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FOURTH OF JULY – Allegiance & Liberty

Illustration for Christian speaker.

Here’s a remarkable story that might serve as a useful sermon illustration as the Fourth of July approaches when we think about what our allegiances mean and what kind of liberty we champion.
It involves two men from very similar backgrounds in the French city of Lyon: Klaus Barbie and John Weidner. Their two allegiances during World War II took them to vastly different places.
The story could also, of course, illustrate the importance of our choices, period.
I thought I’d give you all the details so you can pick what you want.

THE BUTCHER AND THE RESCUER

November, l942. The French city of Lyon. German
troops and Panzer tanks rumble through the streets. The
Nazi’s have decided to invade all of southern France after
the allied liberation of Morocco and Algeria. Now this
charming, commercial city of fountains and winding streets
must bear the burden of German occupation, and the terror of
the Gestapo. The stage is set for two adversaries to work
out their destinies in a fierce contest for human lives:
John Weidner working desperately to save them. Klaus Barbie
scheming to have them destroyed.

They could not have been more different. Klaus Barbie,
the Gestapo chief in Lyon, who brutally crushed all
resistance. John Weidner the head of the Dutch-Paris
network headquartered in Lyon which helped Jews escape from
the clutches of the Nazis.
One man believed heart and soul in conquest and
domination. The other believed in saving human life.
One man subjected his prisoners to terrible cruelties.
The other never carried a weapon, though he constantly
subjected himself to danger.
One man thought nothing of beating to death those who
wouldn’t divulge enough information. The other endured
torture rather than place others at risk.
One man sent men, women and children off to gruesome
deaths in concentration camps. The other slipped families
across the border to safety and a new life.
Klaus Barbie and John Weidner. They could not have
been more different.
After the war, Weidner was honored by Israel, Holland
and the United States for his heroism and selfless devotion.
Klaus Barbie, after many years in hiding, was finally
apprehended and sent to France, where he stood trial and was
exposed as the Butcher of Lyon, convicted of crimes against
humanity, and imprisoned for life.

Two men light years apart, and yet here is the amazing
thing: their backgrounds were remarkably similar. That’s
right, the Butcher and the Rescuer both grew up amid similar
circumstances.
John Weidner, as one might expect, was raised in a good
Christian home; his father, in fact, was a pastor and teacher.
It was a warm, nurturing home
with a kindly father and beloved mother. Mr. and Mrs.
Weidner taught John to stand up for right, no matter what.
He vividly remembered his father being taken to Swiss
prisons for one-day terms on several occasions because he
kept John out of state school on Saturday, their day of
worship. Freedom of conscience was enshrined as a sacred
value in the Weidner household.
John attended a Christian college near
Colonges, France, where his
resolve to serve God alone was further strengthened. So we
see in John Weidner’s background influences that helped
shape him as a heroic rescuer.
But, remarkably enough, we see the same influences in
Klaus Barbie’s early life. He also had the advantage of a
Christian upbringing. His parents were Catholic believers,
his mother was so devout that she was remembered as “an
angel, a Madonna” by others in their small German village.
And Klaus grew up especially devoted to her. He was also
close to his brother Kurt, a handicapped boy who died in
childhood.
Klaus’s father worked as a schoolmaster and was a
rather strict man who had a problem with drinking. But
neighbors always thought of Klaus as a sweet-natured little
boy, whom they often invited to meals in their homes. One
old man recalled, “He was so harmless. We all thought he
would make a priest.”
Klaus grew up a devout boy; at one point he considered
studying theology. During his later teenage years he
attended a distinguished secondary school and boarded in
church-run hostels. Klaus Barbie became more independent
from his family, but his interests remained idealistic and
strongly colored by Christianity. He joined a Catholic
young men’s group and also a sports association run by the
church. Klaus even participated in a group which undertook
relief work among the destitute and unfortunate. He would
later remember: “I paid many visits to prisoners, who made a
deep impression on me. In conversation with these people, I
heard many tales of bitter human suffering and
misfortune…”
Nothing in this man’s background suggested that he
would eventually become the “Butcher of Lyon.” Barbie
probably did suffer to some extent because of the alcoholism
of his father, and may have been mistreated somewhat. But
other influences for good certainly seem to have dominated
his youth: the close relationship with his devout mother,
and his many activities with the church.
Here certainly was another budding John Weidner,
idealistic, committed to Christian principles, earnest in
his endeavors.
So what made the difference? How did one become a
calloused butcher and the other a self-sacrificing rescuer?
Looking back at their respective stories, we find signs of a
parting of the ways.

In the early l930s, the Nazi brown shirts began
throwing their weight around the town of Trier where Klaus
Barbie lived. In l933, soon after Adolf Hitler became
Fuhrer, Barbie joined the Hitler Youth. He was nineteen,
and, although at first unsympathetic to the Nazi’s, he was
swept up like millions of other Germans in their dramatic
victory. Apparently it was the blazing nationalism of the
movement that won him over at first. Hitler’s National
Socialists promised to right the wrongs of the humiliating
Treaty of Versailles and give Germany once again the proud
place in the world which it deserved.
Klaus Barbie allowed his ideals to be captured by the
patriotic fervor of the brown shirts. Also, the Nazi’s had
begun to tone down their anti-Christian rhetoric about this
time. Hitler was promising to respect the rights of
Protestants and Catholics. And in the town of Trier, Nazi
dignitaries stood side by side with the bishop at the town
cathedral during its most important public festival. Church
and the new state seemed to be getting along just fine.
So at first, Klaus Barbie could tell himself that he
wasn’t turning his back on his faith by joining the Hitler
Youth. He volunteered for six months work in the Labour
Service, wielding a pick and shovel in a northern province,
and returned more convinced than ever that the National
Socialists were building a new, more vital Germany.
Soon Barbie’s dedication earned him a job with the SS,
the Nazi party’s own secret service. They were the elite,
the proud supermen chosen by Hitler himself, representing
order and discipline in their sleek black uniforms. Barbie
began informing on people who criticized the party or worked
against it. His sense of allegiance had begun to center
completely on this dynamic new political movement. He began
to believe its doctrine implicitly, accept its world-view,
and most ominous of all, absorb its hatred of the weak.
He’d sworn ultimate allegiance to the Fuhrer, pledging,
“obedience unto death, so help me God.”
At the age of 25, Barbie married Regina Willms, after
the SS had made sure their ancestors were racially pure. On
the marriage documents both listed their religious
affiliation as “believer in God.” That was a term adopted
by the Nazis who rejected formal Christianity.
Klaus Barbie’s allegiance had become all the more
clear. For a time he may have tried to hold his religious
faith and his Nazi commitment side by side. But now there
could be no question of any Christian belief competing with
his duties as an SS man. The Fuhrer had become his absolute
lord.
In May of l940 Barbie was assigned to work as an SS
officer in newly-conquered Holland. He was responsible for
investigating anti-Nazi activity in Amsterdam. By now he’d
become completely dedicated to Nazi ideals and took an
active part in the campaign against Dutch Jews. He was
involved in the round-up and deportation of nearly 300
Jewish men, who were all eventually murdered.
By l942 Barbie had distinguished himself enough to be
assigned to the French city of Lyon as head of the Gestapo
there. Lyon had become the center of the French Resistance
movement, and Barbie’s job was to crush it. The stage was
now set for Barbie to emerge as the “Butcher.”
He had given his ultimate allegiance to a political
force that had turned into a monstrous killing machine; he
had accepted its ideology without question. Klaus Barbie
had cut himself off from his Christian roots; there would be
no return.

John Weidner made different choices, leading to a very
different allegiance. Through youth and early adulthood he
maintained a strong faith in the God of the Bible. Its
principles remained the authoritative guide for his life.
For a time he worked as a salesman of religious books. In
the early l930s he started a textile business in the city of
Lyon.
When the Nazis overran France, John decided to try to
flee to England where he could hopefully be of service to
Holland, his native country. John didn’t manage to get out;
but he did decide to remain faithful to His God, no matter
how dark the situation might become. When he had to say
farewell to his sister Gabrielle, John told her, “Pray that
God will lead me to do only those things which will be an
honor to Him.”
In occupied France, John watched as more and more Jews
were harassed and herded into camps. It was becoming harder
and harder for them to leave the country. Seeing all those
people in desperate straits, John had to make a decision:
would he risk his own security, even his own life, to help
them? John knew the teachings of Scripture too well to
hesitate. He began forming groups to help people in the
camps; he talked officials into giving him papers as a
social worker so he could distribute food and arrange
secretly for travel permits and false identification
papers. He used money from his textile business to pay
legal fees for lawyers to get some out of the camps.
Then, as the situation worsened, John began forming an
organization, called “Dutch-Paris” which would actually take
internees and others in danger all the way out of France to
the safety of neutral Switzerland.
In all this, John Weidner prayed and thought a great
deal. He would have to use illegal means to gain people’s
freedom. Was it justified? This man wasn’t just giving his
allegiance to some political group or ideology. He didn’t
want to be motivated by hatred; he wanted always to be
faithful to the God of the Bible. And he decided that
saving people from certain death was his chosen work at this
time. As he worked and organized and planned, John said, “I
feel the hand of God leading me onward. These countless
refugees need the help of a compassionate friend. They need
the love of God demonstrated amid the torment and terror of
this awful war. I believe the work our organization is
doing will show the love that only He can give.”
That was what pushed John Weidner into his great and
perilous adventure leading the Dutch-Paris underground. It
was his ultimate allegiance that drove him to become the
“Rescuer of Lyon.”
Klaus Barbie and John Weidner divided over the question
of allegiance; they chose different masters. Jesus Christ
had something very clear to say about our ultimate
allegiance. In Luke 16:13 He warned:

No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate
the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one
and despise the other. Luke 16:13

If we give our allegiance to anyone or anything besides
God, it will eventually eat up our faith. We can’t serve
two masters. Klaus Barbie became the property of one; he
accepted a monstrous Nazi god and became a monster himself.
He became what no one seeing him in his youth could have
imagined. What a difference it makes—who we give our
allegiance to.

Allegiance made the difference between Klaus Barbie and
John Weidner. Neither one began life as a saint or as a
brute; each one began life grounded in the Christian faith.
But they parted ways at that critical point—the point of
ultimate allegiance, loyalty, devotion. And their
allegiances took them poles apart.
Barbie became the Butcher of Lyon. John Weidner became
the selfless rescuer.
One incident reveals in a
dramatic way just what his values were.
Weidner was escorting a family of refugees, named Smit,
over the Saleve Mountain and on to freedom in Switzerland.
As they were crossing the summit, one member of the group,
Grandmother Smit, began to lag behind. She gasped, “I can’t
keep up; I’m just an old woman. I don’t think I can make
it.”
John encouraged her. “You’re doing fine,” he said,
“Just keep walking steadily.” But soon she was pleading,
“Let me die. It’s MY life. Just let me lie down here and
die. You can go on without me; it won’t make any
difference.”
But it DID make a difference to John Weidner. During
dark moments he often quoted a verse from Isaiah to himself
that said, “He hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to
proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the
prison to them that are bound.” That was the kind of work
God did, and he had given his wholehearted allegiance to
Him, no matter what the cost. Grandmother Smit was slowing
the pace considerably. Every extra moment spent on this
mountain added to the danger of discovery by a border
patrol. The sun was sinking in the west. Would they have
light enough to make it safely down the mountain?
But this one old woman who felt utterly useless DID
matter. Her was precious in God’s eyes. John Weidner could
not abandon her. So he placed her arm around his neck and
carried her along, a few difficult steps at a time, and
fortunately, the whole Smit family made it across the border
to safety.
John Weidner and Klaus Barbie. How differently these
two men looked at human life. What a difference our
allegiances make.

Widner’s story comes from a book called “FLEE THE CAPTOR”
Herbert Ford, Southern Publishing Association

Barbie’s story comes from “THE BUTCHER OF LYON”

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One of my principle motivations in sharing illustrations for Christian speakers is to provide real-life stories, not just illustrations that are analogies. My passion is to help Christian speakers be able to SHOW what God is like, how He works in our lives, how the Christian faith works—not just TELL.

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