words.

The above quote comes from a letter he wrote to his sister-in-law Emmi. Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, well deserves its status as a classic. In it Bonhoeffer declares that a cheap faith is not a faith worth believing in. The Prosperity Gospel would have made him ill. You see, Bonhoeffer believed that the religion preached by Jesus didn’t allow for shirkers. Those who get rich and claim God helped them to it. There’s a reason some people say Mammon is a demon. This was in the days when Christianity still had a conscience. When leaders of religious movements weren’t afraid to speak out against accommodating with evil when that was the more comfortable course to take. And his wasn’t empty rhetoric.

Bonhoeffer was arrested back in his native land. Sent to Buchenwald and then to Flossenbürg, he was hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39 years old. Two weeks later the Allies liberated the camp. Bonhoeffer knew evil when he saw it. Now, some seventy years later our vision has become blurred. We live in a country that declares itself “Christian” but, unlike any religion Jesus taught, declares itself to be first. “America first,” we’re told. Flipping through the pages of the Gospels my eyes fall on a forgotten verse. “The first shall be last,” it reads, “and the last shall be first.” Scholars argue over the authentic words of Jesus, to be sure. What we do know is that he too was executed by his government before he reached 40. And they killed him for the radical message that what God requires is loving your neighbor as yourself.

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Photo source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Nazis with Bibles

Some years back, when the Internet was young, I had just learned about email. Even today it seems incredible that only twenty years ago we still sent physical letters to communicate, and that we used paper maps and telephone books to get information. The main problem with email then was that not everyone was on it. I signed up for an Ancient Near East/Biblical studies discussion group. My barren inbox (being a scholar at a non-prestige school) was suddenly full every day. New discoveries, research ideas, online debates. It was all very exciting. Then someone voiced the fraught question: should we ignore the research of scholars who were later revealed to have been Nazis? The rancor raised forced the moderator of the discussion group eventually to make this a forbidden topic. Because I could not keep up with the inundation of emails and because of the vitriol (do people use the world vitriol anymore?) on the Internet universe, I eventually unsubscribed. Nothing raises hackles like Nazis. Especially in the field of biblical studies, which, naturally enough, revolves around issues of Jewish interest. I saw a blog post recently which brought this whole episode back to mind.

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

Photo from German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

The issue of political conviction and professional neutrality is a vexed one. Critical study of the Bible began, to a large extent, in German universities. Biblical studies in higher education was mainly a Christian enterprise, and many of the questions were, well, only academic. If someone was a Nazi, did he (and they were pretty much all he’s) have a hidden agenda? Today the question of agenda is often raised with conservative biblical scholars. Can someone who believes in the Virgin Birth and in Moses parting the Red Sea really interact critically with the biblical text? Just throw that question out there and watch the fun. (It helps if it is tossed out on a blog that actually has readers, rather than my insignificant efforts here.) Who can make the claims for true objectivity? Can a Nazi correctly parse that verb? Do one’s political views gainsay one’s credibility?

We are all children of our environment. Even the most empirical of scientists will admit that true objectivity is not what it seems. We are not, after all, gods. And even the gods seem to have distinct tastes. Evil done in the name of politics seems slightly less heinous than evil done in the name of religion, but people are people and we have convictions sprouting out all over the place. Nobody intentionally believes falsehoods. Motivations are notoriously difficult to untangle. Can’t we all be professional about this? Emotions, however, do play favorites. If there’s any doubt, consider the question of using a person as an experimental subject with no regard for what they feel. We know it’s wrong. We won’t allow it. Of course, that’s in an ideal world. Right now there are more pressing matters at hand, such as how to hire more adjuncts without destroying our credibility. It’s not a matter of wanting to hurt others, it’s just good business. Everything else is merely academic.

Honorable Theft

The_Book_ThiefYoung adult literature can be amazingly profound. My curiosity about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief bubbled to the surface after the movie was released last weekend. I didn’t see it, along with thousands of others, because of its very limited theatrical release. I’m sure you know that distressing feeling when you type your zip code into Fandango and come up with zero results. Short of going all the way into New York City just to see a movie, I was pretty much out of luck. The silver lining is that it made me read the book. I’m not sure what I was expecting (I can also be the victim of hype), but what I found was deeply engrossing while also being deeply disturbing. Spoiler alert!

The Book Thief is set in Nazi Germany. It is narrated by Death. The protagonist, Liesel Meminger, represents the plight of all people; we have no control over when, where, or to whom we’re born. With parents considered enemies of the state, the Book Thief is raised by foster parents who are German, but who are also poor. They are good people, and much of the tension in the book revolves around their hiding a Jewish friend in their small house. The convention of Death as a narrator predates George Pendle’s Death: A Life, by three years. Although in the end Death is the only survivor, he is remarkably sympathetic to the human condition. Death also supplies the main religious observations in a book otherwise devoid of God. When Death attempts to pray during the horrors of war, a devastating conclusion is drawn: “God never says anything.” Is that why Veteran’s Day celebrations tend to be so silent? There may not be any atheists in foxholes, but there’s no God there either.

As Death stalks all those who are dear to her, Liesel finds her comfort in books. Although she begins the story illiterate, and although books are difficult to find in a poor family in a nation at war, Liesel discovers that words have a power that even dictators can’t steal. Her love of reading saves her life as her street is obliterated in an air raid. Even Death has to question the futility of war. In my most idealistic of moments, I hold the conviction that many of the world’s evils would be eliminated if people just read more. We would discover, for example, that even the devastation of war can be overcome by words. The only book Death is portrayed as reading is the Book Thief’s life story. And this gives Death pause, because even young adult literature can be amazingly profound.