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.


  1. This was an interesting read. I wonder, though, about the 'aristocracy of conscience'. It seems that every successful power has its aristocracy of conscience, that being the default conscience of its elites. It seems more helpful to read Bonhoeffer as calling not for a rise, but for an unbroken thread of wisdom passing through generations, whether or not it's aristocratic in its moment. This point of view is probably fed by my rather dour expectations of genuine wisdom ever rising to success as cultural power. I feel like wisdom is more comprehensible as the antidote to power.

    Thanks for the post.

  2. Curious, though I’m still adrift as to what constitutes an ethical response to multiple rising tides not within my own power to affect. How does redirecting my response to those who follow (in time) remove armchair criticism, breast-beating, or berating intruders on my lawn from among my range of choices? This is especially true when the Zeitgeist runs so deeply counter to wizened marshaling of influence.

    For instance, facts surrounding a resurgent economic elite (40+ years now), with a few victors and many, many vanquished, have been pretty well established. Less well recognized is that, at least in the U.S., no aristocratic concern the commonweal (how European!) is emerging alongside venal pooling and fortification of wealth. (Consider that the wealth of the Walton clan is equivalent to 42% of the population while most Walmart workers scrape by on less than $25K annually.) When today’s youth shed light on this capital formation in the form of Occupy Wall Street, the already vanquished were squelched yet again. Onlookers could do little but wring their hands and tut-tut at the inevitable results. It’s unclear to me what Bonhoeffer believes can or should be done in the face of such exploits of power in our time any more than his own.

    More to the point, if we’re all trending toward a desultory technopoly that is plain to see yet unproblematic for those most deeply affected, anything a wizened oldster might do or recommend will be handily dismissed by those who don’t realize their minds have been colonized. American culture has shifted and left behind those not in the thrall of instant, ephemeral pseudo-gratification via tiny, handheld screens.

  3. An older gentleman I know (all right; it's my dad) laments at the state of the world but figures it's not his problem because he will soon (he hopes) be called Home. What I've tried to argue is: What makes you think fighting for the world is over once you pass? Why do we pray to the saints? What are the angels up to? Nothing says that heaven is the ultimate retirement home with no responsibility and no battle to engage. Souls are in peril every second. You think those who have made it get to sit poolside and sip margaritas?

    Fight the whole journey long. It may only be the beginning.

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