A foreign film, "The Lives of Others," offers us a different kind of hero. In WWII's battle against Nazi fascism, a distinguished hero was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man put to death for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Few of us feel that we could be that kind of hero. But maybe we could be the kind of hero depicted in this East German film, where a government agent chooses to "spy" without incriminating a popular writer, ultimately protecting the writer from being blacklisted and having his career destroyed.
The hero, the government spy, bears the consequences of his actions. And that seemed to be how the East German Police (Stasi) controlled people — by threatening to ruin their careers. In my book Slow Is Beautiful I discuss how this was also true during Hitler’s reign. Roger Gottlieb, in A Spirituality of Resistance, tells the stories of the "little men" in the Gestapo who obeyed orders for the sake of furthering their careers. Yes, he says, there were Jew haters, but most of the people just went along because they didn’t want to threaten their careers by not supporting the Nazis.
How many of us compromise for the sake of our careers? We may not be spying on others for the Bush administration, but we go along with things every day that are leading us to a nation with hollow freedoms and eroded well-being. How many times do we do questionable things because it would be good for our careers? Like working for corporations that support Bush or ruin the environment or pay low wages or cut people’s benefits. We’re not really bad people. We’re just not doing what we know is right.
Few of us can be Bonhoeffers, but maybe more of us can be a “little” hero, by finding small ways to be true to ourselves. The spy’s career in the East German civil service was ruined by his resistance, but in the end his life was redeemed.