As the year 1942 drew to close, Dietrich Bonhoeffer — just months away from being arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo — sat down to write out ein Rückblick — a look back, a review, a reckoning — of the previous ten years of German experience, that is, of the Nazi years.
This look back is also a look forward: it is a document that asks, “Given what has happened, what shall we now do?” And a very subtle and important section, early in the “reckoning,” raises the questions entailed by political and social success. How are our moral obligations affected when the forces we most strenuously resist come to power anyway?
Although it is certainly not true that success justifies an evil deed and shady means, it is impossible to regard success as something that is ethically quite neutral. The fact is that historical success creates a basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to take the field like a Don Quixote against a new age, or to admit one’s defeat, accept the new age, and agree to serve it. In the last resort success makes history; and the ruler of history [i.e., God] repeatedly brings good out of evil over the heads of the history-makers. Simply to ignore the ethical significance of success is a short-circuit created by dogmatists who think unhistorically and irresponsibly; and it is good for us sometimes to be compelled to grapple seriously with the ethical problem of success. 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.
It seems to me that the question that Bonhoeffer raises here applies in important ways to those of us who struggle against a rising technocracy or Technopoly, even if we don’t think those powers actually evil — certainly not evil in the ways the Nazis were. But well-intentioned people with great power can do great harm.
Suppose, then, that we do not want Technopoly to win, to gain widespread social dominance — but it wins anyway (or has already won). What then? Bonhoeffer:
In the face of such a situation we find that it cannot be adequately dealt with, either by theoretical dogmatic arm-chair criticism, which means a refusal to face the facts, or by opportunism, which means giving up the struggle and surrendering to success. We will not and must not be either outraged critics or opportunists, but must take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history in every situation and at every moment, whether we are the victors or the vanquished.
So the opportunism of the Borg Complex is ruled out, but so too is huffing and puffing and demanding that the kids get off my lawn. Bonhoeffer’s reasons for rejecting the latter course are interesting: he thinks denunciation-from-a-distance is a failure to “take our share of responsibility for the moulding of history.” The cultural conditions are not what we would have them be; nevertheless, they are what they are, and we may not excuse ourselves from our obligations to our neighbors by pointing out that we have fought and lost and now will go home and shut the door. We remain responsible to the public world even when that world is not at all what it would be if we had our way. We have work to do. (Cue “Superman’s Song”, please.)
Bonhoeffer presses his point:
One who will not allow any occurrence whatever to deprive him of his responsibility for the course of history — because he knows that it has been laid on him by God — will thereafter achieve a more fruitful relation to the events of history than that of barren criticism and equally barren opportunism. To talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future.
But why? Why may I not wash my hands of the whole mess?
The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live. It is only from this question, with its responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating. In short, it is much easier to see a thing through from the point of view of abstract principle than from that of concrete responsibility. The rising generation will always instinctively discern which of these we make the basis of our actions, for it is their own future that is at stake.
In short: it’s not about me. It’s not about you. It’s about how the coming generation is to live. To “wash my hands of the whole mess” is to wash my hands of them, to leave them to navigate the storms of history without assistance. And even if the assistance I can give is slight and weak, I owe them that.
In his brilliant new biography of Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh points out that “After Ten Years,” though addressed immediately to family and friends, is more deeply addressed to the German social elite from which Bonhoeffer came. And, Marsh suggests, what Bonhoeffer is calling for here is the rise of an “aristocracy of conscience.” Now that, it seems to me, is an elite worthy of anyone’s aspiration.
It is with these obligations to the coming generation in mind, I think, that we are to consider how to respond to the powers that reign in our world. It may be the case that those powers turn out to be less wicked than the ones Bonhoeffer had to confront; there are worse things than Technopoly, and many millions of people in this world have to face them. But if we are spared those, then so much the better for us — and so much less convincing are any excuses we might want to make for inaction.