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Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Voice Against Tyranny

by John W. Whitehead
4/4/2005

Only the church of Christ can speak out so that the world, though it gnash its teeth, will have to hear, so that the peoples will rejoice because the church of Christ in the name of Christ has taken the weapons from the hands of their sons, forbidden war, proclaimed the peace of Christ against the raging world.

Thus spake Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One can only speculate what Bonhoeffer would have thought about the world today. Certainly, unlike many mainline Christians, he would not have been silent about a world filled with war, torture and other atrocities. Willing to die for his beliefs, Bonhoeffer would have at least felt morally compelled to openly protest.

This should come as no surprise since Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian, spent much of his adult life urging the German church to resist Nazism. When he could not prevail upon the church to interfere in political matters, he took action. In fact, Bonhoeffer’s involvement in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler resulted in his execution 60 years ago on April 9, 1945. He was only 39 years old at the time.

Bonhoeffer’s theologically rooted opposition to Nazism led him to become a Christian dissident and an advocate on behalf of German Jews. It was his efforts to help a group of Jews escape to Switzerland that led to his arrest and imprisonment in the spring of 1943. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and writings provide a rare insight into his strength of religious conviction and willingness to act on principle, no matter the cost. As he wrote in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

Although he fought the Nazis, Bonhoeffer was also sharply critical of Christianity. He saw Christians, much like many evangelicals of today, going in two equally wrong directions. The first was the compartmentalization of their faith so that it affected only certain areas of a person’s life. The second was the over-spiritualization of Christianity, which urged Christians to ignore the physical realm in favor of the spiritual. Bonhoeffer berated the church for such self-absorption. “We are otherworldly—ever since we hit upon the devious trick of being religious, yes even ‘Christian’ at the expense of the earth,” he wrote in 1932.

As the influence of Nazism grew in Germany, Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran himself, urged the Lutheran Church to fight it. After the first anti-Semitic laws took effect, he outlined a progression of steps that the church must take against oppressive government. First, the church must speak out against abuses of power. Second, the church must aid victims of such abuses. Finally, when other measures fail, the church must take direct action against the government.

Ignoring the protests of Bonhoeffer and other dissenting pastors, in 1933 the Lutheran Church adopted a set of Aryan clauses. Non-Aryans and those married to non-Aryans were no longer to be ordained or offered positions in the church. Bonhoeffer immediately called for all dissenting pastors to resign and refused the parish that had been offered to him. Bonhoeffer sent a statement to church leaders declaring that the Aryan clauses were in direct conflict with basic Christian doctrines. When he received no response, Bonhoeffer helped form the Pastors’ Emergency League, which eventually grew to 6,000 dissenting pastors.

Even within the rebel church, Bonhoeffer was considered something of a radical. And his pacifism separated him from his fellow pastors, many of whom backed some of Hitler’s policies and movement toward war. Though he considered the church to be Christ’s primary agent for change in the world, Bonhoeffer did not hesitate to act independently when he deemed it necessary. He lived his convictions through personal, and usually very practical, acts of dissent.

Bonhoeffer carried out many of his anti-government activities in secret (including avoiding military service). This was out of expedience. At the height of Nazi power, to publicly attack Hitler meant prison or death. Bonhoeffer knew he could be more effective if he was not perceived as a threat.

When the Nazi government began taking Jewish lives, Bonhoeffer resorted to even more covert tactics. He helped arrange a successful scheme to smuggle a group of Jews out of Germany. He also came to the aid of the mentally and physically handicapped who were slated to be euthanized. Bonhoeffer and his father, who headed the Department of Psychology at the University of Berlin, obtained grounds from medical experts for refusing to hand over patients housed at two church-run facilities.

In 1939, Bonhoeffer traveled to America with the intention of waiting out the war. He soon realized, however, that he could not in good conscience desert his fellow Germans. After his return, Bonhoeffer became actively involved in plans for a military coup.

The plans for a military coup, however, suffered a setback when, in December 1941, Hitler made himself commander-in-chief of the German army. Conspiracy leaders now determined that the coup would have to begin with an assassination, and Bonhoeffer found himself a party to plans to assassinate Hitler. As he explained: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”

Eventually, one of Bonhoeffer’s co-conspirators was arrested by the Nazis and he, in turn, implicated Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo on April 5, 1943, but the conspiracy continued to move forward. Already, two attempts to kill Hitler had failed. On July 20, 1944, Bonhoeffer learned that the third and final attempt on Hitler’s life had failed. In the days following, Hitler ordered a series of executions of those involved in the assassination plot.

At this point, Bonhoeffer’s prison guard was willing to help him escape, and an elaborate plan was set in motion. But as more and more people were arrested for the slightest connection to the conspirators, Bonhoeffer decided that his escape would amount to an admission of guilt and endanger his family and friends.

The conspiracy had been widespread, and Hitler had some 6,000 executed in retaliation. Bonhoeffer, because he was considered a possible source of information, was kept alive for several months. Hitler only ordered his execution after defeat for Germany became inevitable. Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945. A few days later, Allied troops reached and liberated the camp. On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and on May 7, Germany surrendered unconditionally.

Bonhoeffer went calmly to his death. As he was led out of his cell, he was observed by the prison doctor who said: “Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths.” The prisoners were ordered to strip. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for one last time to pray. Five minutes later, he was dead.

Even while in prison, Bonhoeffer maintained his pastoral role. Those who were with him spoke of the guidance and spiritual inspiration he gave not only to fellow inmates but to prison guards as well. In a letter smuggled out of prison, Bonhoeffer showed no bitterness but rather explained how “We in the resistance have learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the excluded, the ill treated, the powerless, the oppressed and despised…so that personal suffering has become a more useful key for understanding the world than personal happiness.”

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute and author of the award-winning Grasping for the Wind. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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