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The Jewish Virtual Library has a helpful article about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and attitude towards the Jewish people during Adolf Hitler’s reign…
By Elihai Braun
Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out among the Christian leaders during the Nazi era, for he was one of the few to actively resist the racist actions of the Nazi regime. In addition to his legacy of courageous opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s theological writings are still widely read in Christian communities throughout the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau, Germany, on February 4, 1906. He completed his studies in Tübingen 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 in 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.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer took a teaching position with the theological faculty in Berlin. There he produced many of his theological writings, in which he took a traditional viewpoint in Jewish-Christian relations, believing that the Jewish people must ultimately accept Jesus as the Messiah. This theological work greatly increased his prominence in the Christian German community.
After years of political instability under the Weimar republic, most Christian institutions were relieved with the ascent of the nationalistic Nazi dictatorship. The German Evangelical Church, the foremost Protestant church in Germany, welcomed Hitler‘s government in 1933. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, although a member of the German Evangelical Church, was not complacent. In his April 1933 essay, The Church and the Jewish Question, he assailed Nazi state persecution.
Bonhoeffer’s defense of the Jews, however, was based on Christian supersessionism – the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism as the new chosen people of God. Despite his outspoken defense of victims of Nazi persecution, Bonhoeffer still maintained, on a religious level, that the “Jewish question” would ultimately be solved through Jewish conversion to Christianity. The Church strongly advocated this view, as did the ecumenical movements most responsible for aiding Jewish refugees fleeing Nazism.
In The Church and the Jewish Question (1933), Bonhoeffer pledged to fight political injustice. The Nazi injustice must not go unquestioned, and the victims of this injustice must not go unaided, regardless of their religion, Bonhoeffer wrote.
With Hitler‘s ascent, non-Aryans were prohibited from taking parish posts, and when Bonhoeffer was offered such a post in the fall of 1933, he refused it in protest of the racist policy. Disheartened by the German Church’s complacency with the Nazi regime, he decided to accept a position at a German-speaking congregation in London.
The opponents of Nazi interference in Church affairs formed the “Confessing Church,” and some members, including Bonhoeffer, advocated open resistance against Nazism. The more moderate Protestants made what they saw as necessary compromises to retain their clerical authority despite expanding Nazi control. But under increasing Gestapo scrutiny, the Confessing Church was soon immobilized.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to teach at Finkenwalde, a Confessing Church seminary, where he continued to train clergy for the Confessing Church. But the official church barred his students from taking its clerical posts. In August 1937, the regime announced the Himmler Decree, which declared the training and examination of Confessing ministry candidates illegal. Finkenwalde was closed in September 1937; some of Bonhoeffer’s students were arrested.
Bonhoeffer went into hiding for the next two years; he traveled secretly from one eastern German village to another to help his students in their small illegal parishes. In January 1938, he was banned from Berlin, and in September 1940, he was forbidden to speak in public.
In the midst of political turmoil, Bonhoeffer continued to question the proper role of a Christian in Nazi Germany. When German synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer immediately left for Berlin, despite having been banned by the Gestapo, to investigate the destruction. After his return, when his students were discussing the theological significance of Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer rejected the theory that Kristallnacht had resulted from “the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus’ death on the cross.” Instead, Bonhoeffer called the pogrom an example of the “sheer violence” of Nazism’s “godless face.”2
The Confessing Church resistance expanded its efforts to help “non-Aryan” refugees leave the country. One member of the resistance movement was the passionate anti-Nazi, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer married to Bonhoeffer’s sister. In early 1939, Dohnanyi was transferred from the Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command Office of Military Intelligence, and used his new post to inform Bonhoeffer that war was imminent. Bonhoeffer, knowing that he would never fight in Hitler’s army, left the country in June 1939 for a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York.
But upon arrival in the United States, Bonhoeffer realized that he had been mistaken, that if he did not lead his people during the difficult years of war and turmoil, then he could not partake in the postwar revival of German Christan life. His place, he decided, was in Germany; he returned only a month after his departure, in July 1939. He undertook a more active effort to undermine the regime. With international contacts in the ecumenical movement, he became a crucial leader in the German underground movement.
In October 1940, despite previous Gestapo tracking, Bonhoeffer gained employment as an agent for Hans von Dohnanyi’s Office of Military Intelligence, supposedly working for the expansion of Nazism. In reality, he worked for the expansion of the anti-Nazi resistance. During his 1941 and 1942 visits to Italy, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, he attempted to gain foreign support for the resistance movement.
While plans to topple Hitler progressed only slowly, the need to evacuate more Jewish refugees became increasingly urgent. In early 1943, however, the Gestapo, which had traced Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s large monetary sums intended for Jewish immigrants, foiled plans for a new refugee rescue mission. Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943.
Initially, the Gestapo believed that Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were embezzling money for their own interests. Then the truth began to leak out, and Bonhoeffer was subsequently charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using official travel for other interests, and abusing his intelligence position to keep Confessing Church pastors out of the military. But the extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities was not fully realized for months.
In October 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he was hanged on April 9, 1945. Hans von Dohnanyi was executed soonthereafter.
1 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. “After Ten Years.” Letters and Papers from Prison. Enlarged Edition, Eberhard Bethge, ed. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971, p. 5.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. Simon & Schuster.
Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Greetings from Jerusalem! My wife and I are still on a Holy Land tour as you can see in my previous posts. Since this is a blog about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it would be good to post something about his relationship with the Jews. Those who know Bonhoeffer know that he was was among the first to stand up for the Jewish people in Germany. Here is a blog post by Martin Marty…
FOR THE first time in the United States,” said the book blurb, “a number of Christian thinkers gathered to analyze Bonhoeffer’s theological achievement for publication.” So eight of us claimed–I was editor–in The Place of Bonhoeffer, which in 1962 sold for $4.50 ($2.25 paperback), and now, Google will tell you, can be found for $55.00. I dug it out of its virtual time-capsule to prepare for a panel responding to Martin Doblmeier’s impressive film Bonhoeffer, which can be seen on PBS on February 6, two days after the late German theologian’s 100th birthday.
Bonhoeffer spoke to his time and could not anticipate ours. No one did, or could. The Place of Bonhoeffer appeared 17 years after the Nazis hanged him. The civil rights movement was in its prime. As the Doblmeier film shows,
Bonhoeffer was way ahead of almost all European and most American theologians on the interracial front. He had been accepted in and had learned from Harlem churches during his year in New York in 1931. The Vatican Council was just beginning in 1962, so the ecumenical front, on which he was a pioneer, did not yet include Catholics. And the film Bonhoeffer demonstrates that however patriarchal he and his contemporaries now appear, he was theologically and personally close to powerful women. Most of the vigorous church women’s movements took off just after our attempt to “place” Bonhoeffer.
The film takes seriously the fact that while Bonhoeffer sought the liberation of Jews, his theological thinking was still “1930ish,” since he often spoke of Jews’ value as potential converts to Christianity. Yet he died in the cause that included the future of Jews, and I’ve always thought he deserves recognition as a “Righteous Gentile” in Israel.
The question we asked in 1962 Bonhoeffer had asked in 1944: “The thing that keeps coming back to me is, ‘what is Christianity, and indeed what is Christ, for us today?'” Momentarily he departed from his high Christology to envision an almost humanistic Jesus. It was at the time when he was chronicling the “world come of age,” obvious in Europe. With the recovery of high Christologies and a Christian boom in the poor and southern worlds he found a new place. John deGruchy, who figures large in Bonhoeffer, has shown at book length the part that Bonhoeffer’s thought played in ending apartheid in South Africa.
It’s always a bit foolish to ask how someone in the past would respond to trends today. WWBD: what would Bonhoeffer do–and think? He foresaw how complacencies in mainstream Protestantism forebode decline, and he offered clues for addressing the situation that are still worth picking up on. He praised then and would praise now the vitality of African-American inner-city churches. While his writings appear in anthologies of spirituality, it’s hard to conceive of him making sense of the Jesus-spirituality that so appeals to individualist seekers today. In one famous essay he wrote that “Christ exists as community.” Many things in the newer evangelical expression he might admire, but not its slavish nationalism or its market orientation.
Watching Bonhoeffer in the light of what we eight thought of him almost a half century ago leads me to say that for Christians his urgent question remains, to be answered in multiple ways, but still to be answered: “What is Christ for us today?”
COPYRIGHT 2006 The Christian Century Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning
As I stated a couple of days ago, my posts will focus more on some sites in the Holy Land rather than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. My wife, Lois and I, are on a tour. At this moment we are staying at a Holiday Inn in Tiberias, Israel right across the street from the Sea of Galilee. How cool is that.
Yesterday we were in Petra. Here is a picture my wife and me standing on the high place of Petra.
Over the next number of posts, I may or may not refer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer because my wife and I are in the Holy Land. Currently, we are in Amman, Jordan. One of the places we went to today was Mount Nebo. Mount Nebo is where God told Moses to go and look over the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 32.49). Moses would die on Mount Nebo.
It is difficult to imagine how severe the situation was in days of Adolf Hitler. For Christians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew the dangers of standing for Jesus, yet they realized that being a Christian may sometimes mean great sacrifice. Bonhoeffer could not sit back and watch the church transform into Hitler’s puppet.
There had to be action. Bonhoeffer and others formed a “resistance” movement within the church to not only oppose the pro-Nazi policies within the church; but also to show unity with their Jewish colleagues within the church. This resistance was known as the “Pastors’ Emergency League.” This organization would eventually form the “Confessing Church of Germany.” 
The Confessing Church then commissioned Bonhoeffer and Hermann Sasse to formulate a confession of faith that would serve as a counter to the Nazi’s invasion into the German National Church. Bonhoeffer and Sasse would draft this confession at a retreat center called Bethel. Thus, the confession was known as the “Bethel Confession”. This document, in its original form was perhaps the most devastating condemnation of the Nazi point of view. Yet, the Bethel Confession went through several revisions to make it less offensive. Bonhoeffer was so disappointed in the final watered-down version that he refused to sign it.
In May of 1934, the Confessing Church adopted the “Barmen Declaration”. The primary author of this document was theologian Karl Barth. The delegates from nineteen provincial churches voted unanimously to oppose the intrusion of Nazi values into the German church. The Barmen Declaration included the following statement:
We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we do not need justification and sanctification through him.
It was a strong and clear call to allow the church to truly be the church and to be completely devoted to Jesus. Bonhoeffer was a strong advocate of the Barmen Declaration:
Bonhoeffer himself, though not present at Barmen, would look back on that moment as an affirmation that church order was bound solely to Jesus Christ. This affirmation, for him, was a clear rejection of the heresy that a church could be allowed to suit its convictions to the dictates of politics or public opinion. The church was, to put it simply, the Body of Christ.
Regardless of the politic climate we live in, the church is to be wholly devoted to Jesus. How would the American church react to persecution? John Piper writes:
The coddled Western World will sooner or later give way to great affliction. And when it does, whose vision of God will hold? Where are Christians being prepared for great global sorrows? Where is the Christian mind and soul being prepared for the sorrows to come? Christians in the West are weakened by wimpy worldviews. And wimpy worldviews make wimpy Christians. God is weightless in our lives. He is not terrifying magnificent. His sovereignty is secondary (at best) to his sensitivity.
The solution to a wimpy brand of Christianity is a radical (normal in the Bible), sold-out devotion to Jesus Christ. This means we decide now right not to be pampered in our walk with Jesus. Instead, it is to know and love and worship and obey Him
 Geffrey B. Kelly and F. Burton Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1995) 17.
 John Piper, Spectacular Sins and Their Global Purpose in the Glory of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2008), 13.
Recently, I have been referring to Creation and Fall and Temptation by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Below is a good synopsis of it found at the Barnes & Noble website
In this enlightening study, renowned twentieth-century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer offers a careful textual analysis of the story of creation, approaching the biblical tale with the eye of a philosopher and the soul of a true Christian.
“Creation and Fall” is Bonhoeffer’s lucid, brilliant analysis of the first three chapters of Genesis. Here he discusses the seeming scientific naivete behind the creation story, God’s love and goodness, and humanity’s creation, its free will, and its blessedness. Bonhoeffer also tackles difficult questions that are raised in the first book of the of the Bible, questions about the seemingly redundant second story of creation, about God’s own beginning, about the source of the light that was created on the first day. The author then expounds on Adam and Eve’s fall from grace: How could they, creatures made in God’s image, have thought to oppose God so foully? Where did the first evil come from? How did humanity lose its right to live in paradise?
In “Temptation,” Bonhoeffer questions how temptation appeared in the midst of Eden’s innocence, and he explores the very nature of evil. Bonhoeffer explains that Jesus Christ helps us to understand and conquer physical and spiritual temptation through His grace and goodness.
Believers suffer the hour of temptation without defense. Jesus Christ is their shield. And only when it is quite clearly understood that temptation must befall the Godforsaken, then the word can at last be uttered which the Bible speaks about the Christian’s struggles.
From heaven the Lord gives to the defenseless the heavenly armour before which, men’s eyes do see it.
Satan flees (144)