February 18, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes
‘Against stupidity we are defenseless’
The "freedom convoy,” anti-vaxxers and why a Lutheran minister murdered by the Nazis thought that evil wasn’t the worst thing.
On February 15, Bloomberg ran a story about the “freedom convoy” that seemed to illustrate Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who was part of the German resistance to the Nazi Party and to Adolf Hitler’s rise. His book, The Cost of Discipleship, is a meditation on “The Sermon on the Mount” in which he splits the Christian concept of grace in two.
On the one hand is “cheap grace,” which is “without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer said, is “costly grace.” It “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.”
“I’ve studied this in terms of the psychology of group behavior in Nazi Germany, but the literature on personality cults, mob behavior, etc., shows that the longer and more deeply a person gets involved in something like this, the less individual agency they perceive they have.”
Indeed, resisting fascism by submitting “to the yoke of Christ” and following him cost him dearly. At age 39, the Nazis hanged him.
His theory of stupidity is featured in a letter written to friends a few years earlier. The letter, which is now known as “After Ten Years,” argues that evil like the Nazis isn’t the worst thing. Stupidity is.
“One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force,” he wrote. “Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless.”
Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.
Bloomberg reporters Jen Skerritt and Robert Tuttle were covering protests of the Canadian government’s requirement that truck drivers delivering freight across the US-Canadian border must be vaccinated.
Protests in Alberta and Manitoba, dubbed the “freedom convoy,” took the form of blockades of bridges and trucking routes, at odds with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s declaration of emergency powers.
Skerritt and Tuttle interviewed one trucker. His name is Jake Klassen. His two campers and semi were in the blockade. He said Trudeau’s emergency powers were an attempt to “take everything from us.”
Then there is this part:
Klassen said he hasn’t been able to visit his nine-year-old daughter in months. She is receiving palliative care at St. Amant, a care residence in Winnipeg, but due to restrictions that require visitors to be fully vaccinated, Klassen and his wife can’t see her.
“Yes, that’s absolutely stunning and sad,” said Victoria Barnett.
Barnett was director of programs on ethics, religion and the Holocaust at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. She’s the general editor of Bonhoeffer Works Series. She edited a 2017 translation of “After Ten Years.”
I asked if Klassen exemplifies Bonhoeffer’s theory of stupidity.
Victoria Barnett: Maybe, but as part of a bigger phenomenon. “After Ten Years” was his attempt to understand the first 10 years of National Socialism, what happened to his compatriots, his church, his country.
He’s trying to figure out why most Germans caved to Nazi ideology and why they became integral to what happened. The historian Klemens von Klemperer (himself a refugee) called the Third Reich a “consensual dictatorship” — which is a pretty good description.
Go into that a bit more please. How was it consensual?
His main point is that stupidity is a moral failure, not an intellectual one. He’s reflecting on the process by which people willfully become part of a larger movement or political group, etc. As they become increasingly involved, two things tend to happen:
- They become isolated (or they isolate themselves) from those who disagree with them or challenge them (and I would say also from news sources that would challenge their worldview) and
- They get a lot of reinforcement. One of the things that happened in 1933 after Hitler came to power was that Nazi Party organizations were founded for every demographic group – teachers, housewives, kids, etc. Everyone suddenly had a badge, a uniform, meetings to go to, new friends to meet etc. — and that was a big factor in creating a new sense of a larger German community serving a “grander” purpose (in the Nazi mindset).
A big part of that, of course, was identifying enemies and those who needed to be excluded — Jewish citizens, political opponents, critical journalists, etc. But that early formation of consensus made life much harder, even by the end of 1933, for people who didn’t agree with it.
What you’re describing is collectivism, no?
The self-understanding of the German Volk was a collective concept personified by the “Fuhrer.” That’s a big part of authoritarian or fascist regimes. Authoritarian leaders can do things without parliamentary approval, because they represent the “true” will of “the people.”
But that also created a dynamic in Nazi Germany in which there was this mass adoration – almost a mass hysteria – for the person of Adolf Hitler. There are paintings portraying him as a messianic figure.
Bonhoeffer said there is no defense against stupidity. But if it’s a moral failing, wouldn’t a defense be private and public morality?
Bonhoeffer’s essay is an exploration of why that didn’t happen. (Elsewhere, he explores the lack of civil courage) But Nazi Germany is a disturbing case study in the failure of leaders, institutions (such as the church), etc., to stand up in an effective way to National Socialism.
The best and bravest people were either arrested early on or got out. But he’s pondering (and I think this is autobiographical) the failure of good decent people critical of the regime to be more effective.
That didn’t happen. (Along the way, one must acknowledge that many of them became complicit). But by staying in and working from inside the regime, they also failed to offer a clearer example of resistance.
That’s why by 1942 Bonhoeffer believes (as he writes here) that “only an act of liberation, not instruction, can overcome stupidity.”
The trucker above says he’s seeking liberation, too. Liberation from responsibility. How would Bonhoeffer persuade a man that he has agency and can visit his dying daughter by making the right choice?
One thing DB ignores is the psychology of all this. (He describes stupidity as a sociological problem). In Nazi Germany, we’re also looking at the pressures and dynamics within a fascist police state.
“The self-understanding of the German Volk was a collective concept personified by the ‘Fuhrer.’ That’s a big part of authoritarian or fascist regimes. Authoritarian leaders can do things without parliamentary approval, because they represent the ‘true’ will of ‘the people.’”
In other circumstances, however (eg, the truckers’ protests), this gets back to the peer pressures within a group that’s getting its information only from certain sources, in which there is a lot of pressure to conform to the will of the group (and a reward for doing so).
I’ve studied this in terms of the psychology of group behavior in Nazi Germany, but the literature on personality cults, mob behavior, etc., shows that the longer and more deeply a person gets involved in something like this, the less individual agency they perceive they have.
For Bonhoeffer personally — he wrote as a theologian and person of deep faith — that faith has the capacity to make someone see more clearly. But “After Ten Years” is a rather bleak assessment.
I’m reminded of something Michael Josephson said in 1989:
Success can be defined so many different ways but right now it is defined in a kind of how high is your position, how many people work for you, how high is your salary. When you get into that kind of yuppie version of success, you’re going to sacrifice things along the way. There’s not enough commitment to the ground rules of civil virtue.
A society focused on “success” (greed, selfishness) is a society in which a man won’t do the right thing to see his dying daughter and as a consequence, will make sacrifices he can’t reverse along the way.
He’s making an important point about what we value publicly and how that affects the individual’s ethics and sense of responsibility.
I’ve been very disturbed by some of the very callous reactions during the pandemic – eg, the minimization of the deaths in nursing homes, the rush to get back to normal when thousands of people are still getting sick and dying (and when large sectors of the population — children under the age of 6 — can’t yet be vaccinated).
But as I saw somewhere, the scale of the callousness has been on display for some time now in how we’ve dealt with school shootings, the high level of violence in our society and the much higher levels of violence experienced by people of color and the poor.
A society is measured in part by what we are willing to live with and by whether we are willing to change to make life better. Bonhoeffer, in his text, addresses this when he writes about the responsibility we are willing to take upon ourselves for the sake of a different future.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems to be doing what Bonhoeffer wished more Germans had done. He called out conservatives in the Parliament for standing with the Swastika and the Confederate flag.
I interviewed a number of Germans back in the 1980s when I was working on my first book (a collection of oral histories from people who had been in the Confessing Church) and I recall Kurt Scharf (a very brave pastor, who would later became a bishop) saying that if Germans had held mass demonstrations and marched in 1933 in solidarity with German Jews, they might have changed things.
Impossible to know in retrospect, that’s what’s important here (and for understanding Bonhoeffer as well) — taking a public position not only draws a line for what can be tolerated, but it also serves as a model to others that it is possible to speak out. That’s what he was writing about in the section on the lack of civil courage among Germans.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.