Fifteen years ago a German housewife in the Albany area of New York State told me bluntly, “America will have a fascist government thirty years from now.” Not yet twenty-three years old, I looked at her in disbelief. The country cherished worldwide as the land of freedom and human rights going fascist? It was unthinkable. She sensed my doubts and repeated her warning as clearly and convincingly as if she were talking about today’s weather. I had forgotten her words until newspaper articles and TV news reports about neo-Nazis in the Chicago area brought them vividly to mind. At this point the halfway mark had been reached according to her prediction. What I had brushed aside as an exaggerated statement perhaps didn’t seem quite so unreal anymore.

As I thought about whether Hitler could happen here, I recalled the experiences of my family when Hitler was in power in Germany. Both of my parents were born-again Christians who wouldn’t accept the demands of the new regime. My mother considered it idolatry when Hitler substituted the old Southern German greeting GrüÆ Gott (may God greet you) with Heil Hitler (hail to Hitler). She refused to salute and avoided the Nazis in my hometown, Sontheim, a small suburb of Heilbronn. This was difficult to do, and soon the Nazis viewed her as an enemy. This was also true of my father, who supported my mother fully in her efforts of passive resistance.

Although this was a minor matter, events soon became much more serious. Hitler demanded total obedience from all Germans for his vision of a glorious and great Germany that would last a thousand years and usher in a new era for mankind. With his messianic promises and emotional speeches he captured the fascination of millions of Germans who supported him blindly and unreservedly. They failed to see the basic flaw in his philosophy, which relied solely on man’s achievement and not God’s. My parents concluded that Hitler and the Bible were incompatible. For them it was a simple question of either obedience to God or to Hitler. And their cause of action was one of passive but firm resistance. When Hitler demanded that all Germans had to cast their vote my parents left town during elections and stayed with my aunt in a small village until this danger had passed. It was the only way for them to avoid voting for Hitler short of being sent to prison or concentration camp. A no vote would have been discovered. In my aunt’s small village no one checked to see whether visitors had voted.

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It took courage and wisdom to stay true to one’s faith, in my parents’ case, a strong orthodox Lutheranism in the Swabian tradition. The pressure seemed to split the family into two camps at times. Instead of trying to reeducate the older Germans, the Nazis concentrated their efforts on the younger generation. The school curriculum was regarded as an important tool in propagating the Nazi way of life. It didn’t take long before religious instruction was replaced by Weltanschauungsunterricht, or Hitler’s world view. The Protestant minister of my town, pastor Brendle, tried to resist this trend, but failed because of overwhelming pressures. Most of the young people didn’t take Christianity seriously. They attended confirmation classes because their parents asked them to. This may seem odd, but tradition was still strong and in this respect deeply embedded. The youngsters had no interest in what Brendle had to say and made his life hard, but where could he go for help? He couldn’t complain to the Nazis because they wanted him to fail anyway. My two older brothers, Reinhold and Kurt, who attended his confirmation classes, helped him as much as they could, picking up overturned benches and replacing the hymnals that had been tossed around during class.

Although both my brothers could never condone such behavior, they disagreed with each other in their attitudes toward Hitler. Reinhold was appalled by his authoritarianism and Kurt was attracted to his exciting and challenging program for young people. The almost limitless chances for advancement in the Hitler Youth and the thorough leadership training meant a great deal for him. His enthusiasm spilled over at home, causing considerable tension. Would he become a Nazi or would he stay true to his faith? What if he started to spy on his parents like many others who were encouraged to do so by their leaders? Would this lead to the destruction of the family? These were serious questions with no easy solutions in sight.

My parents talked to Brendle about this, but he was under great pressure himself. The Nazis had begun to threaten him openly, and he wasn’t sure whether he could function much longer as a minister. The Protestant church had failed so miserably. He received some support from bishop Wurm in Stuttgart, who was the head of the Protestant church of Württemberg. But what could one man do when hundreds and perhaps thousands of pastors needed similar help? Except for a few remaining supporters in his church, Brendle was pretty much alone. The Nazis were free to do almost anything they wanted to him. Their headquarters were next to his church, and they drowned out his services with their loud singing and band music and discouraged churchgoers with their ominous presence.

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Only a few men and women, mostly elderly, were still attending church in 1939. How was this possible in a so-called Christian country, which had heard God’s Word for over a thousand years? Was this the beginning of the end of Luther’s Protestant church in Germany? Somehow many people had never taken their religion seriously and threw it overboard at the first opportune moment.

After I was born in 1939, the fourth child of my parents, the situation deteriorated even more rapidly. Reinhold was demoted to the auxiliary Hitler Youth because he had failed to show up for the regular meetings, which were held on Wednesdays and later also on Sundays. Together with half-Jews he was forced by the police to undergo the same training given to the regular Hitler Youth. In all of this he didn’t lose his faith and was more determined than ever to remain firm.

The situation worsened for my family. My uncle Wilhelm was put in a mental institution after he had called Hitler a scoundrel at work one day. He was condemned to die a slow death because he had openly expressed his true feelings about this dictator. Rather than killing him instantly they gave him pills that caused irrational behavior. Even his wife was fooled by this and thought that he really was mentally sick. But my parents were suspicious, as were other relatives. With the Lord’s help he was finally released. But the Nazis castrated him first, so that his “undesirable” offspring couldn’t threaten the master race. Even so, he was more fortunate than most patients, who didn’t survive the ordeal.

Freedom is rarely taken away at once. It usually happens slowly and subtly. This was especially the case between 1941 and 1945. When Hitler demanded greater and greater sacrifices, resistance became more and more difficult. The Nazis tried to beat my father into submission but failed; God had protected him. They also threatened my mother with imprisonment because she didn’t attend the women’s meetings of the party. She was saved by God’s grace through the report of an understanding Nazi doctor that excused her from these meetings because of phlebitis. My sister Ruth was likewise threatened with imprisonment because she refused to salute during meetings of the girls’ sessions of the Hitler Youth.

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The Nazis had infiltrated every facet of public life and were on the verge of destroying my family as well—not in a spectacular fashion—but with constant threats, harassment, and propaganda. Each week the Nazi precinct captain of our neighborhood made his rounds to collect money for his party. Each gift was painstakingly recorded and those who refused to give were soon black-listed as enemies of the Nazi cause. My family was certain that its name was on such a list. It was no secret that all of these so-called enemies of the Nazis would be taken care of—that is, killed—as soon as they won the war. Without doubt the Nazis had no room in their new way of life for Christians who took their religion seriously. Christ didn’t fit in their Nietzschean image of the new heroic man who controls his destiny ruthlessly and without the attributes of genuine love.

There were relatively few Christians my parents could rely on and find strength and encouragement from. Almost every one was afraid and was so busy with simply staying alive that no organized effort of resistance seemed possible. Some Christians whom we had trusted threw their faith overboard and embraced Hitler’s philosophy as the wave of the future. A good friend of ours who was drafted to the Russian front in 1942 left his Bible with my father saying, “I don’t need this book anymore. My new religion is Hitler and his program.” These incidents discouraged my parents; it showed how easy it was for some Christians to give up their faith for temporary worldly glory and success. While others waivered my parents continued to practice and live their Christian faith. They attended church as regularly as they could and continued daily devotions with us children. This practice gave my family an inner strength that helped it withstand the ever-increasing storm of new crises.

In addition to this threat from within, air-raids and bombings became more frequent during the last three years of the war and made life almost unbearable. Here, too, God showed his mercy by keeping us alive. As long as the family could stay together it was much easier to encourage one another in the faith and face the adversities of the day. But when Reinhold was drafted in 1943 and Kurt in 1944 this unity was broken by the harsh realities of a deteriorating war. Would they be able to remain Christians far from home where they were subjected daily to Nazi propaganda? As it turned out God worked miracles here, too. Because of his firm stand for God, Reinhold was publicly ridiculed by the Nazis and dismissed from his unit, which was later almost completely wiped out during the Allied invasion of France. His subsequent transfer to another unit had almost certainly saved his life. Kurt, while on a leave of absence, had his arm broken in three places by an exploding bomb during an air attack on Sontheim in January of 1945. Realizing at that moment that God, not Hitler, was his sovereign master, he gave his life fully to him. It took more than a year before he could use his arm again but God had restored his soul.

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Although the end of the war was already in sight, many Germans refused to believe that Hitler could let them down and believed in his promises of superweapons (Wunderwaffen), which would bring ultimate victory. Blinded almost to the end, they failed to see that God whom they had ignored so obviously had spoken. In the midst of their ruined cities their dreams of glory and greatness were destroyed with every passing day.

Much suffering and much hardship could have been avoided if all Christian families had kept their faith. My family was tested. We survived with the grace of God, and he united us again after the war—but not until 1950 when Reinhold was finally released from a prisoner of war camp in Poland. The power of the Nazis was broken and we were free again to worship as we pleased. What a great and cherished gift. Remembering those events will ensure that the prediction of that German housewife will never come true.

G. Douglas Young is founder and president of the Institute of Holy Land Studies in Jerusalem. He has lived there since 1963.

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