How Nazi secularism crushed the souls of ordinary Germans

Nazi supporters parading in Munich in 1923 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Patrick West’s bracing interpretation of Nietzsche, Get Over Yourself, which I blogged about on Monday, took me straight back to my student days when I first discovered this most intoxicating of writers. I remember thinking with the romantic egotism of youth that what mattered was to “Live dangerously”; when faced by problems, usually of my own making, I would remind myself, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” The familiar Christian injunction, “Love your neighbour as yourself” did not in those days sound quite so exciting.

It is West’s contention that the pampered generation of today needs to learn from Nietzsche how to be less self-indulgent, mentally flabby and obsessed about hurt feelings. I’ve no doubt he could teach them a thing or two about mental strength and learning to think for themselves – but for all the glamour and excitement of his aphorisms, they can end up sounding like intellectual conceits, mere rhetoric. If it is true, as West comments, that Nietzsche “would have been horrified by the Third Reich, with its herd-like conformity, mass rallies, pack mentality and rhetoric of the “master race””, it is also true that those conscientious individuals who actually experienced those times in all their daily horror were forced to dig deeper into their inner reserves of mental strength to stand outside the herd.

This thought occurred to me when reading an unusual and thought-provoking book: Darkness Over Germany by E Amy Buller. First published in 1943 and now reissued in paperback by Arcadia Books, its purpose was to alert English people to the moral dilemmas faced by decent, honourable Germans living under National Socialism. Its author, a High-Anglican German scholar who worked for the Christian Student Movement, had taken delegations of English intellectuals on visits to Germany during the 1930s. Her book was the result of her conversations with German teachers, landowners, army officers and women around the country, which she transcribed for the benefit of her fellow countrymen. It must have been a brave act to publish these findings during wartime.

Buller’s conversations and interviews highlight in a way that official history doesn’t do, what “ordinary life” was like for civilized Christian men and women who encountered blatant propaganda, violent anti-Semitism and new racial laws that they knew in their conscience were wrong. A history teacher in Saxony told her earnestly, “It is very exhausting as well as dangerous to live under the strain of a deliberate compromise with evil.” He was indeed “living dangerously”, but it was hardly a heroic pose.

A Catholic priest in Bavaria told her that he directed his flock to always respond to “Heil Hitler!” with the traditional religious Austrian greeting of “Gruss Gott!” He commented sadly to Buller that the Nazis could never have taken power “if there had not been a fundamental lack of the deepest sanity, which is belief in God.” In Frankfurt, at a Christmas school assembly where Hitler Youth songs were sung instead of traditional German carols, a brave teenage boy walked up on stage and started to play “Silent Night.” An elderly officer in Berlin, described as “a diehard general of the old school”, told her despairingly in 1936 that the Nazis will “bring disaster.”

That which does not kill me makes me stronger? The people Amy Buller talked to might not face actual death, but they were broken in spirit: despairing, disillusioned and fearful of the future.

Perhaps the most portentous remark was made to her by an old priest in a village in the Austrian mountains in 1935. He said, talking of England, “There are signs that you live on a kind of spiritual capital on which you draw very extravagantly…The drift into a purely secular form of life is there, a humanist and not a spiritual conception of the world…”