On February 1, 1933, two days after Adolph Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany, a 26 year old theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address on what he called “The Fuhrer Principle.” “Fuhrer” is simply the German word for leader. Bonhoeffer contended, however, that ever since WWI Germany’s concept of leadership had evolved into the idea of a Leader who was submitted to no one and as such was set up to become an ”anointed one”... Before he could finish his speech, the radio signal was cut off. 12 years later, the Fuhrer would have him executed.
Bonhoeffer began his speech with an explanation of why Germany was looking for a Fuhrer. The War and the subsequent financial collapse of the German economy had brought about crises in which the average citizen had lost all confidence in the government such as it was. They were looking for a way to be rescued from all their troubles. But Bonhoeffer warned that the fickle vox populi is not necessarilly vox dei, Bonhoeffer thus contended, that a real leader must know the limitations of his power.
If [the leader] understands his function in any other way than as it is rooted in fact, if he does not continually tell his followers quite clearly of the limited nature of his lack and of their own responsibility, if he allows himself to surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol – then the image of the leader will pass over into the image of the misleader, and he will be acting in a criminal way not only towards those he leads, but also towards himself, the true leader must always be able to disillusion. It is just this that is his responsibility and his real object. He must lead his following away from the authority of his person to the recognitions of the real authority of orders and offices….He must radically refuse to become the appeal, the idol, i.e. the ultimate authority of those whom he leads…. (The Fuhrer Principle)
Bonhoeffer’s Biographer, Eric Metaxas, wrote that Bonhoeffer predicted that if Germany yielded to the temptation of worshipping a messianic Leader it would incinerate its own future - as those who worshipped Moloch did by burning there own babies. In spite of such dire warnings, Hitler came to be enthroned by this idolatrous Fuhrer Principle. He became the Leader par excellence - not submitted to God let alone to any electorate. That is why so few in Germany were in a position to object when he annexed Austria, or invaded Czechoslovakia, or conquered Poland, or Denmark, or Holland or France, or declared war on Russia.
But grievous as Hitler’s military actions were, it was his T-4 euthanasia programs and his treatment of the Jews that Bonhoeffer found most objectionable; Bonhoeffer was not a “single issue” thinker. He never took his stand as an advocate of any one political position. But clearly he considered some issues to be weightier than others. Bonhoeffer would argue that what was a stake in the “Jewish Question” for example was not whether the church could still tolerate fellowship with Jews. It was whether or not a people who would not stand up for the Jews could still be considered the church. To be the church, Bonhoeffer concluded that Christians must be free to: 1.) question the state, 2.) to help the state’s victims, and 3.) even to work against the state - if need be. But how do we know when to resist and when to surrender to State sponsored policies?
Bonhoeffer said that apart from Christ, we can neither know nor can we do what is right. Bonhoeffer hammered out his sense of right and wrong in the face of what he perceived to be the will of God as revealed in the Bible. It became his primary concern to speak for “those who had no voice.” For example, in his book, Ethics, he pronounced that, while difficult circumstances must have a decisive impact on our pastoral attitude toward those involved, “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life, to raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life and that is nothing but murder.”
Today, there are many who refuse to weigh in on what they think about. Issues such as abortion; some of them beg off by saying that such judgments are “above their pay grade.” But, by their silence, they are yielding to The Fuhrer Principle lurking behind State protected, State supported and even State sponsored abortions. The number of children killed as a result now far exceeds the millions of Jews exterminated in Hitler’s so-called “final solution.” In the face of this, Bonhoeffer would likely follow on to say that what is at stake in the issue of “reproductive rights” is not whether the church can, in the name of convenience, continue to tolerate the murder of millions of unborn (or partially born) infants; it is whether those who remain silent in the face of such a holocaust can still be called the church. Only those who take their stand under God’s ultimate authority can ultimately be called his people. Thus only when a leader sees that his office is but a penultimate authority has the truth about his role in leadership been reached. As Bonhoeffer said:
The fearful danger of the present time … is that … we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him; the eternal law that the individual stands alone before God takes fearful vengeance where it is attacked and distorted, thus the leader points to the office but Leader and office together point to that final authority itself, before which Reich or state are but penultimate authorities. Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God… (The Fuhrer Principle)
While the true God was among us here on the earth, he endured the reproach of those who set themselves up in judgment against him. But when he comes again he will not stand silently before mocking crowds; he will come to judge the living and the dead. At that time, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. It is ultimately before God therefore that every Fuhrer; and every follower of every Furher must give an account – not as a leader or a follower but as an individual alone before the ultimate authority - which is God.
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