Bonhoeffer and the Brennan Hearings: The Nazis Are Coming and They Are Us


Ever since I started reading and teaching Dietrich Bonhoeffer 40 years ago I’ve been haunted by the idea that my country is reliving the history of the Third Reich. Bonhoeffer, of course was the Lutheran pastor who joined in the “Confessing Church” that opposed Hitler while mainline churches were expressing enthusiastic support for der Führer. He and other thought leaders like Pastor Martin Niemoller could see Germany’s tragedy coming. Others blinded by flag-waving nationalism called them fools, alarmists, and traitors.

The problem was (and remains) that the takeover of fascism (which I define as “capitalism in crisis”) happened gradually. However, in our own case, the process has accelerated to the point where it should be evident to everyone. In fact were it not for the power of “group think,” most would reach this conclusion simply by watching the recent Senate hearings on John Brennan’s appointment as director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. The inescapable deduction: the Nazis are here and they are us.

Nazis, of course, believed in the inherent superiority of their Arian Race of blond, blue-eyed darlings of the Gods. As the indispensable nation, it was their vocation to rule the world and to rid it of evil represented by lesser peoples, some of whom were deemed inherently evil. So of course, as indispensable, Nazis were not bound by the same laws as others. They could wage wars of aggression, invade countries near and far, and exterminate the inherently evil simply on the say-so of der Führer. The world belonged to the Master Race.

As Glen Greenwald has argued recently, the reincarnation of the Master Race – this time calling itself “America” – is based two key assumptions that none dares question if s/he aspires to be taken seriously as politician, educator, journalist, religious leader – or blogger. One is that the United States is fighting a never-ending war on a world-wide battlefield. The other is that the United States is “exceptional” and therefore not subject to law in the same way that other nations are. Both assumptions carry with them the odor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. They are based on ignorance of the elementary moral law of reciprocity. Consider those concepts in order.

To begin with, the concept of world-wide War on Terror renders the U.S. insidiously masterful on a global scale. According to this assumption, any person (U.S. citizens or not) opposing the United States can be labeled an enemy combatant, terrorist or terrorist sympathizer. Persons so classified are thus liable to be killed without benefit of judicial process just as enemy soldiers have been killed massively without such procedure on innumerable battlefields throughout the history of the world.

In other words, the War on Terror and the concept of a world-wide battlefield grant blanket permission to the Executive branch of the U.S. government to kill anyone anywhere at any time based solely on the judgment of the President of the United States. Moreover, since the WOT is never-ending, such permission is extended to the POTUS in perpetuity. The United States rules the planet; it is Master of all it surveys.

Absent the power of what John McMurtry calls “the ruling group mind,” such executive power would be alarming to any who care about the United States Constitution, or about their own lives. That is, according to the logic of perpetual world-wide war, any of us could easily find ourselves at the wrong end of a drone strike – or imprisoned or tortured without charge or judicial recourse. This is like the position of German citizens under Adolph Hitler.

However, the ruling group mind tells us not to worry. (And here’s where the second key assumption I mentioned enters the picture.) As representative of an exceptional nation, our government, we assume, would never imprison without charge, torture or kill good people like us. This is because unlike other governments, our’s is good and morally responsible. If we keep our noses clean, there’s nothing to worry about.

This too is exactly what people thought under the Third Reich. Like them we’re assured of our own safety because we know that ours is the “greatest nation in the world.” Virtually no person in public life wishing to be taken seriously questions this formula of national exceptionalism – not parents, teachers, priests, ministers, politicians, journalists or talk show hosts.

The assumption of U.S. exceptionalism is extremely dangerous. It renders “America” immune from what Noam Chomsky refers to as the law of reciprocity. (And this is my third point.) This moral law is so elementary that any child above the age of 5 can understand it. However it was beyond the comprehension of the Nazis – and apparently of people like John Brennan or even President Obama.

Simply put, the law of reciprocity states that what is good for you to do is good for me. Correlatively what is bad for you to do is also bad for me.

On the playground level this means that if it’s bad for a smaller child to hit a larger one, it is also bad for a larger child to hit a smaller one. On the international level it should mean that what the United States allows itself to do, it should allow to other nations. If it’s good for the U.S. to possess nuclear weapons, it is also good for nations like Korea or Iran to have them. If it’s bad for foreigners to send drones (or commercial airplanes) over U.S. soil to kill those they designate as “terrorists,” it is also bad for the U.S. to do so.

Nonetheless, as is apparent from the Brennan hearings, U.S. explanations for its drone policy, its outrage over Korea’s recent nuclear tests, and its insistence that Iran not acquire nuclear weapons, the law of reciprocity simply does not apply to the United States. Once again, this is because it is an exceptional nation. As such the United States is self-evidently GOOD, while those it designates as enemies are BAD. End of story.

What will it take to wake us up to the fact that the Nazis are here and they are us? First of all, we have to recognize that the War on Terror is bogus. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. As such it cannot be the object of war except in a highly metaphorical sense – like the War on Poverty, the War on Drugs, or the War on Crime. No one would ever argue that any of those “wars” (and they’ve all been officially designated as such by our government) suspends the Constitution or justifies extra-judicial killings. No, we are not at war, and should not allow the assumption that we are to go unchallenged. It justifies our emerging police state.

Similarly, we have to recognize that the U.S. government is not exceptional – except in its brutality. Yes, that’s what the evidence says! Read Oliver Stone’s and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States and realize that the U.S. is exceptionally self-serving, venal, cruel and anti-democratic. Instead of GOOD, it might even be designated (as Dr. King said) the greatest purveyor of violence in today’s world – which means the greatest purveyor of violence in the history of the world.

According the John Stockwell, the highly decorated ex-CIA station chief, even before the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. “Third World War” was responsible for the deaths of 6 million people in the less developed world through its instrument of proxy wars against the poor of the planet. Additionally, the U.S. has the highest per capita rate of incarceration of any nation on earth. It maintains a world-wide secret prison system. It tortures mercilessly. It has sponsored dictators and death squads in country after country. It pollutes the planet without conscience. Like none other the U.S. threatens the very survival of the human race.

The list goes on and on.

Until we face such home truths, we will be powerless to overcome the ruling group mind and to act before it’s too late.

I’m reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s words about naïve Germans who postponed acting before time ran out:

When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

9 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer and the Brennan Hearings: The Nazis Are Coming and They Are Us”

  1. Mike the pain that you and I and many others feel from looking into the heart of our culture’s darkness is deep and lacerating. Having known this pain for a long time, I can understand why most folks prefer to look away and deny the truth. Nevertheless, since childhood I have been obsessed with a desire to know the real truth about everything.
    Mike you know as I do that the odds against the American people awakening and changing course are overwhelmingly negative. We are headed into massive collapse and chaos. The Great Teachers throughout history have offered us the cup of love, forgiveness, and peace — and we have refused it. I respect your speaking out for true spirituality in spite of all that is befalling us. Keep it up, those of us who are a little awake need to hear from and support each other.


    1. Dear Mike,
      Like you, my passion has been for the truth as well. But as you say, many are asleep and/or in denial. A previous article of mine (the one on the cruise ship “Triumph”) was picked up by our local Lexington Herald-Leader. It brought out so many climate-change deniers. The responses were amazing — and often bitter and sharp. But I also perceive more and more people waking up “around the edges.” Something good may happen when a critical mass is reached. We’ve got to keep hoping and praying for that.


  2. Mike, I have to commend you for your truth and bravery. Very, very few Americans dare to stand up to the status quo and speak from their hearts what their eyes are witnessing; it seems the view is too horrifying to contemplate. The UK is every bit as bad (the drones and the kill list are, I am sure, soon to come). You write with such eloquence that God willing, this message will reach far beyond the frequencies of Fox News and the general mind-numbing blanket of propaganda and entertainment. Please keep praying for everyone else who has lost hope; I will do so too. God bless!


    1. Thanks, Cavemum, for your encouragement. These are hard times indeed. Something like a third of the world calls itself “Christian.” i can’t help thinking what a difference it would make if all claiming that category would insist that their countries adopt as policy the non-viollence of the carpenter from Nazareth.


  3. There is much to agree with in your current blog which must take as its inspiration the visit of Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas to Lexington. I want to offer a few observations on some statements.

    The ”War on Terror” is indeed a misnomer, but the enemy is just as real without a name.  Our country is engaged in a defensive struggle against an death-dealing movement that is extra-national and  loosely organized, though sometimes sponsored by rogue nations. It is an army of civilians promoting a theocratic political system. Its theocratic nature renders it incompatible with our existing practices and philosophies no matter how suicidally tolerant and abjectly humble we attempt to be. 

    Our country has been confused in its scattered response, for the threat comes without uniforms or flags. We have failed to react at times and overreacted at other times. Conventional ”just war” theory and the Geneva Conventions are inadequate guides to a measured and moral response to such a unique threat. If the reports of torture are true, though some have proved to be slander, you are right to point out the immorality of our actions. However we are acting precipitously, out of desperation and cultural confusion. The war is primarily the type of war we refuse to fight, a cultural war, thinking it is in bad taste to do so. We have fallen out of love with ourselves, our country, and our culture. We will lose.

    Alexis de Tocqueville originated the application of the quality of “exceptionalism” to this country and I think he had a point.  We are exceptional because that we were founded on a  proposition that we all can recite and to which most of us are faithful. The term may have been abused recently but was not meant to denote that we are superior people, but that we are fired by an Christ-induced altruism that led tens of thousand of our citizens to sacrifice their lives for the benefit of people of foreign nations. 

    I offer the examples of the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts in which we generously gave much and had much less to gain. We were attempting to save other nations from being ruled by communist despots. What we were trying to prevent has been amply demonstrated by the savage communist regime in North Korea and the decade of genocide that occurred under the communists after we fled in defeat from Viet Nam. Such amazing altruism has few parallels in history. In this way the USA deserved de Tocqueville’s complement of this being  an “exceptional nation”. Our treatment of defeated Germany and Japan also serve as examples of our charity to those we defeat. There are few parallels in history. We are exceptional in our caritas.

    You wrote,”If it’s good for the U.S. to possess nuclear weapons, it is also good for nations like Korea or Iran to have them”. Nations such as North Korea and Iran have no right to nuclear weapons because they signed solemn agreements not to develop such weapons if we granted them gifts of nuclear power plant technology. This was part of our effort to control carbon emissions, another of our mistakes, for I believe that, in the long term, nuclear power plants produce far more dangerous pollutants.

    It is interesting that cavemum finds your observations to be brave and singular when I find them to be opinions that are widespread, especially in the power centers of our culture such as the majority of the media and academia. To write a potent mea maxima culpa such as ”Like none other the U.S. threatens the very survival of the human race.“ is to offer a myopic vision of the nations of the world, especially the chief polluter, prevaricator, and thief, the communist Peoples Republic of China.

    Since you oppose the much persecuted Catholic Church, and the number of Catholics who were exterminated in the Nazi Death camps was equal or greater than the number of Jews, I would have hoped that in a spirit of objectivity you would have offered full text of the Martin-Niemöller statement.

    “First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
    Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
    Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
    Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
    Then they came for the Catholics,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Catholic.
    Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
    I agree that our government has its imperfections, even its villainous aspects. A primary one is in its failure to exhort us not to do business with China. We are being betrayed by a non-patriotic turbo-capitalist elite with incestuous connections in the elite media, senior government, and global financial arenas. Eisenhower warned of a similar such “complex” working against our common interests.

    This is our most important contemporary problem. Why am I so alone in this criticism?


  4. Mike, this is by far your best column yet. Over the past decade, as we dialogued, you seemed stuck in 1932, right before the advent of Hitler, as an analogy for the American situation. You now seem to realize that we are in 1940, as full blown authoritarianism is attempting to throttle the American Republic. Just yesterday the five right wing members of the Supreme Court authorized the Obama
    government’s decision to do secret wiretapping of the American public and beyond. The late Gore Vidal was very prescient in his prediction that the country is rushing headlong into fascism. I am still a believer in non-violent action, in the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, but, alas! too few progressives are willing to protest and the corporatization of America continues at a rapid pace.
    To Jim Cashman’s excellent list of independent news sources, I would add the indispensable American independent journalist, Glenn Greenwald whose daily column can be accessed at:


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