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How Would Bonhoeffer Vote?

LESS THAN A MONTH before the 2016 presidential election, evangelical journalist and biographer Eric Metaxas made the case in The Wall Street Journal that, though they might find his morals odious and his behavior unconscionable, American evangelicals had no choice but to vote for Donald Trump. Metaxas admitted that Trump’s lecherous Access Hollywood hot-mic audio comments, which the Washington Post had made public five days before, might be a deal-breaker for some religious voters. But Trump’s opponent, he argued, had “a whole deplorable basketful” of deal-breakers, and, purity be damned, Christians were obligated to stop her from reaching the Oval Office.

To make his point, Metaxas needed a weighty moral example, a name that had currency among churchgoers. Attentive observers of American Christianity could almost have predicted his choice. “The anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer also did things most Christians of his day were disgusted by,” Metaxas wrote, implying that pulling the lever for Trump was analogous to conspiring against Hitler’s regime, while voting for Hillary Clinton was roughly equivalent to joining the brownshirts. As everyone knows, evangelicals bought what Metaxas was selling.

This was far from the first time the Berlin theologian and pastor’s name was used to gain leverage in American politics. The Bonhoeffer of Metaxas’s 2010 best seller, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, had all the theological orthodoxy and manly grit an evangelical could want. Conversely, though Charles Marsh’s 2014 biography, Strange Glory, was exquisitely crafted and meticulously researched, his Bonhoeffer looked suspiciously like an American liberal Protestant with some inclination toward activism and progressive politics. He even spent the years he was incarcerated in the Nazi military prison at Tegel (1943–1945) suffering from unrequited love toward his best (male) friend, Eberhard Bethge, rather than pining for his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer.

More recently, both conservative and progressive journalists, pastors, and academics have entered the fray, claiming that either the Obergefell v. Hodges decision to legalize gay marriage (the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ronnie Floyd) or the election of Donald Trump (Sojourners magazine) constitutes a “Bonhoeffer moment,” one in which Christians must resist cultural or governmental authority in order to obey God. The debate about who has the right to claim Germany’s most famous resistance figure has become so fierce that last year Rhodes College professor Stephen Haynes penned The Battle for Bonhoeffer to address the United States’s recent reception of his theology.

With so many American Christians wielding his name in this cultural proxy war, one might assume Bonhoeffer’s political commitments were common knowledge among college-educated believers. One would be wrong. Books on Operation Valkyrie and Bonhoeffer’s association with the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler are a dime a dozen. English-language studies that touch on Bonhoeffer’s work on behalf of the Jews or his interest in the American Black church appear frequently enough. But if one sets out to peg Bonhoeffer as an ally of either American Democrats or Republicans, only a deep dive into current scholarship will offer any clarity.

That, of course, is because Bonhoeffer lived in a very different time and culture. He grew up among the Berlin Bildungsbürgertum — the city’s cultural elite — in the western suburb of Grunewald. Many academics lived in this upscale neighborhood. Dietrich’s childhood ambition to pursue a doctorate would not have seemed entirely abnormal in that environment. By his teenage years, his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had become one of Germany’s most famous psychiatrists; the eminent church historians Ernst Troeltsch and Adolf von Harnack were regulars at neighborhood gatherings. However, these were hardly liberal, American-style academic circles. Most found themselves in agreement with their government’s bellicosity when war broke out in 1914. In fact, many were passionate advocates of imperialism; Harnack even acted as a speechwriter for Kaiser Wilhelm II.

A different political mood prevailed in the Bonhoeffer family. Dietrich’s older brother, Karl-Friedrich, joined the Social Democrats after a conversion to socialism during the war. The other siblings drifted toward the German People’s Party and similar parties. Theirs was a bourgeois politics sympathetic with the more open and liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, a stance that may help explain why so many in the Bonhoeffer family would later play active roles in the resistance.

Dietrich, however, stood mostly aloof from wranglings over political ideology. His friend Eberhard Bethge has written that in the 1932 elections Dietrich supported the moderate, lay Catholic Center Party because he thought their international ties — that is, partly ties to the Vatican — could provide “stability and independence” in a rather unstable time. This was an extraordinary step for a German Protestant minister, yet in one sense it fits Bonhoeffer perfectly. His foremost political concerns were never about economics, war and peace, or even the treatment of minorities, though obviously these things were not unimportant to him. Above all else, Bonhoeffer cared about the preservation of the gospel message and the freedom of the Christian church from political and cultural entanglements that might obscure its message. The intricacies of politics, he firmly believed, were not the business of the Protestant pastor or theologian.

“There is no doubt that the church of the Reformation is not encouraged to get involved directly in specific political actions of the state,” Bonhoeffer wrote in his 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” “The church has neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state. Instead, it has to affirm the state as God’s order of preservation in this godless world.” There were rare exceptions to this rule of nonintervention, of course, and the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany was clearly one of them. That was not, however, simply because the Nazi government was engaging in morally repugnant deeds and implementing unjust laws, but because those deeds and laws had driven the church into a status confessionis, a situation where the very truth of the gospel was at stake.

Republicans more anxious about safeguarding religious freedom than President Trump’s peccadillos may read these lines and believe they have found a kindred spirit. When they encounter Bonhoeffer’s conclusion in his Ethics that abortion is “nothing but murder” and discover his intense impatience with American liberal theology, they might feel themselves justified in christening the Obergefell decision a status confessionis — roughly what today might be called a “Bonhoeffer moment.” Perhaps those who are potential targets of an anti-discrimination lawsuit feel especially justified in doing so.

Yet when Bonhoeffer came to Union Theological Seminary in New York for the 1930–’31 academic year and, again, for the summer of 1939, he had some harsh words for those obsessed with religious liberty. “The American praise of freedom is more a tribute to the world, the state, and society than it is a statement concerning the church,” he wrote. “But where the gratitude for institutional freedom must be paid for through the sacrifice of the freedom of [gospel] proclamation, there the church is in chains, even if it believes itself to be free.”

Bonhoeffer, it would seem, may have found the conservative panic over Obergefell more faithless than politically feckless. He may have thought their “Bonhoeffer moment” more about self-preservation and power politics than gospel proclamation.

American progressives might feel even more justified in appropriating Bonhoeffer’s legacy. After all, the first thing most people learn about the Lutheran theologian is that he resisted a tyrannical government that systematically oppressed minorities. And, as many on the American left argue, the Trump administration has at least tried to do just that. These progressive believers might buttress their case by lauding Bonhoeffer’s courageous philosemitic efforts or citing the Sundays in 1931 he spent with the Black community at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. And when they read the blistering criticisms of “otherworldly” faith in his essay “Thy Kingdom Come!” or discover his hope for the future development of a “religionless Christianity” in his final letters, enthused Democrats might be ready to enlist Bonhoeffer’s help in the 2020 election. Those “Bonhoeffer moments,” after all, will come in handy on the campaign trail.

Yet letters and documents from his year in the United States reveal a Bonhoeffer at odds with the progressive American version as well. The historical Bonhoeffer was sometimes appalled by the oppression of African Americans, but he spent much more of his time filling letters and essays with criticisms and even contempt for American liberal Protestantism and progressive politics.

“God is not the immanent progressive ethical principle of history; God is the Lord who judges the human being and his work, he is the absolute sovereign (God’s kingdom is not a democracy!),” Bonhoeffer fumed in a memo about American Christianity. “The ideal of international, democratic, collectivist life together on the basis of the value of individuals (notice the inner contradiction!) is not identical with the kingdom of God.”

For Bonhoeffer, American liberals had misunderstood an essential part of Christianity: no matter how hard we try, human beings cannot inaugurate the kingdom of God. The best believers can do before that bright day in which Christ returns is preserve human rights, political stability, and a modicum of justice and proclaim the gospel message whether or not they find it politically expedient.

So how would Dietrich Bonhoeffer vote in 2020? Which side would he back in the United States’s vituperative, divided political landscape, and which would he think has the right to claim their political program as a righteous reaction to a “Bonhoeffer moment”?

For the rest of the article…

The Cost of His Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45)

On July 20, 1944, the Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler failed. The very next day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to Eberhard Bethge, his former student and future biographer. Bonhoeffer had been in prison since April 5, 1943. In the wake of the failure of the Valkyrie plot, Hitler led a crackdown on the resistance movement. Hundreds were immediately arrested; many in the movement already held in prison were moved to higher security prisons. Many were put on expedited paths to their execution. Bonhoeffer was one of them.

But on July 21, 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote about a conversation he had in America in 1930. He was in the United States to learn of theological developments. He was to spend the year at the patently theological liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He found it wanting. “No theology here,” he reported back to Germany. But he did find dear friends, and he found adventure on a road trip from New York to Mexico City.

Somewhere along the way, as they camped in pup tents and sat around a fire, they asked each other what they wanted to do with their lives. One of them, a Frenchman named Lasserre, said he wanted to be a saint. Bonhoeffer picks up the story from there in his letter to Bethge the day after the failed plot:

At the time I was very impressed, but I disagreed with him, and said, in effect, that I should like to learn to have faith. . . . I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous or an unrighteous man, a sick man or a healthy man. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities.

As we reflect on that list in that last sentence, there’s only one word we really like, “successes.” We tend to avoid the other things mentioned by Bonhoeffer, but those things are part of life, of “this-worldliness.” Bonhoeffer then adds that by living life in this way, “We throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of the God-man in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith.”

Bonhoeffer learned this in a very short time in a very short life. He died in his thirty-ninth year. While most people are only beginning to make their mark and offer their mature thought as they turn forty, Bonhoeffer never made it to that milestone.

Young Professor in Berlin

He was born into an academic family. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned psychiatrist at the University of Berlin. One of his brothers, a chemist, would go on to discover the spin isomers of hydrogen. The family home had a large library, a conservatory, and walls lined with very impressive looking oil portraits of his predecessors. Dietrich excelled as a student. He took his first doctorate as he turned twenty-one and a second doctorate three years later. He served in the academy, initially. But he loved the church.

As a young professor at the University of Berlin, he noticed an appeal for a teacher of a confirmation class at a Lutheran church in Berlin, on the other side of the tracks from where the Bonhoeffer family home stood. These were rough kids, who had already chewed through a few prospective teachers. The pastor was hoping to get an idealistic seminary student who didn’t have the better sense to not do this. Instead, the pastor and this band of prepubescent ruffians got a theology professor in wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suits.

Within minutes, Bonhoeffer had won them over. When the day came for their confirmation — a day the pastor was almost sure would never come — Bonhoeffer took them all to his tailor and got them all suits. He was the kind of professor who would just as soon pull out a “football” and hit the soccer pitch with his students as he lectured to them. During the time he spent in America, he got an armload of 78s of blues and negro spirituals. After the soccer games, he would spin records with his students and talk theology. For Bonhoeffer, education was discipleship.

Life Together

When the German Lutheran Church endorsed the Nazi party and became the Reich Kirche, Bonhoeffer quickly became a leader among the Confessing Church, despite his very young age. He lost his license to teach at the University of Berlin, and his books were placed on the banned book list. He was appointed the director of one of the five seminaries for the Confessing Church. At this seminary in Finkenwalde, he taught his students the Bible and theology, and he also taught them how to pray. Bonhoeffer saw these three things — biblical studies, theology, and prayer — as the essential elements of the pastoral office.

Eberhard Bethge, one of his students at Finkenwalde, exemplifies what he was taught by Bonhoeffer. Bethge wrote, “Because I am a preacher of the word, I cannot expound Scripture unless I let it speak to me every day. I will misuse the word in my office if I do not keep meditating on it in prayer.”

The Gestapo found out about the seminary at Finkenwalde and shut it down. Bonheffer spent the next year in his parents’ home. He wrote Life Together, memorializing what he practiced and what he had learned at Finkenwaldeab, and he visited his students and kept them on task with their studies and ministry.

Letters from Prison

The next years of Bonhoeffer’s life, 1940–1943, are debated. He joined the Abwehr at the urging of his brother-in-law. But it does not appear that he is actually much of a spy at all. He used his position to travel freely around the country — a way to keep up with his students and keep up with the churches they were pastoring. Then comes the contested episode of his life as he became part of a group seeking to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s role was not one of providing strategy — that was supplied by the other highly placed military and intelligence agency officials.

Bonhoeffer appears to be the pastor in the room, the one who gives the blessing on the undertaking they were about to embark on. Bonhoeffer wrestled with it, wondering if what they were doing was right and not at all presuming it was right and righteous. It was war, and these Germans were convinced that Hitler was an enemy to the German state and the German people, as well as to the other nations plunged into war. Whatever Bonhoeffer’s contribution was to this group, he did not make it presumptively or rashly.

The plots, like the Valkyrie plot, all failed. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to Tegel Prison. For the next two years, he would live in a 6’ x 9’ prison cell. He spoke of missing listening to birds. He missed seeing colors. Early in his time at Tegel, he despaired for his life. It was also in Tegel that Bonhoeffer wrote about living a “this-worldly” life. It was at Tegel that he spoke of learning to have faith in life’s failures, difficulties, and perplexities. At Tegel, he wrote poetry. He wrote a novel. He wrote sermons for weddings and baptisms — they were smuggled out and read by others at these occasions. Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel yielded his classic text Letters and Papers from Prison.

In one of those letters, on June 27, 1944, he wrote, “This world must not be prematurely written off.” He was in a Nazi prison cell while Hitler was unleashing madness upon the world, and Bonhoeffer wrote about being a Christian in the world, in the time and place in which God had put him.

Cost of Discipleship

In 1936, Bonhoeffer published Nachfolge. It would be later published in English as The Cost of Discipleship. In it he declares, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

In Christ, we are dead. The old self and the old way is dead. And, in Christ, we are alive. After the Valkyrie plot, Bonhoeffer could write simply, “Jesus is alive. I have hope.”

For the rest of the article…

Below is a re-post of blog when the movie first hit the theaters.

Below is a good read from the Deafening Silence blog about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a character in the movie, Valkyrie…

Valkyrie’s Forgotten Man: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The film Valkyrie claims to tell the story of the ‘July 20’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Prior to its release I spent some time watching trailers for the film on YouTube.  Among the promotional clips was a featurette describing the conspirators in the plot.

One name was missing: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Below is a good read from the Deafening Silence blog about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not a character in the recent movie, Valkyrie…

Valkyrie’s Forgotten Man: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The new film Valkyrie claims to tell the story of the ‘July 20’ plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  Prior to its release I spent some time watching trailers for the film on YouTube.  Among the promotional clips was a featurette describing the conspirators in the plot.

One name was missing: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

This piece aims to tell his role in the Valkyrie story.

Dietrich Bohhoeffer was born into an intellectual, aristocratic German family in 1906.  His father was a noted professor of neurology and psychiatry; his mother also held a college degree.  Never especially devout, the Bonhoeffer family was shocked when Dietrich decided to study theology.  He enrolled in Tubingen University and soon proved to be a prodigy, earning his doctorate at the age of 21.

Too young to be ordained,in 1930  Bonhoeffer was awarded a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.  During his stay, an African American classmate, Frank Fisher, introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church.  Bonhoeffer began attending services and teaching Sunday school there, drawn to the fervent Evangelical preaching:

“…here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God…the black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.”

That passion and vision influenced Bonhoeffer’s own writing and preaching.  Phrases coined by Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, can be found in his work.  Bonhoeffer also collected recordings of Black Gospel music, which would remain a lifelong inspiration for him.

Perhaps most important, he witnessed the brutality of American segregation and racism.

Bonhoeffer set sail for Germany in 1931, armed with youth and faith and an array of new ideas.

Hitler’s rise to power had just begun.

For the rest of the post…Click

Let’s continue the discussion on the movie Valkrie.  Julian Park offers a good Christian perspective…

Valkyrie: When is Character Defined?

Written by Julian Park, 02 January 2009

Where will you stand in defining moments? Valkyrie, directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects, Superman Returns) brings to life the story of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg and the men he rallied around himself in the July 20 plot to assassinate Hitler. This type of movie may only appeal to WW2 and history buffs but I believe that anybody will be inspired by this heroic story.

The film is meticulously told detail by detail from the actual events. Although the presentation is somewhat simplistic in style, Singer is still able to wrap in some drama and ratchet the suspense which is quite difficult when the audience already knows what was written in history. The inevitable failure of the assassination is used to the advantage of the movie. As you invest more into these characters the tragedy of their fate grows.

The situation of these men rebelling against orders brings to mind this passage: “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” -Romans 13:1-2

The question I’ve been asking my friends this past week is, “What would you do if you were living in Nazi Germany during the late 30s and early 40s?” Would you ignore what was going on around you? Would you even kill others if you were put under the gun? And how does “submission to governing authorities” play into this? When I thought of the situation

Stauffenberg was placed in, another man came to mind – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German, Christian pastor and theologian. He was a radical and influential Christian figure, who authored such books as The Cost of Discipleship. He was also involved in the German Resistance movement and after being connected to the July 20 plot, was executed in April of 1945, just weeks before the war ended. If a man like Bonhoeffer, who so adamantly believed in following Christ, actively participated in trying to kill a governing authority, how are Christians supposed to understand this? Where does “Do not resist evil” apply?

Not just hypothetically living in Nazi Germany, but how would you react if something like this happened today? The fact is, things like this happen everyday. Not on such a grand scale, but we still make choices regarding our integrity, values and stance with God that form our character. I believe your character doesn’t hinge upon those defining moments but is merely confirmed by them. One of the coolest lines in the movie is spoken by General Tresckow (played by Kenneth Branagh): “God promised Abraham that he would not destroy Sodom if he could find just ten righteous men. I have a feeling that for Germany it may come down to one.”

He’s talking directly to and about Stauffenberg (Cruise). The way he was portrayed in the film definitely makes him out to be a righteous man. The filmmakers decided that what drove his decision was his conscience (which is one of the overarching themes). History tells us that he was devoted to his wife and family and was a God-fearing man. His wife Nina was portrayed as an amazing woman of submission, ready to accept whatever fate her husband decided for their family. Both Stauffenberg and Bonhoeffer defined their character not only in momentous occasions but in the day to day lives they lived.

Needless to say, Stauffenberg and his men do not succeed in the assassination. At the end of the film, Hitler’s voice comes on the radio to address his “children” and claims that this foiled assassination attempt was God’s providence for him to continue to do His will. This brings up an interesting point. Was it God’s will for the assassination attempt to fail? It looks like it. The weather was off that day in July. It was too hot for Hitler to have his meeting in the bunker so they met in a room with windows and the bomb blast was ineffective.

What about the fifteen other attempted assassinations or the countless others that were planned? Evil is purposeful. We have to get that. We have to understand that God is always sovereign. We are to trust in Him and obey. To go back to the original dilemma presented in the film, I believe that if submitting to governing authorities conflicts with submitting to God, the choice is clear. However, you can’t expect to make that choice simply when the time comes. The time is now.

What shapes your character are the moments that face you now.

Adolf Hitler was opposed by many within Germany. Below is a good article about that…

Schwarze Kapelle (Black Orchestra) from The Oxford Companion to World War II Gestapo name for the informal group of aristocrats, senior officers, and diplomats in Germany who opposed Hitler and talked about bringing him down, but were unable to do so.

Himmler and Heydrich between them had organized a system of terror and espionage so effective that even within this group there were tell-tales. Moreover, none of the group had had any clandestine training; they tended to keep diaries, in which they recorded conversations, wrote down names and addresses they would have done far better to memorize, made appointments by telephone in clear, and committed other elementary indiscretions against personal security.

The figurehead of the group was General Beck, chief of the general staff (CGS) from 1935 till he resigned in August 1938 in protest against Hitler’s plans to overawe Czechoslovakia; no one resigned with him, as he had hoped they would. He was to have been head of state after Hitler’s overthrow. A regular Prussian officer with a keen moral sense, he detested Nazi methods of violence and trickery but did not understand how to combat them. Most of his companions were in the same boat.

Their diplomatic adviser, Ulrich von Hassell (1881–1944), married to the daughter of Tirpitz the founder of the imperial German Navy, was German ambassador in Rome 1932–8. He was a diplomat of the old school, and favoured Germany’s retention of Austria and of the Polish corridor when peace terms were discussed, never realizing how wholly unacceptable such terms would be to the Allies. All of them were devout Christians.

Carl Goerdeler (1884–1945), mayor of Leipzig 1930–7, resigned his post when a bust of the composer Felix Mendelssohn was removed by the Nazis from his town hall. He was even more active than von Hassell in travelling round Germany and Europe, trying to organize opposition to Nazism, though he shared von Hassell’s views about what post-war frontiers would be acceptable. Goerdeler was the putative new regime’s probable chancellor.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian, also took a leading part in conversations and planning, and travelled to Stockholm in 1942 with a set of peace terms, which he tried to submit to the British through Bishop George Bell: they were turned down. Indeed the British foreign office, like MI6, having burned their fingers so badly at Venlo in 1939, were hostile to every approach made from Germany, believing all of them to be Gestapo fronts.

More serious help seemed to be available from Halder, Beck’s successor as CGS, who pronounced himself ready to lead a coup against Hitler in the autumn of 1938, from Admiral Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, and from Canaris’s deputy Hans Oster, who was given the task of finding a group of young officers who would storm Hitler’s chancellery. Nothing came of these arrangements because of the Munich agreement; and Halder went on to win Hitler’s principal victories for him.

Oster remained available to help what was left of the conspiracy; which could do nothing in 1940–2, the years when the Nazi tide was rising high. As it rose so those plotting Hitler’s overthrow became convinced that he would have to be assassinated, not just deposed. One of the most active conspirators in the attempt was Maj-General Henning von Tresckow, chief of operations at the HQ of Kluge’s Army Group Centre. His first attempt, known as the Smolensk Attentat, took place in March 1943.

On another occasion a bomb was placed in the pocket of a new style of officers’ greatcoat, which Hitler was to inspect; at the very last moment, the Führer changed his programme, and the would-be hero wearing the coat just had time to retire to a men’s room and remove the fuze from his bomb before it went off.

Tresckow made several other attempts to kill Hitler and after the abortive July 1944 bomb plot (see below) he committed suicide. With the Office of Strategic Services, once it had been formed, Beck and Goerdeler communicated through the German vice-consul in Zurich, Hans Bernd Gisevius (1904–74), who carried messages to Dulles in Berne. Nothing more than polite talk resulted.

A group centred on Helmut von Moltke (1907–45), great-grand-nephew of the hero of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, was called the Kreisau circle after his estate in Silesia where it met. Its members sympathized with the conspirators, though most of them—like Moltke himself—did not want actually to get involved in assassinations or coups d’état. They combined nobility of thought with practical incapacity; they did not spot the Gestapo informer planted on them.

In January 1944 Moltke was arrested and was hanged the following year. Ernst von Weizsacker (1882–1950), permanent head of the German foreign office from 1938 to 1943, when he moved to be minister in the Vatican, had (it turned out afterwards) anti-Nazi sympathies, but was not directly involved with the conspirators. However, he did encourage two junior diplomats, the Kordt brothers, Erich and Theo, who had approached the British foreign office in the summer of 1938, trying to get them interested in the plot; they were received with stony indifference.

Another diplomat, Adam von Trott zu Solz (1909–44), a descendant on his mother’s side of the first chief justice of the USA, had been a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, in the early 1930s and had many English friends; he also belonged to the Kreisau circle. He was so well placed socially that he was able to meet both Chamberlain and Halifax in the summer of 1939, and to try to draw them into negotiations about the future of eastern Europe, attempts that were frustrated by the Nazi–Soviet Pact.

With Weizsacker’s backing, he continued to travel in and out of Germany a good deal during the war, but was viewed with suspicion by the British, who suspected him of being an undercover Nazi agent.

In the summer of 1944 the conspirators at last found a competent saboteur to do their work for them: Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg (1907–44), a great-grandson of Count Gneisenau, a devout Roman Catholic, an officer in a cavalry regiment in peacetime and a distinguished staff officer in war. He was revolted by what he saw of SS and Wehrmacht brutality on the Eastern Front. Serving in Tunisia during the North African campaign, he was severely wounded in April 1943, losing his right hand, part of his left hand, and the sight of his left eye.

While he recovered from his wounds, he devised a plan called “Valkyrie”, which was to set up a military government in Berlin the moment that Hitler was assassinated, neutralize the Gestapo and SS, and sue for peace. Having met Beck and the other principal leaders of the conspiracy, he determined to commit the assassination himself. He was the better placed to do this, because his wounds would make him less likely than usual to be searched on approaching Hitler’s presence; and he had a staff post, as chief of staff of the Replacement Army, which gave him frequent access to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenburg in east Prussia.

There, at the fourth attempt, on 20 July 1944 he placed a briefcase containing a kilogram of SOE’s plastic explosive, with a ten-minute time pencil working inside it, beneath the table at which Hitler was holding his morning conference. He then slipped out of the room “to make a telephone call”. By a stroke of bad luck, he had been summoned to his Führer’s presence before he had time to put a second kilogram of explosive into the briefcase; and by another, the conference that day was held in a hut out of doors, instead of the usual underground concrete bunker, which was being redecorated.

Stauffenberg saw the hut explode, was confident Hitler was dead, relied on General Erich von Fellgiebel—another conspirator—to cut all communications between the headquarters and the outside world, bluffed his way out of the enclosure, and took an aircraft to Berlin to set the rest of “Valkyrie” in train.

Several things went wrong. Hitler was severely shaken, debagged, and only lightly wounded, but not killed. Three of his staff died, but most of the bomb’s force was dissipated through the hut’s thin walls. Fellgiebel was not able to cut off all the telephone, teleprinter, and wireless channels out of the Führer’s headquarters at once.

By the time Stauffenberg got to Berlin, he found most of the leading conspirators gathered in the war ministry in the Bendlerstrasse, wondering what to do. Teleprinted orders to execute “Valkyrie” went all over the Wehrmacht; only in Paris were they taken seriously. There, the principal SS leaders were put in prison; they hesitated to come out next day, when the plot was over, because they knew so well the technique of reporting their victims as “shot while attempting to escape”.

Otto-Ernst Remer, the major commanding the Grossdeutschland guard battalion in Berlin, was sent to arrest Goebbels. That arch-conspirator outwitted “Valkyrie”: he put Remer in direct telephone touch with Hitler (who promoted him from major to colonel on the spot), and Remer took his battalion back to the Bendlerstrasse where he arrested all the conspirators he could find.

One of those on the fringe of the conspiracy was General Friedrich Fromm (1888–1945), the commander of the German Replacement Army, who attempted to cover his tracks by ordering the immediate execution of those involved. (It did him no good. He was arrested the next day, tortured, tried, and executed the following March.) Stauffenberg was shot in the courtyard that night; he was lucky.

Most of his co-conspirators, undone by their personal lack of security, came to horrible ends, hanged on hooks by piano wire. Hitler is said to have had their final agonies filmed, and to have enjoyed watching them squirm, as they died. Two officers, Kluge and Rommel, who still held high commands at the time of the plot, were incriminated, too, and chose suicide to the alternatives that awaited them. Germans continue to debate whether Stauffenberg did right or wrong.

M.R.D.Foot Balfour, M., Withstanding Hitler (London, 1988).

Hoffmann, P., The History of the German Resistance 1933–1945 (2nd edn., London, 1977).

Klemperer, K. von, German Resistance against Hitler (Oxford, 1992).

From The Oxford Companion to World War II

Here is an article by Ann Leonard of the South Bend Tribune that was inspired by the recent movie Valkyrie. Notice how she ties in the involvement of Christians, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The ‘Valkyrie’ story

Tribune Correspondent

Seeing the film “Valkyrie” recently brought so many thoughts to mind.

I had just re-read “Stauffenberg: A Family History, 1905-1944” by Peter Hoffmann and was about to begin Hoffmann’s mammoth “The History of the German Resistance: 1933-1945.”

I was eager to see how Tom Cruise played Claus von Stauffenberg and how the attempted assassination of Hitler was handled.

I personally found the supporting characters believable and the scenes of desert fighting and the German and Russian countryside and Berlin and Wolfschanze itself fascinating.

However, I have to confess I found Tom Cruise inadequate in his characterization of the deeply Catholic, idealistic, aristocratic Stauffenberg, who was both completely devoted to Germany and to the officer tradition of the German army.

That said, I am glad the German resistance to Hitler has been revisited and we have the chance to witness the bravery of the men and women who despised the evil Hitler and his henchmen, and who were determined to overthrow Hitler before he completely destroyed the German nation.

The German military had an added dilemma because they had been forced to take a loyalty oath to Hitler himself rather than to Germany.

If they conspired against Hitler to save the nation, they were abandoning their sacred oaths.

Then when it became obvious the only solution was to kill Hitler, Christians had to decide whether they could morally take this step.

Claus von Stauffenberg’s brother Berthold became an active anti-Nazi before his younger brother Claus. When it became beyond dispute that Jews and anti-Nazis were being murdered wholesale, Claus began the anti-Hitler, anti-Nazi phase of his life.

He had become convinced that Hitler was determined on war, and as a German patriot he felt he had to assuage the guilt all Germans shared because of the extermination of the Jews.

Finally, when the German generals refused, or were unable to initiate Hitler’s assassination, Claus, though maimed from war injuries, attempted the assassination himself.

The plot to usurp the genuine plan called Valkyrie and use it against Hitler called for intense planning and coordination.

Tragically, through unforeseen accidents, the plot on July 20, 1944, failed and Stauffenberg along with Col. Mertz von Quirnheim, Lt. Gen. Friedrich Olbricht and Lt. Werner von Haeften were immediately shot.

Fellow conspirator Ludwig von Beck shot himself.

I was a child during World War II with a healthy horror of Adolf Hitler, and a belief that all Germans were Nazis.

It wasn’t until I read a beautiful memoir written by Baroness Elisabeth von Guttenberg called “Holding the Stirrup” that I became aware of the German Resistance.

The baroness and her family were anti-Nazi and because their tradition was military the men were placed in the dreadful dilemma of being forced to fight for a cause they could not support.

Elisabeth wrote of the influence of the idealistic German poet Stefan George on her cousin Claus von Stauffenberg.

“In Claus, he (George) found the rare combination of a brave and courageous soldier and a man possessed of deep religious faith and high mental qualities,” she wrote.

Years later, by accident I bought and read “Saints and Villains: A Novel” by Denise Giardina, a fictional account of the life of the Lutheran minister and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

He was executed April 9, 1945, along with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Major General Hans Oster, Dr. Karl Sack and Hans von Dohnanyi.

From there, I went on to spend one winter reading non-fiction books on Pastor Bonhoeffer. Those works led me to read “Letters to Freya: 1939-1945” by Helmuth James von Moltke.

These moving personal letters from the international lawyer von Moltke to his wife laid out his hopes, his plans, and his discouragement as his nonviolent resistance to Hitler fails.

The letters convey his great love for his wife and two young sons, and above all, his profound abiding faith in God.

Von Moltke was executed Jan. 23, 1945 – not for his actions, but for his thoughts, which were condemned as treasonous.

His last words to Freya: “The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.”

Claus von Stauffenberg’s last words were “Long Live Holy Germany” and Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave a message through a friend to Dr. George K.A. Bell, bishop of Chichester: “This is the end, for me the beginning of life. I believe in universal Christian brotherhood which rises above national interests and I believe that our victory is certain.”

Not very many of us could take the brave, principled stands these Christian heroes took against evil, but at least we should honor them and pray if and when the time comes for us, we will step forward and behave with courage and dignity, leaning on our God for help and protection.

Between 1933 and 1945, many thousands of people resisted the Nazis using both violent and non-violent means. Among the earliest opponents of Nazism in Germany were Communists, Socialists, and trade union leaders. Although mainstream church hierarchies supported the Nazi regime or acquiesced in its policies, individual German theologians such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer opposed the regime. Bonhoeffer was executed in 1945. Within the German conservative elite and the German military’s General Staff small pockets of opposition to the Nazi regime existed. In July 1944, a coalition of these groups made an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Resistance also occurred in Nazi-occupied areas outside Germany. In France, General Charles de Gaulle advocated open resistance against the collaborationist Vichy regime. After the German occupation of Denmark in April 1940, a resistance movement began operations there. Its activities included killing informers, raiding German military facilities, and sabotaging rail lines. In February 1941 the Dutch population mounted a general strike in protest against arrests and brutal treatment of Jews. In countries across Europe, underground resistance movements supplied forged documents to those in danger or arranged for safe hiding places or escape routes.

In the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Poland, guerrilla fighters, called partisans, offered armed resistance and engaged in anti-Nazi sabotage. In May 1942, Czech agents assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi governor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. In retaliation, the Nazis shot all of the men in the Czech village of Lidice. In August 1944, the Polish Home Army began a revolt (later known as the Warsaw Polish uprising). Within two months, the Nazis suppressed the rebellion. That same month, Slovak partisans launched an armed struggle (the Slovak national uprising) against the pro-German Hlinka government.

In addition to resistance by Jews, members of other victimized groups resisted the Nazis. In May 1944, SS men ordered Roma (Gypsies) prisoners to leave their barracks at the Auschwitz Gypsy family camp (presumably to be sent to death in the gas chambers). Armed with knives and axes, the Roma refused to leave. The SS men retreated. In a show of spiritual resistance, many Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany and elsewhere resisted Nazism through defiance. Some of them refused to serve in the German army and, as concentration camp prisoners, organized illegal religious study groups.

Other forms of non-violent resistance included sheltering Jews (sometimes at risk of death), listening to forbidden Allied radio broadcasts, and producing clandestine anti-Nazi newspapers. In the face of Nazi repression and violence, acts of resistance at times significantly impeded German actions, saved lives, or simply boosted morale of the persecuted.

Further Reading

Dumbach, Annette, and Jud Newborn. Sophie Scholl and the White Rose. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

Galante, Pierre, and Eugene Silianoff. Operation Valkyrie: The German Generals’ Plot against Hitler. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2002.

McDonough, Frank. Opposition and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Mommsen, Hans. Alternatives to Hitler: German Resistance Under the Third Reich. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Moore, Bob. Resistance in Western Europe. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

Related Links

Resistance during the Holocaust (USHMM educational resource: PDF version)
USHMM Online Exhibition: Dietrich Bonhoeffer
See related products in Museum Shop
Related Articles

An Overview of the Holocaust: Topics to Teach
Non-Jewish Resistance

Valkyrie: A model of resistance

Michael Coren, National Post Published: Friday, December 19, 2008

Nothing says Christmas more than a movie about a failed attempt in 1944 to explode the leader of National Socialist Germany into hundreds of bloody chunks. That, at least, appears to be the view of Hollywood, as it releases the film Valkyrie on Dec. 25. The irony is inescapable. Like so many of the most active opponents of Hitler, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was a Christian who was motivated by his Roman Catholic faith. As such he may have believed that Christmas Day was better left to matters other than eating popcorn in a theatre. Still, we can all sit back and feel just a little better about the world as Tom Cruise plays the good German trying to kill the bad German. Actually bad Austrian, but that is beside the point.

What is not in dispute is that von Stauffenberg was a heroic character who, while initially applauding the Nazi Party’s German nationalism, was disgusted by its anti-Semitism and was committed to replacing Hitler by 1941. His final words before execution were, “Long live our holy Germany.” His iconic stature in contemporary Germany is well deserved.

Yet what disturbs some of the families of those persecuted and murdered by the Third Reich is the thesis that domestic resistance partly expunges German guilt or –important this –empowers the Germans as fellow victims of fascism.

This was the East German argument. As communists, they claimed, they were victims rather than perpetrators, and Nazism was a bastard child of the West. Total claptrap of course, but systematic mythology shapes nations and cultures.

In fact the denial of the former East Germany made the rise of neo-Nazism in the new eastern Germany far more possible. West Germans, however, were reminded daily of the stains of their past. It worked. They still look at their eastern cousins in disbelief. But they are proud that Germany had its martyrs and believe that this gives the country an historic lifeline to the civilized world.

Count Clemens August von Galen, Bishop of Munster, Martin Niemoller, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the White Rose student group in Munich, the Red Orchestra organization, former mayor of Leipzig Carl Goerdeler, Prussian finance minister Johannes Popitz, the Kreisau Circle, Julius Leber, the Social Democrat and Communist underground, Catholic and Protestant secret opposition movements. As early as November, 1939, Georg Elser, acting alone and with the most extraordinary dedication, tried to assassinate Hitler with a homemade bomb. The plan almost worked. There were also two attempted suicide bombings of Hitler as well as numerous plans for conventional armed attacks.

We should be surprised not at how few but at how many and varied were the resisters. Especially after Hitler’s early military successes, when even moderate Germans who had never voted Nazi were euphoric at the reversals of the 1918 humiliation. By the end of 1940, the internal security system was intensely sophisticated, and meaningful opposition, particularly under a war economy, was often effectively impossible. Punishment for even the mildest rebuke of the government was swift and grotesque. We have never properly honoured those who were killed for their stance, in Germany as well as in occupied Europe.

No serious person in Germany denies the past and no country could have done more to acknowledge what was, is and should be. All that informed, studious Germans argue is that we ought not to be confined by war comic mentality. And that while never forgetting that the bridge of understanding was made filthy by

Hitler and his grimy gang, it was kept in one piece by the very people depicted in a big budget American movie. Even one released on

Christmas Day. – Michael Coren is an author and broadcaster.

Let’s continue the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Valkyrie. This is from the Jewish Virtual Library

Operation Valkyrie and the July Plot to Assassinate Hitler

(July 20, 1944)

At the end of 1943 the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) and the Gestapo managed to arrest several Germans involved in plotting to overthrow Adolf Hitler. This included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Klaus Bonhoeffer, Josef Mueller and Hans Dohnanyi. Others under suspicion like Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster were dismissed from office in January, 1944.

Major Claus von Stauffenberg now emerged as the leader of the group opposed to Nazi rule. In 1942, he decided to kill Adolf Hitler. He was joined by Wilhelm Canaris,Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Fabian Schlabrendorft, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben.

The plot was developed as a modification of Operation Valkyrie (Unternehmen Walküre), which was approved by Hitler for use if Allied bombing of German cities or an uprising of forced laborers from occupied countries working in German factories resulted in a breakdown in law and order. Members of the Reserve Army, including members of the Kreisau Circle, modified the plan and decided to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. Afterward, they planned for troops in Berlin to seize key government buildings, telephone and signal centers and radio stations. Hitler’s death was required to free German soldiers from their oath of loyalty to him. Operation Valkyrie was meant to give the plotters control over the government so they could make peace with the Allies and end the war.

At least six attempts were aborted before Claus von Stauffenberg decided on trying again during a conference attended by Hitler on July 20, 1944. It was decided to drop plans to kill Goering and Himmler at the same time. Stauffenberg, who had never met Hitler before, carried the bomb in a briefcase and placed it on the floor while he left to make a phone-call. The bomb exploded killing four men in the hut. Hitler’s right arm was badly injured but he survived the bomb blast.

The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Friedrich Fromm to take control of the German Army. The coup failed in part because they delayed implementing the plan until official confirmation of Hitler’s death could be received. When they learned that Hitler had survived, Valkyrie was not put in effect.

In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Claus von Stauffenberg along with two other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting “Long live holy Germany”.

As a result of the July Plot, the new chief of staff, Heinz Guderian demanded the resignation of any officer who did not fully support the ideals of the Nazi Party. Over the next few months Guderian sat with Gerd von Rundstedt and Wilhelm Keitel on the Army Court of Honor that expelled hundreds of officers suspected of being opposed to the policies of Adolf Hitler. This removed them from court martial jurisdiction and turned them over to Roland Freisler and his People’s Court.

Over the next few months most of the group, including Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Friedrich Fromm, were either executed or committed suicide.

It is etimated that 4,980 Germans were executed after the July Plot. Hitler decided that the leaders should have a slow death. They were hung with piano wire from meat-hooks. Their executions were filmed and later shown to senior members of both the NSDAP and the armed forces.

Sources: Spartacus Educational; Wikipedia

July 2020


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