One of the most pressing question for humans in the depth of their existence is this one: How can humans go silent or compliant or, unfathomably, become even more committed to the leader and the cause and the ideology when their leader becomes a tyrant? On an airplane I was once next to an older German professor and so I asked the question, “You were there under Hitler. How did it happen?” I knew him well enough for him to tell me: “Ideology. I have no other word. Ideology.”
Some of you may wonder why I have such an interest in Germany of the World War II era and it is quite simple: our public education system had some exceptional German teachers. I began German in the 7th grade and by the time we were in high school we were reading soul-searching books. My high school German teacher, Herr Kurr, is the finest teacher I ever had. His assignments were not light: as high school juniors, but especially as seniors, he soaked us in post WWII existentialist writers who wrote in German — Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Hermann Hesse, Gerhard Hauptmann, Friedrich Dürrenmatt — but perhaps most importantly, he led us into the heart of the questions of that day as Germans themselves struggled with the question “How did it happen?”
The more I have learned about the rise of Hitler in Germany in the 1930s and into the war years and the horrors of the Holocaust, the more I have asked the same question: How did that happen? How could an entire nation fall in line? How could the church almost entirely capitulate?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s famous essay “After Ten Years” is an essay written to his co-conspirators and in the middle of it is a section called (in the English translation) “On Stupidity” (in German Dummheit). I’m not fond of the word “stupidity” even if it is rather clear that the word Dummheit and the word “stupidity” are about the same. But to Bonhoeffer we go because for him the word Dummheit connotes moral blindness and moral stupor and moral quiescense.
The essay “After Ten Years” is found in Letters and Papers from Prison (DBW 8:37-52) though it was written as a Christmas piece in 1942 prior to Bonhoeffer’s April arrest. There were no paragraph titles though the editors have provided them and the title of our paragraph is the fifth section (following hard on “Civil Courage” and “Success”). Now to a probing of how it all happened, and a way for thinking in our age for any leader who, though he or she has forfeited a right of being following, continues to compel a powerful following.
First, moral blindness is more dangerous than malice. Reason is not an option.
Second, moral blindness cannot be reduced to “an intellectual defect but to a human [character] one” (43). It is not so much “psychological” as it is a “sociological problem” (43). This is why I don’t think the word “stupid” is a good enough translation. People, he says, are made morally blind in consort with others — this rarely happens to the person living in solitude.
This is where Bonhoeffer gets to the core of his insight in seeking to comprehend the German problem: Third, “every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with” moral blindness (43). That is, as power increases moral blindness increases. Without it the power could not increase; without it the moral blindness would not increase. Instead of acting, the morally blind person is filled with stupor and quiescence.
Fourth, humans cease to think critically and rationally: “under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances” (44). In dealing with such persons, we are dealing with “slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him” (44).
Fifth, it follows that the morally blind person (what Bonhoeffer calls “stupidity” or the “stupid person”) becomes “a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil” (44). Stupor overcomes them.
Finally, only an act of liberation (not instruction) can free the person from moral blindness. He means both external and internal liberation, and he contends sometimes the former must happen before the second is possible. “The word of the Bible that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom declares that the internal liberation of human beings to live the responsible life before God is the only genuine way to overcome” this kind of moral blindness (44).
I would add one point: following the kind of liberation that comes, far too many refuse the responsibility for what they acquiesced to and find, instead, an alternative story to make sense of their moral blindness. The story enables them to carry on the stupor.
The issue points to the leaders: Do they want “stupidity” in their audience or “inner independence”? He fears the danger of becoming contemptible of other humans in the next section (called “Contempt for Humanity?”). What is the solution? “The only fruitful relation to human beings — particularly to the weak among them — is love, that is, the will to enter into and to keep community with them” (45).