The following review is found in the Association of Contemporary Church Historians Newsletter- February 2000- Vol.VI, no. 2: [ http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/akz/akz2002.htm ]
3b) Eric Voegelin. Hitler and the Germans. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
This book is based on lectures Eric Voegelin gave at the University of Munich in 1964, that are being published now for the first time. The lectures were given in German, and they have been ably edited and translated into English by Detlev Clemens and Brendan Purcell. In this work, Voegelin seeks to address questions such as these: What were the spiritual conditions in Germany which allowed Hitler to rise to power and gain the support of so many average people?, Why did the Christian churches respond to Nazism so weakly?, How did a regime rooted in illegality and murder take over the legal system in Germany?, Why do intellectuals and academics in Germany after the war have such a poor understanding of Nazism as a spiritual phenomenon?, Why are many former Nazis who are war criminals living openly and prospering in Germany after the war?
Those who are already familiar with Voegelin's philosophy will find here the basic concepts which he has developed elsewhere: human existence occurs "in between" materiality and the transcendent realm of God; human beings have a marked tendency to avoid living honestly with this reality of the "between"; this leads them to create false "second realities" in which they attempt to exist autonomously, apart from God; the flight from reality has led to the modern neo-gnostic regimes of mass murder such as Stalinism and Nazism. In these lectures, Voegelin focuses on the historical circumstances of Nazism, making this volume more concrete and accessible than his other more abstract and philosophical writings, which have a tendency toward dense argument and complex terminology. This volume would serve very well as an introduction to Voegelin for someone who has not read him.
There is a clear undercurrent of anger animating this text, which is understandable given Voegelin's personal history of persecution at the hands of the Nazis. Voegelin doesn't allow his anger to derail his central purpose, however, which is to analyze the various dimensions of the "abyss" into which Germany descended: the academic abyss, the ecclesiastical abyss, and the legal abyss. In the academic realm, Voegelin's principal target of attack is P. E. Schramm, the historian who edited Hitler's Table Talk. Voegelin pillories Schramm for producing an "anatomy" of the dictator which reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the subject. This lack of understanding is reprehensible in Voegelin's eyes because the intellectual tools needed for correct understanding were available to Schramm--in classical philosophy, biblical theology, and the writings of contemporaries such as Karl Kraus, Robert Musil, Thomas Mann, Hermann Broch, and Heimito von Doderer.
Voegelin comments on the ecclesiastical situation in two substantial chapters which are devoted to the Catholic and Protestant spheres. In each case his critique is very harsh, emphasizing the idea that most Christians knew of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis and either applauded it or did not care about it as long as they themselves were not being persecuted. When the reach of the Nazis' power did begin to negatively impact the churches, then Christians all of sudden began to realize that they should be concerned about their fellow human beings who are being murdered. Voegelin reveals the narcissism at the root of this morale debacle as a massive failure of the Christian church to hold fast to the central biblical teaching regarding the creation of all people in the image of God.
On pages 199-201, Voegelin puts forward a list of ten biblical and philosophical points which are necessary to teach German clerics and theologians "the elements of Christianity." His wish for the use of this list: "Lower clergy, copy it out daily ten times; bishops and theologians, daily a hundred times; theologians who have received a Cross of Merit from the Federal Republic, daily two hundred times until they have got it." Voegelin's anger and sarcasm make the book lively, but they don't set the stage for a balanced and comprehensive historical account. He pays very little attention to the Confessing Church, for example, mentioning Bonhoeffer only in passing and Karl Barth not even once. His judgment that there was "no good theology" being produced in Germany at the time seems very odd in light of Barth's works (162). But in hindsight, the impact of the Confessing Church was minimal in stemming the tide of Nazism, and Voegelin's portrait of the situation is generally accurate. I make this comment without being a historian of that period myself. I would be very interested to read a review of this work written by such a person. It may be that members of the historical guild will not be as favorable in their attitude toward this work as I am, representing the guild of theological ethics.
Charles Bellinger, Regent College, Vancouver