Bonhoeffer on Stupidity and the Public Sphere

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who became a leading member of an anti-Nazi conspiracy, wrote the following while he was in prison awaiting execution:

Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other. The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

via Intellectual Takeout

11 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer on Stupidity and the Public Sphere”

  1. A great analysis in support is here along with a link to a withering interview in which an intelligent man with infinite patience explains things to an irrational shrew.

  2. Here’s another example of a stupid person peddling evil and blandly passing it off as paper shuffling. Our Canadian friends seem to be on a roll.

    The government was taken aback by the “kerfuffle” — Trudeau’s word — over the imposed ideological oaths, and scrambled to say that it was no big deal. The employment minister, Patricia Hajdu, told churches that they should just check the box on the online form and apply anyway. That’s the hallmark of a totalitarian government: demand public displays of ideological loyalty, even from those who everyone knows do not really believe it. That’s the totalitarian ethos, a cabinet minister who advises pastors to make false statements to qualify for programs their own parishioners pay taxes to fund.

    Freedom of speech includes the right not to be coerced into expressing an opinion. And the right not to have an opinion. It would be equally wrong if the prime minister insisted that businesses filing for tax rebates had to express their support for his tax policies. Or that applicants for environmental retrofit grants affirm the government’s climate policy.

    It is a more serious violation when the government demands assent by religious groups to positions contrary to their faith

  3. Diana Senechal, guest-blogging at Joanne Jacobs in 2009, told the following story:

    I run two lunchtime literature clubs at my school. The fourth graders just finished reading A Little Princess. During our discussions, I encourage delving into the text and discussing it on its own terms. I am not a big fan of “accountable talk,” “making predictions,” “making connections,” and so forth when they assume precedence over the subject matter itself.

    One student brought up the part where Sara spends her money on hot buns for a beggar girl. “She made a self-to-self connection,” the student said. I felt sorry that students are learning such ghastly terminology, however well meant. Why are students not encouraged to say, “She understood how the girl felt” or “She felt compassion for the girl”?

    The requirement for students to use terminology like this, IMO, has nothing to do with teaching the enjoyment of literature and little to do with teaching the analysis of literature. Rather, the lesson being taught is one of submission to a specified way of speaking.

  4. Grurray….”The government was taken aback by the “kerfuffle” — Trudeau’s word — over the imposed ideological oaths, and scrambled to say that it was no big deal.”

    It is of course a very big deal, and Sebastian Haffner, in his memoir of growing up between the wars in Germany, has told us exactly where it leads, through the lens of his own father’s experience.

    One day (in the early Nazi era but before the war), the elder Haffner, who had been a government official for many years, under the Kaiser and under Weimar, received an official letter. It required him to list all of the political parties, organizations, and associations to which he had ever belonged in his life and to sign a declaration that he ‘stood behind the government of national uprising without reservations.’ Failure to sign would mean the loss of his pension, which he had earned through 45 years of devoted service.

    After agonizing about it for several days, he finally filled out the form, signed the declaration, and took it to the mailbox before he could change his mind.

    He had hardly sat down at his desk again when he jumped up and began to vomit convulsively. For two or three days he was unable to eat or keep down any food. It was the beginning of a hunger strike by his body, which killed him cruelly and painfully two years later.

  5. The book In The Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson detailed how the Nazis took control of the Berlin population. There certainly is a lot to what Bonhoeffer said. It’s easier not to think, and in those kind of governments, dangerous and even fatal to think.

    A few years ago, I saw the movie Downfall. It is a German production and I believe the most accurate portrayal of Hitler. It is based on the diary of Traudl Junge, who was one of Hitler’s secretaries.

    In an interview with Junge, she said that for decades she didn’t consider herself to be in any way partly responsible for the horrors of the Third Reich. She was, after all, a naive 23 year old woman from Munich who got a secretarial job with Hitler.

    Thew one day, decades later, she was walking on a Munich street and saw a monument to Sophie Scholl, who was a leader of the White Rose movement, and at a similar age to Traudl, was executed by the Nazis for her resistance.

    It was at that moment Traudl had an epiphany – that they were the same age and one tried to stand up to the Nazis. She then knew that she could not claim to be an innocent bystander.

  6. Bill…there was a 1982 German film about Sophie Scholl and the other White Rose members. It is outstanding, better than the more recent American film, which was itself pretty good. The 1982 film has for some reason never made it onto DVD or streaming, but VHS tapes (with English subtitles) can be found. Highly recommended.

  7. On Sophie School from Wikipedia:

    “On 22 February 1943, Scholl, her brother, Hans, and their friend, Christoph Probst, were found guilty of treason and condemned to death. They were all beheaded by a guillotine by executioner Johann Reichhart in Munich’s Stadelheim Prison only a few hours later, at 17:00 hrs. The execution was supervised by Walter Roemer, the enforcement chief of the Munich district court. Prison officials, in later describing the scene, emphasized the courage with which she walked to her execution. Her last words were:

    How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?

  8. hmmm, Bill. Leads me to recall “Foxes Book of Martyrs” and a number of ‘last words’ quotes therein.

    And also “By Their Blood” subtitled “Christian martyrs of the 20th C”, of which there were more than in all the previous centuries combined.

  9. How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause?”

    This is where faith comes in, a belief in a higher power to be accountable to, and saved thereby.

    Why do we think the left is so adamant about eliminating Christianity?
    Because it fuels courage in the face of despotism.

  10. I read about Sophie and the White Rose some years ago, along with stories of other anti-Hitler martyrs.
    It’s a shame those are not more known in the US. The films escaped my notice, but may have predated my research.

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