Bonhoeffer on “The Leader”
Only the leader who is in the service of the penultimate and ultimate authority merits loyalty.
• Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Führer and the Individual in the Younger Generation”
in Clifford J. Green. The Bonhoeffer Reader
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It is always a fraught proposition to speak of Nazi Germany and Hitler and the Third Reich when considering one’s own moment of history. I do not for one moment consider that our nation, our people, our politics, and our world are in the situation Germany found itself facing after World War I. Nor do I imagine that conditions favorable for a rise in the kind of nationalism, the extreme forms of “racial purity” doctrines, and the fascist dictatorial leadership and military expansionism that led to unthinkable genocidal attempts at world domination are on the horizon.
However, this does not mean we should avoid seeing reflections of this history when they appear, however faint, in front of our eyes.
On February 1, 1933, two days after Hitler ascended to the chancellorship of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a radio address that was part of a series speaking to the younger generations in his country. This address was called, The Führer and the Individual in the Younger Generation.” Bonhoeffer was concerned that young people in Germany were showing an unhealthy hunger for a “strong leader” (führer) to restore Germany’s greatness and lead them out of the humiliation and economic devastation that followed their defeat in the Great War.
In his address he contrasted legitimate forms of “leadership” with the concept of the führer.
…previously, leadership had found its expression in teachers, statesmen, fathers, that is, in the given social structure and offices, but now the leader has become a completely autonomous form. The leader has become totally divorced from an office; he is essentially and only leader.
A good Lutheran, Bonhoeffer believed that God rules in this world through both spiritual and temporal institutions, and that those who served in civic offices governing our daily “secular” lives were to exercise their vocation (calling from God) faithfully. But the youth in Germany were resisting Kaiser and Church, as well as their familial and community elders, having lost faith in the institutions that now seemed to be failing them.
And to what — or, better, to whom — were they looking to bring Germany out of its chaos? The Leader, one who, to them, embodied the ideal hope for which they longed.
This leader, arising from the collective power of the people, now appears in the light as the one awaited by the people, the longed-for fulfillment of the meaning and power of the life of the Volk. Thus the originally prosaic idea of political authority is transformed into the political-messianic idea of leader that we see today.
Rather than understand “leadership” to mean the less spectacular duty of “faithfully discharging one’s office” as a servant to that office and to the people, the prospect of a führer found people clamoring for an idol in a personality cult, a person who stood above office and who was due what, in effect, was religious devotion and obedience.
If a leader accepts this role and sets himself up as this impeccable führer, Bonhoeffer says that he then becomes a “mis-leader,” one who acts improperly towards himself and his own calling as well as toward the people he is called to serve. In contrast, “The true leader must always be able to disappoint.” He must never point to himself as the perfect repository of hope, but must constantly direct the people to their own responsibility to uphold “the social structures of life, toward father, teacher, judge, state.” He himself must also submit to the penultimate authority of those societal structures and institutions and recognize that his task is to serve them for the common good, not transcend them and welcome adulation as an autonomous ruler above and beyond them.
While the led believe and hope that their leader is the epitome of an autonomous human being, the masterful human being who is totally free, the leader must be aware that because of the followers, the leader is the most bound, the one most burdened with the responsibility for the orders of life, the epitome of a servant.
And, of course, because Bonhoeffer believed that all these “orders of life” — familial, societal, and civic institutions — were ordained by God, that means the true leader, in faithfully discharging his office, will be submitting to the ultimate authority as well.
All this has implications for “followers” too. When individuals and communities look to a leader (führer) in this ideal and inappropriate way, they exchange their own rights for loyalty to the leader, in whom they put all their trust for the future. The freedom to fulfill their own vocations, to work thoughtfully and responsibly within the orders of society for its betterment and to share in the mutual accountability those orders provide becomes swallowed up by a communal obligation to follow the führer and his agenda. It becomes a matter of fealty and obedience rather than personal responsibility and freedom.
I don’t know about you, but a lot of this resonates with what I am seeing today.
I’ll just go ahead and say it: it seems to me that there is a constituency in the U.S. that mimics what Bonhoeffer is writing about here in their loyalty to Donald Trump and the “Trumpism” that has largely swallowed up the Republican party. The party didn’t even set forth a platform at this year’s convention. Their agenda is Trump.
It also seems that the president has welcomed and continues to encourage this kind of mindset in his followers. He may not be a “führer” in the sense Hitler proved to be (in fact, I doubt very much that he will), but echoes of fascism reverberate, and I, for one, don’t like it. I certainly don’t think it is fitting or beneficial in our representative democracy.
What do you think? Over-reaction? Reading too much into our historical moment here? Or do Bonhoeffer’s words and ideas find resonance within you as well?