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Complicity, compromise, conviction

03 February 2017

Bonhoeffer’s complex story is a useful guide to reading contemporary events, suggests Paul Vallely

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER is an unfinished hero, Dr Victoria Barnett, of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, says. Many factions in the Church — from liberals to Evangelicals, and even to Trump-supporting conservatives — like to lay claim to the Lutheran theologian. They find in his stance against the Third Reich an endorsement of whatever issue they feel that they need to take a stand on. But theirs is “the Bonhoeffer of the T-shirt”; for the martyr has something more complex to teach us.

We should be cautious about analogy, Dr Barnett warned on Monday when giving the 2017 Bodanow Lectures in Holocaust Studies. She had been quizzed about the parallels between the rise of Hitler and the growth of populist nationalism today. Others were less reluctant. The academic introducing her acidly noted the irony of Donald Trump’s choosing Holocaust Memorial Day to announce his ban on Muslim refugees’ fleeing war from entering the United States. It had echoes of the European Jews rejected by the US in 1939, and sent back to their deaths in German concentration camps.

Certainly, it was hard not to bring to mind the blistering pace of President Trump’s first week as Dr Barnett recalled that, when Hitler became German Chancellor, it took him just six weeks to transform democracy into dictatorship. Watching current events coalesce, she said, has “given me a greater understanding of the dynamics of all this”. Even as she spoke, President Trump was sacking the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, for declaring his travel ban unconstitutional.

Bonhoeffer was a man on a moral and political journey. He gave the Nazi salute when he deemed it politic. He declined to give a church burial to a relative branded Jewish by Nazi race laws. He was initially more concerned to resist the Nazification of the German Church than in taking a public stance against the wider persecution of the Jews. But he did work privately to rescue individuals. Later, he became active in the German resistance. Eventually, he was executed for plotting to kill Hitler.

A similar interplay of complicity, compromise, and conviction is at work today. The British Prime Minister opted for the former in her dealings with the new US President. It brought initial success on her visit to the US, but crumbled when she was tardy in her repudiation of President Trump’s approach to Muslim refugees. And she showed poor judgement with her premature offer of a state visit for President Trump — an accolade never accorded to Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and for which George Bush and Barack Obama had to wait more than two years. Compromise is the realpolitik for which Mrs May must now strive.

Conviction, meanwhile, is in great evidence in anti-Trump street-protests here and across the world — much of it, the Prime Minister may tartly note, at no personal cost to the protesters. Yet Mrs May must find a way to accommodate that conviction without giving insult to a US President with a notoriously thin skin and a propensity for retaliation.

Perhaps she should read a little Bonhoeffer.

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