There is usually a tune going around my head. This week it is The Who’s ‘We won’t get fooled again’. The trouble is, we all too easily get fooled again. Just read history.

I have never quite understood the concept of the ‘American Dream’. This is partly because whatever the dream might be for some, it is clearly a nightmare for others. Look, for example, at the statistics for gun crime, health inequalities and the gulf between the rich and poor. Land of the free and home of the brave? I wish.

But, lest it appear that prejudice should filter a much wider reality, it is indisputable that if you can succeed in the USA, you will understand freedom differently from those who fail.

What is more important this week is not arguments about the fulfilment or otherwise of the great American Promise (rooted in a narrative of Exodus-related exceptionalism), but, rather, whether the oft-repeated dominant myths of American self-understanding any longer bear the weight of reality. Seen from this side of the Atlantic (with a great love for American friends and great admiration for much of what the United States stand for), however, the real world is leaving behind elements of American self-identity and exposing its deep myths as somewhat shallow fables.

Donald Trump

It appears that many Americans regret having voted for Donald Trump. Apparently, they believed his promises of magic restoration of greatness without asking questions of his empty rhetoric. His misogyny, amorality, financial track record, sexual behaviour, narcissism and nepotism (to name but a few of the obvious challenges) would have ruled out the candidacy of any other semi-reputable politician for the Presidency of the United States of America. His subsequent lying, shamelessness, vindictiveness and inhabiting of some ‘alternative reality’ (in which things that happened didn’t happen and things that didn’t happen did happen; in which things he said he didn’t say and things he didn’t say he did say) cannot have come as a disappointing revelation to anyone with half a brain or ears to hear. His espousal of the alt-right has not come as news. His condemnation of anyone and anything he sees as a challenge to himself (Obama, for instance) is weighed against his silence in the face of inconvenient truth or facts.

Yet, none of this is a surprise. It was all there to be seen before he was elected. How on earth did the Christian Right even conceive of the possibility of backing a man who can’t put a sentence together and who epitomises narcissistic amorality? If Hillary Clinton couldn’t be trusted because of her handling of an email server (or because Americans had had enough of political dynasties), by what stretch of moral imagination could Trump have been thought of as a cleaner, brighter alternative? To which base values did he appeal?

Donald Trump is the most consistent politician America has seen. Nothing that is happening now – the testosterone competition with North Korea’s leader, NATO, Russia, for example – is new or surprising. It was all there to be seen. Either it was seen and approved of (which says something of the moral sense of the people who voted for him) or something blinded good people to the reality of what was put before them.

Charlottesville

This has now reached a head in the violence of Charlottesville. Or, perhaps, less the violence and more the evident brazen impunity of the White Supremacists in waving their swastika flags, being accompanied by heavily armed militias, parading with torches, Nazi salutes and shouts of ‘Heil Trump’. This open bravado, provocative and blatant, is only possible because the fascists believe they can get away with it – or might even get approval from the top. The response to Trump’s lack of condemnation (or ‘naming’ them) published in The Daily Stormer makes it abundantly clear that they think Trump is beholden to their dogmas.

Trump’s unwillingness to name the offenders is not helped by White House clarifications that he included all perpetrators in his condemnation of violence. Contrary to protestations that he intended to include them in a general condemnation, he has said nothing specific. He attacks anyone and everyone – even his own colleagues – on Twitter; but the two he never mentions are (a) Wladimir Putin and (b) the white supremacists/nationalists. Join the dots – it isn’t hard.

(For another time: Trump has managed to grant to Putin what Soviet/Russian powers failed to achieve over seventy years: the destabilisation of the western alliance. Putin must think his birthday comes every day. I will return to this another time, but for a country that obsesses about its own security it is astonishing that they seem blind to what is happening internationally.)

Here again Trump is not being inconsistent. This is who he is and how he has been since his campaign began. There is nothing surprising here. The surprise is simply that people are surprised.

The future

Social media and the commentariat are ablaze with references to the rise of Hitler, the insidious corruption of political language and the potential imminence of nuclear war. It is easy to be dramatic and read into the present from the past in ways that are convenient, if hysterical. Images of judges in England on the front page of the Daily Mail, branded ‘Enemies of the People’ during the Brexit debate may rightly be paralleled with pictures in Der Beobachter of judges in 1930s Germany being branded ‘Traitors’. There are times when pointing out the parallel at the very least raises our moral antennae to the dangers of normalising language or behaviour that is corrupting.

However, there are moments in history where a tipping point is reached and it matters that people stand up and challenge the danger. This is one of them. Charlottesville is only one (relatively small) town in an enormous country, and most of the USA will have been as horrified as the rest of us at what they witnessed this weekend; but, the images coming out of this one place become iconic of a deeper malaise. People are right to look for consistency in the rampant condemnations and criticisms of their President in his favoured medium Twitter. If he damns Islamic terrorists and wet liberals for their actions, we can expect him to damn right-wing militias and neo-Nazi criminals when they walk his streets and drive cars into ordinary people. Silence.

In Berlin it is possible to do what a friend of mine who lives there calls the ‘death and genocide tour’ of places of significance. But, perhaps the most important place to visit is the relatively new Museum of Topography, built close to the site of the demolished Gestapo HQ. This museum documents the slow corruption of civil life and political discourse. It tracks the normalisation (the gradual acceptance of compromise) of corruption in public language, behaviour and institutional life. That is what made Nazism possible and, even, probable.

And that is the question standing before the American political establishment today. Does democracy matter? Furthermore, do truth-telling, truth-owning, public honesty and the integrity of language matter any longer? Is there no place for shame in today’s conflicted world?

There will be a million analyses of this situation. I write simply to get some thoughts into words. As a Christian leader, not oblivious to similar challenges here (consider the acceptability of multiple lies during the Brexit campaign and the brazen impunity of those who told them), I applaud my brothers and sisters in the USA who stand against the corruptions described above. I am proud that Christians (among many others) stood against the wickednesses of Charlottesville. But, I remain incredulous that evangelical Christian leaders, Bible in hand, can remain supportive of the President and administration that is corrupting their country. When will the Republican Party take responsibility, stop wringing their hands, and stand against this regime that will be able to do little without their support?

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Today, apart from taking time to start on Rowan Williams's excellent and demanding Faith in the Public Square, I met an academic friend at the University of Basel and then we went to visit Karl Barth's house and archive.

Barth's house is not marked in any way and I wouldn't have found it by myself. The archivist, Dr Peter Zocher, was very welcoming – and is clearly an expert on the great man. I know this is really cringy, but I found it moving to hold in my hand Karl Barth's copy of Hitler's Mein Kampf and read the margin notes, underlinings, question marks and exclamation marks he had written in pencil. Having replaced that, Peter then opened up a document file and showed me the original handwritten draft of the Barmen Declaration of 1934 – probably one of the most important political and theological documents of the twentieth century.

I have to keep reminding myself that Barth didn't know how the story would end. As Hitler consolidated his power, it took great courage and clarity of mind to challenge him and the violent worldview he was soon to inflict on the whole world. All Barth and his friends had to go on was what they saw and heard at that point, and yet they recognised the evil that was being grown among them. (Barth himself refused to swear the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler, resigned his professorial chair at Bonn, and moved back to Basel.)

I also looked through Barth's personal copy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's first books – including Nachfolge (translated into English as The Cost of Discipleship). Again, he had marked the text with questions and comments I couldn't decipher.

There is something powerful about holding and reading books that had belonged to, been read by and marked by a giant of twentieth century theology.

However, what I found haunting – and very difficult to put out of my mind – was the discrepancy between the theological sharpness of Barth and his domestic arrangements. Charlotte von Kirschbaum had moved in to the Barth home in Germany and moved with the family (his wife, Nelly, and their five children) to Basel. They lived, effectively, as a ménage-à-trois until von Kirschbaum was elderly and ill. Karl died in 1968, Charlotte in 1975 (after suffering from Alzheimer's for many years), and Nelly was the last to pass away in 1976. All three are buried in the same grave in Basel's main cemetery.

Barth's social skills were not great. Those still alive who remember him relate how difficult it was to know how to handle him. If you wanted to invite him for dinner, who did you invite come with him – Nelly, Charlotte or both? When Barth was away he would write letters to Charlotte, but never to his wife.

One of my abiding questions is how we judge theology in the light of the experience of those who propagate a particular theology. For example, does the fact that Heidegger supported Hitler (which Barth condemned) influence the credibility of his theological perspectives or his philosophical project? Is there a relationship between the nature of Rudolf Bultmann's theology and the fact that he was able to retain his professorial chair under Hitler when other Christians were paying a very high price for their discipleship of Jesus? And, if we are to take this seriously, how does the reality of Barth's domestic relationships impinge on his theology – especially the clarity of his ethical writings?

Or doesn't it matter?

Correction: I had misunderstood a point about Barth's letters. He wrote many letters to his wife, too, but these have not been published. Barth put in his last will and testament that his private correspondence with his wife should not be published.

It has been remarked that my choice of reading material for a holiday is not 'happy'. The American Civil War, a biography of Leonard Cohen, and now a book about the systematic extermination of Jews in Poland in 1941-2. OK, I see the point.

However, that is just for starters. And the reason I am sitting with my books and iPad in a cafe (with wifi) by a lake while my wife and friends do something else is because I have a seriously dodgy shoulder awaiting treatment when I get back to Bradford.

Right, that's the explanations and excuses dealt with.

Anyway, we had a conversation over breakfast this morning about how individuals, communities or entire nations manage to collude in inhuman behaviour while then proving totally incapable of coming to terms with that behaviour later. Austria has never seriously addressed its complicity with Nazism and the Final Solution; Switzerland's neutrality during the Second World War allowed it the freedom to cover both heroism and quiet cruelty; Rwanda sought to blame the Belgians and the French for sowing the seeds of genocide only twenty years ago.

We were discussing how the ground for dreadful collective behaviour and individual complicity in it is laid by years of cultural and linguistic corruption. Turn Jews and Bolsheviks into categories of 'enemies' and it becomes easier to justify getting rid of them. Spend years referring to 'the other tribe' as “cockroaches” and stamping them out becomes reasonable as well as achievable.

This reminded me of something I heard years ago at Greenbelt. I think it was the great and late-lamented Mike Yaconelli who claimed that the most common cause of death of cattle on the great plains of the American mid-west was “being hit by a train”. Trains and railway tracks were hard to find in the vast expanses of empty land. And the cows didn't set out to find them in order to get flattened by the iron horse. They simply put their head down, nibbled the nearest bit of grass… then moved on to the next piece of grass… and then the next bit… until they had moved a very long way and found themselves nibbling grass in front of tons of moving metal.

They nibbled their way to destruction.

People don't set out to collude in genocide. They just keep their head down and their eyes narrowly focused. They attend to the immediate business to hand and don't look up to see the bigger picture. But, one day they find themselves in front of a train.

Which is how and why Ordinary Men end up doing extraordinarily terrible things to other people.

 

When I got tweeted the other day from the BBC to ask for a comment about an article in the Church of England Newspaper, I hadn’t read the piece and didn’t comment (other than to ask if they know anyone who actually reads or takes seriously the CEN).

I have now read the piece in question and can’t believe (a) that it ever got written and (b) that the CEN actually published it. The editor claims he didn’t actually read the article, but would have asked for the language to be toned down if he had. Leave aside the question of an editor not reading what goes into his (very short) organ, but how did such an article ever get published anywhere?

Basically, it compares the gay lobby in the UK with the advance of the Nazis in the 1930s. It speaks of the ‘gay Wehrmacht’ and the ‘Gaystapo’. This sort of nonsense clearly doesn’t take seriously a rational, theological or humane argument about sexuality, but merely shocks by its sheer awful ineptitude.

You would have to be brain dead to write this stuff and think that anyone in their right mind would not think it outrageously stupid. What did the CEN think it was publishing it for? Or, for whom? It is less Allo Allo and more a mockery of the gruesome bits of Schindler’s List.

Alan Wilson has done a good piece on it, so I won’t repeat or rehearse it. This sort of thing needs to be ridiculed, not argued with. But, I will shine a light on it from a different angle.

World War Two ended in May 1945. British people haven’t moved on. Our sole point of reference for anything to do with Germany is that war. History teaching has been dominated for decades by Hitler and the rise of fascism from 1933-45. Our tabloids still invoke stereotypes from war comics every time we play Germany at anything sporting. The mocking chants at international football matches of ‘two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na’ demonstrate the poverty of our understanding and the puerility of our cultural references. This is not something we should be proud of.

It is why some of us are concerned to promote the learning and effective teaching of modern languages in the UK – and to urge a history curriculum that moves beyond the easy dramatics of the Nazi period and allows Germany to grow up. I wonder what any young Brits might understand of the thinking going on in Berlin about the Euro and the EU this week – incomprehensible without some understanding of German post-war development, economic structure, political sensibilities and cultural engagement.

When Alan Craig wrote his ridiculous article he obviously didn’t consider the reality of the Nazi experience in Europe or think about how his spurious and offensive comparison might be interpreted. Or maybe he did – which is far more worrying.

Suffice it to say, despite its name, the Church of England Newspaper does not reflect the Church of England most of us know. It should apologise.

There we are, trying not to be too complaining about everything, and the Guardian gets me going again.

Having moaned – with absolute legitimacy – about the state of language learning in England, I open today’s Guardian and find Simon Jenkins pressing another button: the history curriculum’s obsession with the Nazis.

Under the header ‘Britain’s Nazi obsession betrays our insecurity – it’s time we moved on’, Jenkins asks:

What is the matter with us? We seem unable to get the Nazis out of our system.

He goes on to put his finger on a point we in the Meissen Commission have been trying to address for several years:

Small wonder Hitler is now the ruling obsession of the national curriculum. I remember my son asking me, after a punishing term of the Weimar republic, if there was a second world war when was there a first? The GCSE history website scores 417,000 mentions of Hitler against just 157,000 for Henry VIII and the Tudors.

My own son managed to study history right through school and university, but it was only at uni that he managed to find an alternative to Hitler and Stalin.

Is it a mark of Britain’s insecurity that we can’t let Hitler go? Is it simply that 1945 was the last time we ‘won’ anything? Why when we play Germany at football do tabloids still do puns on Nazi imagery or football crowds sing such inanities as “Two world wars and one world cup – na na na na na.”?

The tragedy is that post-1945 Germany is an extraordinary story of division, political brinkmanship, economic re-engineering, social and psycho-social reconstruction, conflict, re-culturisation in Europe, and so on. If I didn’t like Berlin and Berliners so much, I would suggest that every school child in Britain should be taken to Berlin for a few days. Walk 100 metres down Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor and you have to embrace language, history, geography, theology, economics and politics. You can’t understand German politics or culture without knowing history and how it has been shaped by theology.

The Meissen Commission is trying to address the English obsession with one exciting period of German history in two ways: (a) pressing for reform of the history curriculum in schools, and (b) embarking on what we are calling the Meissen Schools Initiative, aimed at establishing live links between schools in England and Germany.

Simon Jenkins concludes:

I must not fall foul of Godwin’s law, but the demands now being made of Germany “to show leadership” come with ghostly overtones of reparation for past guilt. Nothing is more likely to incur German resistance than to imply that rescuing Europe is somehow an obligation on a present generation of Germans for the deeds of a past one. Misreading Germany was a lethal failing of Europe’s 20th-century leaders. It is surely time to consign the Nazis not to oblivion but at least to history.

Like Jenkins, I suspect our obsession with Hitler and the Nazis is indeed a mark of our insecurity (or envy?). It is time we grew up.

Leonard Cohen performed in Berlin last week, the night before we arrived for the weekend. The Berliner Morgenpost on Friday had a rave review of the gig, using language that was both critically appropriate and affectionate. Describing Cohen as “one of the most moving singer-poets of our time”, the reviewer maintains that “seldom today is it possible to experience such an emotional, definitive, truthful concert.” What better conclusion could any artist wish for than this:

We cannot thank the venerable old man enough for subjecting himself to the exertions of such a long world tour. For standing on a ‘live’ stage again and letting us share in his great art.

At the age of 76 Cohen did six encores for his overwhelmed audience. I’ll be happy to still have a pulse at 76.

There is something about this generous appreciation of Cohen that exemplifies the spirit of Berlin. Walking around the Museuminsel or strolling down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, it is easy to forget both the agonies that were born in this city as well as the high culture that characterises German arts and music.

This is a city that bears the scars of the last century’s brutalities, divisions and inhumanities. On Friday and Saturday we visited the Reichstag as guests of the former German Bundesminister, Frau Dr Irmgard Schwaetzer, and saw in the bowels of the restored building not only the thousands of bullet holes that riddle the walls and give some idea of the slaughter that this building witnessed, but also the graffiti written on the walls by the Soviet soldiers who took the Reichstag and ended the war.

Generously accompanied by a retired German Ambassador, Dr Alexander Arnot, we visited some powerfully moving and challenging places:

  • Topographie des Terrors (the newly-opened exhibition on the site of the Gestapo HQ and Main Office of the SS – which is overlooked by what was Goering’s Ministry of Aviation and a remnant of the Berlin Wall)
  • the Gedenkstätte Deutscher Widerstand (in the Bendlerblock where Stauffenberg had his office to which he returned thinking he had just killed Hitler on 20 July 1944… only himself to be taken out and shot along with other officer colleagues: Hitler had – incredibly – survived the bomb)
  • Gedenkstätte Plötzensee (where several thousand people were executed by the Nazis).

One of the powerful reasons for visiting these places is that they resonate not only with horror and terror, but also with heroism and sacrifice. They remind us that Nazi terror was not only directed at the Jews, homosexuals, Communists, mentally ill or handicapped people, but at Germans at every level of society. People were executed even for thinking the ‘wrong’ things – see, for example, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke.

I have no idea how I would respond to the threat of a regime such as the Nazi dictatorship. None of us does. It is shameful when people who live in relative security pass judgement on those who compromise or give in to intimidation and violence – especially with the marvellous benefit of hindsight. Talking to Dr Arnot I was reminded of the story I was told years ago about cattle on the prairies of America and how they manage to get hit by trains when there is only one train track for hundreds of miles. They don’t set out to get killed by a train. Nor do they have a strategy for roaming over the plains. They just put their head down and nibble a bit of grass. Then they nibble the next bit and then the next bit after that. They just keep nibbling and sometimes find themselves where they shouldn’t be – in front of a speeding train. They just nibble their way to destruction.

Evil takes hold because people compromise a little, then a little more. Then it is too late. But, frankly, if I was asked to sign a piece of paper in order to ensure that my children were able to be educated and not be excluded (as happened in the GDR), I would probably have signed. None of us knows until we are there.

Two other striking elements to the day’s visits and conversations:

1. Language is key to all this. The concentration camps were built on the need to take certain people into ‘protective custody’. Corrupt language and you corrupt the soul, opening us up to all sorts of miseries. (One of the points made by Rowan Williams in his book on Dostoyevsky.)

2. The Bible can be used to justify all sorts of appalling things. The Nazis quoted Paul: “Those who do not work shall not eat.” We know how that was used to justify systematic barbarism.

I was in Berlin this last weekend to preach at the Dom (Cathedral). The extremely generous Domkirchenrat and their wonderful pastor, Dr Petra Zimmermann, were wonderful hosts. Yet, standing in the Dom I couldn’t help but notice the gold lettering in the ceiling which quoted from the Lord’s Prayer: “Dein ist das Reich” – “Yours is the Kingdom” – and wondering how that was read by Christian worshippers while the Nazis were corrupting, terrorising and brutalising their society.

I must go back before long. Berlin is – to my mind – the most fascinating, moving, challenging and demanding city in Europe. So much history is held there for those who wish to see it. Questions pour into the mind – for example, how did a society that experienced the fear generated by the Gestapo and SS so easily accustom itself to the Stasi in the GDR? Berlin is not just a place of horror, however; it is also a place of amazing culture, remarkable reconciliation, astonishing reconstruction, formidable hope and the courage to look not only to its past glories and crimes, but also to shape a better future. It is inspiring as well as sobering.

I don’t know why I should be so pleased, but the exit of both France and Italy from the World Cup is strangely cheering. No idea why – I like the French and the Italians. Maybe it is just the confounding of expectations or hubris that warms the English heart. Unless we are next, of course.

But, with a quarter-final battle with Germany ahead on Sunday, we can look ahead with depression to the singing by the English of such poetic epics as “Two World Wars and one World Cup, na na na na na…” There is something weird about the British obsession with the Second World War – as if it was the last ‘competition’ we won. A selective Hollywood-backed romantic remembering doesn’t help, but the problem goes deeper than that.

My younger son has just graduated (I hope…) in History and Politics at the University of Liverpool. Before he got there he seemed to exploit the preoccupation of every History syllabus at every school level with options to study Hitler and Stalin. Ask any reasonably educated kid in England about German history or culture and most will know little or nothing before 1933 (plus, maybe, the origins of fascism from 1918) – and certainly little or nothing after 1945.

OK, it isn’t hard to see the attraction of focusing on the dramatic, the catastrophic and the uniquely enormous human cost of Hitler’s adventures, but it has its dangers. Germany’s post-war history has been equally interesting and evokes admiration at the overcoming of cataclysmic defeat and humiliation. Yes, there are people who will never forgive the Germans and who will resent their reconstruction and reunification; but, Germany’s post-war division and subsequent reunification present important and instructive material for understanding the modern world (which is, I suppose, partly the point of studying history in the first place). Not least, the reconciliation in Europe led by French moves towards Germany is a story rarely told and little appreciated.

Helmut Schmidt addresses from a German perspective the problem of focusing too much on 1933-1945. In his wonderful book Ausser Dienst: Eine Bilanz, he gives specific attention to the problem of modern German history in a chapter headed Die schwerste Hypothek (in a section on the lessons of history titled Es gab nicht nur die Nazi-Zeit). Having briefly and lucidly described what it was like to be German in the post-war years (individually and collectively trying to understand and cope with both individual and collective guilt), he writes about the paralysis and fear of change that characterised the German psyche:

The more we limit our historical consciousness to the Nazi period, the failure of the Weimar experiment in democracy, Hitler’s instigation of the Second World War (with its catastrophic consequences), and the more we concentrate on the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi era, the more strongly we Germans react with nervousness and even fear to changes.

He goes on to illustrate his point, observing that post-war Germans always feared ‘the return of fascism’. He then goes on to say:

I doubt that it is right or sensible to focus school and university teaching on the Nazi era; on the contrary, I think this sort of education is actually harmful. Concentration on the twelve year Nazi dictatorship leads to neglect of other periods of German history. Above all, however, it conveys the impression – however unintended –  to our young people that prior to and subsequent to the Nazis everything was relatively unproblematic here. In fact, the ideological ground was laid a long time before 1933. For generations education had messed up: particularly education about the value and freedom of the individual person, about humanity and about democracy.

Schmidt is not saying that the horrors of the Nazi era shouldn’t be taught, but that they shouldn’t be taught in isolation from other parts of German history. If we are to understand the Germany of today and tomorrow, we must do so with reference to more than just Hitler.

What this really says, therefore, is that any History syllabus must be rigorously tested in order to demonstrate that it is truly about helping students understand and not simply reinforcing some convenient stereotype or prejudice about other people. For this reason the Meissen English Committee of the Church of England (which I chair in conjunction with the German Committee chaired by the Bishop of Braunschweig, Dr Friedrich Weber) is looking at doing some research into the teaching of German history in English schools.

Our concern is not, however, simply about history – it is about the desperate drop in language learning in England, especially German. How is it possible that in today’s world the learning of foreign languages is so dismissed and undervalued in Britain? The only conclusion I can come to is twofold: (a) that we are so arrogant as to assume that everyone else will speak English, and (b) that we do not understand Schmidt’s point that we cannot know our own culture unless we see it through the eyes of a different culture… which means knowing something of the other language.

It’s a bit like our football: we keep hoping that England is the best team in the world… and are always disappointed to find that our pride actually lies in a romanticised past which we are unable to surrender to contemporary reality.

I filmed an interview today for the German TV channel ARD. As usual, the Germans spoke perfect English. Most German fans watching tomorrow’s game will understand everything the English sing. The same will not be true of English supporters. And that is not a cause of pride – whoever wins.