A cautionary tale for the U.S.

2 mins read
crucifix and Bible
A crucifix and Bible are pictured. (CNS photo/Bob Roller, Reuters)

Ninety years ago, two pivotal events in Germany juxtaposed to provide a powerful cautionary tale for the United States in this time of perhaps unprecedented ideological and partisan entrenchment. The Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will” and the German Confessing Church’s “Barmen Declaration” show us, respectively, the seduction of political idolatry and the need for a robust affirmation of the lordship of Christ over all things, including our politics.

“Triumph of the Will,” perhaps the most infamous propaganda film in history, is Leni Riefenstahl’s “documentary” of the 1934 rally of the Congress of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Nuremberg, Germany. Having been held sporadically since 1923, the Nuremberg Rallies became an annual event when Adolf Hitler assumed the chancellorship of Germany in 1933. The 1934 rally was choreographed, produced and directed by Riefenstahl at Hitler’s insistence. With 30 cameras and a crew of about 150, she had the full cooperation of Nazi officials, including Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, who designed the sets specifically to facilitate Riefenstahl’s work.

“Triumph of the Will”: The seduction of political idolatry

“Triumph of the Will” is a chilling example of political idolatry centered around the cult of a charismatic leader and his fanatical followers. Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s most insipid and sycophantic disciple, plays something of an emcee to the film, introducing Hitler as Germany’s savior, and closing the film with an obsequious speech, concluding that “Hitler is Germany and Germany is Hitler.” Hitler’s “brown shirts” and “black shirts,” along with an army of manual laborers, play prominent roles, demonstrating his complete control over all aspects of German society: “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer.”

The film features a constant barrage of gargantuan flags, signs and props, hovering over hysterically devoted civilian bystanders, and accompanied by triumphalist marches. To watch the film is to see how the German populace either participated in, or stood mutely by, when Hitler eventually started World War II with his invasions of Austria, the Rhineland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium and France. Their devotion is singular and obsessive.

The Barmen Declaration: Affirming Christ over politics

Seeing the dread danger of this fervent movement, including the acquiescence of prominent clergy and religious hierarchy, a group of German and Swiss theologians and pastors formed a loose confederation of dissenting churches, known as the “Confessing Church” to distinguish themselves from the Nazi-approved “Deutsche Kirche” (German Church), which had bent its knee to Hitler. Prominent members of the Confessing Church included Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth, and German Lutheran theologians Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller.

In May 1934, leaders of the Confessing Church met in the city of Barmen and drew up a series of propositions, asserting the independence of the church from Nazi (or any other party) control. While the Barmen Declaration contains statements of theological doctrines that are in tension with Catholic doctrine, those exceptions do not detract from the broader principles of the declaration that all Christians should embrace, regardless of ecclesial communion, time, or place.

Central to the Barmen Declaration is a series of false doctrines that are rejected by the Confessing Church. These include, for example, the following:

“We reject the false doctrine, that there are areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords, areas in which we do not need justification and sanctification through him.”

“We reject the false doctrine that the church is allowed to abandon the form of her message … to the changes of prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

“We reject the false doctrine that the state should and can, beyond its special commission, become the single and total order of human life, and thus also fulfill the purpose of the church.”

“We reject the false doctrine that the church in human arrogance could place the Word and Work of the Lord at the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.”

None of the leaders of the respective major parties in the U.S. can or should be compared to Hitler. But the messages of “Triumph of the Will” and the Barmen Declaration are no less salient for us Americans in this unprecedented political season. In the context of “God Bless the USA” Bibles, flag-festooned rosary beads and comparisons of political candidates to Jesus Christ, we Catholic Christians would do well to watch the film, read the declaration and reaffirm our commitment to Christ the King of the Universe. Idolatry takes many forms. The more dismissive we are of its seductive power, the more likely we are to succumb to it.

Kenneth Craycraft

Kenneth Craycraft, an OSV columnist, is a professor of moral theology at Mount St. Mary's Seminary and School of Theology in Cincinnati and author of “Citizens Yet Strangers: Living Authentically Catholic in a Divided America" (OSV Books).