The Path A Decent Person Inevitably Takes

Identity and authenticity have been recent topics of discussion here, and they probably will be again. I am especially interested in technology’s role in shaping our identity and rendering authenticity elusive. I don’t think these are insignificant concerns, but today I was reminded that theoretical explorations of identity and authenticity are something of a luxury afforded those who enjoy relative peace and affluence.

I came by this reminder as I read Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s moving essay in The New York Review of Books on the life and death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi. Their story is summed up in the opening paragraphs:

“We are concerned here with two exceptional men who from the start of the Third Reich opposed the Nazi outrages: the scarcely known lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi and his brother-in-law, the well-known pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dohnanyi recorded Nazi crimes, helped victims, did his best to sabotage Nazi policies, and eventually helped plot Hitler’s removal; Bonhoeffer fought the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches. For both men the regime’s treatment of Jews was of singular importance. Holocaust literature is vast and the literature on German resistance scant, yet the lives and deaths of the two men show us important links between them.

Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer became close friends, especially after Dohnanyi drew his brother-in-law into active resistance against the regime. And their remarkable family deserves recognition, too, since its principled support was indispensable to their efforts. But Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer ended in defeat: they were arrested in April 1943 and then murdered, on Hitler’s express orders, just weeks before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender.”

I encourage you read the whole thing. I trust you will find it a needed antidote to the scourge of cynicism, irony, and despair that often seems to plague us. It reminded me that even where darkness threatens to snuff out hope and goodness, not all lights flicker and fade. It also brought to mind something C. S. Lewis wrote that has stuck with me ever since I first read it years ago:

“In King Lear (III:vii) there is a man who is such a minor character that Shakespeare has not given him even a name: he is merely “First Servant.” All the characters around him-Regan, Cornwall, and Edmund-have fine long-term plans. They think they know how the story is going to end, and they are quite wrong. The servant has no such delusions. He has no notion how the play is going to go. But he understands the present scene. He sees an abomination (the blinding of old Gloucester) taking place. He will not stand it. His sword is out and pointed at his master’s breast in a moment: then Regan stabs him dead from behind. That is his whole part: eight lines all told. But if it were real life and not a play, that is the part it would be best to have acted.”

When the Nazi’s came to power, Bonhoeffer was encouraged to leave Germany and he came to America for a time. But while safe and comfortable in New York, he was not at peace:

“I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…. Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.”

You need not share Bonhoeffer’s faith to recognize the measure of courage that was involved in such a choice. And, it seems to me, that whatever we come to think of identity and authenticity, it must reckon with such a choice.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern concluded:

“One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were ‘on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.’ So few traveled that path—anywhere.”

“The path that a decent person inevitably takes” — may we all strive for such decency.

3 thoughts on “The Path A Decent Person Inevitably Takes

      1. you might then want to check G. Hartman’s Scars of the Spirit- essays on authenticity and identity, by a guy who escaped the Nazi’s as a child (via ‘kindertransport’) and is now director of a big Holocaust project at Yale.

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