Editor’s Note: In most Western countries, today marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day in the United States, VE Day in the United Kingdom). Shortly after Nazi Germany surrendered in early May 1945, Reinhold Niebuhr offered the following reflections in Christianity and Crisis on May 28, 1945. While some readers might have expected glee from someone who supported the war effort, Niebuhr is more sober and cautious. He explains how the United States and other countries were now responsible for a devastated Germany and needed to prevent starvation there. He also warns against the desire to eradicate all Nazis and says trying to kill them all could cause Nazism to infect the victors. Therefore, the Christian realist tells his readers to be humble in victory. In a previous article in February 1945, Niebuhr makes a similar point when he warns Americans not to have an “uncritical loyalty” to their nation:
Christians should be aware, if no one else is, of the potential evil which lies in the pride of victors.
There is no greater snare and delusion than the perpetual hope that all the evil in the world is embodied in our enemy, so that the destruction of the enemy will lead to the redemption of the world from evil. It is by this very pride that we accentuate the evil in ourselves, which we have in common with the enemy.
We share the following article so that readers today can learn how Christian realists addressed previous global crises and consider how Christians can respond to current and future predicaments, such as when the United States deals with adversaries and enemies.
It was most fortunate that America received the news of the victory in Europe more quietly than a quarter century ago. The hysteria of the former occasion was absent for various reasons. We had had several weeks to anticipate the victory, while the Nazi power gradually collapsed. There was a difference of a day between the actual and the official knowledge of the surrender; and furthermore the war was not over.
These were the immediate causes of our comparative soberness. But there were even profounder reasons for sobriety in victory. Perhaps they also affected the public mood; and perhaps they prompted the rather large attendance at religious services on V-E day. These reasons are all comprehended in the magnitude of the drama in which we are involved. Everything which is happening is really too big and too complex for our comprehension. The war which has ended in victory was the costliest and most global conflict of human history. It has left even the wealthiest victor nations shaken in the very structure of their economic life; and it has reduced Europe to a physical and economic as well as political chaos. The price of victory has been very high.
The defeated enemy has been more completely destroyed than any nation in history, at least since the day when the Romans destroyed Carthage. That was partly because the nation was ruled by a tyranny which was able to hold a beaten nation in battle until almost the last ounce of life blood was drawn from it. The same tyranny has also been able to destroy every crystallization of new political life during its long and terrible reign; so that Germany is a political vacuum as well as an economic desert. It is still a question whether our obliteration bombing, which has reduced the whole of western and central Germany to a rubble heap, was necessary for victory, though no less an authority than Von Runstedt has affirmed that precision bombing was indispensable to our victory. If it was necessary for victory we have another proof of the total character of total war.
The cost of this war has been so great for both victors and vanquished that many will undoubtedly arise to remind us of their predictions of its price and of their apprehensions about its consequences. We will have to remind them that some of their apprehensions were wrong. They had declared that we could not engage in this struggle without losing our democratic institutions. These have in fact survived the extraordinary exertions of the conflict very well. But it will be more important to call their attention to the fact that the war was an alternative to slavery. As the victorious armies liberated one concentration camp after another and unearthed the hideous cruelties which were practiced in them, they gave us some hint of what the dimensions of total slavery are like, from which we escaped by a total war.
However we measure the conflict, whether in terms of the evil we opposed, or the evils we had to commit in opposing it, or the destruction of the vanquished or the price of the victors, the dimensions of the drama in which we are involved are staggering. It is well that we should be shocked into sobriety by the magnitude of historical events and should be prompted to humility and piety by a contemplation of the tasks which still confront us. All of them are really beyond our best wisdom.
The administration of a completely prostrate vanquished nation has suddenly become our responsibility. It is well that thoughts of vengeance will be qualified by the immediate tasks of preventing starvation among the vast population of destroyed cities. Whether this wealthy nation will have the grace to reduce its dietary standards for the sake of feeding a starving Europe will be one of the great moral and political issues of the coming months. We talked very simply and grandly, and sometimes very vindictively, of “eradicating” all the Nazis. We shall soon discover that even if we are more discriminating, than we are inclined to be, that there are more Nazis who deserve death than we can kill; or at least than we can kill without becoming infected with Nazism. Even the imprisonment of the most confirmed Nazi criminals is a staggering, and in some respects an impossible task. Of course the prevention of future crime will depend primarily upon more positive measures, primarily upon our ability to elicit response from the healthy and sane elements in Germany. All these tasks are too great for human wisdom. They will not be done too well in any event because of their magnitude; but they will be done with a greater degree of wisdom if they are done with a measure of humility. If we had more awe before the tragic punishments which God has already visited upon a nation which took law into its own hands we would at least be saved the folly of spoiling the divine punishment by our own efforts to add and subtract. We might well remember that the greatest difficulty which a vanquished nation finds in turning from the “sorrow of this world” (despair) to the “sorrow of God” (repentance) is that the pride of the victor tends to obscure the divine punishment.
Let us therefore not seek to reduce the dimension of the history in which we are involved, so that it might be made more compatible with the limits of our powers. Let us recognize that we have faced the mystery of evil and of good, of tragedy and of victory, of divine judgment and mercy in more tremendous proportions than ever before in history. The humble consciousness of the inadequacy of our wisdom for the tasks which confront us may infuse our wisdom with grace and thus render it more adequate for the issues we must face.