Authority Un-Challenged

Authority Un-Challenged November 1, 2010

On his recent trip to England, Pope Ratzi gave a speech in which he tried to pin Nazism on atheism.  Many of us responded by pointing out that atheists were persecuted by Hitler, that the Church cooperated with him, or that Germany and Hitler were heavily Catholic and so forth.

It should be unnecessary to state any of this because it’s really impossible to look at German history and not see how he came to power.  The people put him there.  Not the leftists, socialists or atheists, but the average Kurt and Hilda.  A new German exhibit explores the relationship of Hitler to his nation:

“Hitler and the Germans. Nation and Crime” at the Deutsches Historisches Museum is only the second exhibition in Germany ever dedicated to Adolf Hitler. It seeks to answer what is perhaps the country’s most pressing question: why did the nation follow him?

I’ve seen the films of throngs of people adoring him.  It’s because they absolutely loved him:

…Hitler’s rise to power cannot be explained without considering his support among the German people. Sir Ian Kershaw, a British biographer of Hitler and member of the exhibition’s board of historians, has classified this relationship as one that was near religious, like people with a messiah. Hitler offered a way for Germans to regain their pride after the degrading fallout from the Treaty of Versailles and the struggles of the Great Depression. One exhibit features hand-written letters to “My dear Führer” with warmest wishes for his 43rd birthday. Many Germans felt personally invested in the man who promised to grant them the lives and the future they deserved.

I don’t know if Hitler really believed in God.  His writing and speeches seem to indicate that he did, but it’s really beside the point.  Hitler did believe he was the German savior and convinced millions of Germans that he was.  He exploited every single authority symbol of Germany, from the churches to the media to the judiciary.

By constantly invoking the love of fatherland, German superiority, Christianity and other traditional imagery, Hitler tied himself to the “glories” of an imagined German past.  On top of this he offered a utopian future.  In some ways he was nothing more than a false messiah, a phenomenon that we’ve seen many, many times.  The fact that his self-deluded followers took his path to world destruction underscores just how irrational people can be when they are promised an unrealistic future of perfect happiness.

I don’t need to make the obvious comparisons to traditional religion here.  Anyway, I am more interested in just how unquestioning people can be when they are convinced to grant someone or something authority over them.  The German experience demonstrates that an unchecked level of human gullibility can rise to fatal levels.

Why do people turn off their personal incredulity when confronted with tradition-based authority?  How can they be skeptical in their private affairs and so in thrall to authority just because it invokes a god, a flag or some other revered or ancient source of power?

One of the reasons that I am a skeptic and atheist is that I don’t accept anything on face value.  The day I started studying the bible and the rabbinical literature I began to ask where it came from.  I’m lucky that I live in an age when answers to those questions are widely available.

Just as importantly, I learned to challenge facile answers to my questions.  When an Orthodox rabbi told me that there were three million witnesses to the revelation at Sinai, I asked for the sources.  When presented with only one source…the same Torah that was supposedly revealed at that very event…I said, “No thank you.  That’s not evidence and that’s not legitimate authority.”

I firmly believe that teaching our children the ability to confront any and all such claims of authority will immunize us against any future Hitlers.  While I’m not saying that we should never trust anyone or anything, I am saying that we should constantly evaluate and re-evaluate.  No source of authority should ever be eternal or absolute.

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  • Anonymous

    @Brontodon: an excellent book on the issue you were facing is James Kugel’s “How to Read the Bible”. Kugel is a revered biblical scholar who practicies (although does not necesarily believe in) Orthodox Judaism. He contrasts traditional and modern biblical scholarship, and elaborates on the different goals of the readers, as you described.