The plaque above reads:
“[Here] in this church preached and was confirmed
in 1932, the resistance fighter, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Born 4th February 1906, and died in Flossenbürg on the 9th April, 1945.”
[my translation]

As with all historical figures, Bonhoeffer’s worldview was coloured by the socio-political circumstances in which he lived. The careful historian however, is cautious to guard against sweeping generalisations of Bonhoeffer’s influence, but nevertheless retain a sense of proportion as to the impetus afforded by Bonhoeffer to the Nazi resistance. Germany’s defeat in the Second World War – and therefore, the toppling of the Nazi regime – are largely attributed to the combined effects of Hitler’s military overreach on both fronts, and the persistent efforts and good fortune of the Allied Forces. Bonhoeffer’s role, from this point of view, is relatively minor. Nevertheless, the incentive for biographical interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer – and justifiably so – stems as much (if not more) from his theological and ethical profundity as from his political actions. For the sake of brevity, this essay will not discuss in detail Bonhoeffer’s theological hermeneutic of foundational reality and responsibility. Rather, this essay will seek to explain the significance of Bonhoeffer’s opposition during the Third Reich by way of (1) the unique characteristics and circumstances available to Bonhoeffer, and (2) the principles that underpinned Bonhoeffer’s motivations to step into the sphere of public resistance where many of his co-religionists did not.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not only a man of vision, but also a man of theological thought, of moral rigour, and of sufficient intestinal fortitude to vocalise this vision against overwhelming Nazi despotism. Of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also an anomaly of his time. The notoriously absent opposition, particularly with respect to the German Church, has arguably remained one of the greatest tragedies and failures of the German people in history. Barring but a few exceptions, Germany was plagued by a contagion of the worst kind: the silent majority, unable (or unwilling?) to denounce the evils of the Nazi regime; let alone take a stand in civil insurrection. Bonhoeffer’s life was exceptional precisely because so few around him possessed the same moral courage to oppose an essentially evil manifestation of the German spirit.

The plight of the Jewish people in Nazi Germany began in April 1933 with the introduction of the Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums (The Civil Service Restoration Act), which would later become the foundation for the Nürnberger Gesetze of 1935. Bonhoeffer, among the first Christian theologians to recognise the incompatibility of Nazi anti-Semitism with the Christian faith, responded swiftly, penning “Die Kirche vor der Judenfrage” on the 15th April 1933[1], though his arguments in a post-Holocaust politico-theological paradigm are unconvincing, prompting some such as Franklin Littell to judge that Bonhoeffer’s “inadequate understanding of the nature of the church was the most tragic element in his eventual martyrdom.” [2] Although this is not an altogether untruthful statement, it is nevertheless one that deserves careful examination. Bonhoeffer was reared on the theological heritage of Martin Luther and German realpolitik; a product of hegemonic thought in the Wilhemine era[3] whose lineage could be traced back in turn to Machiavellianism.[4] Eberherd Bethge writes,

“[Bonhoeffer] grew up in a family that derived its real education … from a deeply-rooted sense of being guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition … this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and actions of earlier generations.”[5]

In this respect, it is almost an unfair representation of Bonhoeffer on Littell’s account – in the same way that one would hardly blame a dog for barking, so too should we respect the fact that individuals will be flawed inasmuch as their context defines them so.

Needless to say however, Bonhoeffer’s motivation in his role against the Nazi regime was significantly different in principle from the majority of his contemporaries. Bonhoeffer’s resistance, contrary to those whose prime concern was the salvaging of a defeated dishonoured Germany, largely (though I will argue, not completely) stemmed from a theological conviction that institutionalised racial discrimination and ideas of ethnic superiority were utterly incompatible with a Christian worldview:

“Civil courage … depends on a God who demands responsible action in a bold venture of faith, and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the man who becomes a sinner in that venture.”[6]

Moreover, Bonhoeffer’s uniqueness also stemmed from his being exclusively equipped to critique the Hitler regime in ways largely impossible for other Christian Germans. For one, Bonhoeffer’s Staatsgedanken was inimitable insofar as his understanding of the state was shaped by his experiences of the Christian faith in other countries, with particular respect to his participation in the New York Harlem community. Besides this, Bonhoeffer’s involvement as one of the theological doyens of the expanding ecumenical movement elicited a kind of magnetism to Bonhoeffer’s banner that could not be replicated by others. Lastly, the unique influences of his friend and mentor, Karl Barth, and that of his grandmother, Julia Bonhoeffer, ought not to be taken lightly. Whereas Barth’s influence fed into an initiative to practice theological opposition at a time when legal opposition was not a viable solution[7], Julia Bonhoeffer’s own ethos had a profound impact upon the formative years of Dietrich’s life[8] – an investment would pay its dividends in full in due course.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer changed the world, and I’m here like …

Of course, no biography of Bonhoeffer is complete apart from an analysis into the theological and ethical motivations for resistance. Although there is undoubtedly an element of compassion for the Jewish people that prompted Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and deeds, we must also ask to what extent Bonhoeffer viewed Hitler’s anti-Semitism as a primer to the final de-Christianisation of Germany as a whole? Perhaps these sentiments are synthesised in Bonhoeffer’s statement, “Wenn heute die Synagogen brennen, dann werden morgen die Kirchen angezündet werden.”[9] This coincides neatly with Bethge’s remark that, for Bonhoeffer, information “was for him the first act – so he could maintain independence of judgment.”[10] Such a mentality accounts for Bonhoeffer’s involvement and later departure from the Bekennende Kirche, and the role its (in)action played in the development of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Nazism. The Confessing Church was conceived upon good and necessary principles: “[those] who could and would not accept the religious ideas … and policies of the Nazi rulers, and who sought to reserve the purity of the gospel.”[11] To this end, the Confessing Church established a number of seminaries supported wholly by free-will offerings to ensure independence from the state. Despite these efforts, Bonhoeffer’s criticism against the Confessing Church’s moral laxity against Nazism was warranted: they had made the decisive first theological step, but had refused to apply that theology into a legitimate social hermeneutic.[12] Bonhoeffer was convinced that despite its best and honest intentions, an “irresponsible”[13] church could not, as a matter of principle, represent the essential substance of the people of God. [14] Whereas Bonhoeffer was discontented to bunker down in the safety of the Church and ignore the injustices committed against the Jews, the vast majority of his peers in the Confessing Church were sadly compliant to the Nazi government. As Jewish persecution rose exorbitantly with the close of the 1930s and culminated in the atrocities of the Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer became increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with the Confessing Church.

In Bonhoeffer’s Christian ethic, the Church could not surrender their responsibilities, nor await a definitive action from God as a kind of deus ex machine – rather, all things hinged upon the Christian’s “conformation to Christ … in accordance with reality”[15]“Christian ethics enquires about the realisation in our world of the divine and cosmic reality which is given in Christ.”[16] Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s political resistance was not concerned with yielding desired outcomes inasmuch as he believed there was an overwhelming moral incentive to do so. In fact, Bonhoeffer, shortly before his incarceration, began to question the real utility of Nazi resistance: “Sind wir noch brauchbar?[17] His answer to this pathetic question is equally melancholic: “Wird unsere innere Widerstandskraft gegen das uns Aufgezwungene stark genug … daß wir den Weg zur Schlichtheit und Geradheit wiederfinden?”[18] Resistance to Nazism, with or without any prospect of success, was warranted by virtue of the fact that it was the responsible thing to do, before both men and before God. For Bonhoeffer, the theologian and practical ethicist of the Christian faith, there was no foreseeable future for him apart from a radically exclusive allegiance to God. A total loss of civil liberties in the present opened the door for Bonhoeffer to a pure, inner freedom compatible with his Christian faith. [19] Thus, motivated by both political and religious beliefs, Bonhoeffer, alongside many others, perceived that the testimony of Germany before history (and at the least for Bonhoeffer, before God) was at stake. This mentality is best exemplified in the solidarity of those of the Schwarz Kapelle, with one commentator going so far as to identify Claus von Stauffenberg (who despite his devout Roman Catholic upbringing is described by his military contemporaries as a man driven wholly by reason[20]) as the political symbol, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as the theological figurehead. [21] Thus, although this does not exhaust Bonhoeffer’s impulses to oppose the Nazi regime, there was nevertheless a very real sense in which Bonhoeffer was compelled to resistance for the express purposes of preserving Christian orthodoxy and his nation’s legacy:

“Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation.”[22]

In summary, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not per se instrumental in the abolition of the Nazi regime. Rather, he wrote rich and interesting theology, synthesised ideas and tensions between the Church and state, developed a Christian socio-political ethic that stood in stark contrast to political zeitgeist, and vocalised opposition when all his contemporaries remained silent. The fact that Bonhoeffer achieved all these despite the extreme and trying circumstances of his day is remarkable, and biographical interest in Bonhoeffer is accordingly justified among the Christian Church today.

giphy (1)
If reading 3,000 words of my thoughts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer made you feel grateful, then imagine reading multiple biographies on this great man.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1928-1936, from the Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Abingdon Press, 1977) at 221-29.

[2] Franklin Littell, ‘The Churches and the Body Politic’, Daedalus, 96/1 (1967) at 23.

[3] Cf. Leopold Von Ranke, ‘Die Großen Mächten’, (ed. Friedrich Meinecke edn.: Insel-Verlag zu Leipzig, 1916).

[4] Ruth Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, in A. J. Klassen (ed.), A Bonhoeffer Legacy: Essays in Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981) at 131-57.

[5] Eberherd Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary (London: Collins, 1970) at 4.

[6] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘After Ten Years’, Letters and Papers from Prison: The Enlarged Edition (New York: Macmillan, 1972) at 6.

[7] Raymond Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, The Journal of Modern History, 64/Supplement: Resistance Against the Third Reich (1992) at 138.

[8] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften: Auslegungen – Predigten, 1931-1944 (München: Kaiser, 1958) at 459.

[9] Eberherd Bethge, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer Und Die Juden’, Konsequenzen: Dietriech Bonhoeffers Kirchenverständnis heute, (Munich 1980) (1980) at 198.
“If today the synagogues burn, then tomorrow the churches will be lit.” (my translation)

[10] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 701-02.

[11] Ernst Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979) at 156.

[12] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 141.

[13] That is, for Bonhoeffer, “irresponsibility” was characterised by a failure to live up to a standard of moral maturity, and of inaction with the powers and influence available to them.

[14] Cf. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Die Mündige Welt V: Dokumente Zur Bonhoefferforschung, 1928-1945 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1969) at 104.

[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1965) at 113-14.

[16] Zerner, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Views on the State and History’, at 147-50.

[17] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Widerstand Und Ergebung: Briefe Und Aufzeichnungen Aus Der Haft (Gütersloher Verlaghaus, 2005).
“Are we still needed?” (my translation)

[18] Ibid.
“Will our inner resistance against the (the pressures/persecutions) forced upon us be strong enough … that we will find again the road to simplicity and righteousness?” (my translation)

[19] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 146.

[20] cf. Hans Bernd Gisevius, Bis Zum Bitteren Ende (Droemer Knaur, 1987) at 503-14.

[21] Mengus, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist’, (at 140.

[22] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary at 559.