A Secretary, a Speaker, and a Priest

Since the arrival of my first DVD in the mail, I have been a convert, one might say, to Netflix. Opting to test out the availability of films through the service, my first request was for The Ninth Day, a German film set in Dachau and Luxembourg. Not only did was the request fulfilled, but the film must be described as one which takes one’s breath away, and keeps one deathly silent. I had read the short autobiography upon which the movie is based, Priestblock 25487: A Memoir of Dachau, and was put in some awe by it. What an amazing equanimity of spirit on the part of the author, Father Jean Bernard! What ruthless honesty about his own weaknesses, and quick vignettes about all the horrors. The autobiography offers a rare glimpse of the horrors faced by the religious at Dachau (virtually everybody in his barrack (and some others) was a Catholic priest, though some were clergy of other religions, especially Protestant.) Anecdotes related the abominable actions of the German guards, formerly religious men, as they raged with insults and violence. One night, the movie relates, Father Bernard (Henri Kremer, in the movie) is pulled from his building. One predicts that he will be hung on a cross by a rope strung through the bonds tying his hands behind him, left suspended in agony above the snow during the icy night, as happened to others. Instead, he is told he has been released. The Gestapo in Luxembourg wants to use him to persuade his “recalcitrant” bishop to go public with a letter distancing the Catholics of Luxembourg from the Pope by making the Church the official church of the Nazi Party — and to begin by showing that the Church does best “cooperating” with the Party. Father Bernard is given nine days to complete this mission, and if he fails, he must go back to the horrors of Dachau. Further, if he flees to Switzerland or elsewhere, all the priest-prisoners from Luxembourg will be put to death, perhaps on crosses.

His Gestapo handler is a young man who had come within two days of being ordained as a priest before concluding that he could affect history more and make the world better by giving himself to Nazism rather than to the Church. The worldly secretary to the bishop is a willing ally of the Gestapo. The Catholic bishop has refused to have anything to do with the Nazi occupiers, and has never once even gone outside his residence to chance being forced to meet with them. Meanwhile, he keeps the cathedral bells tolling loudly for several minutes every day, and the people take comfort from the strength of this resistance.

You really will want to see this movie for its own sake, as well as for the light it sheds on the real human interactions between church and state under totalitarianism. One will see what faith calls for in these extremities.

On a lighter note, I picked up two summertime novels that I have found both gripping and full of information I am glad to acquire. The first is the Newt Gingrich novel (with William R. Forstchen), Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8. The novel is particularly good at inserting us into the Japanese side of the war, by devices that take us back into personalities, families, schools, and habits of thinking that help us to sense what was in the minds of the Japanese. It is a novel full of the historical details that historians love.

The second, Dragon Fire, is a book I have been waiting to run into for several years now. During the Clinton administration, my wife and I were invited to fly back to Washington with Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and his astute, gracious, and beautiful wife, Janet. The secretary told us how worried he was by the new biological and chemical weapons becoming available on the world market, and how easily they could fall into the hands of tiny rogue cells of operatives, and cause unbelievable destruction in American cities. At one point, as the plane flew above the clouds, he held up a pitcher and said, “Imagine this filled with anthrax. Let loose in a subway or anywhere like that, it could put hundreds into agonizing death throes.” He said he had decided to put vivid examples of what he had learned about international terrorism into a novel — it was the only way to get people to face the reality.

Sure enough, not many pages into his novel, a high official in the Defense Department is put into an agonizing death in the kitchen of his own home by the most ingenious of methods. He alone had refused to be inoculated by the vaccine required to resist anthrax poisoning. Someone must have known that, and used that knowledge. But who?

If you like to learn things even in times of relaxation, in fast-paced and vivid books, try these.

Published in National Review Online June 27, 2008