Martin was not overly surprised to find out that his son Klaus had joined the Nazi party. His own relationship with the Fuhrer was a complex mix of hope, fear and disquiet.
For Martin – as for most churchmen in Germany – the end of the Weimar Republic had been the end of the ‘fourteen years of darkness.’ The secularism of the Twenties, the decadence, the falling church attendance among the young, the hearty scorn of the urban classes – all that had put the churches – both Catholic and Protestant – on the defensive. They could not glower over helpless sinners and force them to kneel, as in the old days. Relativism did not serve the Church. The young, bearded, forest-strolling, guitar-strumming and commune-living wandervogel had not flocked to organized religion – not because they did not like religion. They just didn’t like organization.
But that was all gone now. The wandervogel were gone. Fled, imprisoned or dragged into the endless rows of stiff-armed soldiers. Martin should not have been surprised, but he was. He had been a priest long enough to know that every extreme personality trait is secretly united with its opposite. The wandervogel often made the best Nazis. Those who reject authority – any authority – out of hand usually make the most terrifying leaders.
But now all that loose, painted free-thinking nonsense had been brought to heel. The night that Hitler’s victory was announced, Martin had felt a pain between his shoulder-blades, and imagined that some kind of crusted medieval stone wings were sprouting from his regretfully-modern shoulders. It was clear to him that is was the dawn of a new age. The age of unity. The age of purity. The age of Germany.
He had thundered out his approval from his pulpit. His words, he knew were too complex for his simplistic parishioners, but he could not stop them. A great fire had ignited in his heart, and poured thick smoke into the twisting wind of his words. It was a loosening of all restraint – all restraint against some essential purity – and Martin did not try to stop himself, or wonder at the source of his new energy.
Some sort of ancient bargain had been re-forged. All was, once more, as it should have been. The hellish Anglo-French Enlightenment, with all its secular rationality and separation of church and state, had finally been ejected from Germany. The Fuhrer, although a lapsed Catholic, had finally brought the might of his sword to bear on questions of faith. He had concluded a concordant with the Vatican, promising religious freedom for Catholics and allowing the Catholic Church the power to regulate its own affairs.
This had all seemed well and good to Martin. The alternative of rank Communism, with its materialistic atheism and wholesale slaughter of the nuns and clergy, had loomed large in his night terrors over the past few years. But now the Nazis had won, and the humiliations of 1918 were finally to be undone. Germany would become strong again, and its younger-sibling rage against the Enlightenment would finally be allowed to vent its spleen.
Martin had always loathed the condescension with which the French, English – and, to some degree, the Americans – had always approached Germany. It was with the maddening politeness of a repressed man visiting an unstable younger brother in an asylum. ‘And how is little, backward Germany today?’ they always asked. ‘Feeling all right? Not too unsteady?’ That kind of tone – always and forever present – made Martin’s teeth grind and hands itch to squeeze something. They were so smug! He felt that he had no purchase on such offensive sentiments. I tell them of the passion of my faith, they just pat my head and say: ‘that’s nice,’ although they do not think it is nice at all. They think my faith is childish. To them, my view of the world is much like the finger-painting of a rather backward child. But I am not a child! I shall show them – we shall all show them – the power of the German soul!
And so, Martin’s heart floated up to meet the Fuhrer’s tight grin and savage countenance. Here is a man who will bend to no one! he thought with dark glee, gazing at a poster of the Great Man. The resolution in Hitler’s face was endless, inescapable, like a force of nature. He shall represent us in the world, and he shall never waver, or retreat. He shall win for us the respect that is our just due!
But something began to happen, soon after Hitler signed the concordant with the Vatican in the summer of 1933. Five days afterwards, he approved a sterilization program for the retarded, homeless, vagabond and criminal elements. This drove the Vatican to distraction. Five days after that, Hitler began the process which led to the dissolution of the Catholic Youth League, and its eventual integration into the Hitler Youth.
Then, within a month, the wave of arrests began.
Hundreds of Catholic priests and nuns and lay leaders were arrested and charged with ‘immorality’ or ‘smuggling foreign currency.’ The tension seemed to be between – as it had been for England a few centuries before – between the domestic state and a foreign-run Church. Hitler could not act too strongly; one third of Germans were Catholic. However, having given up all their civil liberties and property rights, it was unlikely that anyone would struggle for the right to worship freely.
Historically, he knew, the Church possessed a very weak record of opposing absolutism. Freedom of conscience was a very new concept. Ideally, every man and woman should be allowed to choose their own path, for only free will could lead to God. In theory, an excellent concept. In practice, it emptied the churches quicker than Communism. Free people just did not beat a path to the priest’s door. If they were not raised in the faith, they almost never came to the faith – except for marriages, baptisms, confirmations and funerals, which were scarcely enterprises the Church could survive on.
So, since political freedom clearly benefited only the Devil, it could scarcely be a virtue. The Republic had almost brought about the collapse of religion. The end of the Republic was the return of God.
The coming of the Nazis, then, gave the Church a new lease on life. But, since the Church was, in the Catholic case, run by foreigners, and in the Protestant case, hopelessly divided, the Nazis could scarcely benefit all the various religions at once.
This was quite clear to Martin. The robe cannot prevail against the sword. The Nazis had won, for better or worse. It was better for religion as a whole, but would be worse for specific sects. Martin did not intend to be among the fallen.
This decision was reinforced in late 1933, when a wave of terror against the tiny percentage of Protestant clergy who did not wholeheartedly support the regime began. Those who preached for freedom of worship were dragged from their pulpits in mid-syllable and viciously beaten in front of their gaping and scattering congregations. Then, a dismally dense pastor named Ludwig Müller was forced on the Protestants, as head of the newly-formed Reich Church. His goal – direct from Hitler – was to unify and Nazify the German Protestants.
This did not bode well for independent thought, and Martin spent many a night in constant prayer. A most subtle test has been loosed upon the world, he thought. Does God want us to join the Nazis, or fight them? Religion has been saved by the Nazis, but at the expense of individual conscience. What can the answer be? What does God value more? The free will of unredeemed sinners, or the power of the Church? How can sinners be damned if the Church is not there to save them? How can the Church save them if they are not free in their belief? God must be chosen, not bullied. But when sinners are free to choose, they choose the filth of the Republic over the glory of God… Speak to me, Holy Father! Help me cut this knot!
God did not see fit to lift Martin out of his maze. The priest accepted this with all humility, and understood the problem within a few weeks. Since this is a question of free will, God is allowing me to make the decision on my own. But if God is allowing me to make the decision on my own, then surely He is implicitly favouring free will? But if he is favouring free will, then why did He allow the Nazis to take control? Unless the Nazis were given power by the Devil… But if the Devil is responsible for the Nazis, then why are so many more people going to Church now? If the Devil has favoured the Nazis, then surely God must have favoured the Republic, which was a time of great darkness and confusion for His Holy Church…
And so it would go, round and round, for hours upon end. Just as he was coming to a conclusion, an error in reasoning or contradiction in history would bring the whole edifice down, in a choking cloud of doubt and murk.
Normally, in times of spiritual crisis, he turned to his wife. Martin truly believed in the old German saying about women, that their lives contained only ‘Church, kitchen and children.’ I am too distracted by my knowledge of history and politics, he thought. She, with the touching simplicity of her homely heart, will point the way…
But it was not to be. His conversation with her ran thus:
“Renata, dear, I need your advice on something.”
“I cannot decide whether to speak for the Nazis, or against them.”
“Do you love your sons?”
And that was it. No greater wisdom was forthcoming. She had always seemed such a reliable spiritual guide. On their wedding night, after the filthy deed was done, he imagined that she would gladly turn over her children to the Inquisition if she suspected them of witchcraft. She lay, her eyes wide and worshipful, staring at the ceiling, her hands clenched by her side.
“I am so happy to have given up such pain for God!” she whispered.
Then I should take you again, Martin had thought with sudden vehemence. But he knew he could not. He had barely made it through the first act.
Since the ascension of Hitler, something had changed. She had become more primal. Less ‘church,’ and more ‘children.’ He could not get any sort of political opinions out of her. Before, in the heyday of the hated Republic, they spent many joyful, venomous evenings scorning its decadence and spiritual horror, and rejoicing at the coming flames of purgation.
And now those flames had arrived, and were coursing through the land like a burning river, and Virtue walked the hills with fiery whips in its many fists. And Martin rejoiced, though he knew not what to do with his rejoicing.
He rejoiced, but Renata did not.
So he could not turn to her. He had never turned to anyone else. He certainly could not turn to any of his children. His eldest son Klaus was the only one who had even the chance to understand. But Klaus would sneer at such spiritual matters. Klaus was a Platonic realist who had made his choice. He had joined the Nazis. They had never spoken of it. Klaus still lived at home. He worked ferociously hard. He slept five, six hours a night. He was a flight instructor, who trained three rotations of Luftwaffe pilots every day. Martin had been out to the airfield once, with Renata and the other children, and watched a mock air-battle, and demonstrations of precision bombing. Several thousand people had come to watch the exhibition. Martin and his family were in a prominent position, and he condemned himself several times over the course of the day for indulging in the sin of pride.
The crowd had roared in approval, their hands to their faces, as dogfights raged over them and bombs burst in not-too-distant fields. The young people were in a frenzy. With one voice, they screamed ‘Heil Hitler!’ every time a bomb exploded or aeroplane rolled over the crowd. They tried to out-shout the noises of war. Their cries mingled with the echoes of the bursting earth, and the scream of the sky slashed by metal wings.
That day, Martin had watched the crowd, searching for invisible attendants. Did angels or devils stand among them? He ground his teeth, unable to see, unable to decide. They were unified, but bloodthirsty. Happy, but virulent. But virulent in what cause? For surely Christ was virulent in the temple, slashing at the money-changers with His whip… He could not decide, he could not decide!
And there was something Biblical about the sky-machines. It was the greatest show of aerial power since Lucifer had fallen. When the earth erupted, Martin imagined that it was the passage of an invisible devil, cast down from heaven. As the aeroplanes roared past, chasing and weaving, Martin pictured it as an aerial battle of good and evil.
And when the day was done, everyone was satisfied. Klaus’s face was a picture of pure, contented progress. The pilots saluted him as he reviewed them, resplendent in his blue uniform. His blonde hair was short; he had lost weight. His short hair made his jaw more prominent; his thinness brought out the dark circles under his eyes. He was lean, exhausted and self-satisfied. He had thrown up his objections and found his cause.
And Martin envied him. That night, he tried to talk it over with his wife, calling over from his own bed.
“Did you enjoy today?”
There was a pause. He knew, from old experience, that she never, never lied.
“I was proud of how much he has accomplished.”
“Do you think it will turn out – well?”
“I don’t know.”
Martin propped himself up on his elbow and turned to her. “I – have to make a decision.”
“Do you think I should support them?”
“I do not think it matters.”
“They are doing well without your support. I think that Klaus’s support means more.”
He was stung, but knew better than to oppose his wife’s frankness. “Do you think they are from God?”
“Everything is from God.”
Equivocation was the closest she came to lying, he knew. He tried again.
“Do you think that I should serve them?”
“They are our secular masters.”
“I know. But they are extending their power into the spiritual realm.”
“Hitler is right when he says that his rise was shadowed by a more-than-mortal power. God could have prevented it…”
“Yes, but is it a test?”
“If it is a test, Martin, then you must take it.”
Her statement electrified him. “What? What?”
But she did not answer. She turned and faced the shadows on the far wall, and he knew he would get nothing more out of her tonight.
Take the test… Did that mean join the Nazis, or fight them? Was the test compliance, or rebellion?
He tried to turn over in his bed, but was trapped by his wife’s confining sheets. Her mother had been a maid, and she knew how a bed should be made. Human beings should be pressed between the sheets like kings and queens in a deck of cards.
Martin almost cursed, then wriggled out of his bed. He got up, threw on his dressing gown and slippers, and went downstairs.
Klaus was sitting at the kitchen table, marking some papers. He looked up with regret as his father padded into the room.
“Don’t let me interrupt,” said Martin. He dipped a stone mug into a barrel of water and sat at the table, opposite his son.
Klaus’s brows were pinched. His pen flew over the paper.
“No…” He muttered. “No… good heavens no. Nice! That’s not even an answer. Idiot. Hah! It’s basic math…”
“Can’t sleep,” said Martin.
“Warm milk,” replied Klaus, not looking up.
Martin was about to say that his son’s hair was too short, but realized that it was a rather senseless thing to say. Leave that to his girlfriend…
Not that there were any girlfriends.
One of Martin’s great secrets was that he had lived a loose life for over a year before joining the priesthood. Not even Renata knew about that. Nor his immediate superiors. He had traveled, drank, danced, fought, and bedded the kinds of women attracted to his thin, gypsy intensity. He saw a life ahead of him without purpose, in a lazy servitude of tattered nerve-endings. He saw himself falling through the floors of poor quarters to poorer rooms – to a street perhaps. He could find no life without structure. He could generate nothing from within himself. To find any shape at all, he required a container…
“Have you never had a girlfriend, Klaus?” he asked.
Klaus glanced up. “The Party is our spouse, they say.”
“Never been in love?”
“Not with things of the flesh, father,” he said in a dutiful voice.
“No, really. Man to man.”
Klaus looked up again, and his pen stopped moving. It was only then that Martin realized just how continual the scratching had been – and how cheap the paper must be.
“Man to man…” repeated Klaus. An ironic smile played on his lips. “No. I’ve never been in love.”
“I love your mother very much.”
“A woman is the better half of our faith.”
Klaus nodded vaguely.
Martin cleared his throat. “What do you think is the relationship between the church and the Nazis?”
Klaus shook his head slightly. “I am no theoretician, as I am constantly reminded. If I were such a thinker, I should never have to have been recruited in the – manner that I was.”
“I cannot decide, and that is unusual.”
“What is in your heart?”
“Nothing. Nothing that makes sense. I change my mind a thousand times a day.”
“Wait. Don’t force a decision.”
Martin paused, then guffawed. “You and your mother!”
“You both erupt with these little sayings, like tiny volcanoes. Boom! Just do this! And you’re always quite right, both of you. Makes me feel like a fool though.”
Klaus’s expression did not change.
“I know you want to get back to your work. Good. Idle hands… But – but what if they come for me?” asked Martin, his voice suddenly naked.
Klaus leaned forward, and his eyes fell into shadow. “If they come for you, father, then you will doubt no more.”
This statement satisfied Martin at the moment, but hours later, when he awoke again, lost in the darkest burrow of night, he found that certainty had fled again. He awoke from dreams wherein the scratching of Klaus’s pen merged with the sky-shredding roar of a bomber’s wings, and he found himself in tears, because he would never be able to decide, and it would take the bombs so long to find him.