The horrors of the 1930s and 40s seem far more than a lifetime away. But they aren’t. Accompanied by the flicker of black and white, the terrifying demagogues of the 20th century now seem like exaggerated fiction. But they weren’t.
In his Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes the era:
“Rarely perhaps has any generation shown so little interest in any kind of theoretical or systematic ethics. The academic question of a system of ethics seems to be of all questions the most superfluous.
The reason for this is not to be sought in any supposed ethical indifference on the part of our period. On the contrary it arises from the fact that our period, more than any earlier period in the history of the west, is oppressed by a superabounding reality of concrete ethical problems.
It was otherwise when the established orders of life were still so stable as to leave room for no more than minor sins of human weakness, sins which generally remained hidden, and when the criminal was removed as abnormal from the horrified or pitying gaze of society. In these conditions ethics could be an interesting theoretical problem.
Today there are once more villains and saints, and they are not hidden from the public view. Instead of the uniform greyness of the rainy day we now have the black storm-cloud and the brilliant lightning flash. The outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Reality lays itself bare. Shakespeare’s characters walk in our midst.”
But lest we be complacent about a world which seems long gone, a few pages later Bonhoeffer describes the nature of the tyrant:
“For the tyrannical despiser of men, popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community.
In the presence of a crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual.
He thinks people stupid and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal and they become criminal. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism.
In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favour of those he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.”
Chilling. As it was, so it threatens to be again; history has a bad habit of repeating itself if we don’t learn from it.