What About Hitler?

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I think that we desire war. We want war to be permissible without sacrificing all the values we hold most dear. As a result, we endeavor to manipulate and twist those values and moral principles to accommodate that desire rather than recognize war as the moral offense it is. ~ Robert Brimlow

Adolf Hitler is alive and well, and especially among neocon warmongers, conservative interventionists, Christian armageddonists, and other advocates of perpetual war for perpetual peace.

The original President Bush and the current incarnation have both all but compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler. Now it is the president of Iran who bears the Hitler label. Indeed, as Glenn Greenwald has well said: “Whoever is next on the War List is always The New Hitler and the country they lead is always The New Nazi Germany.” But it is not incarnate in these mischaracterizations that Hitler lives today.

When all else fails, proponents of the war in Iraq inevitably retreat to the Hitler question. Okay, maybe life in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was better than the situation in Iraq now, but what about Hitler? Perhaps the United States shouldn’t have invaded Iraq, but what about Hitler? Yes, it is tragic that almost 4,000 U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq, but what about Hitler? Perhaps the troop surge was a bad idea, but what about Hitler?

But it’s not just those who champion the war in Iraq that invoke the Hitler question. The same thing is done by those who are adamantly opposed to this U.S. military adventure, but not some previous one. Failure to receive a satisfactory answer to the Hitler question is certainly one of the main reasons why many who recognize the folly of war hesitate to label themselves as anti-war.

The Hitler question is something that Robert Brimlow, a philosophy professor at St. John Fisher College in New York, has pondered for many years. After a series of outlines, drafts, and proposals (which, it should be noted, began before 9/11), he has collected his thoughts in What about Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Brazos Press, 2006). The book is part of the publisher’s series on The Christian Practice of Everyday Life, a series which “seeks to present specifically Christian perspectives on some of the most prevalent contemporary practices of everyday life.”

This work came about in part due to the persistent asking of the Hitler question whenever the author made “an argument for pacifism in his philosophy classes.” Brimlow believes that Christians “are not called to be pacifists; we are called to be Christians, and part of what it means to be Christian is to be peacemakers.” But Hitler or no Hitler, the author doesn’t believe that so-called just war theory is the answer to limiting war. The book, in fact, stands just war theory on its head, arguing that it is used to justify war. It also contains some painful rebukes to Christian defenders of war that I wish I had uttered myself.

But first, the negative. Each chapter of the book is prefaced by a Scripture passage and the author’s meditation upon it followed in most cases by a prologue. But since the meditations are not directly related to the subject of the chapters, and the prologues, which are basically personal experiences, are generally irrelevant as well, they can all be safely passed over. The last three chapters (7, 8, & 9), which present the Christian response to the Hitler question, an elaboration, and an elaboration on the elaboration, should really be combined, especially since chapter 7 contains only a one-page response after a four-page meditation. Along with the lack of an index, these are minor quibbles we can live with in a book that so boldly and powerfully tackles just war theory and the Hitler question.

Brimlow doesn’t waste any time, striking at the root of just war theory with an assault on Augustine in the first chapter: “Augustine is a saint, a father of the church, a good theologian, and a wonderful philosopher. He is also wrong.” And not only is it the church father Tertullian that we should look to: “The basis of Tertullian’s objection to Christian involvement with the military should be obvious to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the gospel.”

Brimlow then demolishes the finer points of just war theory itself, even taking on the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The author considers just war theory, “as developed and defended both by church theologians and secular philosophers,” untenable, and for three reasons:

  • Just war theory is untenable because it is difficult to know with sufficient confidence whether all of its conditions have been met.
  • Just war theory is untenable because some of its tenets are impossible to realize.
  • Just war theory is untenable because it used to justify rather than to prevent war.

First there is the knowledge problem:

It is not often easy to determine when a just cause for war exists or what criteria a state may use in reaching the determination that a just cause is operative.

One of the primary difficulties with the just war requirements should be apparent: it is not very clear when the conditions of just cause and last resort have been satisfied.

As soon as just war theory adapts to accommodate and allow preemptive attacks by a threatened state, it is no longer clear either how much solid evidence is required or how much discussion or negotiation would be prudent.

Second, the carrying out of the jus in bello principle of discrimination between the civilian population and enemy combatants is impossible. Says Brimlow: “It is obvious that a war, in order to be just, must not inflict harm or death or injury on innocent persons, or else it is no better (except, perhaps, quantitatively) than the original aggression. The problem facing those who wish to justify war is that it is impossible to conduct a war without harming some innocents. It is in the very nature of war that innocents will die.”

And third, just war theory in practice is used for something entirely opposite its stated purpose: “Another difficulty with the just war criteria, at least to this point and taken as a whole, is that they seem able to justify almost all wars rather than to provide a means to limit the number of wars that would be considered just.” Indeed, under just war theory, “a state may initiate hostile military action against another state that poses no direct threat to it. Using just war theory, Brimlow even makes the case that “Nazi Germany’s initiation of World War II in the European theater — as well as the events that led up to it — satisfy the criteria for just cause as well as any other.”

I might also add that it is the state that decides to go to war, not the people, most of whom want nothing to do with war; that is, until the state sufficiently propagandizes its citizens, as Hermann Goering explained. The state always claims that it is acting defensively, has the right intention, has the proper authority, is undertaking war as a last resort, has a high probability of success, and that a war will achieve good that is proportionally greater than the damage to life, limb, and property that it will cause.

Brimlow concludes about just war theory:

The criteria set out and developed by just war theory are simply too flaccid and flexible to yield an outlawing of some of the most immoral and heinous activities of the last century.

Just war theory is untenable. Among other things, just war theory contradicts itself in that it sanctions the killing of innocents, which it at the same time prohibits. In addition, just war theory can also be used effectively to justify all wars.

It is no wonder that “the Christian concerns about justifying warfare set the tone for subsequent secular justifications.” Indeed, just war theory “has become fundamentally a secular doctrine.” Brimlow argues that “this must be so, because no Christian could justify war without leaving Jesus and the gospel out of it.”

But even if Brimlow’s indictment of just war theory is correct, and even if “almost all the wars that have been fought over the millennia were wrong on both philosophical and theological grounds,” and even if “pacifism might be what is called for in the vast majority of cases,” there is one thing that will abrogate every vestige of morality and turn the ardent pacifist into a crazed warmonger: the so-called supreme emergency.

The greatest example of the supreme emergency is, of course, Hitler. The Nazi regime “provides the paradigmatic example of a special case that justifies using extraordinary means to defeat an enemy” even if it means violating the rights of the innocent. Because Hitler is “the embodiment of hatred, murder, death, and destruction,” he has become “a symbol for all those threats to us that appear immune to rational discourse, pragmatic calculation and bargaining, and appeals to self-interest or moral goodness.”

Brimlow doesn’t buy the supreme emergency argument, and certainly not as articulated by contemporary just war theorist Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars (Basic Books, 2000). Brimlow points out that not only does Walzer assert that “even the lives of innocent may be sacrificed, with justification, in the case of supreme emergencies,” he maintains that when the rights of neutrals, innocents, and noncombatants are overridden, they have not been “diminished, weakened, or lost.” Brimlow concludes that the supreme emergency argument suffers from the same knowledge problem as just war theory: “It is difficult to determine with any precision when a supreme emergency begins or when it ends, even retrospectively.”

Brimlow finds it curious that “we take Hitler as the figure and symbol for the embodiment of the utmost evil.” It is Stalin, “at least in terms of sheer numbers of innocents intentionally and directly slaughtered,” whose “record of murders supersedes Hitler’s.” It is Stalin — our ally in World War II — who not only initiated pogroms, purges, and persecutions (like Hitler), but used starvation and terror as a weapons. Stalin “appears to be more bloodthirsty than Hitler.” He could even be “the greatest monster of the twentieth century.”

In the end, Brimlow maintains that the Hitler question is a dishonest one:

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. The failure of the church and of Christians to be peacemakers in 1942 is horrible precisely because it is a result and culmination of centuries of failure. Anti-Semitism, violence, warfare, strife, hatred, and intolerance have been and continue to be acceptable practices for Christians — usually in the name of politics, nationalism, or even religious truth.

Brimlow courageously concludes: “Given the stature of a Stalin, why is it that Hitler is the one who provides the standard by which we measure evil and analogize the worst behavior of leaders and states?”

We can even take this a step further. It was not Hitler who boycotted Jewish businesses. It was not Hitler who enforced the Nuremberg laws. It was not Hitler who participated in the Krystalnacht. It was not Hitler who transported Jews to death camps. It was not Hitler who killed American, British, Russian, and French soldiers during World War II. And it was not Hitler who killed the millions of civilians who died during the “Good War.” And neither did Hitler put a gun to anyone’s head and force them to do any of these things. Was Hitler evil? Yes. Was Hitler a despicable human being? Certainly. Would the world have been better off if someone had put a bullet in his head? Of course. Nevertheless, Hitler is given too much credit for what transpired during the Nazi regime (and yes, for those who question my hatred of Nazism: it was an evil, brutal regime, and so was Stalin’s).

The problem with Hitler is that the great evil that he personifies has been imputed to Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, “bad” Muslim leaders (as opposed to the “good” Muslim leaders that are our allies), and Islamic terrorists in general. Brimlow doesn’t buy this argument either. He believes it “more appropriate to consider the actions of Al Qaeda and other terrorists to be criminal rather than aggressive in the traditional sense.” Although certainly not defending the actions of bin Laden and Al Qaeda, Brimlow recognizes the part that an interventionist U.S. foreign policy has played in stirring up anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. When the United States responded to the 9/11 attacks, it was responding to “an attack that was, in itself, a response to an attack.” In analyzing the complaints against America in the “Letter to America” attributed to bin Laden, Brimlow remarks that “our allies and many others in the international community have leveled similar charges against us for decades, and even a cursory examination of our history in many parts of the world, especially Latin America, gives considerable credence to his views.” This is because “the American government and the American people have been and continue to be curiously blind to the cumulative effect our policy decisions have on other people around the world.”

Brimlow argues that “just war theory and supreme emergencies cut both ways.” If they are “sufficient to sanction the killing and destruction inherent in conventional and total wars, then they are sufficient to sanction terrorism as well.” Indeed, to “accept one as right and proper is to accept the other, and this means we have no moral basis to object to what Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are doing.”

Brimlow’s solution for the individual Christian to the Hitler problem will not be too well-received in the Christian community, especially among warvangelicals:

We must live faithfully; we must be humble in our faith and truthful in what we say and do; we must repay evil with good; and we must be peacemakers. This may also mean as a result that the evildoers will kill us. Then, we shall die.

Our call to follow Jesus and be peacemakers means that we will die. We don’t like this message, so we recoil from it and consider it incomprehensible; and we find ways to reinterpret the gospel or to understand the “real” meaning of Jesus’s message in order to obfuscate and avoid this conclusion. He could not have meant what he said; “death” must be a metaphor for something else.

The author began his study of just war theory by wondering “how the church arrived at the position that some wars can be considered not only justifiable but also consistent with the demands of the gospel.” Because this position is so entrenched in certain sectors of Christendom, we can only hope and pray that Brimlow’s book causes some to rethink their position.

What about Hitler? Yeah, what about him?

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