Dachau in December- dangers of tolerance and intolerance
Dachau in December. I enjoy teaching in Europe in December because of the Advent Markets that are in every town square, where people gather for warm wine, to meet friends and peruse the hand made craft items. Most of the squares even have a booth where children are supposed to write a letter to the Christ child (there go those secular Europeans again – exorcising all vestiges of Christ from culture).
This trip however, taking a few extra days of travel with my son, we manage a morning at Dachau. To be at the site of the first concentration camp in Germany, in December, with biting wind so cold that your down jacket offers little protection, and to gaze out on the frozen ground of the camp – this is an experience I’ll not soon forget. Realizing that daily roll call meant standing motionless in the snow in cotton rags for a minimum of two hours every morning, I speculate that I wouldn’t last a week.
The displays are a catalog of humanity’s capacities, both for degradation and triumph. There are stories of merciless beatings and hangings, grotesque photographs of emaciated bodies, and tales that would, later that night, help my dreams become nightmares. But for all that, the most powerful part of the story was the educational section explaining how Germany ceded power to the Reich and Adolf.
We do well to shudder at the intolerance of the Reich – how the thought police demanded absolute loyalty, with the result that free thinking artists, authors, pastors, political opposition members, immigrants, homosexuals, of course Jews, and those who tolerated the same, all found themselves in the same place – stripped of freedom and dignity.
But intolerance isn’t the only voice crying out from the blood of those grounds. Equally dangerous is tolerance. What happens when a culture, or a church, or a family allows, in the name of tolerance, such degradation. What happens when, in the name of tolerance, truth no longer has its rightful place at the table? The intolerance of those in power demanded tolerance of the grossest crimes against humanity. Where were the people who were willing, at the cost of their lives, to stand up and say "enough!" There were precious few, as we know. But there were a few.
The dangers of tolerance and intolerance share the same root cause: fear. The fear of the intolerant is easy to spot – all opposition must be crushed, for fear that any independent voice might expose the whole sham. Conversely the tolerant, who wink at injustice often do so because of a fear of losing their life. Hitler was granted power, at the cost of liberty, because people were afraid of the future. The vision he cast was one of triumphalism, the only problem being that it would come at the cost of each person’s freedom and dignity. Beware of allowing fear of economic loss, or terrorism, or reputation, to silence you voice – for only truth will ultimately liberate, both our own souls and those around us.
I stood in the biting cold on the roll call field that morning and wondered what the dangers of tolerance and intolerance meant for me as a pastor, a husband, a citizen of my country? The words of this German pastor help:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak outbecause I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
Pastor Martin Niemöller.