Editor’s Note: Thomas Weber is a professor of history and international affairs at the University of Aberdeen and author of “Becoming Hitler: The Making of a Nazi” (Basic Books) . Follow him on Twitter @Thomas__Weber. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
On March 21, 1933, Germany was in turmoil. Less than two months after the Nazi seizure of power, even people with pro-regime leanings felt disquieted about the draconian measures instituted since the end of January.
It was in this context that Protestant theologian Otto Dibelius invoked the biblical passage Romans 13 to urge Germans to support Hitler. As the nation looked upon him that day, in his sermon in front of the newly elected members of the Reichstag (parliament), Dibelius told Germans that they had learned from Martin Luther that Christians may not fail to support the state, “even not when [the state] acts hard and ruthlessly.”
In his sermon, held in Potsdam, Dibelius reminded people how, during his own days, Luther had called upon state authorities to act “without mercy” to restore order. Eighty-five years later, as US Attorney General Jeff Sessions invoked Romans 13 to tell Americans that they should support the since-abandoned administration policy of forcefully separating children from their parents who crossed the border illegally, it is hard not to think about the parallels.
I have spent the last three and a half years warning against facile Trump-Hitler comparisons. More often than not, they simply do not work and may, in fact, backfire. Hitler-Trump comparisons are a distraction from the President’s very own and dangerous shortcomings. There is also the “the crying wolf problem.”
If Hitler is invoked too often, people will get numb to it and won’t listen anymore when the new Hitlers really do come, as arguably has already happened elsewhere in the world. Although Trump is not comparable to Hitler and Sessions seems to have since changed his stance on the family separating policy, it’s worth studying the lessons of history.
On this occasion, the parallels are eerie and scary. It was not just on March 21, 1933 – the “Day of Potsdam” that saw the marriage of the old Prussian establishment with the Nazi regime, symbolized by Hitler’s famous handshake with German President Paul von Hindenburg – that Romans 13 was invoked.
Throughout the lifetime of the Third Reich, in tens of thousands of sermons up and down the country, pro-Nazi Protestant pastors quoted from Romans 13: “The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”
In short, as the Nazi regime imprisoned its opponents and wrought havoc across the world, Romans 13 became one of the glues that held the Third Reich together.
The scripture had the effect of preventing, or at least delaying, the emergence of more widespread resistance against Nazi policies. The powerful writings of anti-Nazi Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are testament as to how much Protestants in Germany were battling with what the particular verse.
For instance, in his book “Church and State,” Barth discussed at great lengths how Romans 13 calls upon Christians to obey the rules of the state they live in, however concluding, in effect, that the actions of Jesus himself contradicted the narrow reading of Romans 13 favored by the Nazis: “Christians would, in point of fact, become enemies of any State if, when the State threatens their freedom, they did not resist, or if they concealed their resistance – although this resistance would be very calm and dignified. Jesus would, in actual fact, have been an enemy of the State if He had not dared, quite calmly, to call King Herod a ‘fox’… If the State has perverted its God-given authority, it cannot be honored better than by this criticism which is due to it in all circumstances,” Barth wrote.
Barth thus ultimately concluded that Romans 13 does, in fact, not call upon people blindly to obey the state. Quite to the contrary, according to Barth, Paul’s epistle to the Romans requires people to rise against the state when the state is the source of injustice.
It was that interpretation of Romans 13 that made Bonhoeffer join the resistance to Hitler, a decision that would cost his own life. (He was arrested and later sent to a concentration camp where he was executed) And it was that interpretation of the scripture that drove the plotters behind the famous attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944.
Wehrmacht officer Heinrich Graf von Lehndorff, who was executed for his involvement in the plot to kill Hitler, also struggled with what Romans 13 truly meant. He had already inwardly turned against Hitler after witnessing a massacre of 7,000 Jews by the Einsatztruppen in October 1941.
Yet for Protestant aristocrats like him, whose families had served the state for hundreds of years, overcoming a narrow and literal reading of Romans 13 was difficult. As his cousin Hans von Lehndorff was to recall, even the last time he saw Heinrich, a few days before the attempt on Hitler’s life, they talked about Romans 13: “One matter at least became clear to us,” Hans wrote in his memoirs, “the apostle did not warrant us, through an invocation of the Epistle to the Romans, not to do anything and thus save our souls. He let us merely see, how heavy the decision did weigh, which we saw us confronted with, guilt or guilt.”
I have no doubt that the Trump administration was unaware of these parallels with the Nazi past when it decided to separate children from their parents and when it invoked Romans 13.
While it is reassuring to see that the President reversed his position on separating families by signing an executive order, the order doesn’t say anything about reuniting the families that have already been separated. And Trump said that families would be detained together “where appropriate and consistent with law and available resources.”
Since it seems that this topic will be a lingering issue, it is not too late for Sessions – and anyone in the administration who agreed with his use of the scripture to garner support – to change direction on the broader and even more important issue relating to Romans 13, namely whether or not Americans should follow the rule of law based on a Nazi understanding of the matter.
If families are not reunited or if some are still separated because of lack of available resources, or, in fact, if the administration oversteps its powers on a policy matter, then the public has a right and the duty to express their outrage over the administration’s actions. It is the administration’s choice to decide if they want to be, fairly or not, compared with the Nazi regime or with Hitler’s opponents.
Jeff Sessions may also want to consider that his invocation of Romans 13 might inadvertently backfire. If the political opponents of the administration start to read Karl Barth, they may, in fact, become more, not less, likely to stand up to the administration’s policies.