by Hans-Jörg Voigt
On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on the Kingdom of Serbia, just one month after the Austrian heir-apparent, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was murdered by members of the revolutionary underground organization Mlada Bosna in the City of Sarajevo. The major catastrophe of the 20th century ran its course, and it bears the seeds of the beginnings of World War II.
At the end of the European Lutheran Conference (ELC) on May 25, 2014, I and some of the other attendees visited the site of the concentration camp Bergen–Belsen. The camp is in close proximity to Bleckmar, where we had held the conference at SELK’s church mission centre, spending days of very intensive discussions with one another. I had been at the concentration camp several times before, visiting with vicars of our church, but never was it a visit that hit so close to home emotionally in the company of these international guests. On several occasions I was moved to tears in view of the documented heaps of corpses, while a brother from Great Britain and one from Denmark stood next to me. All of this had its beginnings in the events 100 years ago.
As we passed through the site’s remains and remnants of the prisoners’ barracks we engaged in some intensive discussions. Some of the points were the following:
1. To consider your guilt and to confess it is not a sign of weakness but of strength
The Australian historian Christopher Clark has published a book entitled The Sleepwalkers – How Europe Went to War in 1914. It is by now a bestseller in Germany—probably, because in it someone finally says that Germany was not the only country that bears fault for the outbreak of World War I. But I consider this question irrelevant, because from the viewpoint of the Christian faith it is not a weakness but a strength to confess one’s guilt.
My brother works as a master craftsman. His whole life consists of repeated measurements and correcting mistakes previously made; no one has ever accused him of a negative view of life because he corrects his errors. Every day our own life is to be measured by the will of God. Asking for forgiveness through Jesus Christ leads us on the right path. And if that is true for the life of each individual Christian, then it is also true for society as a whole, including in politics. The fact that Germany, at first reluctantly but then increasingly in the open, dealt with the topic of and admitted the horrendous injustice perpetrated by the nation, is a sign of strength and not of weakness, however incomplete that process may still be.
2. Admitting guilt is quite different from accepting responsibility
For Lutheran Christians it is important to speak of guilt in as precise a meaning of the term as possible. Particularly in considering historical complexities we should not use the term
flippantly. I personally am not at fault for the outbreak and consequences of two world wars and the incomprehensible destruction of the Jewish people. I bear no guilt because I did not live at that time. I have to confess enough of my own faults, and Jesus Christ is at work daily to deal with my sins.
But at the same time we Germans bear an ongoing responsibility for the consequences of German history in the 20th century. That responsibility implies that we help relieve whatever sufferings resulted from that history and wherever we face any other sufferings. And we need to remind others of this responsibility. There has been little research to date about what our originally German-speaking sister churches in Canada, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and Australia had to contend with during those wars. The mistrust they faced from their fellow countrymen in the new homes and the resulting loss of the German language as well as expressions of enmity are part of that.
3. Nationalism is still a problem today
The French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars mark the advance of various forms of nationalism. Now the concept of the nation supplants the concept of the Christian religion. Nationalism is one of the main causes for the outbreak of World War I. It was nationalism that blinded churches of various denominations. For example, Roman-Catholic bishops of French and German dioceses both engaged in war-mongering against one another, even though they belonged to the same church. And the Protestant churches were no better. But the soldiers on the battlefields were completely surprised when they found a Bible or a crucifix in the pockets of their fallen opponents.
Nationalism and national egotisms are still quite prevalent in Europe and the rest of the world. Nationalism has not been eradicated and must still be considered to be competing with the Christian faith.
4. The danger of pseudo-scientific convictions
Pseudo-scientific convictions are dangerous. We see that in the Nazi ideology of National Socialism and its devastating consequences. This ideology attempted to use the theory of evolution to establish, by a process of natural selection and the law of survival of the fittest, a racial theory of social Darwinism. But pseudo-scientific notions can still be encountered today, in certain economic and sociological theories. They are in crass opposition to the Christian faith where love of the neighbor is a major tenet. Christ says: “What you have done to one of the least of these my brethren, that you have done to me” (Matthew 25:40).
5. Majorities can be wrong
These days when I see pictures of cheering crowds and soldiers like those that were sent to face a cruel death in 1914, then I often try to convince my children of the following: “Majorities can be wrong.” Those men and women who tried on July 20, 1944, to end the trauma of the Nazi dictatorship by their attempt on Hitler’s life, were courageous enough to stand against majority opinion. 70 years ago they paid for it with their lives. Christian conscience—because of original sin, often an erring conscience—must always be sharpened by attending to God’s word.
Our democratic societies stand in danger of always accepting a majority opinion as truth. German history teaches that the outbreak of the World War I was a mass supported event, and that the election to the German Reichstag in 1933 took place under generally democratic conditions. The result was the Nazi dictatorship. Majorities can be wrong—to know this is today more important than ever, particularly when the majority opinions in today’s society stand more and more in opposition to the Christian faith.
Rev. Dr. Hans-Jörg Voigt is Bishop of the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church (SELK) in Germany and Chairman of the International Lutheran Council (ILC).