This Sabado Gigante of a primary season has seen no lack of comparisons between Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler. In the literal sense intended, they are are frivolous and unhelpful.
For starters, apart from vulgarized marketing, The Donald is the proverbial man without a plan, while Der Fuhrer, from Lebensraum to Final Solution, never left home without one. To dress up the candidate as some Halloween Hitler distracts from the actual threat, and the cultural indictment attached to it.
Church of Spies, perhaps ironically, is a timely book about the era of Hitler that offers keen insight into the present moment, and what it may take to survive the institutional breakdown many view as a real possibility.
With an enormous cache of fresh information, author Mark Riebling knocks down the door of the theatre in which the harrowing drama of National Socialism played out. The perspective gained leaves no doubt that presentations of Pius XII by the likes of John Cornwell, and Daniel Goldhagen, were but peeks through the keyhole, extrapolated shabbily to a damning portrait of Pius as, “Hitler’s Pope.”
Church of Spies is the story of a plot against Hitler forged in breathless secrecy – from the chiaroscuro of church crypts, to the hive offices of the Reich – by a global network run by the pontiff himself. In it we meet Helmuth von Molotke, a German intelligence officer, whose experience in occupied France catalyzed his resistance, and eventual role as an architect in the plot to assassinate Hitler.
To his credit, Molotke recognized the need to address the underlying threat of ideological disorder, operating in Hitler. His time in France, moreover, convinced him that passivity, or, “failure to cultivate the spiritual qualities needed to fight,” was fuel critical to the fascist machine.
As Riebling puts it, “For Moltke, the fight against Hitler was not mainly military or political, but meta-ethical…resistance to tyranny hinged on ‘how the image of man can be replanted in the breasts of our countrymen.'”
These few words bear perhaps the book’s most salient lesson.
In the eclipse of Marx’s,” hitherto existing society,” comes dawning awareness that society henceforth will be a struggle, not of classes, but causes – – specifically, competing claims to what human beings are, can, or should, be. In brief, there are but two categories of truth-claim: theist, and atheist.
From each come “spinoffs,” or rather, ideological mutations: from theism, the kind of theocratic maximalism found in ISIS; from atheism, the virulent anti-theism realized in Nazism.
What tends to go unnoticed is that these apparent opposites share something that makes them closer to each other than either to its “parent” and which, in the Judeo-Christian view, warps alarmingly to something other than the human person. The examples of ISIS and Nazism are extremes on the continuum of man-made misery, but there are many stops in between.
It’s said that, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but often rhymes.” It’s also the case that history and religion are inextricably bound; illiteracy in one extends to the other. The study of religion engages the subject at the level of theory, and in the historical contexts through which it unfolds. Likewise, history studied on its own terms discloses religion’s role in its every epoch.
The anti-theism fashionable in the West, however, not only rejects religion’s influence on the present, but would turn that rejection into a hermeneutical lens on the past — as it were, to read religion out of history.
A distorted past misshapes its present, setting the stage for a future in which the individual is primed for a change in political status, from citizen to franchised agent of the state.
Hitler, with Stalin, rightly viewed institutional Christianity as the chief obstacle to their plans. Historian Timothy Snyder has tracked the harsher fate of countries whose state apparatus was intentionally shattered. Poland was not among the lucky.
When the Reich struck, one of its first targets was the Catholic Church. And yet, as Jesuit scholar Raymond Gawronski points out, in the wake of its destruction as a state, a nurtured sense of common identity enabled the Polish nation to endure.
Russian monks likewise preserved touchstones of culture in the midst of Mongol onslaught. So too, their earlier Irish counterparts who, as Thomas Cahill puts it, saved civilization.
The sustaining claim at the heart of all these examples is found at the beginning of the Judeo-Christian story: Everyone enters the world in the Image and Likeness of the Creator. This intrinsic dignity, and exalted possibility, is a claim to a verity of transcendent origin.
For Professor George Demacopoulos, education worthy of the name equips an individual to take fearless inventory of all truth-claims, including one’s own. When education gets yoked to ideology, that challenge only steepens.
Blindness to history, and its distortion, also makes more difficult the counter-cultural imperative to, cultivate the spiritual qualities needed to fight, let alone recognize the threat.
Donald Trump isn’t Hitler, but tyranny is alive, well, and shopping for real estate. It comes in many forms, arriving by stealth as well as blitzkrieg.
Should the foundations of the American system ever be overwhelmed, replanting the image of the human person will be our task. It is our task today.