Bonhoeffer and Common European Values

(This is Neil.) I’d like to post once more about Christianity during the Second World War, particularly how the thought of the Kreisau Circle might help us meditate on common European values – a subject of interest, I’m sure, for Americans and others outside of Europe, as well as those within. (This post will summarize a very interesting lecture by the Baptist theologian Keith Clements, delivered in May.) The Kreisau Circle was a group of civilians, including Christian clergy, led by Helmut von Moltke that, through the office of Hans von Dohnanyi (brother-in-law to Dietrich Bonhoeffer) in the Ministry of Justice, coordinated with a military wing of the German resistance. Their efforts led to the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944. But the Kreisau Circle was not merely concerned with getting rid of Hitler, but re-imagining Europe, and, indeed, the wider world.

Alfred Delp, SJ, was a member of the Kreisau Circle, and, imprisoned at the end of 1944, wrote, “The world lies in ruins.” What could happen, even after the war was over? Delp continued:

The problem facing the countries, as well as the European continent, is, to put it crudely, man in a threefold sense. How to house and feed him; how to employ him so that he can feed himself – the economic and social revival; and how he can be brought to face himself – the spiritual and religious awakening.

Clements, though, does not focus on Delp, but rather Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Adam von Trott, who were rather similar to one another (even if Trott was impatient with the church). Hence, the title of my post. Clements wishes to focus on their thought on the future of in three areas: economic justice, individual rights and freedom, and multilateralism (especially in relationship to faith).

Obviously, as Delp’s words make clear, economic justice was to be a concern – food and shelter were rather immediate concerns. But, besides that, Hitler had come to power during economic crisis. The members of the Kreisau circle were hardly uniform in their economic thought, but, as Delp’s quote also perhaps makes clear, they seemed to look at human beings holistically – as Clements writes, “looking not just at what is produced and how, but at the producers and what happens to them as human beings.” Helmut von Moltke wrote to a friend in 1942, “For us, post-war Europe is less a question of frontiers and soldiers, of top-heavy organizations and grandiose plans than the question of how the image of man can be re-established in the hearts of our fellow-citizens.”

And, so, economic structures were needed through which human beings would find purpose in responsible freedom. Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, written during the war, turns away from both self-seeking and abject subservience as models to instead encourage the concept of “responsibility.” We act in “responsibility” when we act in the place of others in “representative action” (Stellvertretung), aware that Jesus Christ is the one who vicariously stands in for all people. It seems as though, practically speaking, the Kreisau Circle believed in a mixed economy: a competitive system within the framework of a national policy and a social system. Individual personalities, after all, could be attenuated through the dictates of central administration or the control of monopolies.

Regarding individual rights and freedom, Bonhoeffer wrote about the American valuation of individual freedom upon returning to Germany in 1939. “Praise of this freedom may be heard from pulpits everywhere,” Bonhoeffer wrote, speaking of the “right of the individual to independent thought, speech and action.” Bonhoeffer also noticed a philosophical difference between “Anglo-Saxon” and “German-continental” thought:

One might point out that since the time of Occam nominalism has been deeply rotted in Anglo-Saxon thought. For in nominalism the individual precedes the whole, in that the individual and empirically given thing is what is real, while totality is only a concept, a nomen. The individual stands at the beginning, unity at the end. On the other hand the German-continental philosophical tradition is governed by realism and idealism, for which the whole is the original reality and the individual entity only a derivative.

In 1941, Bonhoeffer read The Church and the New Order, written by William Paton, a British Presbyterian, and responded:

The Anglo-Saxon world summarizes the struggle against the omnipotence of the State in the word ‘freedom.’ And Paton gives us a charter of human ‘rights and liberties’ which are to provide the norm of action by the State. But these expressions … must ‘be translated into terms which relate them more closely to the life of other peoples.’ For freedom is too negative a word to be used in a situation where all order has been destroyed. And liberties are not enough when men seek first of all for some minimum security.

Adam von Trott would speak of a “freedom choice system yet within limits.” Clements highlights the European perception of limits and the consequent sense that freedom is only really possible when a natural order is perceived.

Finally, the Kreisau Circle spoke of the virtues of multilateralism in light of the recent excesses of nationalism, particularly the German sacralization of nation, blood, or Volk. Clements speaks of the felt need to “overcome the endemically conflictual tendencies in European society of which Nazism was but the most extreme manifestation.” Speaking to an ecumenical conference in Denmark in 1934, Bonhoeffer had said, “For me the main question for people and nations is whether or not they have learned to live with other people and nations. To me that is more important than all their ideas, thoughts and convictions …”

But how should Europe transcend centuries-long divisions? One answer, of course, is through the common heritage of Christianity. Readers will remember the debate about whether the Preamble to the European Constitution should explicitly mention Christianity (see this account from the Tablet). In 1944, Bonhoeffer’s friend, Bishop George Bell, delivered a speech in the House of Lords about European reconstruction in which he claimed that European culture consisted of the traditions of humanism, science, law and government, and Christianity, but Christianity was “the most important and potentially unifying of them all.” Much of the Kreisau Circle did want a new German constitution to be Christian in spirit and the resistance was often motivated by Christianity – Clements writes, “No scene is more moving that Claus von Stauffenberg, on the evening of 19 July 1944, going into Martin Niemoeller’s church in Berlin-Dahlem, to pray.”

But Adam von Trott did not believe that a new German constitution should mention Christianity by name. Why is this? Clements writes that Bonhoeffer was afraid that talk of a “Christian Europe” or Europe’s “Christian heritage” would lead to a Christianity that was dangerously “self-enclosed, complete and final in itself,” immune from the call to judgment and renewal of Jesus Christ himself. Against such a “self-enclosed” Christianity, Bonhoeffer had recently had to assert that “Jesus Christ was a Jew.” And both Bonhoeffer and von Trott had wanted to seek wisdom from abroad, outside the institutional church (in Bonhoeffer’s case, from Gandhi). So, as Clements says, the question was more of “in what way Christ can take form in modern Europe” than in what way can a secure and inevitably defensive “Christianity” be established to serve as an impregnable bulwark against secularism or Islam.

Perhaps the two questions (certainly not the only questions) that Clements’ lecture poses to us, then, are whether the thinking of the Kreisau Circle – particularly regarding “responsibility,” ordered freedom, and a multilateralism that would be at least Christian in spirit – can contribute to the search for common European values, and whether these values will differ from American values.  

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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