In his 2018 book How Fascism Works, Jason Stanley offers an assessment of the state of American politics under the leadership of Donald Trump and suggests that there are troubling signs that fascism is on the rise in the United States. He bases this on what he determines as the ‘10 pillars’ of fascist ideology which he saw as being revived under the Trump administration. Included in this list are appeals to a mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety, appeals to the heartland, and a dismantling of public welfare and unity. The presence of these elements, or some combination thereof, suggest that a movement has distinct fascist leanings, and the then President Trump is held as representing the strongest example in recent history of a return to classic fascist politics. Stanley concludes that, in its essence, fascism is about dividing people so that political power can be achieved and/or maintained.
This is a neat summary indeed, but does this do justice to the complex and nuanced history of fascism as it has manifest throughout time? Our answer to this question will largely depend on the working definition we use when determining what fascism is and what it isn’t. Unfortunately, the problem of definition is not easily resolved. For one, we might consider the fact the scholars of fascism have struggled to provide a clear definition, preferring instead to acknowledge some common themes shared amongst them rather than offer a clear-cut and infallible definition. This has been helpfully acknowledged by Kevin Passmore, whose careful analysis of fascist movements throughout history acknowledges their often-contradictory elements. He notes:
Difficulties arise when scholars claim that their pet theory provides the only way to understand fascism. Since any given political movement is too complex to be encompassed within a single concept, they soon encounter evidence that won’t ‘fit.’ They get around the problem by claiming that their theory explains the most important aspects of fascism. Difficult features are dismissed as less significant. Unfortunately, this division of the features of fascism into primary and secondary is arbitrary – or determined by political preference.
This difficulty of achieving a consensus is not born out of abstract intellectual debate, but rather a very awareness of the diverse historical iterations of fascist movements and the significant differences between them. Generally, fascist movements tend to reflect some combination of the following:
Identification of enemies as a unifying cause
Control of the mass media
A close relationship between religion and government
A charismatic, visionary leader
Use of terror for the purposes of suppression/repression
Disdain for human rights
The protection of corporate power
It is important to point out, however, that these elements (which are not exhaustive) are applicable in a variety of contexts and to different extents. As one example, communism and fascism utilise totalitarianism as a tool for the governance of the state. Both Nazism and Soviet Russia employed vast spy networks and secret internal police as a way of suppressing opposition. Both regimes tended to devalue the individual in favour of the collective good and the idea of national strength through unity. Both regimes also appealed to the more affluent and economically prosperous elements of society as responsible for exploitation and oppression. The channels of media within both contexts were also subject to state censorship and control. This is not intended to disavow the major ideological differences between communism and fascism but is simply pointing out that there are considerable shared features as well. At least on the operational level, fascism and communism often operate using similar tactics.
An interesting question arises when we consider how many of the elements ascribed to fascism need to be present before we might consider something to be truly fascist in orientation. To illustrate this difficulty, I would like to draw attention to the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP, or NAZI) as an example of the highly contextual nature of fascist politics. For many, the Nazis are the very definition of fascism, and this is certainly justified to a large extent. Yet, if we cast our mind back to Jason Stanley’s ’10 pillars’ of fascism, we can observe that not all of these elements are applicable. It is inaccurate, for example, to state that the Nazi’s were anti-intellectual. Certainly, Hitler made plenty of proclamations expressing his distaste for intellectuals, and the early phases of the movements certainly contained a boorish, thuggish element. Yet, many elements of the Nazi leadership and supporting organisations were engaged in offering what they felt was an intellectual and philosophical foundation for National Socialism. Alfred Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century is an example of this, as is the work of various religious organisations who sought to provide evidence of the non-Jewish origins of Christianity. It is also relevant that National Socialist leaders, including Hitler himself, frequently appealed to key figures in German intellectual history as precursors of the movement. Included in this list of intellectual luminaries was Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, Immanuel Kant, Johann Fichte, and Friedrich Schiller. It is more accurate, then, to speak of a specific Nazi brand of intellectualism (which was based on racism and anti-globalisation) rather than dismiss the movement as being ‘anti-intellectual.’
One other interesting issue relates to the relationship between Nazism and the German churches. As noted above, one of the hallmarks of fascist politics appears to be the close relationship between church and state. Within Mussolini’s Italy, this relationship was a close one, as the Vatican sought to adapt itself to the spirit of the times. The dynamic of church and state relations within the Third Reich had altogether different nuances when compared with the Italian fascist state. One of the interesting things about Hitler is that in the early years of his political career he spent considerable effort courting church support. In the Nazi party policy platform issued in 1920 and written by Hitler, point 24 suggested that the Party supported the idea of “positive Christianity.” This led many German Christians to believe that the Nazi party was Christian in orientation. Unfortunately, this does not bear the weight of scrutiny. As 1930s Germany grew increasingly militarized and combative, so too did Hitler’s response to the churches grow more dismissive and bitter, forcing a wedge between church and state which would not be overcome. Ultimately, the Nazi’s felt that the churches were ineffectual and of no consequence to the advancement of the regime. This is what led Hitler to state that he intended to let the churches “rot like a gangrenous limb.”
Another point worth mentioning, which is seen by Stanley as an essential feature of fascism, is the notion that its ideology seeks reversion back to a mythic past. On the one hand, this is certainly a feature of Nazi rhetoric. Disillusionment with the Weimar Republic and industrialisation was a widespread phenomenon within Germany at this time, and in this climate, many longed for a return to a pre-republic and pre-industrialised agricultural ethnic community. Yet in important ways the Nazis were embracers of the most cutting-edge technology and were at the forefront of scientific discovery. Unfortunately, these discoveries were to have grotesque applications via the war and concentration camps, but this does not alter the basic fact that the Nazis were not anti-modernity or anti-scientific. This is observed by Douglas O’Reagan, who has recently written a study of how Nazi scientific and technological discoveries were utilised by Allied powers in the post-War period.
Stanley’s conclusion that Fascism is about dividing people to maintain power is also problematic when applied to the example of Nazi Germany. Because of the legacy of anti-Semitic feeling within German history, Hitler’s demonization of the Jews met with deep sympathy from large swathes of the population and required little manipulation of public mood. In response to the perceived threat of ‘international Jewry and finance,’ the Nazi’s promoted a myth of cultural unity based on the idea of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), in which ethnic Germans were called to be united in their shared racial identity. So, although the Nazi’s reflected the fascist tendency to identify national enemies, these enemies were mostly considered external. Internally, the racial purification of the Volkgemeinschaft (people’s community) would lead to a future without division.
It is also noteworthy that the National Socialists were legally elected, which would appear to be incongruent with many assessments of Fascists as achieving power through dubious or illegal means. Inspired by Benito Mussolini, Hitler’s Stormtroopers had attempted to steal power from the Bavarian Government in 1924 by forcibly storming Munich’s Field Marshall’s Hall. This resulted in the arrest and imprisonment of Hitler and other Nazi leaders. This led to a change in philosophy, in which Hitler held that all future elections must be undertaken within the spirit of the law (although not without the aid of propaganda!).
What I hope to have introduced above is the difficulty we face when attempting to understand what constitutes fascism. It is beyond the scope of this presentation to offer a more detailed treatment of fascism throughout history and in contemporary discussions, but I would like to leave you with a concept for thinking about fascism which I find helpful.
I suggest that we might do better to speak of a fascist instinct or ‘spirit,’ rather than forming fixed overidentifications of fascism with certain political movements. Historically, fascist movements have been broad and have displayed markedly different approaches to ideology and governance based on a range of geographic, ethnic and cultural factors. They can be manifest on far-left movements as well as its more obvious associations with far-right political groups. After all, technical differences in ideology may not feel particularly relevant for those on the receiving end of fascist violence and repression. I would further suggest that the fascist impulse forms in response to a range of societal factors which emerge in times of economic hardship, perceived moral decay and decadence, as well as traditional fears of immigration. Indeed, this was the topic of Fritz Stern’s important study on the rise of Nazism, which he located as originating in the despairing and turbulent years of post-WW1 Germany. If we wish to avoid such ideas and movements gaining currency in the future, we need to do a better job of engaging with and responding to the reasons why fascist ideas emerge in the first place. The resilience of fascism in the post-WW2 era is evidence that it continues to connect with new adherents and sympathisers who, to differing extents, feel that fascist ideology provides answers to the chaotic nature of contemporary life.
So, what is ‘dangerous’ about all of this? In reminding ourselves of the fluidity and adaptability of Fascism ideas, we are compelled to consider whether fascism can be so narrowly defined as it often is in contemporary discourse. It seems to me that the elements indicative of fascism as discussed above are currently replicated in a variety of political movements not traditionally associated with far-right politics. As an example, the censoring of media and the phenomenon of de-platforming undertaken by various tech giants seems indicative of a fascist approach to controlling popular discourse via manipulation of the media, even though these companies would justify this with recourse to creating a more just and equitable world. The genocide of the Uyghur peoples by the Chinese Community Party also conjures up disturbing images of the Nazi atrocities. When we add these instances to the problem of classification and definitions discussed above, it appears prudent to exercise caution before we label something or someone as Fascist. Perhaps the Fascist instinct is not simply a matter of political ideology but is instead a recurring feature of humanities psychological response to grief, powerlessness, and a sense of loss. If this is the case, fascist ideologies will remain a part of our cultural and political landscape until these underlying factors are addressed.
 Jason Stanley, How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (New York: Random House, 2018).
 Kevin Passmore, Fascism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13-14.
 Mark Donovan, “The Italian State: No Longer Catholic, no Longer Christian,” in Church and State in Contemporary Europe: The Chimera of Neutrality, eds., John T.S. Madeley and Zsolt Enyedi (London: Frank Cass, 2003), 113.
 John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches,1933-45 (Toronto: Ryerson, 1968), 15.
 Douglas M. O’Reagan, Taking Nazi Technology: Allied Exploration of German Science After the Second World War (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2021).
 Clifford R. Lovin, “Blut Und Boden: The Ideological Basis of the Nazi Agricultural Program.” Journal of the History of Ideas 28, no. 2 (1967): 279-88.
 Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology (Los Angeles: University of California Press,1974).
From: Ryan Buesnel, The German Christian Rally at Berlin’s Sportspalast, 28 February 1934: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller, Dr. Christian Kinder Respond to the Kirchenkampf, Journal of Church and State, , csaa103, https://doi.org/10.1093/jcs/csaa103
On February 28, 1934, about twenty thousand members of the various German Christian movements and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportpalast to hear speeches given by theologians and clergy who supported Hitler and the Nazi movement. The purpose of the gathering was threefold. Firstly, the meeting functioned as a propagandistic exercise in virtue-signaling. As a movement that went to considerable lengths to publicly demonstrate its endorsement of the Third Reich, German Christian gatherings such as this one were marked by their outward displays of Nazi ideology, ritual, and imagery. Secondly, this rally served an educational purpose. In the speeches given by movement leaders, German Christian pastors and laypeople had their support of the Nazis legitimized on theological grounds, thus removing any remnants of cognitive dissonance between the aryanized racism of Nazism and the Jewish origins of Christianity. However, the 1934 rally also represents an attempt by the German Christian movement to appease those who had become increasingly critical of its actions. This was done via reassurance that the movement was simply carrying on the work of the Reformation, and that all theological and political division should melt away under the shared experience of being German.
The rally was held in response to a series of crises facing the Protestant Church during the early 1930s. This period —known as the Kirchenkampf (church struggle)—was marked by growing internal divisions concerning the trajectory of the church and its relationship to the politics and ideology of the Nazi Party. The German Christians, who were themselves a politically and theologically diverse movement, were nonetheless united by a sense that God had “raised up Hitler for the redemption of the German people.” It was this belief that motivated their ecclesial activity in its attempts to transform Protestant theology and install leaders sympathetic to the Nazis in church leadership roles. In so doing, the German Christians hoped to synthesize the ideas of National Socialism into a new era of post-confessional and post-doctrinal Christianity.
Although not the only major German Christian rally held during these early years of Nazi rule, the February 1934 meeting is particularly important for our understanding of how German Christian leaders viewed their own missional tasks, as well as their vision for a united German national church. As a unique window into the motivations of its leaders, the speeches given at German Christian rallies are an excellent repository of primary source material that can assist historians in determining the movement’s internal dynamics and activities, as well as its trajectory throughout the years of Nazi rule. Yet, despite the importance of the 1934 speeches for the study of the church struggle in its formative years, a detailed analysis of their content has been largely overlooked by the scholarly literature, which has tended to focus instead on the German Christian rally held on November 13, 1933. A central reason for this is the 1933 rally’s notorious theological proclamations, which included a speech by the Berlin Church leader Dr. Reinhold Krause stating that “[w]e expect that our nation’s Church as a German People’s Church should free itself of all things not German in its services and confession, especially the Old Testament with its Jewish system of quid pro quo morality.” In giving voice to such sentiments, the 1933 rally clearly articulated the radical goals and priorities of the German Christian movement and its future intentions for the Protestant Church. The rally’s tone was one of bombastic proclamation rather than reasoned persuasion, and it is hardly surprising that the infamous nature of this event has made it particularly interesting to scholars.
The 1934 rally was, by contrast, a subtler affair, which demonstrated a more conciliatory approach to resolving the struggle emerging within the churches. Rather than beating its critics into theological submission, the 1934 rally reflected an emphasis on supraconfessionalism and the centrality of “Germanness” as a unifying force. This article therefore offers an assessment of the theological and political themes reflected in the speeches of the Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller and Reich Leader Dr. Christian Kinder, as later published in booklet format in 1934. It suggests that, regarding the ongoing Kirchenkampf, the 1934 rally demonstrated that the German Christians were willing to adapt their approach from one of direct confrontation with their opponents, as at the 1933 rally, to one of attempted reconciliation. Although the theological and political themes of the two rallies were similar, the differences in tone and approach demonstrate a greater degree of subtlety in German Christian activity than is often understood.
The Kirchenkampf and the Historical Context of the February 1934 Rally
In his two-volume work on the history of the German churches during the Third Reich era, noted historian Klaus Scholder documents the unrest that was emerging in German Protestantism at the end of the 1920s. In assessing the rise of ecclesial division, Scholder posits a split between the conservatism of the Landeskirchen (regional churches) and the Word of God theology which had been popularized by Swiss theologian Karl Barth. In arguing for the freedom of the gospel, Barth felt that the church had become too infatuated with the political theology of the time, including the increasingly popular völkisch movement, and had smugly acted as if its institutional survival depended on its own efforts. Much of Barth’s polemic was directed against the theological legacy of Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose emphasis on natural theology and the primacy of religious “feeling” had left a theological legacy that confused folk consciousness with divine revelation. In a controversial article written in 1930, Barth crystallized his position and dismissed the Church’s obsession with political and cultural relevance as an affront to its intended purpose as a witness to a gracious yet transcendent God:“Therefore, because the Church intends to clog and poison her own well by an unhealthy relevance, one must speak against her with final anger… if one has love for her.”
Such a forceful denunciation of the ecclesiastical status quo was bound to attract criticism. This was provided by Otto Dibelius, the Bishop of the Evangelical Church in Berlin-Brandenburg. In a 1930 report to the Prussian General Synod, Dibelius took exception to the transcendental implications of Barth’s theology and argued instead that although the church-state distinction was important, this did not imply that state power was inherently godless. In Dibelius’s estimation, the “flesh and blood” character of the church was vital for the furtherance of a Christian state in which the Kingdom of God would be actualized. What Dibelius emphasized was that the abstract theological reasoning of Barth left no room for an understanding of the church’s practical mission to a German people who had become estranged due to irrelevant, outdated dogmas which did not reflect the national experience. In the same year in which these debates were taking place, the National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) Party recognized the strategic importance of gaining the support of the church. By 1931, supporters of the Nazis had begun campaigning for the election of Nazi supporters to offices in the various regional churches. These developments were met with unease by those who continued to have reservations about the increasing intrusion of politics into the church.
This ongoing unrest preempted serious internal church struggles, which were heightened during the first two years of Hitler’s rule (1933-34) as the question of the church’s relationship to Nazism grew steadily more pointed. By September of 1933, the Pastors’ Emergency League (Pfarrernotbund) had been formed in Wittenberg by Herbert Golzten, Günther Jacob, and Eugen Weschke. The League aimed to protest the implementation of the Aryan Law and advocate for the authority of scripture in the life of the church, with the Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller soon emerging as its leader. The League enjoyed early success in terms of numbers, attracting some 7,036 members in its first four months of activity. For theologians and clergy sympathetic to the Nazis, however, Hitler’s election was interpreted as a sign of God’s will for Germany manifested in the political sphere, and the electoral success of the Nazis afforded an opportunity to reconsider the theological and political foundations of the church itself. The formation and activity of the German Christians’ pro-Nazi factions within the Protestant churches illustrates the willingness of clergy and theologians to accommodate key Nazi ideas relating to race and nation. In actual fact, many of these church leaders viewed Nazism and Christianity as different manifestations of the same inner essence, leading to an assumption that in advocating for a nazified church, the German Christians were simply wanting to restore Christianity and the church to its rightful origins. As one influential voice within the early German Christian Movement put it, “National Socialism and its leaders are striving for the realization of Christian principles.”
Hitler envisioned the German Christians as playing an important role in facilitating the creation of a unified Reich Church that would function under Nazi control. Moving toward this goal, Hitler appointed Ludwig Müller as his “representative on matters concerning the Protestant Church” on April 25, 1933. Müller had been a military chaplain in Wilhelmshaven in the First World War, continuing in chaplaincy roles in the post-war period. An early supporter of the Nazi Party, Müller was an inherently sycophantic personality who longed to increase his own power and influence. Although often derided for his incompetence as a leader, Müller’s efforts helped fuel the successful church election campaign of 1933. The aim of the campaign was to secure German Christian representation at the local parish level, hoping to thus secure a dominant position within the German Evangelical Church. The campaigning strategy was fruitful, with the German Christians enjoying a resounding victory in July. In her assessment of the election results, Shelley Baranowski writes that the German Christians attracted about 75 percent of the vote, thus ensuring its ongoing influence over church affairs. Müller’s own influence within the churches was also assured, having been elected to the role of Bishop by the Senate of the Prussian Church in August. His influence was further enhanced in September when he became the Reich Bishop.
Riding high on their recent success, about twenty thousand German Christians and their supporters gathered at Berlin’s Sportspalast in November 1933 in a public demonstration of support for the Nazi Party. Featuring a range of speakers from the movement, the rally addressed various issues of vital significance to the German Christian leadership, including the forced removal of clergy who were not sympathetic to Nazism, the exclusion of the Old Testament from the biblical canon, and the adoption of the so-called Aryan Paragraph. One of the more extreme speeches given at this event came from Dr. Reinhold Krause, the chairman of the Berlin chapter of the German Christians and a fierce advocate of an aryanized, neo-pagan Christianity. His proclamations at the 1933 rally were divisive and unorthodox, and suggested that many of the established traditions and doctrines of Christianity were outmoded and corrupted by Jewish influence. What he proposed was the “elimination of the Old Testament from religious instruction, as well as the expurgation from the New Testament of distorted accounts.” He continued his speech with a call for a “return to the heroic conception of Jesus, not as a God enthroned to be conceived dogmatically, but as a fearless fighter and leader.” 
As much as the movement might have felt emboldened by recent victory, such outspoken advocacy for a nazified Christianity did not receive the blanket support it so earnestly desired, and the fallout from the rally has been described by German historian Kurt Meier as “a fiasco beyond compare.” It was difficult for many of the attendees to avoid forming the impression that the church’s autonomy was being progressively undermined by the state, causing a number of German Christians to renounce involvement with the movement. This feeling of suspicion and anxiety was heightened by the institution of the so-called “muzzling decree” of January 1934, which was designed by Müller to prevent criticism of the church and threaten dissenting pastors with a range of disciplinary measures. Understandably, this further antagonized critics of the German Christians, resulting in additional unrest and a growing sense of impending crisis. Some Protestant leaders felt compelled to personally complain to Hitler and President Hindenburg in an attempt to denounce what they perceived as the strategic undermining of the church by the German Christians. About 320 ministers from various Reformed congregations met in Barmen-Gemarke to formulate a response to these ecclesiastical developments and to explore the formation of a Free Reformed Synod. It was this gathering that ultimately gave rise to the now famous Barmen Declaration.
These increasingly schismatic overtures necessitated a response from Müller. In the period following the 1933 rally, he undertook a range of concessional actions to calm the ecclesiastical storm. One of these was to dismiss the radical German Christian leader Joachim Hossenfelder and replace him with the moderate Dr. Christian Kinder, who was tasked with presenting a more conciliatory face of German Christian activity. At this stage in the history of the church struggle, many German Christians hoped that factional splits might be healed by these efforts towards reconciliation. That these steps were taken points to the complexities of the Kirchenkampf and highlights the difficulty of drawing a clear line between the German Christians and their theological opponents. Müller’s concessional measures pointed to the possibility of a reconciliation between the two groups, even if this appears an impossible outcome, with the benefit of hindsight. The attempts at damage control in the months following the 1933 rally suggest that there was an expectation that the current theological and political disputes might be resolved through negotiation. It is therefore in the spirit of controversy and subsequent attempts at unification that the 1934 speeches should be interpreted. What emerges throughout Müller’s and Kinder’s speeches is an ongoing tension within the German Christians which, although ultimately insisting on the supremacy of Nazism as the appropriate religious response to the national context, also understood its future actions as requiring broad church support. This is further reflected in the degree of rhetorical moderation that the 1934 speeches exhibit, which was lacking in the proclamations of the 1933 rally, demonstrating that the German Christians were capable of altering their approach to mitigate ongoing controversy.
The First Speech: Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller
In interpreting Müller’s public speeches, it is important to bear in mind the he was in fact directing his words to two separate audiences, the Protestant churches and the Nazi Party leadership with whom he sought to curry favor. Although many members of the German Christians were themselves Nazi Party members, Müller moved within the upper echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, which meant that his statements were often platitudinous. Hitler’s patience with internal church affairs was always limited, which necessitated extra effort on Müller’s behalf to demonstrate his usefulness and loyalty. For this reason, Müller’s speeches betray a distinct element of flattery, a feature evident in the speech he gave on February 28, 1934. Nevertheless, when compared with other public pronouncements made by Müller in the early years of Nazi rule, the 1934 speech is generally more subdued and measured. This is likely to have reaffirmed Hitler’s growing sense that Müller was incapable of the strong leadership required to unite the churches.
After expressing his gratitude for being asked to address the gathering, Müller’s speech begins with an acknowledgement of the inseparable nature of the Nazi Party and German Christianity. For Müller, it made no real sense to speak of church and state as separate entities within the contemporary political climate, as they represented two expressions of the same essence. Müller’s idea that National Socialism and German Protestantism belonged together called into question many traditional assumptions about the origins and nature of Christianity, primarily related to the notion of an Aryan Jesus—a militarized Christianity in which Jesus functioned as a martyr to Judaism—and the strong emphasis on the need for cultural and political reform in light of a shared national destiny. In the future, Müller would solidify these theo-political concepts in his 1939 text, “Was ist positives Christentum?” (What is positive Christianity?), but the 1934 speech reveals the extent to which he had already committed himself to shape a new theological grammar that better reflected the militarized rhetoric of the age: “We stand as National Socialists on the ground of Positive Christianity…It is very clear that only as ‘German Christians’ can we take up the fight in the Church. We are Christians who are staunch and immoveable to the eternal truth that Christ brought.”
The “fight” referred to by Müller encompassed both the spiritual and physical realms. The church’s special role in a militarized society centered on ensuring the spiritual health and vitality of the German people. Rather than take a prophetic role in the Third Reich to question the moral and political legitimacy of Nazi policy, the German Christians instead saw the ideology of the party as the standard to which the church should conform.
The idea of the Nazi Party as a revelatory expression of God’s sovereign will for the moral and spiritual redemption of the nation was a major preoccupation of German Christian leaders. Yet Müller’s presentation of it in his speech is noteworthy, as he sought to align the mythology of the Nazis’ “time of struggle” with the experience of the Protestant Church in its battle to free itself from the distortions of false dogma and Jewish influence. Müller made reference to the small but dedicated gathering of sympathetic German Christians who discerned the religious and political shifts taking place and gathered together during the early 1930s to work towards ecclesial change. It seems clear that in describing the origins of the German Christians in this way, i.e., mirroring the political trajectory of the Nazis, Müller was attempting to further point to what he called a self-evident “inner connection between Protestantism and National Socialism.”
Müller next turned his attention to the weightier matter of church and state relations in the Third Reich. As mentioned previously, he was tasked by Hitler with uniting Germany’s twenty-eight regional Evangelical churches in order to bring them under more effective state control. Müller’s speech reflected the centrality of this mission and offered an assessment of the authority upon which the church based its call to unification. Rather than appealing to a shared spiritual identity in Christ, however, Müller made it clear that it was the initiative of Hitler and the Nazi revolution which spurred the churches into action:“The unification of the 28 regional Evangelical Churches into one large German Protestant Church has only become possible thanks to the victory of the National Socialist revolution. Without this unification of the people, unification of the Church would have been completely impossible.” The reason the initiative for church unification was taken up by the Nazi government was because the church had failed to properly represent the will of the people. It had become too caught up in abstract doctrinal and confessional disputes, thereby rendering it incomprehensible to the ordinary German believer: “The harsh criticism of the Church should urge all of us who are in the service of the Evangelical Church to carry out a rigorous self-examination as to how much the Church is to blame for the huge crowds of people who have turned away from the Church.”
For Müller, the German churches risked oblivion unless they could find a way to better connect with a German people revitalized by National Socialism. The argument for a “German Christianity” was further buttressed by an appeal to the authority of a national hero, Martin Luther. Müller praised Luther for his work in crafting an expression of Christianity that captured the internal spiritual essence of the German Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). According to Müller, Luther’s chief contribution to German history was to begin the process of liberating the church from foreign influence, especially the dominance of Roman Catholicism. In translating the Bible into German, Luther had begun an unfolding process of “germanization” of the church in which race, nation, and faith were brought into closer alignment. From Müller’s perspective, the German Christians were simply continuing Luther’s Reformation in the twentieth century in their attempts to liberate German religion from the corruptions and distortions of Judaism.
Yet there were also strong indications that Müller sought to move beyond Luther. If indeed Müller saw in the National Socialist government a spiritual revelation of God, which necessitated a decisive break with the past, this represents a significant point of difference with Luther’s “two kingdoms” doctrine which, despite its ambiguities, at least posited a qualitative difference between the nature of state power and church power. Moreover, in Luther’s thought, it was the gospel that constituted the final authority in the life of Christians. For Müller, no such separation was possible because the church and the state were inextricably bound together: “We do not stand next to or against the state, but we stand in the middle of the state as its most loyal helpers and its firmest supporters… Our relationship to the Third Reich is not a relationship of distrust, but of absolute and firm trust.”
Müller’s description of the church as being in the “middle” of the state is interesting and hints at a conception of the church having a dual function as a witness to the gospel and as an enabler of Nazi policy on ecclesiastic matters. Müller continued this line of thought with an appeal for ecclesial unity based on trust in the righteousness of Nazism. In a deeper sense, this reflected a belief prevalent amongst German Christians that the Nazis and German Protestantism constituted a different manifestation of the same primordial essence, described by Müller as an “innermost driving force.” Insisting on this point made it easier for Müller to convince his hearers that the church-state unity he espoused was natural and healthy. This was not a question of the church being compromised by a close alliance with a neo-pagan or atheistic regime, but rather a simple call for the church to recognize the sacred and divine nature of the Nazi mission. Thus, Müller argued, the Church should have no qualms about placing its trust in the guiding force of National Socialism.“The state has an interest in ensuring that order prevails in the inner life of the Church, and that is also the will and desire of our leader. We also have the greatest trust that the Führer will find the right, contemporary form for cooperation between state and Church—and such an agreement of trust is worth more than ten concordats!”
Furthermore, to define National Socialism solely as a political party was to misconstrue its essential function as a mirror of the collective will of the people, he argued. Its ideology and political activity were not about self-serving power but were simply an attempt to grant back to the German people a dignity and ethical framework that had been corrupted in the postwar period. This was a point on which many could agree, as it was not only the German Christians who experienced the despair and anger of those turbulent years. Considering this point, Müller stated, “National Socialism is not a party in its own right, but rather a popular movement that wants to encompass the whole of the people by imparting a new self-confidence to the individual. The inner being of the National Socialist gains its strength through the power of trust, belief, obedience and loyalty.”It was therefore the moral character of Nazism that revealed its inherent righteousness. This is further evidenced by Müller’s suggestion that it was Nazism that provided the opportunity for the church to fulfill Luther’s vision for a united German church. The great reformer, argued Müller, was “so deeply connected to German blood and soil” that it rendered his nationalism and theology fundamentally intertwined. These words would have provided a powerful stimulus for those engaged in critical reflection about the nature and purpose of the church in the Third Reich.
Müller then moved to the closing points of his speech and implored his listeners to undertake the essential work of proclaiming Christ. Müller was referring to Jesus who had been recast as a warrior against Judaism, a view that would be more fully developed by the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life at Eisenach from 1939 onward. Müller viewed Jesus as a prototypical symbol to be emulated in the fight against the Jews. In a spirit of fearlessness, contemporary disciples of Jesus should also be willing to go into combat against the shared enemy of international Judaism and Bolshevism with discipline and zeal:“Anyone who is at once grasped by him [Jesus Christ] and his truth becomes a fighter on his own, who never has a slave soul or a submissive nature but who, with courageous trust, is ready to fight against all ungodly power.”
The combined power of God, state, and church, then, was the only way that Germany could rise up against its enemies and fulfill the mandate that had been revealed by God via the Nazi state. While it is certainly true that Müller’s speech reflected the stridency typical of the German Christians, its ongoing emphasis on unity distinguishes it from the speeches at the 1933 rally. The historical timing of the speech during a particularly polarizing period in the Kirchenkampf would suggest that the theme of unification was deliberately chosen as a corrective to the divisions of November 1933. As justification for a unity based on the advent of National Socialism, Müller further called upon his listeners to reflect on the moral qualities he saw embedded in Nazi ideology. Assuming a clear spiritual bond between National Socialism and the true, i.e., non-Jewish, essence of Christianity, Müller was able to frame his advocacy of unity as justified by sound theology and continuity with German Reformation history.
The Second Speech: Dr. Christian Kinder
Dr. Christian Kinder was a dedicated leader in the German Christian movement with a reputation for aligning himself with its more moderate factional elements. A member of the German Christians since its inception, Kinder remained faithful to the movement even after it fell out of favor with the Nazi hierarchy. As Hitler’s war progressed and defeat was all but certain, he showed no signs of wavering in his support for the Nazi regime, eventually becoming president of the Schleswig-Holstein Church in 1945.
The immediate background of Kinder’s speech at the 1934 rally was his promotion to the position of Reich Leader of the German Christians. Tasked with the onerous job of uniting the factional elements of the German Christians, Kinder’s initial actions as leader were bold and swift. He implemented new guidelines for the movement and also approved a name change, from “Faith Movement of German Christians” to the more strident “German Christian Reich Movement.” However polarizing these actions were, Kinder’s enduring advocacy for a unified, post-confessional church indicates that he took seriously his mandate to deal with ecclesial division.
As we have seen, an issue of crucial importance to critics of the German Christian movement was the need for the church to remain autonomous from the state. In its early stages, the Pastors’ Emergency League and its supporters were not primarily concerned about Nazi racism and anti-Judaism, but were worried that the Nazis’ intention was to place the party at the head of the church in the place of Jesus Christ. They were right to be concerned, as proved by the 1933 Twenty-Eight Theses of the Saxon National Church for the Internal Strengthening of the German Evangelical Church, a document drafted by Walter Grundmann. The purpose of this document was to clarify the issue of the German church’s relationship to the Nazi state and the implications for theology and ecclesiology. Included in Grundmann’s Theses is an exhortation for the church to “commit itself to the doctrines of blood and race because our people share a common blood and a common existence.” Although the Theses gave passing acknowledgment to the timeless sovereignty of Jesus Christ over the church, they also suggested that the creeds and doctrines of the past needed to be reassessed in light of the contemporary national situation.
Kinder addressed Grundmann’s Theses in his speech, attempting to walk a fine line between advocating for their necessity and conceding that they did not replace the confessions of faith as authoritative in the Church: “I also attach great importance to making sure that the 28 Theses are not a confession, but simply guidelines for the Church to follow. Not everyone will be committed to them individually, but against all the slander of our opponents, we emphasize how we [the German Christians] see the Evangelical Church in the present time.”
The value of the Theses was not that they reflected a rigorous theological process, but instead that they promised to reduce the threat of schism and disunity. Ongoing division in the church would be a national catastrophe, as the external enemies facing Germany required the nation to band together as a united front. As such, the Theses was presented by Kinder not so much as a theological absolute, but rather as a call to put away denominational differences. What was needed was a national Christian community to help degrade the pervasive spirit of individuality: “Many evangelical minds and hearts have lost the sense of what the Church really is through the spirit of individualism. Such devastating individualism can only be overcome through the Church, as the community that has progressed through the generations, in which each individual is not only a member but a living link in the whole organism.” That the specifically religious content of the Theses could be overlooked simply by calling for ecclesial unity is curious, but not overly surprising given the agenda of the rally itself. The call for a rebirth of the church was entirely predicated on the successful display of national spirit and unity by the Nazis.“It was in the birth hours of National Socialism when the German people, in the company of their comrades and possessed by the same spirit and inspired by the same will, no longer thought of themselves but as members of one community for whom they should live and sacrifice.” It was this model of national unity and willingness to sacrifice for the whole that the Protestant churches needed to emulate as the basis of their existence in the Third Reich:“National Socialism binds our people. We German Christians want a new beginning in the Church; we want the Church to become a Church again. National Socialism has opened our eyes to the deeper connections between the German Volk.”
If National Socialism was the fabric that would hold the church together in the new age, what should be made of historical dogmas and traditions? Kinder attempted to address this in his speech, and it was there that one could glean an insight into the true heart of his message. Like Müller, Kinder made several references to the German Christians’ continuity with the past, including his insistence that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for all eternity and will remain the cornerstone of everything we do.” Nevertheless, Kinder was more concerned with reiterating the uniqueness of the present moment—“Our time is different from that in which the confessions were formulated”—and what it requires in terms of ecclesial change. The distinctiveness and revelatory nature of Nazism, therefore, had clear implications for how Christian history was being interpreted by the German Christians:
Our ideological training has emphasised that today it is not about empty dogmatic disputes but the struggle of values… Due to the tremendous changes in the life of our Volk we have also received valuable new knowledge about our Church life. This knowledge extends to almost all areas of Church life. Under the awakening of the German people and all the knowledge connected with it, we feel as if suddenly a bright light is shining into the darkness of the Church building.
Kinder acknowledged that National Socialism prompted the revitalization of the church, and he further affirmed the claim of Nazi ideology over every sphere of German church life. Yet he also rounded this out with an assurance that Jesus Christ would remain the “cornerstone in everything we do.” This stance is similar to that adopted by Müller in that it attempts to balance a fixed commitment to the nazification of the church with theological orthodoxy, i.e., the Lordship of Christ over the church, which might have reassured some critics who were sitting on the fence. The crass, steamroller approach of November 1933 had now shifted to one that promised that the demands placed upon the church by Nazi policy and ideology could be affirmed without sacrificing the integrity of the Christian faith. Hence, Kinder could affirm that “it is a foundation of the Evangelical Church that it preaches the ancient Gospel to people in a new form.” Kinder was therefore advocating for a merging of the old and the new, what we might today call “contextual theology.”
Further themes discussed by Kinder included the need for the church to immerse itself in the political affairs of the state and an extrapolation of the future intentions of the German Christians. His speech closed with what is perhaps the clearest indication yet that the purpose of this rally was to reassure rather than divide. In assessing the ongoing task of the German Christians, Dr. Kinder made the bold claim that it should not consider its activity as constituting a “new” church:
I already stated earlier that a strict separation must be made between the tasks of the Church itself and those of the German Christians. The Church rests on its creeds and has its life in faith. It must preserve and increase this substance, to keep it in lively contact with the present and to shape it. Our organization of German Christians should not and must not influence this.
Thus, Kinder ended his speech with a reassurance that the German Christians did not seek to impose their will on the broader church through blunt force. It was instead hoped that their efforts at revitalizing theology and the ecclesia would be recognized for what they were, an attempt to reclaim a Christian heritage that had been dismantled by loss of national identity and confessional splintering. Although the increasing bitterness of the Kirchenkampf in the ensuing years clearly indicates that unification was not ultimately possible, Kinder’s conciliatory speech suggests that a preoccupation with only the tone and content of the 1933 rally diminishes our understanding of the scope of the German Christian movement’s response to its critics.
The speeches offered by Reich Bishop Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder at the 1934 German Christian rally represent more than just an object of historical curiosity. Historically situated within the tumultuous Kirchenkampf, the tone of these speeches is characterized by attempts to justify the need for a “German Christianity” and to implore critics of the movement to focus on that which united rather than petty doctrinal squabbles. This approach is at odds with the radical nature of the 1933 rally, where Dr. Reinhold Krause’s dismissal of Jewish morality with its “stories of cattle traders and pimps” was deliberately combative and resulted in the withdrawal of many German Christians from the movement. The noticeably more conciliatory approach taken by Müller and Kinder at the 1934 rally therefore reflects a degree of flexibility in the German Christians’ approach to dealing with dissent and conflict with the Protestant churches. This adaptability is easy to overlook in the history of the German Christians, particularly because the 1933 rally has commanded the most scholarly attention. By early 1934, however, German Christian leaders were forced to reckon with the reality that the transformation and unification of the church was not going to be a straightforward process. Indeed, the ultimate failure of the churches to unite under a single, post-confessional banner was one of the central reasons why Hitler removed himself from ongoing involvement in church affairs.
The attempts at ecclesial harmony displayed at the 1934 rally do not detract from the German Christians’ broader commitment to the goal of nazifying the Protestant Church, but instead inform a more nuanced historiography that acknowledges the complex nature of the Kirchenkampf between November 1933 and February 1934. In the months following the 1933 rally, attempts were made on behalf of the German Christian movement to recover lost ground and incorporate its critics into a vision for a German Reich Church in which they could also participate. The speeches given by Ludwig Müller and Dr. Christian Kinder in February of 1934 are emblematic of this contentious period in German church history and represent a rare moment when German Christian leaders engaged with the criticisms of those whose voices were rapidly being silenced in a culture of pro-Nazi religious zealotry.
 James Zabel’s 1976 study of three major German Christian groups remains invaluable for understanding the diversity within this movement. See James A. Zabel, Nazism and the Pastors: A Study of the Ideas of Three Deutsche Christen Groups (Missoula: Scholars Press, 1976); Roger J. Newell, Keine Gewalt! No Violence! How the Church Gave Birth to Germany’s Only Peaceful Revolution (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), 57
 As quoted in Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), 150.
 Published as Die Deutschen Christen: Die Reden des Reichsbischofs und des Rechleiters der Deutschen Christian, im Berliner Sportpalast am 28. Februar 1934 (Berlin: Gesellschaft für Zeitungsdienst, 1934).
 Karl Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 2 vols. (London: SCM, 1988), 1: 121.
 On this issue see Newell, Keine Gewalt!, 51-52.
 Karl Barth, “Quousque Tandem?” in Karl Barth, “Der Götze wackelt”: Zeitkritische Aufsätze, Reden und Briefe von 1930 bis 1960, ed. Karl Kupisch (Berlin: Käthe Vogt, 1961), 28.
 Scholder, The Churches and the Third Reich, 1: 123.
 On the conflict between Barth and Dibelius, see Eckhard Lessing, “‘Selbstsändigkeit’ und ‘Freiheit’ der Kirche: Eine Notiz zum Kirchenverständnis Dibelius und Barths,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 2 (1989): 426-36.
 Hans Buchheim, Glaubenskrise im Dritten Reich (Stüttgart: Deustche Verlags-Anstalt, 1953), 67, 71-75.
 The Aryan Law mandated the removal of Jews from a range of professions, including universities, civil institutions and the church.
 On the aims of the Pastor’s Emergency League, see Douglas S. Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration: Its Historical Background,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 47 (1984): 18.
 As noted by Kurt K. Hendel, this number would decline drastically over the ensuing years, with less than five thousand members remaining in 1938. See Kurt K. Hendel, “The Historical Context of the Barmen Declaration,” Currents in Theology and Mission 36, no. 2 (2009): 134.
 This was not a particularly novel theological position. In 1921, a high school teacher named Joachim Niedlich had formed the League for a German Church, which sought influence in the Prussian Church Synod. Its purpose was to “rid the Church of its Jewish embrace.” The League counted the influential Houston Stewart Chamberlain as a member. See Richard Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 74.
 Julius Kuptsch, Im Dritten Reich zu Dritten Kirche (Leipzig: Adolf Klein Verlag, 1933), 30-31.
 Gary Dorrien, Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), 264.
 Contrary to the view that Müller was incompetent, his biographer writes that “as Prussian state bishop and German Reich Bishop, he was undoubtedly the most important figure in the Church hierarchy of German Protestantism.”
See Thomas Martin Schneider, Reichsbischof Ludwig Müller: eine Untersuchung zu Leben, Werk und Persönlichkeit (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1993), 152.
 Shelley Baranowski, “The 1933 German Protestant Church Elections: Machtpolitik or Accommodation?” Church History 49, no. 3 (1980): 298.
 Doris L. Bergen describes the language used by Krause as crude and abrasive, attacking the “debilitating remnants of Judaism” that were unacceptable to the National Socialists. See Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 17.
 These translations of Krause’s speech are taken from an article that appeared in the New York Times on November 14, 1933. That news of the rally had caught the attention of the international community suggests a broad awareness of the radical nature of German Christian activity. See “Revision of Scripture is Urged on Germans; Return to Heroic Conception of Jesus and Segregation of Non-Aryans Proposed,” New York Times, November 14, 1933. Krause’s extreme position also earned the respect of Hitler, who remarked that amongst all the clergy Krause was the “most upstanding of the lot.” See Ullrich, Hitler, 644.
Kurt Meier, Kreuz und Hakenkreuz: Die evangelische Kirche im Dritten Reich (München: Traugott Bautz GmbH, 1992), 49.
 It was Krause’s speech in particular that fanned the flames of ongoing controversy. This resulted in further division within the churches. See Robert P. Ericksen, Complicity in the Holocaust: Churches and Universities in Nazi Germany (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 115.
 Robert P. Ericksen, “The Question of Complicity,” in Glaube-Freiheit-Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburstag, ed. Katarzyna Stoklosa and Andrea Strübind (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 104.
 Bax, “The Barmen Theological Declaration,” 19.
 It was this appointment that provided the catalyst for Alfred Rosenberg to formally exit the German Church. See Steigmann-Gall, The Holy Reich, 165.
 Manfred Gailus has challenged the oversimplification of the Kirchenkampf in the post-war period, arguing instead that its complexity defies clear-cut boundaries between those who supported the Nazis and those who were critical. See Manfred Gailus, “1933 als protestantisches Erlebnis. Emphatische Selbsttransformation und Spaltung,” Geschichte und Gessellschaft 29, no. 4 (2003): 481-511.
 Gall, The Holy Reich, 13-51. It is important to note that despite the clear use of “Positive Christianity” as common phraseology within the German Christian movement, recent scholarship by Samuel Koehne has challenged its legitimacy as a coherent theological concept. See Samuel Koehne, “Nazism and Religion: The Problem of ‘Positive Christianity,’” Australian Journal of Politics and History 60, no. 1 (2014): 28-42.
 Ludwig Müller, Was ist positives Christentum? (Stuttgart: Tazzelwurm, 1939).
 David Redles describes the “time of struggle” as one marked by sacrifice and faith for a glorious German future. These elements were seized upon by Müller and the DC as indicators of a shared telos between the Protestant churches and the National Socialists. See David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York University Press, 2005), 105.
 German Christian leaders would often appeal to Luther’s anti-Judaism as a historical precedent, which justified their own position. Of particular relevance was Luther’s notorious 1543 text “On the Jews and their Lies.” The DC theologian Wolf Meyer-Erlach was one such figure who drew heavily on Luther’s treatment of the so-called “Jewish question.” See Christopher J. Probst, “An Incessant Army of Demons”: Wolf Meyer-Erlach, Luther and ‘the Jews’ in Nazi Germany,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies 23, no. 3 (2009): 441–60
 Martin Luther, “Secular Authority: To What Extent Should it be Obeyed?,” in Martin Luther: Selections from his Writings, ed. John Dillenberger (New York: Anchor, 1962), 387.
 The view that the German Christians “were not Christians but pagans” has been advocated by Karla Poewe in New Religions and the Nazis (New York: Routledge, 2006), 7ff. This problematic interpretation has been challenged by Horst Junginger in “Nordic Ideology in the SS and the SS Ahnenerbe,” in Nordic Ideology Between Religion and Scholarship, ed. Horst Junginger and Andreas Åkerlund (Bern: Peter Lang, 2013), 39-72.
 Susannah Heschel, “Confronting the Past: Post-1945 German Protestant Theology and the Fate of the Jews,” in The Protestant-Jewish Conundrum: Studies in Contemporary Jewry, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Ezra Mendelsohn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 51.
 Kinder, Die Deutschen Christen, 20. In October of 1934, Kinder released a pamphlet further expounding the 28 Theses for the DC movement. See Robert Melvin Spector, Mass Murder and the Holocaust, History and Analysis, 2 vols. (New York: University Press of America, 2005), 1: 283.
 Interpreting the German Christians as being rooted in the framework of contextual theology is an intriguing position taken by Notger Slenczka, “Theologie Im Kontext der ‘Deutschen Freiheitsbewegung’ Überlegungen zum Anliegen kontextueller Theologien am Beispiel der Deutschchristlichen Theologie,”Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 8, no. 2 (1995): 259-99.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s trial by public opinion unfolded due to an ongoing campaign of character assassination on behalf of the satirical magazine the Corsair. Founded in 1840 by novelist Aron Goldschmidt, the Corsair had earned a reputation as being fearless in its espousal of views contrary to the conservative climate of 19th century Copenhagen, and its tone was often mocking, sarcastic and ironic. No one of prominence in society was safe from the magazine’s reach, which attacked anyone it saw as deserving of its unwelcome attention. Kierkegaard’s biographer Walter Lowrie described the essential task of the Corsair as ‘dragging down the great and revealing that they were not really superior to the vulgar,” and it is through the magazines public denigration that Kierkegaard was to suffer one his most sustained struggles in what was already a turbulent life.
Kierkegaard had come into direct conflict with the Corsair due to a negative review of his 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way. Never one to ignore criticism of his work, Kierkegaard sarcastically challenged the magazine to target him as their next victim, imploring its editors to ‘abuse’ him so that he too might be immortalized by featuring within its pages. Over the ensuing months, the editors of the Corsair took up Kierkegaard’s challenge with gusto, repeatedly maligning the philosopher for his social awkwardness and unusual physical characteristics. These attacks often took the form of caricatures and cartoons, which would exaggerate aspects of Kierkegaard’s appearance such as his dress and physical gait. As a result of this sustained campaign of mocking, Kierkegaard felt the full weight of crushing humiliation as public opinion toward him was increasingly shaped by the Corsair– one of the most widely read periodicals in Copenhagen at the time. In one of his diaries from this period, Kierkegaard reflected on the toll the controversy was taking on his ability to live a normal life:
Young students titter and grin and are happy to see a prominent person trampled on…The slightest thing I do, if it is merely to pay a visit…if the Corsair finds out, it is printed and read by everybody, the man I visit is embarrassed, gets almost angry with me, for which he cannot be blamed.
For Kierkegaard, this experience remained a painful memory throughout his life, perhaps made more bitter by the fact that he was in part responsible for its commencing. With the benefit of hindsight, however, the so-called ‘Corsair Affair’ can be viewed as an experience that played a vital role in the formation of Kierkegaard’s existential philosophy. This is especially evident in the development of Kierkegaard’s understanding of the relationship between the individual and the crowd. Kierkegaard had indeed suffered at the hands of the Corsair and the judgement of what he referred to as the ‘phantom public,’ yet he was ultimately able to incorporate the harsh lessons of this experience into a renewed championing of the individual in the face of the societal demand for conformity.
Background to the Corsair Affair
The origins of the Corsair Affair can be found in an interchange between Kierkegaard and the minor Danish literary critic Peder Ludvig Møller. Møller had published a critical review of Kierkegaard’s 1845 book Stages on Life’s Way in a collection of his writings. Although by no means dismissive of Kierkegaard’s literary gifts, Møller expressed his view that although Kierkegaard was an intelligent and talented writer, he did not think that his work displayed thematic consistency. His erratic style and use of pseudonymous authorship compelled Møller to describe Kierkegaard as ‘the philosopher with the many names.” Møller’s review went on to attack Kierkegaard personally rather than confine his review to the contents of the book. This is particularly evident in his treatment of Kierkegaard’s sexuality and his troubled relationship with his former fiancée Regine Olsen. Here Møller accuses Kierkegaard of maliciously toying with the innocent Regine’s heart, resulting in the break-up of their engagement several years earlier:
But to spin another creature into your spider web, dissect it alive or torture the soul out of it drop by drop by means of experimentation– that is not allowed, except with insects, and is there not something horrible and revolting to the healthy human mind even in this idea?
Møller’s agenda was broader than offering an objective analysis of Kierkegaard’s literary qualities, and its impact on the eccentric Dane was instant. Kierkegaard initially responded by writing two articles in a publication named Fatherland, designed to both clarify the intention behind Stages on Life’s Way and to discredit Møller and the Corsair personally. For Kierkegaard, Møller’s review of Stages on Life’s Way had failed to grasp the meaning of the text, and its gossipy, snide tone merely pointed towards Møller’s superficiality and dilettantish character as a literary critic. It was the purpose of Kierkegaard’s article to draw attention not only to Møller’s ignorance but to the role of the Corsair in cultivating a culture of mediocrity. Ultimately, Kierkegaard longed for the abolition of the magazine altogether. Amongst other criticisms, Kierkegaard held that the Corsair had repeatedly failed to report on matters of substance and that it had overlooked an essential opportunity to be a vital tool of existential communication.
Betraying misplaced confidence in his ability to endure a sustained attack from the press, both of Kierkegaard’s articles provoked the Corsair to target him as its next victim. This reckless act was very nearly catastrophic for Kierkegaard. The scurrilous nature of the Corsair’s subsequent character assassination affected him deeply, and the trauma of this event was to have lasting repercussions for how Kierkegaard understood his life’s work. What ultimately resulted from the Corsair Affair was a protracted period of self-reflection in which Kierkegaard wrestled with the dignity and uniqueness of individual existence in an intellectual climate of Hegelian speculative philosophy, which was dominant in Europe at the time. Within this climate, the philosophical concept of the ‘individual’ had become a causality of Hegel’s emphasis on the broad sweep of history, in which individuals were a mere cog in the dialectical wheel. Kierkegaard reacted strongly against this trend, seeking to restore the role of subjectivity as a cornerstone of philosophical inquiry.
Interpreting the Press through the Lens of the ‘Single Individual.’
A recurring theme in Kierkegaard’s writing is his concept of the ‘single individual’ (den Enkelte). This apparent tautology delineates an important distinction between the individual as an existing entity in nature and the higher task of becoming a truly ‘single’ individual separated from the crowd of other ‘individuals.’ A ‘single individual’ is not an inherent reality or inevitable feature of earthly existence but is instead an inner reality one must choose to acquire. To embark on the journey toward individuality is theoretically possible for everyone, although few will choose this path. Two of the reasons for this, according to Kierkegaard, stem from a lack of will or ability. Of these, the first is worse because it points to a more damning weakness, in which the prompting of the individual conscience is ignored in order to fit in with society or live an easier life. The second factor preventing people from obtaining their individual status is an ignorance of their enslavement to society and the pressures of being part of ‘the crowd.’ This was a more hopeful state, however, as it allowed for the possibility of enlightenment and growth.
A decision to become a ‘single individual’ was, for Kierkegaard, a necessary step toward religious enlightenment. It is impossible to divorce Kierkegaard’s philosophy from his Christian convictions, and his understanding of salvation and redemption was closely related to his view of the dignity of the individual. For Kierkegaard, the forgiveness of sin, which is conferred in the receiving salvation, is only part of the Christian requirement. What salvation ultimately leads to is a sense of estrangement from the world, in which the newly constituted individual found themselves living according to a higher authority. This naturally led to a degree of ostracization:
If someone notes that there is an individual outside the crowd who is really and truly afraid —not of the crowd but of God, he is sure to be the target of some ridicule.
Thus, true individuality was something that stemmed from religious conversion. Yet to accept the challenge of becoming an individual meant that all guarantees of meaning and purpose were forfeited. Instead, becoming a ‘single individual’ meant a life of increasing complexity and trial, guided only by a sense that to remain in the alternative state of submission was worse. Kierkegaard understood part of his task as a writer as helping to guide his readers toward making an active decision toward the attainment of their individuality, which was mediated through Christianity. His message was targeted not for the masses, but for the few who were brave enough to accept the challenge. This is reflected within a diary entry from the Corsair period:
From the very beginning, neither the pseudonymous writers nor I have asked for a public but, polemically opposed to any kind of phantasmic nonentity, have always been satisfied with a few individual readers, or, indeed, with that single individual.
The Corsair disaster affirmed to Kierkegaard the sinister role mass media played in curating a culture of distraction which prevented people from accessing their true selves. Of the many crimes of which the media was guilty, the most significant was that it hampered people from coming to an awareness of the purpose of their individual existence. It did this by encouraging its readers to become obsessed with trivialities rather than existential reflection. Kierkegaard felt frustrated that despite the immense power of the media to influence opinion, it chose instead to wallow in the scurrilous. Also, the media —through its obsession with scandal and gossip— introduced to 19th-century Copenhagen society the concept of what Kierkegaard referred to as a “phantom public.” The abstract concept of the ‘public’ functioned as a mechanism for promoting the assimilation of individuals in broader groups. The individual, motivated by fear and a longing to be accepted by the community, subsumed themselves in broader society to avoid judgement and ostracization. In so doing, they lost all sense of uniqueness and true diversity. The media encouraged this through its dictation of cultural trends, fashion, and moral norms. For Kierkegaard, the particularly frustrating aspect to this was that the very concept of a ‘public’ was ill-defined and even non-existent, meaning that the individual sacrificed their unique identity in pursuit of a social ideal which is mythical in character.
Such insights placed Kierkegaard at the periphery of contemporary objective philosophy. The Corsair’s ongoing attacks, however, revealed to Kierkegaard the truth of his observations through bitter first-hand experience. It was this underlying self-assuredness which led him to comment in his diary that:
I actually do not learn anything I have not already learned, and I thus learn that there is no external hindrance to the rightness of my thinking simply because I am alone in it.
Being proved right, however, would have been cold comfort as the daily attacks on his person grew more mocking. The real source of comfort to Kierkegaard during this time, and what ultimately sustained him throughout his life, was his conviction that he was bound up in a spiritual reality which made the transient events of his day to day life appear less consequential than they might be. Again, his diary reflects this:
For one can grow weary of all temporal and earthly things, and so it would be tormenting if they were to continue eternally. But the person who receives a vision of ideals instantaneously has but one prayer to God: an eternity…And there is no hurry, there is time enough, plenty of time, still and eternity left…what ineffable happiness, what bliss!
Ultimately, Kierkegaard viewed himself as a pilgrim in the world. It is his sense of being a sort of resident alien in the cosmos which allowed him to deal with his tribulations. Whether this points to the truth of his spiritual convictions or a disturbed psychological state is up to the interpreter to decide. What is clear, however, is that it was this sense of being called to a higher purpose which allowed him to cope with the Corsair Affair and utilize this experience for the development of his theology and philosophy.
Kierkegaard’s experience with the Corsair raises several discussion points for interpreters. One might use the Corsair Affair as a way of discussing the often-problematic way in which the media —and social networking in particular— are used as a form of exacting justice and fostering a culture of tribalism. Additionally, one might draw on Kierkegaard’s complicity in provoking the editors of the Corsair as a source of insight into the Philosopher’s psychological constitution, which certainly appears to reflect some masochistic tendencies. Alternatively, a theologian might explore the individualistic nature of Kierkegaard’s understanding of salvation and how this might challenge more contemporary theological approaches which emphasize the corporal elements of Christianity.
The deeper challenge presented to us through the example of the Corsair Affair, I believe, relates less to the role of technology and media in shaping our society and more in its questioning of the idea that absorption in a community is a good thing. Kierkegaard existed in a time in which the concept of an individual had been devalued, and his task of reclaiming individuality was often interpreted as self-serving and even arrogant. In our own time, there are constant demands for our allegiance, be this political, cultural, or religious. The noise of these demands can easily drown out the silent voice of the individual conscience, which becomes a mere subject to the will of external forces. Kierkegaard’s admirable willingness to stand firm in his convictions ensured he walked a lonely path, but it was a necessary one for the development of his philosophy.
Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 127.
 See Howard Hong’s introduction in Søren Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair and Articles Related to the Writings, edited and translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982), ix.
 Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970), 176.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Stages on Life’s Way, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).
 K. Brian Söderquist described Møller as having a negligible influence within the Golden Age of Danish literature and argues that the main reason he is known to history is because of his relationship to Kierkegaard. K. Brian Söderguist, “Peder Ludvig Møller: “If He Had Been a Somewhat More Significant Person”, in Kierkegaard and his Danish Contemporaries: Literature, Drama and Aesthetics, vol. 7, Tome III, ed. Jon Stewart (Abingdon: Routledge, 2016).
 Møller had elsewhere commended Kierkegaard for his witticisms and elegance in his critiques of Heiberg. See the introduction to Søren Kierkegaard, Prefaces and Writing Sampler, edited and translated by Todd W. Nichol (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).
 Joakim Garff, Søren Kierkegaard: A Biography, trans. Bruce H. Kirmmse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 392.
 Both of these articles were attributed the Frater Taciturnus- the same pseudonymous author of Stages on Life’s Way. The Activity of a Travelling Aesthetician and How He Still Happened to Pay for the Dinner and The Dialectical Result of a Literary Police Action can be found in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, 38-46, 47-50.
 Nerina Jansen, “A Key to Kierkegaard’s Views of the Daily Press,” in International Kierkegaard Commentary: The Corsair Affair, 24 vols., (ed.) Robert L. Perkins (Macon: Mercer University Press, 1990),13:2.
 Howard Hong has also suggested that Kierkegaard might well have expected cultural and religious to come to his defense should The Corsair launch its attack. See Howard Hong’s introduction in Kierkegaard, The Corsair Affair, vii-xxxviii.
 Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegelian philosophy finds its most forceful presentation in his 1846 study Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments. See Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, 2 vols., trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).
 Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper, 1938), 196-7.
 In this sense, Kierkegaard shares some affinity with Nietzsche’s well-known disdain for the ‘herd,’ which functioned as a descriptor for a compliant and docile humanity. For an excellent discussion of the relationship between Kierkegaard and Nietzsche see James Kellenberger, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche: Faith and Eternal Acceptance (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997).
 Although the media could have utilised its power for building people up, it instead chose to promote and encourage the crude and base instincts of humanity, thus further distancing its consumers from the task of attaining individual status. Kierkegaard referred to this process as ‘levelling,’ leading him to write in Two Ages that “for levelling to take place, a phantom must first be raised, the spirit of levelling, a monstrous abstraction, an all-encompassing something that is nothing, a mirage- and this phantom is the public. Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 90.
 One of Kierkegaard’s most vocal critics was the Lutheran State Church Bishop Hans Lassen Martensen, who once described the former as a man “without church and without history, and who seeks Christ only in the ‘desert’ and in ‘private rooms.’” See Hans Lassen Martensen, “I Anledning af Dr. S. Kierkegaards Artikel i ‘Fædrelandet’ Nr. 295,” Berlingske Tidende, 302, December 28, 1854, as cited in Søren Kierkegaard, The Moment and Late Writings, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 360-62.
I remember 1997 well. It was the year that the Ricky Martin phenomenon hit the rural Victorian town of Echuca. The girls at my high school were losing their minds over how hot he was. Little did they know that they were wasting their time. It was the year, too, in which I fully committed myself to a life of music. My drum teacher reckoned I ‘had what it takes’ to make it as a pro, and this was all the prophetic input I needed to chart out the course of my life. But 1997 was also the year of religious enlightenment, for it was in this year that I finally conceded that the Church had more than its fair share of nut-jobs (myself included). There were plenty of warning signs, mind you. But this particular Sunday in February was to take the cake for weirdness.
I remember that Dad was preaching his usual kind of sermon. During this phase in his ministerial career, he seemed to be focussed on the Old Testament. Although I can’t remember exactly what the theme was that day, it was probably something to do with ‘the principles of living in God’s Kingdom’ (a favourite theme of his at the time). He was even harping on about this stuff up home. My Brother and I couldn’t commit any minor misdemeanour without Dad reminding us that we were failing to live up to the ‘principles of God’s kingdom.’ Of course, very few people know exactly what God’s kingdom is. Even Jesus never specifically told anyone. But Dad knew, and apparently, it was related to combatting insubordinate behaviour from one’s sons.
Whatever the topic was that day didn’t matter to me one iota. You see, I happened to be in love with Melissa, and she was sitting a few rows over from me. I couldn’t seem to take my eyes off her. We had recently shared our first kiss in the back of the youth van on our way back to Echuca after an underwhelming Christian concert in Melbourne. After going in for the kill I was surprised and relieved to find her kissing me back with just as much passion. I felt bad for Marie who was sitting next to us, but what can you do? It was young love and by the time we got dropped of home our relationship status had become ‘official.’ Since that time things had progressed nicely, although the constant intrusions of our parents were a real thorn in our sides. We had taken to going for long outdoor ‘walks’ by the Murray River to get our desired alone time.
Anyway, as I glanced sideways at Melissa on this warm Sunday, I couldn’t help but think of all the things I would like to do with her (within the sanctity of marriage of course.). She was responding to my borderline psychotic glare by giving me this cheeky scolding look as if to say that she loved the attention but was also aware of where we were. She was killing me softly just by looking at me. I was utterly transfixed; a teenage boy reduced to a pathetic entanglement of nervousness and infatuation. Even writing this makes me feel awkward, and I kind of feel like I want to punch my teenage self in the face and tell him to stop being so nauseating. But such was the depth of our longing, which we were sure was going to last forever. Nothing could break the spell of our love (note: she left me a few months later), and I planned on gazing at Melissa adoringly until the service ended. These plans, however, were rudely interrupted by the arrival of the Wizard and his family of freaks.
I say Wizard more as a visual reference point than a vocational reality. His long, thin, wispy beard reached down just above his slightly protruding stomach. It was grey, with flecks of brown hair dotted throughout. He was wearing a matching sports tracksuit that looked old and tattered. But what I remember most was his eyes. They were the eyes of a sneaky, wily, and potentially dangerous individual. They kept darting around the room, sussing it out for any potential threats or opportunities. There was a cold and calculating shrewdness in them that immediately raised the hair on my arms. His menacing disposition was complemented by the corner of his mouth, which was turned slightly upward in a faint smirk. If the Norse God Loki was amongst us in physical form, I can imagine him looking exactly like this guy (minus the tracksuit, perhaps).
Although I sensed trouble, I contented myself with just keeping an eye on him. If possible, I wanted to pre-empt some sort of attack that he might unleash. Perhaps he had explosives strapped to his torso? Maybe he had a syringe loaded with some sort of contagious virus? It pays to be prepared for every scenario. As I watched, however, I noticed that he seemed focussed on listening to the sermon with an intensity that would make even the most devout of believers envious. The Wizard rocked back and forth in his pew, with each vocal crescendo of my Dad’s sermon elevating his enthusiasm to a fever pitch. He started dripping sweat, although at least part of this because the Church was located in a stifling former school demountable. Whatever the cause, the sweat accentuated the manic quality of this random visitor and made me even more worried.
In turned out that these fears were well and truly justified. Arriving at the central point of his sermon, my Dad implored the congregation to follow the precedent of Scripture and apply it to our own lives. Without further encouragement, the Wizard stood up unannounced and proclaimed to the entire congregation that he would do exactly what the sermon said. Now, this might sound all well and good, but one got the sense that the reason for this public display was motivated less by a passionate response to the Lord and more by the desire to be seen and heard. The Wizard gazed intently around the room as he made his statement of conviction, almost challenging us to some sort of fight. Once his eyes had completed their 360- degree survey of the congregation they returned to focus solely on my Dad.
Dad, to his credit, took the interruption in his stride. He calmly reassured the Wizard that he would chat with him more about the sermon after the service. He probably assumed that the Wizard was merely caught up in a moment of religious zealotry and would settle back down in his seat like everyone else. This particular Pentecostal church was known for its public outbursts of spiritual adoration, to say nothing of the random outbursts of flatulence from one particular member whom, it was said, had endured a brain injury in childhood. Yet if my Dad sensed that his corrective to the Wizard was the end of it, he was very wrong. Offended by what he interpreted as my Dad’s rebuke, the Wizard struck back in a tone revealing his combative intentions: “But Pastor, I want to talk about it NOW!”
Not one to back away from a confrontation, my Dad stood his ground. “Please sit down and wait until after the service. We will talk more then.” His tone was polite but firm and conveyed a sense that this was a non-negotiable point. This was all the impetus needed for the Wizard to reveal his true purpose. To the shock of the gathered faithful, the Wizard arrogantly strode toward the front of the church, yanked the microphone from my Dad’s hands, and whacked him on the top of the head with it. This was done with considerable force. Dad was knocked out cold, and it is to my lasting shame that I confess I found this image mildly amusing. It’s not every day in which you get to see your own father temporarily unconscious in church due to the actions of a visiting Wizard.
Instead of calling the ambulance, the congregation saw it fit to host a prayer meeting in which we prayed for my Dad’s speedy recovery. This was led by a more conservative member of the congregation who, despite her fundamentalism, really enjoyed the glam rockers Poison (she once told me that the tune Fallen Angel summed up her life prior to conversion). Another strapping gent from the gathering took the microphone (which still worked) and proclaimed to all and sundry that we had just witnessed an attack of the devil. The threat of coming under demonic attack spurned an even more vigorous prayer circle.
This divine supplication must have worked, as after a few moments Dad came to and sat upright. Bewildered, he smoothed his ruffled hair and laughed the incident off. Meanwhile, the Wizard had gathered his family together and forced them outside the church building and into the family car. Here he proceeded to do donuts in the parking lot while laughing and shouting maniacally about something understood by no one but himself. Eventually, he drove off down the street never to be seen or heard of again, except in the faithful retelling of this story at family get-togethers where it has become the stuff of legend.
Dad used to walk me to the train line near Kilkenny station in suburban Adelaide when he felt like a bit of train-spotting. The station was a short walk from my Grandparent’s house, where my Dad spent his boyhood years. I guess these walks were nostalgic for him, but for me, the late afternoon trains rolling in and out of this lonely and neglected station transfixed my imagination.
Then-as now- the station wedges itself in the middle of rundown industrial buildings. Graffiti lines the brick walls, the windows have been smashed out, and the usual debris of squatters and discarded construction materials litter the earth. These remnants of a more prosperous age create an isolated and faintly foreboding atmosphere at the station, despite the major road that cuts through the track just beyond the end of the platform. Positioning ourselves just past the station and away from the city, we would stand alongside the track in the twilight glow. Often Dad would bring my Grandpa’s old video camera to immortalise the moment for posterity. It was one of those 1980s models that had a large microphone attached to the top of it. Cumbersome, inconvenient but cutting-edge technology in those days.
As the trains turned the corner in the far distance, Dad would put his hand on my shoulder and guide my attention toward the faintly approaching light of the first carriage. “That’ll be the 4:44 pm,” he would say. “It’s running a bit late.” As I turned my gaze to the oncoming light, I would find myself stuck in a sort of trance. The approaching noise and light contrasted with the silent calm of our position alongside the track. The impending meeting of the worlds of silence and noise more exciting to me than a feature film.
As the train belted past, I would close my eyes and bask in the rush of air as it blew across my face. Then, just as soon as the last carriage passed, I would turn around and watch it retreat into the distance. The soft glow of its fading light and gentle rattle of carriages whispered their goodbyes for another day.
As I opened the back door to the house, a rushing blast of pent-up air hit me squarely in the face like the onslaught of a summertime northerly. It was as if years of accumulated stuffiness had been expecting this very moment, longing to set itself free from its black confines. In reality, the house had only been unoccupied for a few months or so since my Grandfather died.
I say house, but it was really like a Fort Knox; locks on every window as well as those roller shutter things that blocked out the apparent curse of natural light. Just to get to the back yard required a set of keys to unlock to the garage, and then there was another couple of extra keys required for the deadlocks. For this reason, it made no sense for me to feel that there was danger lurking inside. It would have been nigh on impossible for anyone to break in, yet in these early Saturday morning hours I was convinced that something sinister lie in wait.
I had been in Adelaide on tour. Instead of crashing with the band after the show, I had asked my Dad if I could stay and Grandpa’s house. It would be nice, I thought, to have a break from the endless drinking and fart jokes. I also wanted to visit the house one last time before it was sold. Grandpa was the last of my Dad’s parents to pass away, and with this loss came the end of an era in my family. I have fond memories of our family making the pilgrimage from rural Victoria across to Adelaide during the school holidays. During these visits, we would stay and Grandpa’s place. My brother and I would share the same bedroom that my Dad and his brother slept in when they were kids. I can still picture this room clearly in my mind: two single beds with brown quilts, and old organ and a row of books including various editions of the Guinness Book of Records. The cupboards in the room towered all the way to the ceiling, hiding whatever secrets they contained beyond the reach of a mere child.
My Grandpa and I did not particularly get along. I think he found me weird, as I indeed was (and am). For my part, I found him confusing. At times he could be sentimental and warm, on other occasions he appeared reserved and faintly mocking. I remember one time he observed my (admittedly terrible) heavy metal outfit and stated that I was “a real weird one.” I shrugged my shoulders and walked off, not knowing how to properly respond. Yet there were times he was capable of kindness. From the vantage point of his off-peach colour reclining chair, he would observe the family, slightly tear up, and comment that he loved having us all around him. I was a part of that feeling, I liked to think. Given my mixed feelings toward my Grandpa, I was surprised to find myself bursting into tears at his funeral. As he was lowered into the ground, I remember thinking that we hadn’t simply lost a family member, but that what had ended was a small piece of our collective memory. There would be no new stories about my Grandpa which we accumulate in the coming years. As a family, were now confined to conjuring up the past through wandering anecdotes and fragments of fading memories.
Perhaps this is why I felt so strange stepping foot into the empty house. I couldn’t associate this place with anything other than my Grandpa, and to enter his sacred enclave after his passing felt like some sort of criminal activity. I didn’t want to touch anything, because I wanted it to remain exactly as it was in my memory. Yet it was not all just projection, I am sure of that. Some energy that didn’t want me there either. I was intruding in a space that should have been left in peace. This energy made itself known to me via a cold shiver as I attempted to orient myself in this familiar yet new environment.
I walked into the living area felt around for the light switches, hoping that the light would instantly dismiss the eeriness. Yet when I turned them on it just made things more surreal. The lights were dim and served only to illuminate my sense of aloneness in the house. I had started to wish I stayed with the band. I decided to walk throughout each room and switch on every single light in the house. Grandpa would have hated that, but I wasn’t doing it to spite him. I needed to convince myself I was alone. As I stepped throughout the house, I saw ghosts of years past. On the far side of the otherwise empty kitchen stood my Grandma, mixing her horrible green sludge health drink. I had flashbacks of my brother playing the old organ and serenading the family with awful but hysterically funny original compositions. Then there was the time that my Mum had a run-in with Grandma in the hallway over whether Adelaide or Victoria were the rightful heirs of the Grand Prix. I looked in the pantry, too, so often the scene of my ravenous scavenging. To my surprise, there were still some items left in it- remnants of Grandpa’s time spent here alone before he passed away.
It was late and I was tired, so I soon went to bed in my Grandpa’s old room. I don’t know why I chose it. It was a bad idea. It would have been much better to choose the old room my brother and I shared. I reasoned that as the front door to the house was immediately next to my Grandpa’s room, I could escape quickly if anything happened to me. This false sense of security did not help me sleep. I tossed and turned for the remainder of the evening, alternating between periods of intense cold and clammy sweat. Sooner or later I must have succumbed to sleep because the fear subsided, and the next thing I knew I was witnessing the rising of the morning sun.
As I prepared to leave on that day it dawned on me that I would never see Grandpa’s house again. It was due to be sold soon, and I did not doubt that the new owners would spruik the place up. Even if I was to return one day, it would never again be as I remembered. As I walked through the various rooms one last time, I knew that this was my only direct line to my Grandpa. When I stepped out of the house and onto the street, I knew that my Grandpa would also become an abstraction, someone to be revealed to me only through the stories of others and my faint memories. This made me sad.
The paths we walked became sacred to me, but like all things beautiful the memory is laced with pain.
The moments we shared- nothing more than tiny windows in time really- was mostly spent walking together. These were occasions that allowed us the momentary chance to dream. Extracted from the complexities of the rest of our lives, these walks provided space to imagine the future. There was no clear destination in mind on these adventures- an apt metaphor perhaps for our drifting yet intoxicating bond. Mostly we would end up in the city after navigating some course through the suburban backstreets.
As we walked we talked about plans. She wanted a house with a white picket fence- in this, she was firm an irresolute. “With me?” I once asked as suspicion grew within me that I might have been an accidental character in her fairy tale.
“Of course my darling! Who else!” she replied.
“What else do you want?” I asked.
She responded with growing excitement. “Well, not much really. Just a house by the water, a family and lot’s of money so I can travel.”
“You want to travel with me, right?”
I had asked a stupid question, apparently. “Stop being so silly,” she said sarcastically. “Of course with you.”
We continued on. She was beautiful and I wanted to be around her.
I knew she was just trying to make me feel good. I grew increasingly sombre, as I too joined in the illusion that everything would work out as we planned. This was in spite of a gnawing realisation that everything we were experiencing would soon end. I held her hand, telling myself that in so doing we would be bound together somehow. She gripped my hand in return and everything seemed OK for a while.
The twilight hours would eventually descend, and the sun would retreat so that it could commence its shift on the other side of the world. We hurried our pace, not wanting to be caught in the darkness. Once in the city, I would drop her at the train station. She always needed to leave by sundown. One day she left for good. I returned to walk the path home alone.
My BMX had white tires. It was a cheap knock-off brand from K-Mart, but I rode the life out of it. I had initially wanted something cooler like a Mongoose, but I knew I this was a pipe dream fuelled by watching the movie BMX bandits. My family had little money for such indulgences. In those childhood years I took what I could get, and what I got one birthday year was a functional yet basic BMX. Despite its lowly status, my BMX did everything I needed it too and I was thankful.
I made custom modifications to my BMX, as boys often like to do with their machinery. The trend in the early 90s was to use Spokey Dokeys. Spokey Dokeys were coloured plastic beads that you would clip on the wheels. As you pedalled they would move up and down, making a pleasing clickety-clack sound. I used to pretend that it sounded like an actual motorbike, until the day my friend Shane showed me an even cooler modification: using a clothes peg, you attached a little piece of cardboard to the wheel so that it would flutter in between the spokes as you pedalled. This was advanced BMX modifications 101. It sounded a lot more like a motor than the Spokey Dokeys.
Part of the thrill of riding a BMX is to ride as part of a gang. My own BMX gang roamed the streets of rural Warragul in a spirit of adventure which had no clear goal in mind. A motley gathering of about five misfits, after school we would grab our bikes and head off to different locations around town in search of intrigue. Favourite destinations were the Kiah Park nature reserve, the so-called snake-pit off Edinburgh St and the creepy cult house up towards the local cemetery. This house has remained the same in the decades since- a two-story wooden building which one can barely glimpse due to the dense foliage and trees blocking passing views. To be fair, it was not verified fact that the occupants (who no-one ever saw) were part of a cult, but it sure seemed that way. Either that or they were serial killers.
My own true love, however, was to get away on my own.
On the occasional weekend, I would take my BMX out for little road trips. With my trusty backpack, I would take my snacks (mostly a cheese and Vegemite sandwich and piece of fruit) and head out into the countryside to see what I could find. Most of the time these were uneventful, but I found them therapeutic. I loved the feeling of endless open space. As I built up my confidence I would travel a little further each time, gradually pushing the geographical boundaries of what I and my BMX were capable of. This all took place in the days before everyone was paranoid about everyone else being a dangerous criminal, and so my parents were relatively carefree about my pilgrimages to various outposts surrounding Warragul.
A favourite trip was to ride through a local park where the town council kept an old steam locomotive as a testament to a bygone industrial era. Once there I would crawl all over the locomotive and examine every square inch of this strange beast. I travelled to this site just last year and the locomotive has since been removed. I felt a sadness wash over me looking at the bland strip of grass where the locomotive used to sit. Must everything be a war on history?
There was this one time I got real adventurous: I decided to ride my BMX along Brandy Creek Road for as far as I could before I got scared. I was headed nowhere in particular, but I harboured a secret ambition to one day ride as far as Rokeby- a tiny farming town about fifteen minutes drive down the road. At Rokeby I could have parked my BMX
alongside the lake and skimmed some rocks. But it wasn’t to be. On this day I only got as far as the driveway to Mary Seabrook’s house, which was only a kilometre or so outside Warragul. I got increasingly worried that I was going too far and that I might be kidnapped or run over. The noise of the cars as they approached behind me was mildly terrifying. I didn’t trust drivers.
It was near the letterbox to the Seabrook’s that I decided to park my BMX. I sat and watched the wheels turn as they slowed down to their resting position. I glanced over toward the Seabrook’s house, which stood at the end of a long driveway. It was a solitary, melancholy house that sat perched on a hill overlooking the countryside. Mary’s husband shot himself in the chest with a shotgun some years before, and I wondered if this gruesome act took place on the property. Perhaps it was haunted. What would it be like to explore this location at night time?
I ate my sandwich as I observed the mountains surrounding the town. In the distance, I could see the towering pinnacle of Mount Worth. I noticed that it was covered in trees. In fact, the whole panorama before me was so very green- the depth of which I have not seen since. It had been a sunny day but there was a crisp, fresh breeze building by the late afternoon. As I sat I closed my eyes and felt the wind blowing across my face. I imagined I was the captain of a ship and was on a daring sea voyage. It was a nice feeling.
After some time I gathered my backpack and prepared myself for the return journey. The shadows were growing long in the late afternoon sun. I loved this time of day precisely because it frightened me. The shadows signalled danger, and my mission now was to keep myself moving ahead of the encroaching darkness before anything bad happened to me. It was a manufactured sense of impending doom of course, but the strange tingling sensation felt good throughout my body.
As the darkness grew, the headlights of the cars behind me shone ominously over my BMX as they overtook me furiously pedalling along the side of the road. I felt like I was in the spotlight of some interrogation, except I couldn’t defend myself because I couldn’t see exactly who was advancing on me. All I knew is that I had to pedal faster and faster. Eventually I caught sight of the lights of the local Milk Bar around the corner ahead. I knew once I got there I would be safe. From there it was not too far to my house, and the streets from that point on were all lined with homes with their lights on.
I made it home safely and rejoined the noise and clamour of my family. My BMX was stored safely in the empty space under our house, where it would endure the stuffy darkness until the next afternoon’s adventure. Despite walking into a flurry of family activity, I was still imagining myself out by the Seabrook’s letterbox, planning future trips to the faraway vistas I had observed that afternoon. I had done well to make it as far as I had, but I promised myself that next time I would go even further.
I realised I had been on the same webpage just 1 hour before. It was 2am and my panic resulted in another bout of sleeplessness, so I had been indulging in a favourite pastime: googling my headache symptoms in a subconscious attempt to prove to myself I was about to die.
I didn’t really want to die, did I? Perhaps it was better than this? Why was I so anxious about dying anyway? Perhaps it was because I knew I was going to hell?
I had been scrolling through various health and medical websites for the past 3 hours, trying to find something to would convince me things were not that bad. I doubled back on WebMD for the second occasion, thinking that I might have missed something the first time around. When I first loaded Dr. Google I was content to merely list my symptoms- right side headache, head pressure, dizziness, stiff neck …ad nauseam. This repetitive action brought up a staggering array of results, each of which informed me that I was about to die. I could feel my stomach twist and turn in a familiar yet still unwelcome knot of fear.
My wife suddenly turned in her sleep. She murmured something and then resumed her bliss. I was jealous.
I kept going with the checking, convinced that somehow the information online would make me feel better. I then remembered something: I could put quotation marks around a search term to pull up results that contained that exact phrase. The Lord was indeed shining his light on me. I set about this new task with the eagerness of an apprentice determined to prove himself to his master. There was no turn of phrase I didn’t try:
“It is unlikely to be cancer”
“Cancer is rare”
“Rare in people under 40”
“Recovery rates are good”
“It’s probably nothing serious”
And so I continued my paranoid search in the darkened moments of the early morning. It got so bad that at one point the Google server sent me an automated security message: “Your account is displaying suspicious behaviour.” Great, I thought. I was now marked as spam.
My wife woke-up. “What are you doing? Stop that for God’s sake. It doesn’t help.” I knew this but simply couldn’t look away from the screen.
The glow of the screen transfixed my eyes as I gazed into a world of medically induced fear. What I learned over the past 3 hours of relentless checking was that I had cancer. I also had Multiple Sclerosis. It was also likely I had some sort of thyroid problem, with a possible bout of TMJ thrown in for good measure. Overarching all of these perilous conditions was the ongoing threat of instantaneous demise due to stroke or aneurysm.
“Just put the bloody phone away,” my wife muttered under her breath.
With reluctance, I put the phone down. Just one more website and I would have been OK. It would have told me that I was overreacting and that my anxious mind could produce the very symptoms I was seeking reassurance for. Having woke-up my wife and got myself listed as a spam account on Google I placed the phone in my draw and shut my eyes.
Sleep came slowly. I woke the next day exhausted from last night’s battle. I had to face the world- a world of superficial appearances and never ending pursuit of all forms of success, where everyone wants you to be healthy and well and just super confident and together all the time. A world where daily lies are the currency we use to co-exist: “I am doing great thanks, how are you?” “Oh yeah my wife? she is amazing! we have the best life!”
It was a performance I had undertaken countless times before. And I was good at it. But this morning my body would not let me. I called in sick and opened up google on my phone.
The Church I attended throughout my childhood was small but vibrant. Each Sunday evening we would have a more informal service that was designed to ‘reach out’ to people from non-church backgrounds. I remember these services as a lot of fun, particularly as they were followed by a relaxed dinner in which we would all chat. One of the women in the Church had connections with the local First Australian community, and would regularly bring along a group of girls to these services. They were of similar age to me- perhaps around 11 or 12. Over a period of a few weeks, I noticed that I had caught the attention of one of this group, who would often stare at me at various junctures during the service. Was it possible that she liked me?
I certainly liked her. She had deep, searching brown eyes. I liked the way I would catch her smiling at me from across the Church. I pretended I didn’t notice for the most part- a mixture of disbelief that someone as pretty as her could actually like me and an equally strong desire to be seen as ‘cool’ and nonchalant. Even so, I would steal a gaze in her direction when I felt it was safe to do so.
Yet my ability to wistfully stare was hampered by the fact that she was always surrounded by her friends, who banded around her in what I perceived as a mildly protective stance. They used to stare at me too and would giggle in a way that made me feel as if there was something positively ridiculous about the simple fact of my existence. Again, I tried to ignore it, whilst simultaneously enjoying the attention. However, one evening after the service this group of friends approached me as I stood alone in the Church foyer. I noticed my future beloved (my imagination was working perfectly well) was not with them. Continuing to giggle, one of them shyly told me “My friend likes you.” And with that revelation, they skipped back to their friend and proceeded to assess my face for a reaction. I smiled at her and tried my best to display a combination of romantic interest and apathy- a difficult mix to get right.
Eventually, we all left for the night. I only saw the love of my life on one more occasion. Later that same year I attended the Warragul Show with some friends. It was the usual kind of country town deal; a blend of kitsch entertainment with exorbitant prices. Nevertheless, the whole town seemed to be there and it was the most fun one could reasonably hope to have as a grade Sixer. At some point, I noticed the same group of girls from the Church service. They were hovering around a stand selling cheap trinkets. I decided to keep back, too nervous to approach. I didn’t want to appear desperate.
Unbeknownst to me, the girls were already fully aware of my presence at the Show. In fact, at the precise moment I saw them they were helping my beloved choose a bracelet to give to me. Upon deciding, her friends raced up to me and said it was a gift to me from their friend who ‘really, really likes me.’ With that, they ran off, keen to observe my reaction from a distance. In pleasant and nervous shock, I unwrapped the tissue paper in my hand. The contents appeared to reveal nothing more than a crinkle of plastic. It seemed there was no bracelet after all. I looked toward the group of smirking girls, sighed, and deposited the object of my rejection in the nearest bin.
I went to stride away in defiance but was stopped in my tracks by the same group of girls, who had ran up to me before I could escape. “Why did you throw away the bracelet?” they asked. “She really likes you and chose that herself. HOW COULD YOU?” I was mortified and explained that I thought it was a cruel practical joke and also that I thought I was in love with their friend. I raced back to the bin and retrieved the crumple of plastic. On closer examination, there was indeed a small, faux-silver bracelet inside. One blink and you would miss it, as I indeed did.
With my heart overflowing with regret, I put on the bracelet and chased down the object of my love. For the first time, I approached her directly. I ran up to her and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before running away so that I could watch their response to my kiss from a safe vantage point. It was to be the last time I would ever see them. They were still laughing together and smiling back at me.