Article by: KIRK O. KOLBO
The wise words of the theologian executed over a plot to kill Hitler still have resonance for us in today’s troubled times.
Seventy years ago Thursday, Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler.
There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer was “guilty” of being one of the conspirators. Although he had been in prison for two years at the time of his execution, beginning more than a year before the failed July 20,1944, Stauffenberg bomb attempt on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie), Bonhoeffer had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. He had been brought into it by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer and official in the Abwehr, the military intelligence office and a center of resistance to Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was determined from his early teens to become a theologian. His first pastoral church assignment was to a German émigré congregation in Barcelona, Spain. In the early years of the Nazi regime, he had a similar position with a church in London. His biographers point, however, to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Bonhoeffer came as an exchange student, studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Among the friends he made there was an African-American student from Alabama who introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.
Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable … for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.” He had not previously given much thought to the issue of race and the church, “especially since we don’t really have an analogous situation in Germany.”