Lessons from Westminster

Three successive gunshots rang out. From my vantage point, I could not see what was happening but soon learned that the shots had ended a deadly terrorist attack. News of the event would go viral within a few minutes. The terrorist, a native of Britain radicalized by immigrant Islamists, had just deliberately sped his car into a crowd of pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, then crashed into a fence at Parliament Yard, jumped out on foot, and fatally stabbed a security guard. A second guard ended the attack with the three shots.

My family and I were approximately sixty yards away from the incident, near the opposite side of Westminster Abbey and far enough from the carnage that we were safe. Still, our proximity to the violence was alarming. More than that we were saddened by the incident.  The terrorist murdered three innocent pedestrians, including a fellow American, plus the officer and injured fifty others, some of them mere school children. His assault was yet another in a steadily mounting chain of attacks.

You can imagine how grateful I am for my family’s safety. Along with the British public and my fellow visitors to London, I am grateful too for the sacrifice the fallen officer made and for the decisive action of his colleague. And I was struck by the diligence and humanity of the emergency technicians who tried to save the terrorist’s life. Some felt that was a bitter pill to swallow. Like others, however, I thought it was a testimony to the basic decency of Western culture and to our foundational conviction about the value of each human life even when we are forced to respond to such violence.

I was grateful in yet another way, given where I had been in London that day. Just minutes before the terrorist attacked, I had completed a tour of the Churchill War Rooms—the underground headquarters of the prime minister, his war cabinet, and their teams of assistants as they directed Britain’s war efforts during the German air raids. The quarters were terribly cramped; and, for long periods at a time, the small, high-security circle of workers was restricted to the quarters for work, meals, and sleep. The environment was detrimental to their health, given the acute lack of sunshine and fresh air, and the situation highly dangerous since the bunker was not entirely bomb-safe. This dedicated group of citizens played an indispensable role in saving Western civilization from its greatest threat to date. I was deeply moved to learn their story.

The juxtaposition of events—the visit to the war rooms and the subsequent terrorist attack at Westminster—made for a poignant history lesson. It was not lost on me that the terrorism we are experiencing today is rooted in something disturbingly similar to the movement that gave rise to the second World War: at the foundation of each are common core elements of ideology. It is worth taking a moment to examine the Nazi case for the contours of those elements and the kinds of events they fueled.

Nazi ideology was more than destructive action. Under its direction, the Nazis envisioned and systematically created a kind of alternate social, political construct, one that did violence to what it means to be human. Among the expressions of Nazi ideology were the following:

  • Hitler and his cohorts acted on a quasi-theory of racial purity, inaccurately invoking the ancient Aryans and willfully projecting an Aryan narrative on the German people. Their unfounded plan for establishing racial purity was a biological and social reinvention of human nature. In this vein, they proceeded to redefine whole categories of human beings as non-persons, an ominous legal step used to eliminate all “undesirable” races and to especially carry out the Holocaust that resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews. The entire Nazi system was to be built, among other things, on the sinister Final Solution.

  • Nazi ideology entailed a dangerous element of religion. The cultic Nazi myth was a distortion of God and his image in man, a specious justification for domination, and a vision of this world that emptied it of its goodness in the name of a radically new social organization. The Nazis tried to and partly succeeded in subsuming the German church under state control—what Hitler intended as the Reich Kirche, a national, state-run church. Many Germans did not see that this new arrangement would pose a real threat to Christian integrity. For example, early on in the Nazi reign, the great pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought that he and other Christians could work with the Reich Kirche. Of course, he eventually realized that such an alliance would mean the end of authentic Christianity and resisted its control. Bonhoeffer died at the hands of the Nazis shortly before the end of the war.

  • The Nazis widely expanded their military aggression to subject autonomous peoples to the will of the Reich. Not since Napoleon had anyone attempted such conquest of Western Europe and Russia. The carnage wreaked by the Nazis was unprecedented. At home they attempted and largely succeeded in suppressing all opposition, including politicians, clergy, academicians, journalists, and artists who expressed, or were even suspected of expressing, anything counter to the vision rigidly advanced by Hitler and his regime.

  • Ultimately, the Third Reich was intended to be the great imperialist reign of Germanic supremacy, an imagined era in world history akin to the realm of the Holy Roman Empire, with the expectation that this new realm would last a thousand years.

One note about the tactical rise of Nazism: In order to gain power, Hitler and his party initially attempted a putsch—a violent takeover of government, triggered first in the city of Munich in 1923 and intended to spread to cities across Germany. The putsch was stopped; Hitler was arrested and imprisoned. Both his trial, which actually stirred up national sentiment for him and his movement, and the remarkably short time he spent in prison were abject failures of the German legal order. Hitler would take full advantage of the weak state of affairs. His failed putsch merely made him realize that to succeed he would simply have to change strategies. While in prison, he wrote Mein Kampf and upon his release masterminded a steady decade-long campaign that resulted in the National Socialists taking over the German government in 1933. Hitler became chancellor in January of that year. In March, the Enabling Act gave him unfettered power. That same month, he established the first concentration camp at Dachau, just a short train ride outside of Munich, the city where the Nazi movement began and where the National Socialist headquarters would significantly grow and remain through the end of the war. Dachau would become the prototype for a wide network of camps throughout the Reich.

Hitler’s intent was clear from the start. He laid it out even more clearly in his writing. His actions before and after 1933 consistently confirmed his vision. Nazi ideology—in thought and action—drove the radical, formative events in Germany for three decades and culminated in a massive assault on Western civilization and the most destructive war in history.

The British have done a good thing in preserving the cabinet war rooms. That story of courage and ingenuity, played out in the face of our civilization’s greatest existential threat, needs to be remembered. We need to remember as well that Churchill was one of the few statesmen who soberly and publicly decried the rise of Hitler as a grave threat to Great Britain and to the civilized world. Many dismissed his warnings. Equally we need to remember that his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, underestimated the threat posed by the Nazi movement and misinterpreted Hitler’s overtures to peaceful coexistence. Along with Hitler’s unrelenting march to power, those two British stories are vital historical lessons to recall whenever ideology rears its ugly head as it did on Westminster Bridge just days ago.


Andrew J. Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy.