I had the pleasure of meeting Eric Metaxas a couple months ago, when he was addressing a room full of pastors and Christian thought leaders in Atlanta. He let me record the talk, with the intention of publishing it somewhere down the line. That line has turned out to be longer than I expected, but I was working on the transcript today and I enjoyed this part on how the evil of Naziism not only robbed Germany of its present and future, but even robbed Germany of its past — and how the very same wealth of culture that made Germany so compelling prior to the rise of Naziism may have made it particularly susceptible to the supremacist aspirations of the Nazis.
QUESTION: Many people’s experience of Germany might be limited, or they might see it only through post-Nazi eyes. But the world into which Bonhoeffer was born was in many respects a wonderful world. Can you say something about that?
I went into writing the Wilberforce biography and the Bonhoeffer biography basically ignorant of what I would find. I’m not a scholar, so I came to the material much like anyone else would, knowing this and that but hungry to discover the story as a whole. Because of my German background, I wanted to know about Germany. I’m not necessarily the most intellectually curious person, but I felt like I had to know things like this.
One of the most dramatic things I discovered had to do with Germany prior to Naziism. I was nothing less than astounded by what I discovered with regard to German culture, and I said to myself: This is part of the outrage of history and the evil that the Nazis did. They were somehow able not only to destroy Germany for a century into the future — and we’re in year 75 or 80 of their influence now — but also into the past. As a German growing up in New York, which is very secular and Jewish, well, my father is Greek and I grew up with this pride about being Greek. But I had zero pride about being German, in part born out of this tremendous ignorance of what is Germany.
Everyone sees Germany through the lens of the Nazi period. The Nazi stain was so black, so demonic, that it affected everything. It effectively obliterated what I discovered was this unbelievable history, a wealth of art and culture, a treasure that I was astounded to discover.
How is it possible that I as a German could be so ignorant of this great Christian, European nation, a nation that ought to be especially proud of its accomplishments? Somehow the Nazis were able to destroy that so thoroughly that even I, as a German, was pretty much unaware. You tend not to look there, or to see it only through the prism of the Nazi era.
But that also explains in part how the Nazis could rise to power. We know that pride goes before a fall. This idea that they had of their own superiority, just like this nation could do, or any nation that has any kind of pride in the flesh, can turn you into a racist or a tribalist. You say, “Our tribe is the best tribe.” And they were a great tribe. So it’s an irony of history that the greatness of Germany set them up for the tragedy of that period.