Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4th February 1906 – 9th April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident – and a writer. A few months before his arrest in 1943, he sent an essay to friends, entitled “After 10 Years”, in which he analysed his and their resistance to the rise of evil, in the person of Hitler, the nature of that evil and its various effects on men. So much of what he wrote, then, knits also into the nature of the wickedness of Assad, now, and its effects, that I am transcribing Bonhoeffer’s piece here, in a series of pictures, together with a few bits of text extracted as text and my own comments.
Our losses have been great and immeasurable, but time has not been lost.
The Syrian revolution has suffered terribly too, these last five, if not 10, years – the revolution, and Syria herself.
… something new was emerging that could not be seen in the existing alternatives.
Despite no doubt a sense at times of hopelessness and bewilderment amongst revolutionaries, something new is emerging in Syria, because it must. No peace can exist in that country with Assad in power. No rational person, Russian, Turk or Syrian, can think otherwise.
The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering…
Evil approaches… in so many respectable and seductive disguises…
[A man] will assent to what is bad so as to ward off something worse, and in doing so he will no longer be able to realise that the worse, which he wants to avoid, might be the better.
Who stands fast? Only the man whose final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, or his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when he is called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God…
Here Bonhoeffer analyses the nature of and some typical approaches to evil, finding none of the latter sufficient, whatever the virtue of their attempt, if they exclude resource to God – in Syria, of course, this will be Allah.
… he [the German] could not see the need for free and responsible action, even in opposition to his task and his calling; in its place there appeared on the one hand an irresponsible lack of scruple, and on the other a self-tormenting punctiliousness that never led to action. Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men.
Here Bonhoeffer discusses, in essence, the German love for authority, but questions it when such “submissiveness and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends”. We see, in Syria, SAA men running forward into fire carrying their national flag, their devotion unquestionable. But, as did the Germans once, they do not see the depths of the wickedness for which they sacrifice themselves; and maybe too, also like the Germans, they deal with what they do understand of it by throwing scruple to the wind, on the one hand, or being nitpickingly exact, on the other (the evidence suggests all Assad’s murders have been recorded carefully in lists, as occurred in Nazi Germany – if you bureaucratise death, you lance its sting, one could add… it becomes merely an item of record).
As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding it as having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises.
The Assads have created health and educational services, built a dam and motorways and run a symphony orchestra. Must in themselves these be dismissed, discredited or even destroyed? Bonhoeffer argues here that the new generation must take responsibility for historical fact, not rail against it, and adds that “the ruler of history repeatedly brings good out of evil over the heads” of the makers of historical absolutes, such as, in Syria’s case, the existence of a hospital built by the régime.
… we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of the others.
In another translation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “After 10 Years” the word “stupidity” is used, not “folly”, though I think “folly” is the better. This translation is from:
As the title suggests, the bulk of the book deals with letters and papers written after the author’s arrest in April 1943, unlike “After 10 Days”, which was written before, the original German title of the book “Widerstand und Ergebung: Briefe und Aufzeichnungen aus der Haft”. The copyright notices for this enlarged edition are dated 1953, 1967 and 1971. Bonhoeffer’s works, in their complete state, are assiduously kept off the free web. I obtained my copy of “After 10 Years” from a pre-purchase preview, access awkward and dependent on browser, and was then geoblocked from buying the complete Kindle book. The copy here is presented as, mainly, pictures in the hope that copyright crawlers will not see the text, deletion from Yalla Souriya’s WordPress maybe then demanded if they did. My attempt here to tie in Assadism in Syria with National Socialism in Germany requires, obviously, an unredacted copy of “After 10 Years”, if the reader is to make his own deductions. And I consider the subject sufficiently important, and the hiding of Bonhoeffer’s writings behind pay walls sufficiently excessive (and incompetently run), not to be unduly bothered by the minor breach of copyright which the pictures in this article may represent.
Returning now to the matter at hand and the text of “Of folly”, little further comment is required from me as Bonhoeffer paints a very exact picture of how power can corrupt the intelligence of the powerless and turn them, as a type of social herd, into fools “capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil”. This picture shows a pretty girl happy amongst the ruins of Syria:
These ladies were dolled up for the occasion, it would seem, pleased to pose and so demonstrate the sort of insentience Bonhoeffer describes – reminiscent of the habit in previous centuries of generals bringing their ladies, in full finery, to a hilltop to watch the battle – men being killed – below. Pure folly in each case, if for different reasons – the rush of something malign or violent, or both, and bigger than the commonplace, skewing crusty as well as pretty heads, maybe the common thread.
We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.
Bonhoeffer is fairly severe about fools (pictures 10-12 above) but now advances forgiveness. In a reconciled Syria, this quality will be required more than any other.
The world is, in fact, so ordered that a basic respect for ultimate laws and human life is also the best means of self-preservation, and that these laws may be broken only on the odd occasion in case of brief necessity, whereas anyone who turns necessity into a principle, and in so doing establishes a law of his own alongside them, is inevitably bound, sooner or later, to suffer retribution.
I admit I find Bonhoeffer a touch abstruse in this submission. He was a pastor but also part of a plot to kill Hitler. Natural laws governing human behaviour should never be transgressed using the excuse of self-preservation, or else the transgressor ultimately weakens his ability to survive, defeating the object; but such laws may of necessity be broken, conditional upon the brevity of this act of fracture and the rapid restoration of normality. This condemns of course states of emergency which never end but permits assassination of a diabolical instrument! On this basis, the Assadian principle of shooting dead active, real but unarmed opponents over months then indiscriminately bombing areas harbouring their armed descendants does constitute “deliberate transgression of the divine law in the supposed interests of worldly self-preservation” and will have “exactly the opposite effect” of that intended. His actions will be judged in the here and now, the hardness of his heart in the hereafter, Bonhoeffer might suggest, if he were alive today. My own view is that Assad is his father’s child, more than merely biologically. He does not actually know what his actions amount to, or the nature of his heart, as, in his deepest subconscious, killing is a form of play, the victims nursery toys. Asma knows differently but, as mere wife, owns the luxury of unaccountability and thus can think the unthinkable, and convey those thoughts, as if she were still a schoolgirl in Acton – that is, with impunity. So, any actions consequent upon her thoughts are in fact divorced from her thinking, in her own eyes; and his actions are divorced from his heart as both are possessed – one in one hand, and the other in the other, like juggling balls – by his father’s ghost. So, as Bonhoeffer might infer, the two Assads, witlessly, will prove their own folly and defeat their own object as neither, in their respective prisons, has listened to God and thus got out. The blame though, maybe, is not theirs. Retribution may turn out to be their release, if cruel.
These words speak for themselves and should encourage those downhearted by the state of the revolution.
Trust… can emerge only on the dark background of a necessary mistrust.
The law of opposites: light, to exist, depends on darkness. There have been signs of greater trust between opposition factions during the last year or so; the current pressures may now make this unavoidable, for those who survive to march on.
Quality… means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book.
Today this means a return from the cellphone and the TV to the newspaper and the radio! These remarks have little bearing, however, on Syria in 2016/7 per se though do prefigure aspects of our world today, especially media infatuation with celebrities – the “cult of the ‘star’”, as Bonhoeffer puts it.
[Lack of wisdom] explains… insensibility to the sufferings of others; sympathy grows in proportion to the fear of approaching disaster.
Indifference to the horrors inculcated by the Syrian war, particularly the suffering caused by government use of heavy ordnance against civilian targets in rebel zones, to turn the population against the fighters, is one of the most sickening features of the West’s appraisal of the crisis, but only to be expected, as the war for a long time did not affect our daily lives. This changed with the influx of refugees, who however have been greeted instead not with indifference but simple stoniness: “You’re not wanted.” The one exception – which would please Bonhoeffer – has been Germany, in the person of Merkel, who knew the significance of her actions, taking into account her country’s past. In a sense she is a descendant of Bonhoeffer and his virtue. By coincidence, her father was also a pastor, though my guess is that Merkel was thinking beyond family and instead, well ahead of the public gaze, towards the redemption of Germany herself. Unfortunately, if the Syrian war is not halted, it will spread, continue to enlarge and will thus creep into European lives as something which threatens life and limb. There have been small beginnings of this, such as the recent visit by the Syrian Grand Mufti to Dublin, a propaganda slingshot, but still a slingshot. According to Bonhoeffer we will only start to care about the Syrian war if it becomes our war too. It would help, of course, if we had the wisdom to care about it now.
The silence of spiritual suffering.
It is not easy to be brave and keep [the] spirit alive, but it is imperative.
Encouragement to the troops! If there is virtue in the Syrian revolution – and I believe myself that there is – its mission will prevail.
Here Bonhoeffer qualifies wisdom, as it is wise to be pessimistic. Yet, he sees a narrow path of optimism, being a “will for the future” – determination not to give in.
It would probably not be true to say that we welcome death… [Before we die] we should like to see something more of the meaning of our life’s broken fragments.
Being in active, militant (the plot with which Bonhoeffer was allied culminated in a failed bomb blast against Hilter in July 1944) opposition to Hitler was a very dangerous business, as it has generally been to oppose from a position of freedom Assad. One can sense from this piece how Bonhoeffer expected death, as do so many Syrian opposition fighters when interviewed: victory or death is the line, borne out by battlefield casualties. In Libya a fighter said, just outside Misurata, grinning from ear to ear, “We win or we die.” At the time, the Syrian armed struggle had barely started. But, those words from Libya have their echo in Syria, if more grimly, the opponent far stronger. For Bonhoeffer and his associates, the need for inward strength was maybe even more acute, as they had no territory, had to stay hidden. Bonhoeffer was still ostensibly free, when he wrote this. But, he does not sound like a free man.
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?
I have left the last words attached to these pictures of “After 10 Years” to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was hanged on 9th April 1945, less than a month before Hitler shot himself.
In this edition, a final paragraph is added, though it is not wholly clear when it was written or whether or not Bonhoeffer had written it for “After 10 Years” (but then maybe did not include it). Further, it is unfinished. It speaks directly from the soul of one who, together with his associates, has become numbered amongst the “outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled”: