Born into a Jewish family in Düsseldorf in 1797, Heinrich Heine—likely the greatest German poet of the 19th century—became a Lutheran at the age of twenty-seven, but frequently expressed ambivalence about his conversion, once referring to his baptismal certificate as his “passport to Western civilization.” Yet despite his lack of enthusiasm for his new religion, he foresaw a post-Christian Germany unleashing unimaginable horrors on the world:
Christianity, and this is its greatest merit, has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane berserk rage of which the Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman [the cross, Christianity] is fragile. And the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes. And then Thor, with his giant hammer, will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals. . . . A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.
To Robert P. George, these words are nothing less than a prophecy of the rise of Nazism. Indeed, when the Nazis came to power, they burned Heine’s books, and proved prophetic his assertion that “when books are burned, people too will be burned.” George also sees relevance in Heine’s reflections for our day:
That we are seeing in the streets now and more broadly in the culture—from the schools and universities to the news media and entertainment industry to the “woke” corporate boardrooms—didn’t and doesn’t just happen. There is an ideology, a set of beliefs, a worldview—a way of looking at and interpreting the world—an anthropology, a moral philosophy, that has long been in place in the minds and hearts of opinion-shaping elites and influencers that now plays out in the realm of the visible. The time to have fought was long ago in the realm of the intellect, the invisible domain of the spirit.
But we mustn’t despair. Quite the opposite. Because two can play at this game. Transformations in intellect—in the mind, in the heart, in the spirit—can have good as well as bad consequences. Good thinking, good education, good formation can produce good results every bit as much as bad thinking, bad ideas, bad formation will produce evil results.