Volume > Issue > Armchair Heroes

Armchair Heroes


By Alice von Hildebrand | May 2013
Alice von Hildebrand, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of Philosophy at Hunter College of the City University of New York. She is the author, most recently, of Man and Woman: A Divine Invention (Sapientia Press); The Soul of a Lion (Igna­tius Press; preface by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger), about her late husband, the Catholic philosopher Dietrich von Hildebrand; and By Love Refined (Sophia Institute Press). She has written extensively for many Catholic periodicals and works closely with the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project, whose aim is to translate her late husband's work into English.

When we are safe and sound, it is easy to assume that we are potential heroes. Our admiration for the courage of, say, St. Maximilian Kolbe may tempt us to take for granted that our awe for his bravery is a guarantee that we would follow in his footsteps. Life teaches us a great lesson: Our enthusiasm for others’ greatness can easily give us delusions of heroism.

Before Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933, few Germans approved of his “philosophy.” Yet the moment he seized power — and introduced a regime of terror — millions of people kowtowed to him and screamed, “Heil, Hitler!” Were they despicable men? In no way. In fact, history teaches us that the passive acceptance of evil is so widespread that it could be considered a “normal” response. How very few (and I include respectable bishops) had the courage to resist such overwhelming evil, and risk their lives! Those who did — like Bl. Franz Jäggerstätter — were heroes and deserve our love, our admiration, and our gratitude. But let us not assume that the sincerity of our admiration for them reveals a propensity for heroism on our own part.

As desirable as it would have been that all the bishops in Germany, whether Protestant or Catholic, had stood up in unity and said strongly and clearly “No!” to Hitler, this is not what happened. Most of them were very low key. Whether this was called “German patriotism” or “prudence,” one thing is certain: With rare exceptions, their silence was deafening.

It is worth noting that, after the war, many are those who have passed harsh judgments upon the millions of “cowards” who did not oppose Nazism. Yet these critics fail to ask themselves: Had I been in their situation, is it certain that I would have opposed evil, risking the loss of my property, risking the welfare of my family, risking torture and death? Before answering this question positively, we would do well to check our own degree of humility. On what basis do we presume to condemn?

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