He planted churches under the nose of vicious Nazi thugs. He was banned from Berlin by Hitler’s boot-clicking, goose-stepping Gestapo and yet, he secretly visited outlawed churches to minister encouragement, support and faith, despite the dark circumstances. The indomitable Dietrich Bonhoeffer did that and more.
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility,” is one of the quotes not surprisingly, attributed to this Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The words sum up his motivation to speak out courageously and risk his life so constantly in the face of Adolph Hitler and the vicious Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer wrote, “one act of obedience is better than one hundred sermons.” It’s because he lived that principle, his name is remembered with great respect and admiration to this day.
Unlike so many, Bonhoeffer did not simply write and preach about his beliefs or the God of the Bible. He lived his faith with every fibre of his being. He acted boldly in the face of insane, militant opposition and threat. His tenacity and his exploits remain an inspiration to those who believe the Lord commissioned us to be ‘doers of the word and not hearers only.’ (James 1: 22)
He is remembered with honour and appreciation by Jewish historians. They remember his oft-quoted words of wisdom: “First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.” How often we have heard that phrase and maybe not been aware of the courageous Bonheoffer who first expressed them?
He and his twin sister Sabina were born in Breslau, Germany, February 4, 1906. They were two of eight children born to Karl and Paula Bonheoffer. Karl was a distinguished professor of psychiatry and Neurology at Berlin University. He was Germany’s leading empirical psychologist. Dietrich, followed his dad’s academic example and gained his doctorate from Berlin University in 1927. He lectured in the theological faculty during the early thirties.
The Virtual Jewish Library says: “He completed his studies in Tubingen and Berlin. In 1928, he served as vicar in the German parish in Barcelona and in 1930, he completed his theological examinations at Union Seminary, New York. During this period, he became active in the ecumenical movement and accumulated international contacts that would later aid his efforts in the resistance.” (Jewish Virtual Library – Dietrich Bonhoeffer).
He was ordained a Lutheran pastor in 1931, and served two Lutheran congregations, St. Paul’s and Sydenham, in London from 1933-35. His link with the Lutherans would prove to be significant.
“In 1934, 2000 Lutheran pastors organized the Pastors’ Emergency League in opposition to the state church controlled by the Nazis. This organization evolved into the Confessing Church, a free and independent protestant church. Bonhoeffer served as head of the Confessing Church’s seminary at Finkenwalde. The activities of the Confessing Church were virtually outlawed and its five seminaries closed by the Nazis in 1937.”
( IEP The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906—1945)
It is hard for us to understand now, but the ascent of the nationalistic Nazi dictatorship was actually welcomed by the foremost Protestant church, the German Evangelical Church. Although he was a member, Bonheoffer set about resisting the Nazis. In his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question” published in 1933, Bonhoeffer declared his critical observations: “The Nazi injustice must not go unquestioned, and the victims of this injustice must not go unaided, regardless of their religion.”
Hitler imposed racist policies when non-Aryans were banned from parish posts because of laws enforced by the Nazis. Bonheoffer was offered a post, but declined, declaring his opposition to those demands. It was then, in deep disappointment at the lack of an appropriate response by the German church, Bonheoffer accepted a position with a German-speaking church in London.
With the support of like-minded believers, ‘the Confessing Church’ was launched in Germany. It advocated open resistance to Nazism. But as Gestapo scrutiny increased the Confessing Church was soon immobilized. Boenhoffer left London to join the struggle. He returned to Germany to teach at a Confessing Church seminary. Unbelievably, the ‘mainstream’ church barred his students from receiving clerical posts within their denominations. In 1937, the Himmler Decree officially declared degrees granted to Confessing ministry candidates to be illegal. Some of the students were arrested and as previously mentioned, the seminary was closed.
I am not sure we can actually empathize with the pressure experienced by these men and women of faith who stood against the madness of Hitler and the sad, blasphemous capitulation of the church. In this climate, Bonheoffer ‘disappeared’ for the next two years. While he was in ‘hiding’, he managed to visit eastern German ‘illegal’ churches to support his students who continued to minister despite the Himmler Decree.
In an attempt to contain the intrepid Bonhoeffer, the Nazi authorities banned him from Berlin, and in September, 1940, an edict declared he was forbidden to speak in public. In that environment Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed a very appropriate question: “What is a true Christian?”
Then came the first 9/11. German synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished November 9, 1938 to become known as Kristalnacht, but, as you can see, it might just as easily, have been called 9/11?
Despite the ban, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin. He wanted to investigate the Kristalnacht crime for himself. He was stunned to find churches proclaiming that Kristalnacht was the Lord’s punishment of the Jews because of ‘the curse’ of the cross. Bonhoeffer attacked that ungodly theology and explained that the German 9/11 was evidence of the ‘sheer violence’ of Nazism’s ‘godless face.”
His story now took another ‘strange’ twist. Hans von Dohanyi, a lawyer and fierce anti-Nazi, was married to Bonhoeffer’s sister. In early 1939, Dohnanyi was transferred from the German Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command Office of Military Intelligence. (No joke!) Immediately on studying available resources he notified Bonhoeffer, war was imminent. Bonhoeffer, faced with the likelihood of armed service, rather than side with the Hitler regime, packed his bags, and in June 1939 accepted a teaching post at Union Seminary in New York. But, after just a month he returned to Germany, preferring to stand with his fellow believers. His work to undermine Hitler and the Nazis intensified. Because of his international contacts, Bonhoeffer became a key member of the German underground.
Talk about truth being stranger than fiction, the next development is staggering! Dietrich Bonhoeffer gained employment as an agent for Hans von Dohnanyi’s Office of Military Intelligence ‘supposedly working for the expansion of Nazism.’ He traveled to Italy, Switzerland and throughout Scandinavian countries during 1941 and 1942. All the while he was recruiting foreign support for the German resistance.
Eventually, the Gestapo surveillance on Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi discovered large cash transactions. They grew suspicious that the two men were ‘feathering their own nests,’ for personal gain. Imagine the reaction when the real reason for the large cash flow was revealed to be – the rescue of Jews.
The size and enormity of the work by these men only came to the surface slowly. Bonhoeffer was charged with using his international travel for other interests. It was charged he abused his office to keep Confessing Church pastors out of the military. However, as the full extent of his resistance work became known, the Nazi authorities responded furiously. In October 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. He was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp in February 1945, and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was hanged on April 9, 1945, finally charged with plotting to kill Adolph Hitler. Hans von Dohnanyi was executed not long after. Just three weeks later, April 30, 1945 Adolph Hitler, Eva Braun, Joseph Goebbels and his wife committed suicide in the bunker under the Reich Chancellory in Berlin. The last words on a note said to be his final words, Adolph Hitler wrote: “Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their followers with the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples, international Jewry.” It was witnessed by Joseph Goebbels, among others.
In his study of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Todd Kappelman observed: “During the time that Bonhoeffer was in prison he wrote a book titled Letters and Papers from Prison. The manuscript was smuggled from jail and published. These letters contain Bonhoeffer’s consideration of the secularization of the world and the departure from religion in the twentieth century.
“In Bonhoeffer’s estimation, the dependence on organized religion had undermined genuine faith. Bonhoeffer would call for a new religionless Christianity free from individualism and metaphysical supernaturalism. God, argued Bonhoeffer, must be known in this world as he operates and interacts with man in daily life. The abstract God of philosophical and theological speculation is useless to the average man on the street, and they are the majority who needs to hear the gospel. (Probe Ministries -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Todd Kappelman).
Bonhoeffer declared: “Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God he is called to obedient and responsible action: the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.” In this eloquent paragraph he highlights the importance of a ‘sole allegiance to God’. He defines ‘the responsible person’ as one who lives his life knowing he will be held to account before the Lord for his obedience and commitment to the call. Just how deeply he believed those words can be assessed by his life, even his death.