Michael Booker called his speech a warning.
“Once a group accepts victimhood like Germany did after World War I, anything is possible,” the Aims Community College history professor told about 30 people gathered to a Holocaust Remembrance Day lunchtime lesson on Thursday in the college’s Student Commons building in Greeley.
Booker, who holds a doctorate in modern European history, explained to the audience, sometimes with chilling and horrifying reminders, what can happen when a group of people – and then ultimately a nation – fuels a civil or secular religion in the name to maintain their being and their identity.
The feeling of victimization has been maintained and encouraged in Germany. Booker said the sentiment was fueled by memories of past failures at the end of World War I that left Germany deeply defeated and embarrassed.
The environment during these years between the two world wars was then ripe for the rise and power of Adolf Hitler, who ruled as leader of the Nazi Party from the early 1930s. Hitler and his allies created and portrayed the Jewish people as the enemy: evil, a group to be feared and “the champions of darkness”, Booker explained.
Booker’s nearly 90-minute presentation was titled “Nazi Civil Religion During the Third Reich: The Link Between Secular Religiosity and Violence in Hitler’s Germany.”
“Hitler was seen as a messianic figure,” Booker said. “He was a liberator. He believed and those who believed in him believed that Hitler had all the answers to all the outstanding questions plaguing post-war German society.
Booker’s event was one of eight in a series known as “Voices of the Holocaust” scheduled for April 24-29 by the Greeley and Northern Colorado Holocaust Memorial Observances Committee. .
The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their allies and collaborators, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Windsor-based group’s role is to plan and implement Holocaust remembrance centered in Greeley and northern Colorado, to inform and educate about the dangers of prejudice, racism, hatred and bigotry from the perspective of the European Holocaust, “so that individuals, groups or governments will never again inflict such atrocities,” according to the group’s website.
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum recognizes Days of Remembrance, established by Congress as the annual commemoration of the Holocaust from April 24 through May 1, according to the museum’s website.
The Greeley and Northern Colorado Committee Remembrance Days were virtual and in-person events this year with speeches by survivors, films and educational programs such as Booker’s lecture.
Booker defined civil religion as containing a component of nationalism. Civil religion is a constellation of symbols, ideas of ritual expressions “which embody, create and sustain a group identity”, Booker later said.
In the United States today, these symbols could be a combination of Christian symbols, such as a cross and the American flag. Civil religion can be seen and can thrive in gatherings or even military demonstrations. The point and purpose of civil religion in these cases is to create a sense of belonging among people, and to discuss and offer an element of greatness.
“The idea that they are a great people, that they are a predestined people,” Booker said after the lecture, then drawing on the concepts and behavior used by Hitler.
The way to fight civil religion, or control it, is to remember the concepts put forward by the founding fathers of the United States, who were students of the French Enlightenment. These themes or principles run counter to “absolutist monarchical values”, Booker said.
With the Enlightenment there is a belief in the sovereignty of the people and the nation and a belief in civil liberties that cannot be erased by a government, a dictator like Hitler or a king. Booker mentioned rights such as the right to express oneself, the right to be able to engage in the political process and to have a voice in civic engagement.
“All of these values are Enlightenment,” he said. “We need to identify people who are against the Enlightenment and who are a threat to our constitutional republic on the far left or the far right. There are both. They are both a threat.