Book: What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World, by Robert W. Brimlow


Grade: B-

Disclaimer: This may be an unfair grade, since this is my first venture into the theology of pacifism. I’ve been increasingly fascinated by the practice and philosophy of nonviolence as I’ve worked my way through the ancient and medieval history of the world. Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve discovered that my inclination is to write traditional political narratives–and also that I find military history absolutely fascinating. I wouldn’t have expected that. But there it is.

More and more, though, I’m fascinated not so much by the kings and generals who declare war (their motives are usually fairly transparent) but by the armies who fight for them. Why do soldiers march out and die? How do their leaders convince them that this is a good idea? Why do some men and women refuse–and why are they the exception?

So I have a stack of books on pacifism and just war which I’ll be reading, over the course of this year. This was on the top of the stack, and while I found parts of it useful and interesting, overall it was a disappointment for two reasons.

In the first place, Brimlow spends most of the book attempting to debunk the theory of just war, rather than carefully laying out his own position–it’s a very defensive book. If I’d wanted a book about just war, I’d have bought a book about just war. (In fact, I did, and it’s in my stack.)

And second, his conclusion skirts the real issue. OK, if you call your book What About Hitler? you’re probably setting yourself up for disappointment. (I remember C. S. Lewis writing once about The Well at the World’s End that the biggest problem with the book was that NO book could ever live up to the wonderful title.) But Brimlow’s book wraps up with the assertion that followers of Christ are commanded to “follow Jesus along the path of peace as his faithful disciple,” even though this “will probably lead to our death.” Then he spends pages and pages defending this, on the assumption that his readers will say, “Hey, that can’t be the message of the gospel!”

Well, of course it is, and anyone who’s spent more than a week or so with the New Testament will have figured that out. The reason the Hitler question is vexing is because it doesn’t pose us with the problem of: What if I choose nonviolence, and then die? It poses us the much more complex question of: What if I choose nonviolence, and then others die, six million or more?

Brimlow does point out, usefully, that the “What about Hitler” question, when posed to pacifists, is essentially unfair. The is passage worth quoting in its entirety:

In a very important respect, the Hitler question is a dishonest one, or at the very least misleading. It assumes that Christians and the church have no involvement and no responsibility prior to some arbitrary date in the early 1940s. If the question is asking how a pacifistic church should have responded to the horrors of the Holocaust, the answer surely lies in being a peacemaking church long before the Holocaust ever began. The church should have preached and lived a love of the Jews for many centuries before the twentieth; the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war. The church should have lived and taught in such a way that the First World War would have been incomprehensible in a largely Christian Europe and, failing that, should have railed against the Versailles Treaty and the vengeance it embodied in favor of forgiveness and reconciliation.

All true. But I’m still left wondering…given that this entity called “the church” did no such thing, what was the responsibility of the individual peacemaker?

This question remains unaddressed. Brimlow does attempt to deal with Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his choice to turn away from nonviolence and involve himself in an attempt to assassinate Hitler, but this is one of the most unsatisfying parts of the book–in fact I’m still trying to figure out exactly what he’s getting at.

Well, it’s only the first book on nonviolence in a large stack. Looking forward to discovering more.

Showing 17 comments
  • Sarah

    Um, I’m not sure if you want to debate pacifism on your blog. But there are other points one could bring up about World War II.

    “What if I choose nonviolence, and then others die, six million or more?”

    1) – The Nazis chose violence and caused the second world war.
    – The Allies chose violence and failed to prevent the Holocaust.
    – There is an argument to be made that the ‘Final Solution’ was partly motivated and facilitated by the wartime situation (resource shortages; opponents could be branded traitors; lots of deaths were easy to hide).
    – Wikipedia claims that about 72 million people died in WW2 including about 47 million civilians. It’s not clear that violence is good at preventing deaths.

    2) The question for the individual, as you point out, isn’t what the church should do or what the government should do, but what should *I* do? If I believe that killing people is wrong, how can I prevent it?

    There’s nearly always *something* one can do that is better than killing people. Think of all the people who risked their lives to help Jewish people escape during WW2 (for example, the many Danish people who helped save nearly all the Danish Jews in 1943); people who helped rescue civilians from bombed buildings; people who cared for children orphaned or lost during the chaos of war.

  • April Duritza

    This was a fascinating post – I too am intrigued with all those questions that you mentioned. It’s funny – my husband is interested in military history from the standpoint of strategy and technology and so forth. Those aspects are interesting to me, as well, but I’m mainly interested in motivations. What were the circumstances that allowed this conflict to happen, and why did people participate? And I’m always interested in the moral questions of war and non-violence.

    Looking forward to hearing what other books are in your stack and how they fare this year!

  • moshome7

    I agree with the author that the church SHOULD HAVE made a million other choices before any of these wars or the Holocaust took place but given that we live in a broken world where Christians mess up as often as non-Christians I wouldn’t think it would be any other way, in the past or in the future. The key question is the one you posed: What is the individual’s responsibility? We are strong and make a great impact in numbers but as individuals we don’t carry much weight. This is where the book, The Tipping Point, would be a great read. I hear it addresses the question of when groupthink begins to shift. Maybe it would even help address your other question, “Why do soldiers fight?”. Would you like to add another book to your stack? Beware, he’s written two other books that I hear are just as good.

  • Nan in Mass

    Well, answering the what-if-by-killing-this-person-you-could-keep-millions-from-dieing question, on a practical level, when I’m believing in God (most of the time), I tend to think that you should do the good thing yourself and let God deal with all the rest of the people who are doing bad things, and that God has a plan which I am much to small to see or understand. And when I’m not believing in God (occasional bits of my life), I tend to argue that someone has to start the nonviolence sometime and somewhere, and that extremes of badness in one person or place often push the surrounding apathetic population into changing for the better. And in my most non-judgemental and confusing moments, I think I shouldn’t judge the horrific people who are doing the awful things because perhaps before they were born (or something), they volunteered to become those horrible people, who surely have created a hell for themselves here on earth, so that something else good could happen, in which case, as only a sort of mediocrely good person, they are really better souls than I. I don’t think that usually the bad people are people like Dr. Faustus, who more or less enjoyed his badness until he died. I think they are either too weak to be good, or don’t know how to be good, both of which lead to being pretty miserable for at least part of your life. Or something like that. One of these days I’ll get around to reading what other people say about nonviolence. So far, I’ve just done it and not worried very much about the ins and outs (other than the ants in my kitchen and sick kitties) or the arguements for and against. Perhaps you could keep posting about your reading on the subject? Please?

  • Michelle in MO

    Hmmm . . . I think I would problems with one of the main premises of this quote, and that is the broad brush with which “the Church” is being painted. There is no doubt that faulty theological constructs led some in the church to blame the death of Christ, for instance, upon the Jews. However, I have trouble with this quote in general, because European society in general (which, one could claim, had been “Christianized”) espoused anti-Semitic sentiments for centuries. It would, however, be a grave generalization to lay the entire blame for these problems at the foot of the Church. Really—ideally, if the Church were the embodiment of all that Christ called her to be, in theory there would be no war and none of the problems enumerated within the quoted section. Until such time as a millennial kingdom, we are almost guaranteed some problems.

    Believe me, many people were involved in the killing of communists, gypsies, homosexuals, Jews, and Christians. The guards and death camp commandants were Nazis, not Christians. The religion was an odd mix of twisted theologies gleaned from numerous sources which would require me to rewrite my summa thesis in this short space, intermixed with Germanic/Norse myths. This quote in particular is troublesome: “the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war.” In my opinion, no true Christian does those things! There certainly was a significant enough Christian (and Jewish) resistance to Hitler that, at least to some degree, gives some refutation to claims made otherwise. I would certainly hate to see any direct connection made between orthodox—and I stress that word—Christian theology and the death of so many millions. There have always been peacemakers within the Church.

  • Mike

    Coincidentally, I just finished a book dealing with the subject of non-violence by Christians, Leo Tolstoy’s “The Kingdom of God is Within You,” which deals with both Christian non-violence, Christian soldiers who are faced with bringing about violence in wartime, as well as various governments’ punishments doled out to those who do not comply to honor country above God.

    While Tolstoy’s book was flat–and I love Tolstoy–his pacifist ideas kept bringing to my mind the question of the Holocaust, as well as the modern-day troubles with terrorism and the perpetual threats that face Israel. I am a Christian, and give the subject regarding Christian pacifism some thought on occasion. Surely non-violence is the best policy–religiously and politically–for humanity; but how does one deal with a Hitler who is determined to wipe out an entire race–God’s chosen people, at that–or an Ahmadinejad who calls publicly for Israel’s destruction?

    In my thinking, wouldn’t Christian pacifism be the goal, which Jesus lived and set as an example, for all mankind to attain to, a universal mode of living through which the kingdom of God can be brought to fruition? In the meantime, so long as everyone isn’t on board–not with Christianity, but with a peaceful coexistence–then it is tough for me personally to accept or even entertain the idea that we must allow men like Hitler as well as various other terrible crimes and deeds to go unchecked. Of course, war is not solving much or going far toward bringing about peace in mankind’s history, either, especially in the long run. It says much–and little–about mankind that a concept so wonderful as peace has been, so far, impossible for us to achieve, much less maintain.

  • e

    I’d love to discuss this with you at some point–we’ve looked at this in a German-language seminar on War and Peace (and how the ideas develop from Augustine on, but with special reference to the Enlightenment) and in a Political Theology seminar, and while I know where I stand personally, I’d love to investigate further what these things mean academically.

  • Michelle in MO

    Now that it’s morning and my brain is well-rested, I understand better the point the author was making. For some reason I initially read Brimlow’s statements as somehow accusing the Church of all these things, but the operative word “should” escaped my first reading.

    It is a good passage, and when you figure out what the author is getting at in the section on Bonhoeffer, please share your thoughts with us, OK?

  • Tom in VA

    I’ve thought about this off and on for a few years now – the issue of individual responsibility. Taking the discussion a step further, what would be a peacemaker’s culpability as a voting, tax-paying citizen of a nation that initiates war and employs torture as a matter of policy? Frankly, I don’t lose sleep over it, but I’m very glad Obama is on board now. It is an interesting, but unresolved question in my mind.

    From a peacemaker perspective, I think an interesting – though maybe a bit off subject – complement to your reading would be “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland” by Christopher Brown. I read it some years back. To fight (resist?) great evil takes greater courage and faith than I think people realize. I am a patriot but am convinced there is nothing we wouldn’t permit as a society under the right circumstances.

  • Trish Lawrence

    This topic came up at an event I attended last weekend where the discussion of our government’s continuing support of torture in the military handbook (under the new administration, no less) when in extenuating circumstances still raises some concerns. The group, many of them self-proclaimed far left and radicals expressed their frustration while those of us moderates called for an evening where we could ENJOY toasting a new administration BEFORE the disagreement and political discussion took place.

    I’ve been thinking of it ever since. What is our role, when no matter who we elect, they still allow torture under extenuating circumstances? Similar to Tom, it’s unresolved in my mind as well.

    This is why I think the author still can’t formulate a viable solution. It’s still happening now and will continue to happen. I’m more interested in your second question. What is my individual responsibility, as someone who has no say in military affairs on a national, state, or regional level at all and sends care packages to cousins and brothers and friends who are in the middle of it, right now?

  • Tom in VA

    Trish, you DO have a say in military affairs through your vote, and what is more, you have a voice and the constitutional right to use it. People speaking up and out and engaging their senators and representatives can force a change if the cry is loud enough. Unfortunately, in the wake of something like 911, fear, anger, and the desire for revenge will skew the moral compass of most Americans. Even so, authorizing torture from the oval office is just plain immoral and incredibly stupid. When it comes to statecraft, the Bush administration set the bar very low.

    Oh, and I don’t think sending care packages to friends and loved ones in the service is an endorsement of policy, if I read you correctly.

  • Sarah

    A reply to Michelle in MO:

    “This quote in particular is troublesome: “the church should have formed Christians into the kind of people who do not kill Jews, or homosexuals, or gypsies, or communists, or other Christians, or Nazis, or whoever else was victimized by the war.” In my opinion, no true Christian does those things!”

    Michelle, I’m glad you believe that Christian theology does not support violence! But I have to take issue with your assertion “no true Christian does those things!” as an example of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy (see

    Most non-Jewish people in Germany during the Nazi period identified as either Protestant or Catholic Christians. It seems fair to say that some Christians *did* do those things.

    Most of the non-Jewish British and American soldiers also identified as Christian, and they also killed lots of people, often without knowing whether they were Jews, homosexuals, gypsies, communists, other Christians or none of these things. Few Christians at the time thought that their religion was a reason to be a conscientious objector.

    If a True Christian is someone who is morally perfect, then perhaps no True Christian did kill anyone ever, but then I wonder if how many such True Christians there are in the world…

  • sandy

    I’ll be interested to read more of your thoughts on this subject. I don’t have the answers, but I’ve been very disturbed by the trend of pacifism that is prevalent in our colleges- especially our Christian colleges. The idea of turning the other cheek is just not as black and white as we would like it to be, and at times it seems to directly challenge the idea of loving your neighbor. It’s also a lot easier to be a pacifist when it’s not your family, your wife, your children who are being attacked, tortured and killed. It’s easy to take the “high road” when it’s someone else’s family half a world away.

  • Michelle in MO

    Sarah, no one is stating that a Christian is morally perfect; I certainly wasn’t making that assertion.

    I would agree that many “true Christians” in Germany succumbed to the fear that many of *us* would also be tempted to succumb to, which could also be described perhaps as an inertia brought on by fear. The price for resistance, of course, could have been death. It was a fearful thing to be a Christian during that time period. I doubt whether many of us posting on this blog have faced those challenges.

    It is another matter entirely to make your argument: “Most non-Jewish people in Germany during the Nazi period identified as either Protestant or Catholic Christians. It seems fair to say that some Christians *did* do those things.”

    The fact that someone might identify themselves as either Protestant or Catholic may or may not hold any meaning. Every culture, including our own, has its share of nominal Christians. Christianity was often and still is a cultural association for people. But, no, I sincerely do not believe any confessing Christian—a Christian who actively lived out their faith and had a history of doing so—would *willingly* engage in events such as Kristallnacht, or being active members of the Nazi party, actively involved in the death camps, Sicherheitsdienst, Geheimestaatspolizei, administration of Zyklon B, etc. If you can provide names of committed Christians who *actively* participated in such activities, I would be happy to concede your point. However, I think the balance tips in the other direction: Heinrich Gruber, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Prof. Kurt Huber, Christoph Probst, Martin Niemoller, Father Kolbe, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In fact, the latter has some very enlightening thoughts on the matter of what it is to be a Christian, which are detailed in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, which brings up the obvious next point of what does it mean to truly be a Christian. This topic of “who is a Christian” could be bantered around for a while.

    Nevertheless, I am not convinced by your statement that some Christians *did* do these things; not yet. Passivity? Yes. Failure to respond out of fear? Yes. Blindness? Yes. Even one very godly woman, who became the head of the Evangelische Marienschwesterschaft in Darmstadt, Basilea Schlink, said, “Wie konnen wir so blind geworden?” There was blindness, passivity, and fear among many Christians. Did Christians do all that they could have done to rescue their fellows from the concentration camps? No, certainly not. But active participation is another matter.

    And, I would agree with sandy’s statement above:

    “The idea of turning the other cheek is just not as black and white as we would like it to be, and at times it seems to directly challenge the idea of loving your neighbor. It’s also a lot easier to be a pacifist when it’s not your family, your wife, your children who are being attacked, tortured and killed. It’s easy to take the ‘high road’ when it’s someone else’s family half a world away.”

  • Nan in Mass

    Sandy, you are right. That is part of why I try to stay non-judgemental, and why I haven’t done a lot of reading about non-violence. I have no idea what I would do if it were my own child I were defending. I just try to do what I think is right under the circumstances that present themselves in my own life. I suspect all the reading and reasoning in the world wouldn’t keep me from acting instinctively when presented with an immediate threat to a loved one. The only times I’ve dealt with threats, I have chased screaming after the threat. Fortunately, the threat dropped whatever I was defending and ran. When I have time to think, I try to reason out the solution that hurt the least living things. I certainly don’t have all the answers. It sounds sort of like the argument divides into three parts: the part that believes that until the world all becomes non-violent everyone should think ahead and try to prevent lots of people being killed by killing a few occasionally (a little violence now might prevent more later), the part that believes that until the world all becomes non-violent you may have to use violence for the immediate defence of yourself or your neighbor but you shouldn’t extend that to places far away or use violence to prevent future violence, and the part that believes that believes, either for personal reasons of goodness or to make the world a better place, in being non-violent yourself no matter what the rest of the world does. This reminds me of the argument about whether it is ok to rescue wild animals or not – a sort of interfere or don’t interfere arguement. Or the argument about whether God helps those who help themselves, or whether God wants us to be lilies of the field and trust to him for everything. But I suppose I shouldn’t pull the argument sideways.

  • Kristin in Hawaii

    Hello all,

    I have enjoyed reading these posts and admit to struggling with these exact issues except that I no longer identify myself as a Christian — more of a deist, if I am honest. I really want to find a non-violent solution for the problems we face. If any of you think we are not having problems today which are similar to the Nazi actions, think again. The magnitude may not be as vast but it is happening — Africa, Afghanistan, and probably more that I don’t know about. Now IS the time to be finding solutions.

    I am sitting in a little village in northern France, surrounded by history and have spent the last month travelling with my 12 year-old son through Italy and Francen(yeah for I am appalled at how ignorant I have been about world history. But there has never been a better time to learn.

    Every time I study some war or revolution I come away thinking “My goodness, this was so much more complicated than I had originally thought.” An idea for reform may sound good but carry repurcussions far beyond the expected. Of course, if we study the mistakes of history then we can hope to avoid them in the future. The sad truth is that 9 out of 10 (at least) of your average American citizens probably know less about the past 500 years of history than I do — embarrassing and something that must be remedied. I had to look up the French Revolution in Wikipedia just yesterday.

    I will hazard a guess that if we had spent half the money already spent on our “war on terror” instead on non-violent measures and rebuilding education and infrastructure for the war-torn countries we would be seeing a much brighter world today. No, I don’t have all the answers but I believe war is not the answer. Ever. But it will take a large number of peace-seeking people working together to find an alternative which will work.

    Keep up the posts — I am glad there is a discussion about this subject.


  • Cynthia

    I think these comments are interesting regarding Hitler and why people were so willing to follow him:

    Only six years after coming to power, Hitler, in a speech delivered on April 28, 1939, spoke about his successes. These included restoring order, increasing production, putting an end to unemployment, and casting off the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles. He then added: “The provinces of which we were robbed in 1919 I have given back to the Reich . . . I have restored the thousand-year historical unity of the German people and I have . . . achieved this without the shedding of blood and therefore without subjecting my people or others to the miseries of war.”

    Sebastian Haffner, in his book Anmerkungen zu Hitler (Remarks About Hitler), explains that for the Germans “Hitler was a wonder—‘someone sent by God.’” Thus Hitler’s successes, plus clever propaganda, allowed the Nazi Party to gain such control over the people that the movement began taking on religious overtones. Support of the party’s goals soon became a “sacred” duty.

    This helps us to understand better what William L. Shirer wrote in his book The Nightmare Years: “The frenzy of the crowds fascinated me even more than my first glimpse of the dictator . . . When he appeared on the balcony for a moment and waved, they went mad. Several women swooned. Some, men and women, were trampled as the crowd surged to get a closer look at their messiah. For such he appeared to be to them.”

    Conditions were ripe for the German people to be seduced by Hitler coupled with the fact that many religious leaders encouraged support of Hitler:

    On December 8, 1993, Dr. Franklin Littell of Baylor University spoke at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum about a troublesome “concrete truth.”

    The truth, Littell said, was that “six million Jews were targeted and systematically murdered in the heart of Christendom, by baptized Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Eastern Orthodox who were never rebuked, let alone excommunicated.”

    Catholic historian E. I. Watkin wrote: “Painful as the admission must be, we cannot in the interest of a false edification or dishonest loyalty deny or ignore the historical fact that Bishops have consistently supported all wars waged by the government of their country. . . . Where belligerent nationalism is concerned they have spoken as the mouthpiece of Caesar.”

    When Watkin said that bishops of the Catholic Church “supported all wars waged by the government of their country,” he included the wars of aggression waged by Hitler. As Roman Catholic professor of history at Vienna University, Friedrich Heer, admitted: “In the cold facts of German history, the Cross and the swastika came ever closer together, until the swastika proclaimed the message of victory from the towers of German cathedrals, swastika flags appeared round altars and Catholic and Protestant theologians, pastors, churchmen and statesmen welcomed the alliance with Hitler.”

    Catholic Church leaders gave such unqualified support to Hitler’s wars that the Roman Catholic professor Gordon Zahn wrote: “The German Catholic who looked to his religious superiors for spiritual guidance and direction regarding service in Hitler’s wars received virtually the same answers he would have received from the Nazi ruler himself.”

    That Catholics obediently followed the direction of their church leaders was documented by Professor Heer. He noted: “Of about thirty-two million German Catholics—fifteen and a half million of whom were men—only seven [individuals] openly refused military service. Six of these were Austrians.” More recent evidence indicates that a few other Catholics, as well as some Protestants, stood up against the Nazi State because of religious convictions. Some even paid with their lives, while at the same time their spiritual leaders were selling out to the Third Reich.

    As noted above, Professor Heer included Protestant leaders among those who “welcomed the alliance with Hitler.”

    Many Protestants have writhed in self-incrimination for remaining silent during Hitler’s wars of aggression. For example, 11 leading clergymen met in October 1945 to draw up the so-called Stuttgart admission of guilt. They said: “We accuse ourselves for not having been more courageous in confessing our convictions, more faithful in saying our prayers, more joyful in expressing our faith, and more ardent in showing our love.”

    Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity said: “Of 17,000 Evangelical pastors, there were never more than fifty serving long terms [for not supporting the Nazi regime] at any one time.” Contrasting such pastors with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Johnson wrote: “The bravest were the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who proclaimed their outright doctrinal opposition from the beginning and suffered accordingly. They refused any cooperation with the Nazi state.”

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