On Faith, Resistance, and Self-Sacrifice

Critiquing Donald Trump’s inaugural address for Religion Dispatches, Spencer Dew pointed out that the new president entirely omitted the features of American civil religion that Robert Bellah once described as being essential to understanding national identity in a democracy. Consequently, Trump’s nationalism is one “unanswerable to any higher authority, whether law or God, the sacrifice of previous generations.”

I emphasize what Bellah called the rhetoric of “death, sacrifice, and rebirth” because it’s a theme we ran into again and again on our just-concluded World War I travel course. As we took students to dozens of memorials and cemeteries, it was impossible not to wonder what compelled all those millions of young people to sacrifice their lives. Or to consider how their nations posthumously made meaning of all those deaths.

Australian headstone inscribed "I fought and died in the Great War to end all wars. Have I died in vain?"

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Chris Gehrz

At least in Commonwealth cemeteries, where families were allowed to choose their sons’ epitaphs, some doubt creeps in. “Have I died in vain?”, one Australian sergeant asks visitors to his graveside in Villers-Brettoneux, France. “Lest we forget,” admonish others, in the futile hope that 1914-1918 would indeed become the “War to end all wars.” And while many families continued to pledge their loved ones’ memories “To King and Country,” students at Oxford famously voted never again to die for that cause.

But as we traveled from France to Germany for the last leg of our trip, we read some very different words from a wounded German officer who had made the same train journey (albeit much more slowly) at war’s end:

…strange as it may sound, I learned from this very four years’ schooling in force and in all the fantastic extravagance of material warfare that life has no depth of meaning except when it is pledged for an ideal, and that there are ideals in comparison with which the life of an individual and even of a people has no weight. And though the aim for which I fought as an individual, as an atom in the whole body of the army, was not yet to be achieved, though material force cast us, apparently, to the earth, yet we learned once and for all to stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.

Jünger, Storm of Steel

The newest edition of Jünger’s famous novel features a foreword by Karl Marlantes, author of What It Is Like to Go to War

Ernst Jünger later removed these words from the conclusion of Storm of Steel, rightly concerned that readers would be unable to distinguish his brand of nationalism from that of another WWI veteran who led Germany into a second, still more disastrous world war. (One that took the life of Jünger’s son, and 5 million more German troops.) But despite his disdain for National Socialists, they shared Jünger’s war-hardened conviction that “Germany lives and Germany shall never go under!”

As my post on Saturday hopefully made clear, I have little use for this brand of nationalism. But I suspect that Jünger is speaking to a fundamental human impulse that survived the crucible of total war: a desire to live not solely “[in] the cold light of reason” but “in the invisible rays of a feeling that filled the heart….”

To “stand for a cause and if necessary to fall as befitted men.”

I just think he gets the cause wrong.

While Jünger quoted Scripture (“…except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit”), he characterized Christianity as a spent force, a cautionary example for adherents of the cult of national greatness:

To-day we cannot understand the martyrs who threw themselves into the arena in a transport that lifted them even before their deaths beyond humanity, beyond every phase of pain and fear. Their faith no longer exercises a compelling force. When once it is no longer possible to understand how a man gives his life for his country–and the time will come–then all is over with that faith also, and the idea of the Fatherland is dead; and then, perhaps, we shall be envied as we envy the saints their inward and irresistible strength.

White Rose memorial in Munich's Hofgarten

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Chris Gehrz

So it’s fortuitous that when we take students on a walking tour of Munich, they discover that the Bavarian War Memorial (whose inscription — “They shall rise again” — seems more a political vow than a theological assurance) is only a few steps away from the simple, stark cube dedicated to the memory of the anti-Nazi resistance group known as the White Rose, many of whose members were compelled by faith to oppose the nationalism of the Third Reich.

“Nothing is so unworthy of a civilised nation,” started the group’s first leaflet, distributed in June 1942, “as allowing itself to be governed without opposition by an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct.” So university students including Hans and Sophie Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Willi Graf, and Christoph Prost pledged themselves to nonviolent resistance.

While not all members were Christians, their fourth leaflet made an unabashedly religious argument for opposing the Nazi regime and sabotaging the German war effort:

Every word that comes from Hitler’s mouth is a lie. When he says peace, he means war, and when he blasphemously uses the name of the Almighty, he means the power of evil, the fallen angel, Satan…. Everywhere and at all times of greatest trial men have appeared, prophets and saints who cherished their freedom, who preached the One God and who His help brought the people to a reversal of their downward course. Man is free, to be sure, but without the true God he is defenceless against the principle of evil. He is a like rudderless ship, at the mercy of the storm, an infant without his mother, a cloud dissolving into thin air.

I ask you, you as a Christian wrestling for the preservation of your greatest treasure, whether you hesitate, whether you incline toward intrigue, calculation, or procrastination in the hope that someone else will raise his arm in your defence? Has God not given you the strength, the will to fight? We must attack evil where it is strongest, and it is strongest in the power of Hitler.

In Marc Rothemund’s 2005 film about the arrest and execution of the White Rose leaders, Sophie Scholl’s faith is given a central role. Praying herself to sleep with the words of Augustine, she appeals to eternal law in her interrogation by Gestapo officer Robert Mohr, who snarls back, “There is no God!”

“You did the right thing,” the Scholls’ father tells Sophie in a poignant meeting just before her execution. (In reality, he even burst into their trial and shouted at Nazi judge Roland Freisler, “There is a higher court before which we all must stand!”) “Remember Jesus,” pleads his wife. “Yes, Mama,” replies Sophie, “but you, too.”

As they go to their deaths, Rothemund presents the White Rose resisters as contemporary martyrs: 20th century saints who possessed the “inward and irresistible strength” that Jünger envied and Nazism could not defeat. In short, the members of the White Rose “[stood] for a cause” and “[fell] as befitted men” and women.

When I show Sophie Scholl: The Last Days to my students, I tell them that they are about to watch a horror movie. Not because it’s graphically violent, but because it shows how Sophie, her brother, and their friends are stranded in a terribly twisted universe where good is evil and truth is a lie. To Mohr and especially Freisler, whose allegiance to the Nazi movement is total, the Scholls are not heroes but degenerates or lunatics.

I continue to believe that our democratic system will prove to be more durable than the Weimar Republic. But having elected a leader who launched his presidency by calling for “total allegiance” and berating the media for reporting facts, I’m starting to feel like we Americans have entered a horror movie of our own.

If so — if we find ourselves be governed by “an irresponsible clique that has yielded to base instinct” — then I can only pray that God will give me and you the strength not to hesitate, not to calculate or procrastinate, but to defend what is right without fear.

About Chris Gehrz

My name’s Chris Gehrz. I’m professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I also help direct the Christianity and Western Culture program. I'm the editor of The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education and blog at The Pietist Schoolman.