A Winding Trail To The Manger
One Man’s Lifelong Pursuit Of Liberty
If you think the magi took a long road getting to the manger, you should talk with Dieter Bayer.
Last fall, in Olympia, he crafted the crèche that held the first Nativity scene allowed in the Washington state capitol in years – the result of an equal-access lawsuit filed by the Alliance Defense Fund on behalf of local ADF Ambassador Ron Wesselius. The opportunity was Dieter’s first introduction to ADF, but he and his wife, Regina, quickly became enthusiastic supporters. Now full-fledged ministry friends, they say working on that manger scene wasn’t just a chance to stretch Dieter’s carpentry talents – it was an invitation to join ADF in making a stand for religious freedom.
Two thousand years after Bethlehem, the Herods go by different names. But Dieter knows a tyrant when he sees one … because across a long, crowded lifetime, he’s seen plenty.
Dieter was born just outside Dresden, Germany in 1934. As a child growing up in the Third Reich, a “cub scout” in the Hitler Youth, he had no idea that Nazism wasn’t everything the Fuhrer was cracking it up to be.
Occasionally, though, he overheard some of his father’s tailor-shop customers talking about a place called “America.”
“I believe they were Jewish, and they had lived in America, or visited it,” Dieter remembers. “They were always talking about how wonderful America was – not just a ‘land of milk and honey,’ but about all the freedoms. It opened a little window in my mind, I guess, because I always wanted to hear what they had to say.”
The war changed everything for Dieter’s family. His father was sent to the Russian front, food became scarce, and three of Dieter’s younger siblings died of malnutrition. Dieter himself contracted scarlet fever, and was lying in a hospital bed when a firestorm of bombs demolished the city, leaving the hospital in ruins.
Dieter’s father, just back from the front, picked up his son from the rubble – one of the few to get out alive. Stumbling home, dodging the still-falling bombs, they passed many scorched bodies. More had died, that day in Dresden, than would die, six months later, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, combined. In memory, Dieter still sees the charred remains.
“For years, I couldn’t bear the smell of barbecue,” he says.
With the end of the war, a few weeks later, came the Russians, and Communism.
“We’d heard of the atrocities they were committing,” Dieter remembers, “and people were absolutely petrified.” Suddenly, secret police were everywhere, grilling schoolchildren about their parents, setting traps for anyone whose loyalty was suspect, conspiring with neighbors who might benefit from betrayal.
And even as a boy, Dieter recognized the government’s determination to dominate religion.
“I remember my dad saying, ‘Churches – you can’t trust any of them. They do what the government wants them to do.’ Before the war, he remembers, “many of the preachers were members of the Nazi party.” Then, under the Communists, “government taught you had to be a moron or some kind of an idiot to believe in the existence of God.”
Dieter was about 14 year
s old when, during a school assembly in which faculty were touting the importance of supporting the Communist system with “increased productivity,” he made a loud wisecrack.
“How are we supposed to do that when we’re spending all of our time looking for food?” he asked. “That’s just like asking a car to run without gas.” His classmates laughed and cheered – but school officials didn’t. In the principal’s office, Dieter was questioned at length about his family, their beliefs, what they talked about at home.
“My silly question jeopardized my family and heightened the fear of that dreaded two-o’clock-in-the-morning knock on the door.”
Too young to grasp the full evils of the Nazis, Dieter now saw all too clearly what was happening under the Communists. He realized that if he wanted to escape, time was running out.
East Germany, 1952:
At 17, Dieter was not particularly well-prepared for the life-and-death details of slipping through the Iron Curtain. In fact, he wasn’t sure where the border was. But he and a friend gambled on local rumors … and eventually found themselves on the edge of a huge, plowed field patrolled by sentries with dogs and guarded by machine-gun towers.
The frightened boys hid in the bushes for two days. They had no food, and didn’t dare sleep. Occasionally, the guards would open fire – whether at people or rabbits, Dieter couldn’t tell.
Finally, on the second night, the guards took their dogs and wandered to the far side of the open field. Dieter could hear laughter. Clouds cast strange shadows on the moonlit field as the two boys plunged from the bushes and began crawling on their elbows across the ground … freezing whenever searchlights swept the area.
On the far side of the field, a dark river drifted at the base of a steep embankment. The boys swam it, then – wet, exhausted, hungry – made their way to the first town they could find.
They were in West Germany. Safe. Dieter took the first train out; his friend caught a bus. They wouldn’t see each other again for nearly 50 years.
“Just good luck,” Dieter used to tell himself, explaining why he escaped when so many others didn’t make it. It would be a long, long time before he realized that maybe luck had nothing to do with it. California, 1967:
Now a citizen of the U.S., Dieter and his wife, Regina, were running a successful import/export business in San Francisco. Eight-and-a-half months pregnant with their second child, Regina was hit by a drunk driver. The child was killed, and the Bayers filed a wrongful death suit that went all the way to the California Supreme Court.
"I remember my dad saying, ‘Churches – you can’t trust any of them. They do what the government wants them to do."
There, judges told them that because “the child was within its mother, it was not a person,” Dieter says. Nevertheless, state law required a burial for anything in the womb more than five months.
“I asked them what I was burying,” Dieter says. “They didn’t answer me.”
The experience sealed the Bayers’ fervent commitment to the pro-life movement. They moved their growing family to Idaho, where Dieter became a homebuilder and, eventually, a police officer, and took a growing interest in local politics. His unique perspective – viewing America’s challenges through the prism of his experiences under the Nazis and the Communists – drew the attention of conservative lawmakers, and they persuaded him to run for office. Idaho, 1985:
Once seated in the state legislature, Dieter quickly discovered the power of the political Left. An outspoken and articulate opponent of abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and the promotion of homosexual behavior in public schools, he became, almost overnight, a major obstacle – then target – for groups like Planned Parenthood and the National Education Association.
He began receiving mail that read, “We know where your kids go to school,” and “We will poison your food.” Newspaper columnists portrayed him as a right-wing fanatic, and his political foes mounted a concerted and ultimately successful effort to drive him out in the next election.
"The controls our government is now placing on our churches here are reminiscent of 'state-run' churches in Communist countries ... but the Alliance Defense Fund has given us hope."
“I had great hopes,” Dieter says, “because I knew there were so many things that needed to be fixed. But I didn’t realize that it takes a lot more than just one person to do that.”
Happily, his brief political career was long enough to introduce him to an even more formidable power. As part of his initial campaign, Dieter – who’d never had much use for religion – attended a “Candidates Night” event at a local church, and politely listened as the pastor spoke boldly to all the issues that concerned him … then set them in the context of Scripture. It stirred a curiosity about the Bible that, in time, led Dieter and Regina to a personal relationship with Christ.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, what am I reading here?’” Dieter remembers. “I have always been a history buff, but I could never really explain why there is so much evil in the world, so much hatred, so much animosity between people … all of the slaughter and mayhem. Well, when you read the Scripture, it becomes quite clear what humanity is all about, because God lays it bare.
“Once you fall away from the Scripture, you reap the consequences of your actions. If you take Christ out of a nation, you have nothing left but a skeleton, and when that happens, watch out … because there are forces at play that nobody really wants.”
That, he says, is why working on the manger scene for the Washington state capitol last year, in the wake of the ADF legal victory, meant so much to him. “It was an opportunity to show the people that the manger belongs in the capitol and belongs anywhere, because this is a Christian nation. It was founded on those principles … and if we forget that, that is where our woes come in.
“The way it happened in Germany is exactly the same reason that it is happening in the United States. The controls our government is now placing on our churches here are reminiscent of ‘state-run’ churches in Communist countries. We must, once again, free up the mouths of our churches to preach the Word as God gives it, without fear of retaliation.”
“Having lived through Nazism and Communism, I can only tell my fellow Americans that the hour is late – it is ‘less than five minutes to 12,’ so to speak. Every day, government is playing a bigger role. They want more and more control of the children, more and more control of the family. They are taking your rights away a slice at a time, and nobody really even notices, until it is too late.
“But the Alliance Defense Fund has given us hope,” Dieter says. “ADF is awakening Americans through its stands on so many issues, and by bringing these things to light. I’ve come to recognize its superb work on so many fronts, including protecting the sanctity of life and defending traditional family values. And its successes have really been remarkable. ADF is playing a pivotal role for good.”
But then each of us, Dieter says, as Americans, has a role to play – a special responsibility to confront our country’s problems not only legally, but spiritually.
“We need to repent, as individuals, and as a nation. We must come back to constitutional principles. We have to reverse this trend we are on, this godless way of living that is being encouraged by certain organizations. If America falls, then the rest of the world will fall in darkness. America is the last hope.”
Yes, it’s been a long road to the manger for Dieter Bayer. But then it was for the other wise men, too.