Posted by: chuckbumgardner | March 1, 2011

Lying to the Nazis

I’ve heard a number of times the “lying to the Nazis” defense of lying: if you lived in Germany in the early 1940’s and the Nazis came in search of Jews you were hiding in a secret room, it would be justifiable to lie to the Nazis about harboring Jews because of the nefarious nature of their errand.  I’ve heard this line of thinking countered by the example of Betsy ten Boom, as related by Corrie ten Boom in The Hiding Place: Betsy was firmly convinced that Christians ought never to lie, and would in no case prevaricate, even to save the lives of the Jews they were hiding in their home.  Today, I was intrigued to come across Christopher Tollefsen’s answer to the dilemma today, a thought-provoking third option:

But the Nazi is not owed the truth as to whether one is concealing Jews even when one is not. His mission is wrongful regardless of whether one conceals or not. He has no legitimate authority, that having been lost long time since by the regime and those who worked for it. Yet he is a human being, and a child of God, and one cannot assume that his soul is beyond saving. One’s obligation, I hold, is to refuse to answer his question regarding the whereabouts of Jews (for he is owed no answer) and to tell him further that he is engaged in a wicked activity and to encourage his repentance.

What are the likely consequences of such action? One possible good consequence is this: a firm policy never to answer (especially if this policy is shared by others) makes it difficult for the Nazi to infer anything accurate from what he hears about the whereabouts of the Jews on any occasion. Having heard this twice when no Jews were to be found, he might, in fact, infer that there are no Jews hidden on the third occasion, though in fact there are. Moreover, a systematic policy of denying the authority asserted by wicked regimes can begin to break that power down—wicked regimes depend for their power on citizens remaining subjects. Of course, it is also possible that a refusal to answer will enrage the Nazi to the point of violence, even if no Jews are discovered. But one would be speaking truthfully and lovingly to this wicked but not God-forsaken man in the only way that could conceivably do some good for him, and in a way that does no evil to one’s self.

I suggest that the policy I have outlined should be adopted also when one does have Jews hidden in one’s house. And here again, the likely consequences are not good. In both scenarios, a search will likely be conducted, and in the second, the Jews found. What then?

I do not think one could in good conscience allow the Nazis to depart alone with the Jews. Physically resisting would likely be futile, but not necessarily wrong. One could offer to go with the Nazis in place of the Jews; and if that failed one could insist that one be brought with the Jews (it is very likely this decision would already have been made by the Nazis). And one should be willing to accept that a possibly significant degree of physical harm, perhaps even death, would be visited upon one’s person while one continued to proclaim the truth to the Nazis about the wickedness of their mission.

In all such actions one would act in solidarity with the Jews and charity towards the Nazi. One would witness to the truth in ways that, were more to do so, could conceivably be the undoing of the regime. And one might occasionally sway a young wrongdoer, one raised as a Christian, perhaps, but gradually corrupted by his culture, recollecting him to his better self and turning him towards the good.

(HT: Mere Orthodoxy)

A thought-provoking answer.




  1. How would we expect our Lord to respond to this dilemma while he lived on earth? Would we tolerate a lie from His lips — “yes, the One who is ‘the Way the TRUTH and the Life’ lied on this occasion” would seem to unhinge His candidacy to be our Savior, not to mention sounding ludicrous. The approach suggested in the article offers an alternative that is both truthful, and gospel oriented. Although not the only answer, it does offer a God-trusting Gospel-declaring alternative to lying which tends to be arm-of-the-flesh depending and walking by sight.

  2. Yes but Jesus was able to walk in the midst of His attackers and escape them because it was not time for Him to die. Jesus did things we could not do. He would be able to get the Jews out of that situation in order to not lie. He could walk into locked rooms, I think He could get a group of Jews out of a house.

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