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Debating the Shoah

In his review essay on Hitler’s Willing Executioners (“Daniel Goldhagen’s Holocaust,” August/September), Richard John Neuhaus harshly challenges Professor Goldhagen’s criticism of the role played by the Christian churches under the Nazi regime, suggesting, rather, that the churches found themselves in a position where they failed, for the most part, “to muster courage to be martyrs” under a “ruthless and totalitarian regime.” Father Neuhaus, however, neglects to acknowledge the enthusiasm with which so many Christians, outside the pro-Hitler German Christian movement but within the Evangelical Church, greeted the rise of National Socialism. For some, it was as much because of the Fuehrer’s policy vis- -vis Jews and Judaism as it was his promise of being a force against communism and the perceived decadence of the Weimar Republic. Indeed, the Protestant Church’s most respected segment, its renowned university theological faculty, time and again embraced and promulgated Hitler’s beliefs about Jews. As Robert Ericksen has noted in his book, Theologians Under Hitler , not only were the brightest lights of German Protestant scholarship, Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emanuel Hirsch, “monstrously anti-Semitic, but they were products of Christian mainstream theology.” These were scholars of exemplary credentials, yet their positions regarding the Jewish people and their faith were right in line with that of Hitler’s German Christian movement. It wasn’t some aberrant or fringe movement that began the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life. It was University Professor Walter Grundmann and his colleagues, with funds from the Evangelical Church headquarters. Its goal was to eliminate once and for all everything Jewish in Christianity. Even before its first publication was off the press, tens of thousands of Christians in Germany became subscribers. Would it have meant martyrdom for Emanuel Hirsch if he had not published his well-received and, in his words, “more acceptable” New Testament with its relentless anti-Jewish bias? Would it have meant martyrdom for Bishop Heinrich Oberheid had he not been a major mover behind the notorious 1939 Godesberg Declaration of the National Church Union of German Christians that called for full expurgation of Jewry from the Church? Would it have been martyrdom for a seminary such as Erlangen had it resisted the Aryan clause, a law that effectively banned clergy of Jewish ancestry from church pulpits? I think not . . . . Contrary to what Fr. Neuhaus charges, Goldhagen never says Martin Luther was responsible for the Holocaust. He states, in his scant references to Luther, that church leaders exploited Luther’s anti-Semitic vitriol. Neuhaus himself concedes that Luther’s views were exploited by the Nazis. Small wonder, given that Luther had referred to Jews as “our plague, our pestilence, our misfortune.” . . . But then Fr. Neuhaus proceeds to posit that Luther was not, after all, a “passionate anti-Semitic hero.” What more does it take to be described as such when one has written, with respect to the Jews, “We are at fault in not slaying them.” . . . Some historians of the period have equated Christian support for Jews who had converted to Christianity with opposition to the anti-Semitic politics of Nazism. But it is important to recognize that with a few exceptions (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example), Protestants uttered barely a word of protest against what was happening to their fellow citizens who were Jewish. The Roman Catholics, with their own few notable exceptions, did no better . . . . Of course Fr. Neuhaus is correct that John Chrysostom and Martin Luther cannot be held responsible for the deaths of Jews in Germany, and that the former was obviously not “writing speeches for Josef Goebbels.” Yet writings have many lives . . . . The frequent statements by prominent German Christian theologians resurrecting age-old Christian anti-Jewish canards did indeed have a very powerful effect on the thinking of men and women in a land considered by many to be the “heart of Christendom.” As James Parkes wrote in the 1930s, accusations against Jews by Christians of ritual murder, poisoning of the wells, and a host of other time-honored charges are “natural outgrowths from the picture created by Chrysostom or a Cyril.” That is why we remember with gratitude the leadership of Pope John XXIII as he turned the Christian understanding of Jews and Judaism around 180 degrees with the initiation of a process leading to the promulgation of Nostra Aetate . It is why we give thanks for Protestant denominations such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the National Alliance of Baptists as each has reformulated, within the last several years, its understanding of its relationship with Judaism. And it is why we give thanks for the present pope, John Paul II, as he labors to build bridges across what many have thought, down through the years, was an impassable divide. Fr. Neuhaus, like most critics of this book, has demonstrated the weakness of Goldhagen’s premise that “what can be said about the Germans cannot be said about any other nationality.” And it is correct that in his treatment of the churches in Germany as a whole, Goldhagen has taken the facts out of their historical context. But is equally true that attempting to explain away or in any way ignore the churches’ response cannot erase the reality that the documents, statements, and actions Goldhagen cites are a stain on their history. They are ones which we as Christians should not ever attempt to excuse. As Father Edward Flannery has written, it is the “ultimate scandal that in carrying the burden of God in history the Jewish people did not find in the Christian churches an ally and defender but one of their most zealous detractors and oppressors.”

Peggy Obrecht
Director of Church Relations
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, D.C. Richard John Neuhaus suggests that the Holocaust “is our only culturally available icon of absolute evil.” What about the monstrosity of abortion? . . . I am not anti-Semitic, nor do I intend to downgrade the evil of the Holocaust. I saw the walking skeletons being freed from Dachau in 1945, and other evidences of Hitler’s atrocities. However, today’s holocaust of abortion, which involves the death of millions, continues unchecked. All of us must become fully aware of the number one problem in America today and become active in its solution . . . .

Fred Ainslie
Waukesha, WI

RJN replies:

I emphatically agree that we must not “attempt to excuse” the generally lamentable response of Christians in Germany, Protestant and Catholic, to Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and my essay made that clear beyond doubt. Ms. Obrecht, however, greatly understates the “weakness” of Goldhagen’s book. It is, as I said, “an incoherent, hate-filled, dishonest tract” that smears all Germans, including heroes such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with the charge of anti-Semitism, which he says is “axiomatic” in being German. She is right that the choice was not between martyrdom and being an enthusiastic proponent of Hitler’s policies, but, as a careful reading of Robert Ericksen’s book demonstrates, she greatly overstates the degree to which figures such as Emanuel Hirsch represented the mainstream Protestant position. While no doubt many people shared their views, Ericksen studies Althaus, Kittel, and, most particularly, Hirsch precisely because they were not representative. As I noted, Luther said abhorrently vicious things about Jews, but we grant Hitler a “posthumous victory” (Emil Fackenheim) if we agree with the Nazis that Luther, and Christianity more generally, support their anti-Semitism. Of great importance, among other things, is that Luther’s attacks were based on religion and not on race. That does not make his words more defensible, but it underscores the gross misrepresentation of Luther by the Hitler regime. On this score, I again recommend Uwe Siemon-Netto’s recent book, The Fabricated Luther. This touches on the question of who is responsible for the illegitimate exploitation of what others have said. My answer is that those who misrepresent others are responsible for that misrepresentation. It is true that “writings have many lives,” but John Chrysostom in fourth-century Constantinople should not be held responsible for the misrepresentation of his writings by Nazis in twentieth-century Germany. Those who argue otherwise, including Daniel Goldhagen, are guilty of making a muddle of moral accountability, thus obscuring good and evil alike. The Holocaust is so important as to require the clearest and most careful moral reasoning, and I am not sure that Ms. Obrecht or the Holocaust Museum contributes to that end by offering a defense, however qualified, of Mr. Goldhagen’s scurrilous polemic. Abortion is certainly the moral enormity that Mr. Ainslie suggests. Because, unfortunately, so many are blind to its reality, it is not the “culturally available” icon of absolute evil that the Holocaust is. We must work and hope that that will change.

The Purpose of Welfare Reform

The hesitation over welfare reform on the part of Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and of welfare critics like John DiIulio has been frustrating, but DiIulio’s essay (“The Truth about Crime and Welfare,” August/September), makes it a little more understandable. I wonder, though, if behind the hesitation is a feeling of despair about the government’s ability to roll back the widespread culture of unwed motherhood that is the bedrock of the underclass. I would agree that government, and society in general, no longer has the moral authority to deal with this issue. From the little I can see, even churches can address it in only a limited way, since so many congregants are single mothers or the offspring of single mothers. Many of these women are doing the best they can in the here and now and need help, not condemnation. But isn’t it possible that the withdrawal of the enabling system of unconditional government support, and the implicit societal approval that it has carried, will diminish illegitimacy over time? In other words, the idea of welfare reform is not so much aimed at the present (those here must be helped somehow) but at the future.

Carol Iannone
New York, NY

Is Federalism Dead?

In regard to Wilfred M. McClay’s thoughtful consideration of “The Soul of Man Under Federalism” (June/July), I noticed that he concluded with the question of whether the American people are prepared to pay the price of complexity associated with federalism. He poses that question as if it were a viable option that we face in the polling booth. I honestly can’t see that we have much of any option in that direction considering how the courts have succeeded in seizing so much power unto themselves. I am reminded of my public school teaching days in Wisconsin when I reported a student for downright lascivious dress. I was given a hapless reply by the principal saying that some court in a Texas case had decided blah . . . blah . . . blah; therefore, no dress code. So much for local autonomy, authority, and democratic governance. Multiply this hundreds of times at every level of state and local government regarding almost any issue of public life and it will be seen that our so-called democracy has been supplanted by a judicial aristocracy, appointed for life, answerable to no one, and limited to those of a legal bloodline. We have no viable means of attacking this power base except through constitutional amendment or convention, both of which are so prodigiously cumbersome as to be rendered unthinkable. Do we have a choice to pursue federalism? I can’t see it, though I wish dearly that it was there.

Maynard Nordmoe
Knoxville, TN

Wilfred M. McClay replies:

There’s good reason to share Mr. Nordmoe’s pessimism, and his remarks well illustrate the price we have been paying in the loss of fundamental self-governance. But there are hopeful signs too, particularly in the arena of ideas, which is where any lasting recovery of constitutionalism will have to begin. In addition, we are beginning to be confronted with concrete choices (as, for example, in welfare reform) that do have federalist implications. I agree that the courts present a particularly vexing obstacle, in just the way that Jefferson and other Founders warned they might. But I would not rule out the possibility that they too can be made, eventually, to follow the electoral returns. In any event, it is equally important that, when opportunities arise, states, localities, and individuals be ready to step up to the plate and assume the responsibilities that a new federalism will entail. I hope they will, and am encouraged by much that I see. But I am not yet willing to bet the ranch on it.

Questions on Bonhoeffer

The question in Jean Bethke Elshtain’s “Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign State” (August/September) isn’t only “what are the limits of my responsibility?” It’s also “what are the limits of the government’s responsibility?” The contemporary answer is repeated every time things go wrong: people inevitably demand that the government do something about it. Whether an airplane crashes or a sparrow falls to the ground, it’s the government’s fault-and hence responsibility. Those of us who believe in limited government must also believe in limited liability for the government. But if government isn’t responsible for everything, who is? No other institution could take that burden. Shifting some responsibility to mediating institutions won’t end the attitude that government must always step in when things go wrong. We must allow a divine sovereign to take responsibility for our well-being.

Ralph Gillmann
Burke, VA As I am writing a book that includes an essay involving Bonhoeffer’s prison writings regarding his notion of “man come of age,” I read Jean Bethke Elshtain’s “Bonhoeffer and the Sovereign State” with great interest. As with so many articles on Bonhoeffer, I found myself asking “Which Bonhoeffer would that have been?” when Ms. Elshtain took pains to assure her readers that “Bonhoeffer was no simplistic basher of modernity.” Far from being a “modernity basher,” Bonhoeffer’s prison writings (e.g., his letter to Eberhard Bethge dated July 16, 1944) may be read to reveal a thinker willing, at the very least, to assume the pose of a modernity “booster.” Ms. Elshtain’s subsequent discussion of Bonhoeffer’s “concept of deputyship” makes the Lutheran pastor sound more like a traditional Muslim (who adheres to the Quranic doctrine of man as God’s vicegerent on earth) than, as the prison writings suggest, the advocate of Grotius’ “working hypothesis” that mankind must learn to get along etsi deus non daretur (as if God does not exist). As I propose in my essay, had Bonhoeffer’s reading of Western intellectual history included the medieval Islamic resolution of the faith/reason controversy (which influenced but was not decisive for the West), he might have proved less sanguine about the promise of secularity to perform the role of midwife to God’s Kingdom come. That Bonhoeffer (the less sanguine one), would have been more like Ms. Elshtain’s; but that Bonhoeffer does not appear, from the prison writings, to be the one the Nazis led to the gallows.

Peter Matthews Wright
Pittsburgh, PA

Jean Bethke Elshtain replies:

Ralph Gillmann intimates at a quietism that would not have been Bonhoeffer’s, although Bonhoeffer certainly shared his view that government’s responsibilities and liabilities are limited, dictated by an appropriate divine mandate. In this sense, of course, a divine sovereign takes “responsibility for our well-being.” But this might too easily get us off the hook. Bonhoeffer argued, remember, that it was wicked simply to let things run their course when government, or some other institution, had overrun its mandate in cruel and destructive ways. Peter Matthews Wright’s question-“Which Bonhoeffer?””can, of course, be pitched right back his direction. I suggest that Wright reread Bonhoeffer’s severe indictment of the triumph of reason (or so its boosters claimed) that went hand-in-hand with terror in the French Revolution. As I tried to argue, Bonhoeffer is neither a booster nor a basher. His relationship to modernity is complex indeed. I don’t think he was assuming any poses in his letters to Bethge, exploratory as many were. Bonhoeffer’s arguments against Bultmann and other “demythologizers” is also suggestive in this regard. The concept of deputyship comes right out of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics , of course, and is not my interpolation. Finally, the Islamic medievalists’ “resolution” of the faith/reason debate was no resolution at all but one important contribution to an ongoing struggle of human beings with a number of dilemmas that are probably never resolved, only engaged.

Changing the Game

Edward T. Oakes is an unmistakably careful and perceptive reader of Alasdair MacIntyre (“The Achievement of Alasdair MacIntyre,” August/September). While many thanks are due to him for his fine summary of MacIntyre’s achievement, I should like to question his (to me) puzzling conclusion about MacIntyre’s work. Oakes’ conclusion is that MacIntyre’s analysis of the fragmentation and incoherence of modern moral discourse is “so acute . . . perhaps uniquely among contemporary philosophers” that he offers the possibility of narrowing the intimidating distance between rival moral theories and bringing serious encounter between emotivists, rationalists, and Aristotelian Thomists “a little bit closer.” How can moral discourse, being in such disorder as MacIntyre describes, also be moving “a little bit closer” to a fruitful encounter with rival moral systems? What MacIntyre has in fact argued is that such evaluative phrases as “a little bit closer” require some kind of standard by which nearness or farness are to be measured. Nearness to serious encounter for a Thomist is not the same thing as nearness for a nonrealist or for an emotivist. We are, in MacIntyre’s terms, dealing with incommensurate systems of evaluation. While Oakes is wise not to bring up MacIntyre’s tangled argument concerning the incommensurability thesis, the assumption that runs through MacIntyre’s work is that “there are . . . no standards or criteria of rational evaluation in any area . . . that are theory-independent and inquiry-independent, neutral between rival theoretical standpoints, whether philosophical, natural scientific, moral, or whatever, and available therefore to intelligent persons of any point of view.” This means that, from the Thomistic standpoint, if we conclude that rival moral systems are closer to a serious and fruitful encounter, it is because these rival systems are becoming more teleological in a Thomistic sense. Here is one of the crucial achievements of MacIntyre’s argument. It is not that MacIntyre has made it possible for nonrealists, nihilists, or rationalists qua nonrealists, nihilists, or rationalists to fruitfully encounter teleological moral systems. Rather, he has argued that any serious encounter between rival moral systems can only take place insofar as those systems become more Aristotelian/Thomistic. As MacIntyre has shown, for all the intellectual effort spent attempting to displace the notion of a fixed moral order, modern moral systems are proto-Aristotelian. That is, while they may explicitly reject a teleologically fixed moral order, they must, in giving a public account of their moral philosophy, smuggle in such an order to render their philosophy intelligible. So, for example, no moral system can speak of moral progress unless it articulates the direction and goal of that progress. Hence modern moral systems remain unintelligible until they become Aristotelian. This means that the primary question of moral inquiry is to require that moral systems tell us their telos . In forcing to the fore the issue of telling the telos , of rendering intelligible one’s moral understanding, MacIntyre has effected a shift in moral discourse from the disguising and obfuscating hieroglyphics of analytical philosophy to narrative and stories. Furthermore, he has returned to moral philosophy an ameliorative historicist emphasis so that moral theory is never complete until it is shown to be embodied in the practices of an historical community. If there is a coming together between rival moral systems, it is the agreement that no single moral system can simply assume to possess the privileged, rational angle of vision. On this point, there does seem to be an important agreement between rival moral systems that the game has changed in the way that rival moral claims are argued and vindicated. Perhaps the game analogy can be extended. Before MacIntyre, moral debate was like Olympic figure skating competition, where representatives of rival moral theories would skate before a panel of supposedly impartial, objective judges. After MacIntyre, the clash of moral traditions was not to be understood as figure skating but ice hockey. While the game still includes skates and ice, the competition would be in an historical, head-to-head clash over concrete moral issues. Furthermore, what MacIntyre has alerted us to is how this Aristotelian Thomistic Christian moral tradition, ill-equipped for modernist figure skating, is showing great promise and puissance in the postmodern hockey rink. And if Oakes’ serious encounter between emotivists, rationalists, and Aristotelian Thomists is this moral hockey match, then I would agree that Christian moral theology owes a debt of gratitude to MacIntyre for allowing us a place on the ice.

(The Rev.) David K. Weber
Roberts, MT

Edward T. Oakes replies:

David Weber is right to point out the rich ironies in Alasdair MacIntyre’s achievement. On the one hand, Scotland’s most influential moral philosopher since David Hume will insist that any moral discourse is inherently ideological and that, accordingly, a rapprochement between moral systems will perforce take place under the Aristotelian test. On the other hand, MacIntyre will also insist that the Aristotelian/ Thomistic synthesis is but one tradition among many with no more claim to an adjudicating overview than any other tradition. At least in some passages, MacIntyre is what might be oxymoronically described as a postmodernist Thomist. This is most strikingly evident in his treatment of the universality of human rights. On the one hand, “rights talk” is a particular discourse that makes no sense out of the context of Western Enlightenment traditions; on the other hand, gross violations of the inherent dignity of human beings rightly arouse his ire, especially when justified in utilitarian/Marxist terms. It is perhaps the irresolvability of this dilemma that accounts for a certain thrashing on the beach in MacIntyre’s later writings. Rather than addressing specific ethical issues, he has sought to address the conundrums of the built-in incommensurability of rival traditions. This might account for the impression one gets from time to time that the serious encounter between emotivists, rationalists, and Thomists for which I praised him in my last paragraph has taken place more in MacIntyre’s mind than in the public at large. But in our shrill times, even that is a considerable achievement.

Professional Good Samaritans?

William A. Schambra’s argument (“To Be Citizens Again,” August/September) falls flat on the face of his expositiory refererence. He writes: “[Christians] are called by the story of the Good Samaritan to suffer with and minister to the broken of this world-directly, immediately, personally, not through paid professional substitutes.” Too bad he didn’t read to the end of the parable and find that after attending to the wounded man’s injuries the Good Samaritan left him in the hands of a social agency (the innkeeper), paying for service in advance, and promising to reimburse for any extra expense incurred in the welfare of the wounded man. A paid professional substitute! The Good Samaritan, for all we know, may have continued on his blessed way by financing other agencies”other paid professional substitutes”to ensure the safety of future travelers on the road to Jericho.

David Anderson
Mississauga, Ontario

A Girl Named Sue?

Like Richard John Neuhaus, I follow the names parents give their children (Public Square, August/September). But I have a different explanation why daughters get “cute, toy-like names.” Johnny Cash’s country and western hit “Boy Named Sue” illustrates the point. There, a long-absent father tells an understandably angry son why he was given a girl’s name. Not being around to raise his son, the father felt that such a name would force the son to grow up tough, willing to fight anyone who made fun of such a name. Today’s parents don’t want their daughter to grow up ruthless. To prevent such a catastrophe, they give her the sweetest and most feminine of names . . . . “Surely,” they hope in their heart of hearts, “a daughter named Ashley or Amber will not abort our grandchild.” By giving such names, parents may not be saying much about what they hope such a daughter will become. But they are, I think, saying a lot about what they hope she will not become. At any rate, Father Neuhaus’ blame is misplaced. The sickness in our society doesn’t lie with parents or girls’ names. It lies in an attitude that equates female success with utter ruthlessness and 1.6 million abortions a year.

Mike Perry
Seattle, WA