I suppose over the four years or so I have been leading our service that it has become abundantly clear that I have a fascination with the Second World War. Often I have referred to it, used passages from German literature about it in my address and inevitably drawn conclusions from it.
I suppose my fascination started when, at the age of 15 in 1955, I spent the whole of the summer holidays with a German family who had invited me to their home in Eschweiler, near Aachen. Whilst I was there, but not immediately on arrival, I discovered that the father of the family, who kept a very low profile in the house, had only recently been released from a British prison as a member of the hated SS. I actually found him to be a kind man and began to wonder even then, at the age of 15, how someone, whom I considered thoroughly decent, could have lent himself to unspeakable evil.
A little later I started my A-level German course and began to read the most wonderful poetry of Goethe and others, study the works of Lessing, the great liberal thinker and rationalist of the 18th century, and continued to wonder how a country with such a rich cultural heritage (just think of its music!) could have descended into such barbarism. And all this had taken place in my lifetime, born as I was in September 1939 just three weeks after the war started. I still can't fully realise it even today.
I wondered where the men of conscience were at the time. Why hadn't they made a stand against Hitler? Of course, as I delved further into modern German literature and history, I discovered that there were such people, many of whom we in this country have overlooked, so that the prevailing view, in Britain particularly, is that all Germans were easily swayed by Hitler and his ideas and showed no conscience about the atrocities their country was committing.
Just recently I was reading an interview with that venerable astronomer and one-time TV presenter, Patrick Moore. For him it would seem the Second World War hasn't yet ended as he came out with this disgraceful remark: 'The only good Kraut is a dead Kraut' which he followed with: 'I suppose there can be some honourable decent Germans. I haven't met them myself, but I'm sure they exist.' If only to correct such bigoted views, with Remembrance Sunday in the offing, when peace and reconciliation should be at the forefront of our mind, I thought this morning it might be a good idea to look at some Germans, amongst others, who made their own personal stand against evil and proved that in Germany too there were men of conscience.
One that stands out is, of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What a man! Born into a prominent middle-class family in 1906 (his father was Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at the University of Berlin) Bonhoeffer decided at about the age of 14 he wanted to be a Lutheran pastor and in time succeeded in his ambition. He was not only a prominent theologian, however, but also an exceptional pianist and sportsman.
From the moment Hitler came to power in 1933 -in fact two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor- Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address attacking Nazism. He increasingly became a thorn in the flesh of the Nazi regime, was frequently thwarted by the Nazis in his work as a founding member of the so-called Confessional Church which strongly opposed the German Christian movement. This had had allied itself with Nazi racism, something the Confessional Church couldn't countenance. PAUSE As early as1938 Bonhoeffer had secretly associated himself with the German Resistance that made several attempts on Hitler's life. He was finally arrested in1943 but it was not until after the failed Stauffenberg Plot of July 1944 that the authorities were able to prove his involvement with the rebels. He was kept for 18 months in Berlin and was then shipped off firstly to Buchenwald Concentration Camp and finally Flossenbuerg where he was hanged in 1945, just 23 days before the Nazis surrendered.
Perhaps Bonhoeffer's religious philosophy was quite different from Unitarianism, for his writings sometimes reveal a criticism of liberal theology, but at the same time he showed a remarkable commitment to social justice, and he firmly believed that a Christian should not retire from the world but should act within it according to his conscience. Can we these days really appreciate the courage it took for one man, in such dreadful times, to remain firm to his principles and so bring about his own death? His philosophy is summed up in these words of his: 'When a madman is tearing through the streets in a car, I can, as a pastor who happens to be on the scene, do more than merely console or bury those who have been run over. I must jump in front of the car and stop it.'
He was not the only one to resist Nazism, of course. There were many others, from Stauffenberg himself and his fellow conspirators to all those brave people in occupied countries who openly fought in their resistance movements or those who sheltered Jews at great cost to themselves. Just one example is Miep Gies who died in 2010 at the age of 100. She it was who secretly housed and shielded the Frank family in Holland. If she had been discovered she would have faced execution. It was Miep Gies who discovered and preserved Anne Frank's diary after the family's arrest. There were others like her who put themselves at great risk in helping Jews in occupied Europe. Oskar Schindler is another who took that risk and, as we know, his achievements have been well documented in literature and film.
Talking about films, I wonder if you saw some years ago the film called 'Sophie Scholl- The Final Days'? It told the story of Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie, who were students at Munich University during the war years. They founded a passive resistance movement in 1942 called 'The White Rose' and they distributed leaflets in Munich, especially in the university itself, calling for the restoration of democracy in Germany and for social justice. They also daubed anti- Nazi slogans on walls and the sides of houses. They were arrested in 1943, brought before that fearsome Nazi judge Roland Freisler and were summarily executed by guillotine. Sophie was just 22 when she died. Sophie, like Bonhoeffer, was influenced by her Christian faith. She was a Lutheran but was also greatly impressed by the writings of Cardinal Newman and his so-called 'theology of conscience'.
These, of course, are all well-known names but there were countless others about whom we know almost nothing. One such couple were Elise and Otto Hampel, and their story forms the basis of this novel by Hans Fallada called in English 'Everyman Dies Alone'. It's a great story that I am sure you would enjoy. PAUSE. The Hampels were a poorly educated, working class couple living in Berlin. After Elise's brother was killed early in the war, the couple commenced a 3-year propaganda campaign that baffled- and enraged- the Berlin police who eventually handed over the case to the Gestapo. Their campaign consisted simply of leaving hundreds of post cards all over Berlin. These cards were often badly written and misspelt, but they all called for civil disobedience . The Hampels blanketed the city so thoroughly and eluded capture so successfully that the Gestapo came to assume they were dealing with a large, sophisticated underground resistance. Eventually they were caught and executed by beheading in Ploetzensee Prison in Berlin in March 1943.
It's a grim place is Ploetzensee! Chris and I went there a few years ago. It has been left very much as it was in the war years and you feel the ghosts of those who were liquidated there. The hooks are still on the walls where the Nazi-resisters were hanged, This story of the Hampels is a story of ordinary people. As a newspaper review of this book, that was published after Fallada's death in 1947, stated: 'This isn't a novel about bold cells of defiant guerrillas but about a world in which heroism is defined as a personal refusal to be corrupted'.
It's not only in Nazi Germany, of course, that we see examples of personal defiance and resistance. Have you ever thought how much courage it takes to stand up and speak out when the stakes are high, even today, in a democratic country like our own? Only recently I was reading about so-called whistle-blowers in the NHS who have had the guts to denounce publicly malpractice, corruption or poor care, often risking their jobs in the process. According to the doctor who wrote this article they are the unsung heroes of the health service. They often receive appalling treatment from furious managers, and last year an investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Channel 4 found that doctors routinely had to sign contracts forbidding them to talk publicly about the trust they worked for. Being forced to keep silent, of course, put patients' welfare at risk, and some were simply not prepared to go along with this. Little has been done up to now to protect such people, but, fortunately, things are slowly changing. Yes, everywhere we look we see people in all walks of life willing to sacrifice themselves in the cause of conscience. A pity there weren't more prepared to do the same when they worked with Jimmy Savile at the BBC some decades ago!
What about the courage of our Unitarian forebears? There are plenty who fought against the prevailing system throughout the years, as we know, but I shall mention just one. He was really an early precursor of us Unitarians in the 16th century and you have undoubtedly heard of him. It was Michael Servetus who died because he refused to accept the doctrine of the Trinity. He was born in Spain and brought up as a Roman Catholic. When he went to university in Spain and later France and began to study the Bible, he came to the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity was not biblically based. This is what we Unitarians say today, of course, as do some other sects, Jehovah Witnesses amongst them.
I can't say I get my knickers in a twist when there is talk of the Trinity today. It is certainly not the main reason I consider myself a Unitarian. In the 16th century, however, to deny the Trinity was blasphemy of the highest order. In his two treatises 'Errors of the Trinity' and 'Dialogues on the Trinity' Servetus argued that Jesus was not to be equated with God; he was rather the supreme revealer of God and thus could be considered divine.
Because of his writings Servetus was hotly pursued by the Spanish Inquisition and, in order to escape, he disguised himself and assumed another name (Michael de Villeneve). To complete his transformation, he sought a change of career and took up the study of medicine. He proved to be as good a physician as theologian. He became physician to the Archbishop of Vienna, and he suggested a theory of the circulation of the blood which has stood the test of time He continued with his theological work, however, and wrote another work, which he published anonymously called 'The Restitution of Christianity'. Suspicion grew that he was the author of this work and the Inquisition sought his arrest. He escaped to Geneva, a bad move as it was here that Calvin held sway. He had Servetus apprehended and he was burnt at the stake for his beliefs in1553. PAUSE
A pretty extreme example of a man not prepared to sacrifice his beliefs and conscience!
Enough of history- what about us? Do we have the courage to stand by our Unitarian convictions when they are challenged? Do we defend Muslims when they, as an entire group, are attacked and verbally abused? Do we say they worship the same God as us, even if their religious practices are so very different? Do we speak up when someone casually says that this country is going to the dogs because we have let too many immigrants in ? Do we have the courage to say that this country is all the better for being a multi-cultured society? That, should all the immigrants be sent back home to the country of their birth, then our hospitals, care-homes, restaurants and hotels would all be in dire straits?
I don't know whether you read a blog from Ash last February discussing racism in Britain? He talks about contesting racial views when we hear them, not quietly accepting the venom and hatred that pours forth from the mouths of some. He was making exactly the same point as I am trying to make here. Let's stand up for what we believe to be right and speak our minds. Ash closes his blog with this comment, and I repeat it here for it is terribly relevant to my message this morning. Ash writes and I quote: 'The more we challenge such matters, be it in the pub, at the match or in the shop, the sooner we will all be able to live in a truly tolerant, integrated and open-minded society.'
I couldn't agree more!
And so I say to myself, as much as to you: .Let us, if only for the sake of our integrity, follow the example of those who were prepared to stand against the crowd, like the whistle blowers in the NHS, Miep Gies, Hans and Sophie Scholl, Graf von Stauffenberg, the Hampels, Bonhoeffer, Servetus and others in our Unitarian history and show the courage of our convictions. We might not swell the ranks of Unitarianism in so doing but we might persuade people that Unitarianism is not a wishy-washy faith that has nothing to offer the world in this day and age. I believe we follow a faith (as different as our private beliefs are) that is terribly relevant in the 21st century and has much to teach the world at this time of great unrest and intolerance.
Let conscience be our guide. Let us stand up for our faith, truly believing in freedom, reason and tolerance and strive to be its very best ambassadors. Then, if we achieve nothing else, we shall at least be true to ourselves.