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On Hitler’s express orders reprisal the killing of Germans in Denmark were to be carried out in secret “on the proportion of five to one.” Thus, the great Danish pastor-poet-playwright, Kaj Munk, one of the most beloved men in Scandinavia, was brutally murdered by the Germans, his body left on the road with a sign pinned to it: “Swine, you worked for Germany just the same.”
Last Days of the Nazis is a story that’s rarely been broadcast on television before. This is a dark and compelling history of Nazism from a different perspective – that of the Nazis themselves. In 1945, the Allies rounded up and interrogated thousands of ex-Nazis. The interrogations became a fascinating, but largely forgotten, part of the historical record. The Last Days of the Nazis uses these interrogations to dramatically bring to life accounts by Nazi death camp commandants, Nazi doctors, generals, architects, and members of the Hitler Youth. It is an inside look at the minds and motivations of the most evil regime in history. This is what the enemy told us.
“I believe that God can and will bring good out of evil, even out of the greatest evil. For that purpose he needs men who make the best use of everything. I believe that God will give us all the strength we need to help us to resist in all the times of distress. But he never gives it in advance, lest we should rely on ourselves and not on him alone. A faith such as this should allay all our fears for the future.”
“To talk of going down fighting like heroes in the face of certain defeat is not really heroic at all, but merely a refusal to face the future. The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live! It is only from this question, with the responsibility towards history, that fruitful solutions can come, even if for the time being they are very humiliating.”
From the beginning, then, I was associated with Bonhoeffer’s training of ministers for the Confessing church. A close friendship resulted, and I accompanied him wherever he lived and worked. In 1940 I followed him him to Berlin, where I often stayed at his parents’ house, and in 1943 I married Renate Schleicher, the daughter of Bonhoeffer’s sister Ursula, who lived next door. Finally, he and I conducted an illegal correspondence that began after Bonhoeffer had survived the first dangerous series of interrogations in Tegel military prison. Eventually, this correspondence led to worldwide discussion. I also saw him several times in Tegel prison, until our contact was finally broken off as a result of my own arrest in October 1944. The Gestapo explored my relation with the Schleicher family, but neglected to investigate my ties to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Thus, I survived!
A man suffered shipwreck in, with, and because of his country. He saw his church and its claim collapse in ruins. The theological writings he left consisted of barely accessible fragments. In 1945 only a handful of friends and enemies knew who this young man had been; the names of other Christians in Germany were more in the limelight. When his name did emerge from the anonymity of his death, the response from the world of academic theology and the churches was tentative and restrained.
Today’s guest post is by Prayson Daniel. Prayson, who blogs at With All I Am, has been using Faithlife Groups since 2012, and created the Natural Theology group. Prayson is from Tanzania, and he earned his BA at Harvest Bible College. He is currently pursuing his graduate studies at Aalborg University in Denmark. Prayson’s greatest desire is to inspire others to admire God through critical thinking.
“What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today? The age when we could tell people that with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are approaching a completely religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore. Even those who honestly describe themselves as ‘religious’ aren’t really practicing that at all; they presumably mean something quite different by ‘religious.’”—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
We have approached a “religionless” age. Some call it a post-Christian world. Ethics and politics are no longer directly influenced by religious beliefs. For many self-describing Christians, their lives show no visible difference from unbelievers.
“What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?” was the question that persistently bedeviled Bonhoeffer during his solitary confinement ward at Berlin-Tegel Military Detention Center. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his participation in a failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Tegel was where he spent his last eighteen months in the world he saw coming of age. He was executed on April 8th, 1945.
During his time in Berlin-Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote his final letters to those closest to him, and explored the most pressing questions in his final days. These writings are available to us as Letters and Papers from Prison. In his letters and notes, the question arose, what is Christianity today? In his correspondence with his best friend, Eberhard Bethge (April-July 1944), Bonhoeffer offered some of the most bewildering and exciting questions and ideas to help Christians faithfully engage with a “post-Christian” world.
Bonhoeffer asked, “How can Christ become Lord of the religionless as well?” and, “Is there such a thing as a religionless Christian?” He answered these questions with “the nonreligious interpretation of biblical concepts.”
What is religionless Christianity?
He was all of these things, and more. The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer provides us with an amazingly clear glimpse into the mind of a Christian who was faced with an impossible decision: to whom is loyalty due, Fuhrer or Christ?
Bonhoeffer watched as fellow pastors and theologians bent their knees and proclaimed absolute loyalty to Adolph Hitler, and as the resistance of the church to the Reich in Germany gradually eroded, Bonhoeffer realized he could not stand by and do nothing. Given the opportunity by a brother-in-law who was an officer of the German military intelligence, the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer agreed to participate in the conspiracy that attempted multiple assassination and coup plots against Hitler.
Ultimately, Bonhoeffer never attempted to justify his actions or the violence that the conspiracy planned. Instead, he accepted that his actions were condemned and only the grace of God could ever undue their power. He accepted the possibility of his own damnation in the hopes that millions could be spared the wrath of the mad dictator at the helm of his country.
In the end, the plots failed and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. For two and a half years he stayed in a series of Gestapo prisons and concentration camps awaiting the final verdict until that fateful April morning when he was marched naked to the gallows and executed.
Bonhoeffer was many things, but his legacy continues to this day. His life and theology unlocks a dimension of Christianity that many assumed had been forgotten to the ancient past: martyrdom. Yet he was not simply a passive martyr that unquestioningly accepted his fate; he stood up for what he felt was right even though he could not justify his own actions.