I sought this novel out after reading Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s perfect goose-bump of a short story "Address Unknown." That story, originally published in 1938, received much-deserved notoriety in its time and was later republished as a stand-alone paperback with an afterword by the author's son giving the back story of this riveting epistolary exchange between two Germans, one a Jew and one a budding Nazi, at a pivotal time in history. It is an international best-seller.
I'm guessing Kressman Taylor's son, Charles Douglas Taylor (who contributed back-of-book comprehensive and illuminating histories about and by the real man* on whom Day of No Return was based), was motivated by the short story's success to self-publish (through Xlibris) this 2016 American edition of this out-of-print novel that has only four reviews on Goodreads. I would like to remedy its unmerited obscurity.
Day of No Return, first published in 1942, is equally necessary and horrifying. And it should be read by Americans who love democracy and are frazzled by our current history. If you enjoy reading history, this novel may be for you. I'll explain:
I was not brought up with a religion and one of the good parts of that is that I have no sense of any religion being superior and am comfortable with a live and let live attitude. But this background has also made me obtuse to the dynamism of religious fervor and power and how it can be used to take over and demolish democracy. For all its flaws, our Constitution and the founders were absolutely brilliant in their proclamation of a republic with a separation of church and state—a separation which insidious forces are eroding as I type.
The similarities of the trajectory of Germany into a Nazi regime and what's going on now in the USA are unmistakable. But without the knowledge of the historical precedent, we Americans are missing the chance to do a course correction.
If you are not interested in religion, some of this book could be daunting—the changing politics affecting the German Lutheran church and its pastor, as told by the pastor's son. Even if church doctrine and politics are not your thing, I encourage you to read this, because it is identical to what is happening here in the States with a carefully choreographed merging of State and willing Evangelicals and the impending elimination of women's rights to their own bodies by establishing the primacy of one religion's beliefs and codifying it into law. (Jews and Buddhists have entirely different beliefs about what constitutes an in-utero person, not to mention all the beliefs of people who do not ascribe to any organized religion, not to mention the plethora of individual traumas and circumstances that determine a woman's choice to give birth or not.)
In Germany, citizens got drawn by the magnetism of power—a leader who established a cult and declared it a religion. This religion that is not a religion takes over organized religion, pushing out people who truly believe in God and loving their neighbor. It's like a virus. And what's left is a religion called "German Christians" which has zero to do with the Golden Rule or a Loving God, let alone mercy. And it happens step by carefully choreographed step:
- like judges here being appointed who'll do away with women's right to bodily autonomy;
- like election officials being replaced by people with loyalty to a party or doctrine rather than democratic elections;
- by having a so-called member of the fourth estate act as a propaganda machine;
- by enacting legislation to encourage people to spy on one another, investigate miscarriages, and prosecute anybody who may have broken the Christian Right's ban on abortion.
Unlike the USA, there was no established separation of church and state in Germany's former republic, however this allowed the Nazis to take over the customary teaching of religion in schools, substituting Nazi (aka "German Christian") doctrine and "Aryan blood theory" for Lutheran spiritual teaching—
- which sounds a lot like the book banning now happening in Florida and elsewhere.
"They are not teaching our boys to be Christians any more. [says one distraught mother] They are teaching them to worship the state, to worship the Fuehrer instead of God. They make fun of the Bible,' a woman with tear-smudged cheeks began. (180)"
But nothing is as it seems.
It is really all about power, not about beliefs. But people who believe are pulled into it; so are people who feel lost or victimized or disparaged. And those who merely go about their lives, ignoring the whole thing, oblivious to what is happening on what seems to them to be the edges of their comfort, don't have a chance.
People with a church background will have a much easier time with this novel than I did and perhaps appreciate more of the intricacies of the Lutheran resistance to what happened. But if you can't get into anything religious, I hope that, through this little review, you can still hear and heed the warning and message this book has for this moment in American history:
We must vote in huge numbers to protect the separation of church and state. Ignoring this virus is not an option if we want to keep democracy as we've known it.
I live in New York State where our representatives overwhelmingly support democracy, but I intend to try to affect the larger republic through participation in an organization called Vote Forward—sending nonpartisan letters to sluggish registered voters in states with upcoming midterm elections, simply stating why voting is important to me.
If you are a Christian who believes in separation of church and state and a democratic republic, you might feel called to action by the heroic resistance of the Lutherans recounted in this book. What that action might be, I have no idea.
If you are living in Putin's Russia right now, there is a whole other level of stuff for you in this book.
* Rev. Leopold Bernhard (b. 1915, d. 1985)**, the real pastor whose story this is, escaped to the USA, subsequently was threatened by Nazi supporters in this country, reported his experience to the FBI, who arranged the meetings with Kressmann Taylor. She wrote his story (this book) under the title Until That Day with unofficial government backing and private financial support. The book was on track to be a best-seller, Book-of-the-Month Club pick, and movie, but all of that was cancelled after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, "which made it unnecessary to raise anti-fascist sentiments in America. (226)"
**An unfinished autobiography of Bernhard's is included in the back of this book. (I didn't read it. Maybe eventually I will.)
*** BR Note: The Nazi Christianity is referred to in this book as a "pagan" religion in a disparaging way. This is a misuse of the word. Paganism in truth is an authentic religion deriving from Ancient Greece and Rome whose practitioners believe in the sacredness of nature. There was no reverence for anything other than Hitler and Aryan blood in the Nazi Christianity.
As everyone who lives in the United States is probably aware, Saturday, 5/14/22, a white supremacist vigilante took it upon himself to carry out his mission to murder, directed by the Nazi-espoused "Replacement Theory" now given wide publicity by Fox News and the internet. This morning, historian Heather Cox Richardson, in her free newsletter Letters from an American, quoted President Biden's remarks at the site of the Buffalo mass murder:
"What happened here is simple and straightforward," Biden said, "Domestic terrorism. Violence inflicted in the service of hate and a vicious thirst for power that defines one group of people being inherently inferior to any other group. A hate that through the media and politics, the Internet, has radicalized angry, alienated, lost, and isolated individuals into falsely believing that they will be replaced—that's the word, "replaced"—by the "other"—by people who don't look like them and who are therefore, in a perverse ideology that they possess and [are] being fed, lesser beings."
Biden called on "all Americans to reject [that] lie." He condemned "those who spread the lie for power, political gain, and for profit." "[T]he ideology of white supremacy has no place in America," he said. "Silence is complicity."