Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
A virulent ideological movement is spreading through a nation’s institutions. It presents itself as the wave of the future, elevating those who have been beaten down, and as a long-overdue correction of past injustices. It pretends to regard any attack on its mission as an attack on the people it claims to be advocating for and any check on its momentum as the cruelest of tyrannies. Those who oppose it are condemned as being motivated by hatred, base personal gain, or because they are beholden to entrenched interests. It is supported by student radicals who, encouraged by their professors, use protests and organized violence to silence dissent. It employs racially charged rhetoric, condemning one group in particular on account of their real or supposed past crimes. People suddenly find old friends and family members cutting ties, turning on them, or uttering shockingly brutal rhetoric. Riots and violent unrest become increasingly common as the supporters of the ideology seek to impose it upon their neighbors.
Meanwhile the Church (with a few exceptions), either mostly dithers or is complicit by focusing on the superficial points of common ground rather than the fundamentally anti-Christian nature of the ideology. Instead, the movement is chiefly opposed by an energetic, highly controversial political leader who couches his battle in terms of the nation’s historical ideals and identity.
As you probably guessed, I’m not referring to America in 2020. I’m referring to Austria in 1934. It has become gauche and tedious to make Nazi comparisons, and for good reason. The analogy has become so abused, misapplied, and overused that it now means practically nothing. And the worst of it is that we always seem to miss the real point of that sad episode of history, a point that really deserves to be brought into greater clarity.
History Warns of the Dangers of Trying to Serve Two Masters
One of the most fascinating accounts of the Nazi conquest of Germany and Austria is the memoir, My Struggle Against Hitler, by the great German philosopher Dietrich Von Hildebrand. In it he recounts his flight from Nazi Germany and his life of exile in Austria, where he used a journal called Der Christlich Standestaat (The Christian Corporate State), to wage an unending philosophical battle against the Nazis until Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria in 1938 forced him to flee once again.
What strikes me again and again in reading Von Hildebrand’s words is how willing so many people were to go along with the Nazis and how extensively and aggressively the Nazi ideology was pushed, compared to how hesitant and diffident most of the opposition was. Nazism really was the popular, dynamic, progressive ideology of the day. Those who opposed it were condemned as hating Germany and Germans, or at best considered quaintly backwards and Quixotic, since Nazism was obviously the way of the future.
The narrative then was “we have to find a way to work with Hitler” or “there are many points of similarity between Nazism and Christianity, such as value of the nation, of authority, and so on.” Or else “yes, but the Jews really are deplorable. They really do need to be taken down a peg.”
Again, this should all sound familiar (“many Communists have a truly Christian ethic” etc.), but again, to liken the American Left, or Red China, or any other evil ideological movement to the Nazis is not really the point here. For, as these examples themselves indicate, points of likeness can nearly always be found if you care to look for them. That in itself doesn’t mean much.
My point is that the rise of all these movements serves to illustrate the same lesson taught repeatedly in Scripture: that no man can serve two masters. Neither a person or a nation can hold to two contradictory ideologies. Nazism and Christianity, as are Christianity and Socialism, are essentially contradictory. This fact makes all compromise and all accommodation impossible. Worse, any such attempt to do so will mean actively damaging Christianity and Christian culture by obscuring its real character.
A thing is strong to the extent that its rigidity is defined and maintained. A tree sways in the wind, but its power to do so comes from how far beyond a certain point it will not sway, lest it breaks or is uprooted. A religion or an ideology is strong to the extent is defines and maintains a distinct character, so that one can easily say, “this is part of Christianity, this is contrary to it. So if you wish to call yourself a Christian (or an Austrian, or an American), you will adhere to this.”
On the other hand, once say that a person can be both a Christian and a Nazi, or both a Christian and a Socialist, and ‘Christian’ ceases to mean very much. You are saying that one can hold a view of the world that directly contradicts Christianity while still calling oneself a Christian, simply because they share some superficial similarities when it comes to morals. And since it is Christianity that has compromised, it is Christianity that is weakened.
Those who are willing to say “this is true and this is false” will always conquer those who aren’t.
Are We Replaying the Appeasements of the Past?
Austria stood in opposition to Hitler for as long as its uncompromising chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss was in power. After Dollfuss was assassinated by Nazi agents, his successors began to make compromises by extending a hand of understanding to Germany, and to embrace some of their rhetoric in the hopes of finding a middle way to coexist with the Nazis. They spoke of “the brotherhood of Germans,” forgetting that Protestant Prussia had been the traditional enemy of Catholic Austria, and that these two “German” nations had very different identities. They sought “peace with the German people,” while ignoring the fact that the German people were currently suffering under the rule of criminals.
In short, the real lesson of the rise of the Nazis is not of the dangers of intolerance of certain principles, but the tolerance of bad ones, not of moral rigidity but of moral compromise. Not because these things are bad in themselves, but because they are inappropriate in matters of truth and justice. When two ideologies are fundamentally contrary to each other there can be no compromise between them, and any effort to make one only weakens whichever side is more tolerant.
The problem in Austria was that the side of evil was intolerant and rigid, while the side of good was accommodating and open-minded. One insisted that it and it alone was true and just, the other was unwilling to say categorically that it was not.
This is why Christians and Conservatives have been losing non-stop for the past few generations; because we’ve been continually compromising, accommodating, and hedging. We’ve been more afraid of our own rigidity and intolerance than of the consequences of our enemy’s ideas. As a body, the last thing we are willing to do is to declare a firm and unyielding anathema sit to those ideas that are contrary and dangerous to our own. And so the other side advances and while we retreat.
Ven. Fulton Sheen saw this back in the 1950’s when he commented that America and the Church do not suffer from intolerance but from tolerance. We tolerate and accommodate evil ideologies, pretending not to notice the fundamental opposition at their core, pretending not to hear their extreme rhetoric, pretending that it isn’t really so different from our own views and that we can all get along.
Then one day we wake up to violence in our streets and a nation on the brink of falling apart. One day we wake up to find that sanity is a minority position and that we’ve compromised away any ability to resist. And we ask how it happened.
It happened because we were afraid of being rigid, of alienating people, of being left behind by history. It happened because we weren’t willing to see the thing for what it really was. It happened because we were unwilling to utter Roland’s famous words, “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right,” but the pagans were willing to say, “Christians are wrong and Pagans are right.”
And it will happen again and again and again until we accept Christ’s words that “he who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”