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On the Sunday after Easter in 1945, a hastily assembled tribunal sentenced him to death. Hours later, in the predawn twilight, soldiers waited at his cell while he finished his prayers and removed his prison clothes. Then they led him to the gallows where he gave his life to the risen Lord.

Allied forces were rapidly approaching Berlin, and the Nazi’s were all but defeated. Only three weeks later, Hitler would kill himself and thus end the war. Regardless, the Fuehrer would have his revenge for Bonhoeffer’s part in the failed Valkyrie assassination attempt.

Some say that this fact disqualifies Bonhoeffer from the title of martyr. Pastors should not intrude into the political realm, they say. Most especially, they should not take up the sword. But those who say this misjudge both the nature of politics and the details of Bonhoeffer’s life.

Other notable German theologians, like Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, abandoned Germany for the safety of Switzerland and America, respectively. Bonhoeffer’s friends advised this, too, and arranged his passage to America. But when Germany made the first moves of war, he knew he could not abandon the German people to the Nazi regime.

“Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act,” said Bonhoeffer. Those who left their posts in Germany to criticize the Nazi regime from afar, gave up their birthright as German citizens. Bonhoeffer did not know what awaited him in Germany, only that he must be within its borders to live out his God-given vocation.

The speech and action that he had in mind was to train Lutheran pastors. However, that door was closed to him when he was conscripted into the Nazi army as an intelligence officer. Unable to escape this calling, his choice was narrowed by God. He could discharge his office faithful to God, or faithful to the Fuehrer.

Thousands of German officers were grappling with the same choice. Day in and day out, ordinary Germans who had been conscripted into the service of a madman were given hideous orders and forced to choose between God and man. Some disobeyed them and died. Others committed the atrocities under the cover of “duty” and “obedience to authority.” These, latter, bore the consequences of their actions as life-long scars on the conscience.

Bonhoeffer reasoned, “If I sit next to a madman as he drives a car into a group of innocent bystanders, I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe, then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.” This led to the choice of his life.

Generals and government ministers who understood their responsibility to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of a madman approached Bonhoeffer. They asked him to use his position to query the Allied forces secretly. The German officials wanted him to ask the Allies if they would spare the German people if the officials could remove Hitler from power to end his illegal war.

Simply by asking Bonhoeffer this question, they had placed him on the horns of a dilemma, and they had trusted their lives into his hands. His duty as a Nazi officer was to report this traitorous question to his superior officer. But what was his duty as a human being under God?

What would you do?

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by Brian Rosner

I started 2020 with five New Year’s resolutions and seven anticipations, things I was eagerly looking forward to, such as special social occasions and travel. I won’t comment on my progress on the resolutions — my brother-in-law reckons New Year’s resolutions are a to-do list for the first week in January, and I don’t want to confirm his cynicism. But I will report that five of my seven anticipations have been canceled, with the two in November and December looking less likely every day.

For some of us, the personal cost of the coronavirus will be huge; for others less profound, but still troubling. But one form of suffering will afflict us all — namely, the experience of disappointment. With everything from meals out and sport to weddings and funerals being canceled, “cancel culture” is taking on a new meaning. No one will be immune from disappointments, the displeasure of having our anticipations unfulfilled.

For a case study in coping with disappointment in the context of isolation and social distancing, we find a surprising source of help in Dietrich Bonhoeffer — the pastor, author and church leader who was active in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

Bonhoeffer’s life story is a mixed genre. It started out like a fairy tale. Born in 1906 to a prominent German family, Bonhoeffer was a tall man, possessing an athletic physique and a round boyish face. With his mother’s blue eyes and blond hair, he perfectly fit Hitler’s Aryan stereotype. But any affinity between Bonhoeffer and the Third Reich stopped there.

With the rise to power of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer’s fairy tale took a dangerous turn, transforming into a spy thriller. His opposition to National Socialism began early, when Bonhoeffer gave a radio broadcast on the dangers of charismatic leadership. It was abruptly ended by government censure. For the next ten years, Bonhoeffer worked for the good of his nation, eventually operating as a double agent. Employed by the Abwehr, a division of German Intelligence, Bonhoeffer used his contacts outside of Germany to support the insurgency. A man of impeccable integrity, Bonhoeffer also functioned as the conscience of the conspirators, commending their moral courage and bolstering their resolve.

Along with the spy thriller, Bonhoeffer’s life was a tragic love story. In June 1942 Dietrich met Maria von Wedemeyer. Maria was beautiful, poised, cultured and filled with vitality, but only eighteen years of age — fully seventeen years younger than Dietrich. Bonhoeffer and Maria fell in love. Maria’s father had been killed on the Russian Front and her mother insisted on a year’s separation to test the couple’s feelings. But Maria convinced her mother otherwise and in January 1943, with some restrictions in place, they were engaged to be married. Unfortunately, “happily ever after” is not the way their story ended.

Two key aspirations of Bonhoeffer’s life — the renewal of the German church and people and his plans to marry his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer — were both cruelly thwarted. In 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo, incarcerated for two years, and finally executed at the order of Adolf Hitler.

If some disappointments are mild, Bonhoeffer’s were crushing. How did Bonhoeffer handle his disappointments? Although he wrote a number of books, the answer to this question is found in the remarkable letters to and from his parents, relatives, fiancée and above all his best friend Eberhard Bethge, collected and published in the now classic volumes Letters and Papers from Prison and Love Letters from Cell 92. With social isolation ahead for all of us, at least in a physical sense, Bonhoeffer’s prison musings offer sage advice and salient lessons.

First, focus on what really matters. According to Bonhoeffer not all disappointments are equal. He urged an ordering of priorities:

There is hardly anything that can make you happier than to feel that you count for something with other people. What matters here is not numbers, but intensity. In the long run, human relationships are the most important thing in life. God uses us in his dealings with others. Everything else is very close to hubris.

In the strange world of physical distancing, we do well to remember that we don’t have to be relationally distant. There are still ways to cultivate community that don’t involve getting up close and personal physically.

Second, stay cheerful. Bonhoeffer wrote to his fiancée Maria: “Go on being cheerful, patient and brave.” And he told Bethge to “spread hilaritas.” Even amid hardship, a joyful optimism can prevail. Cheerfulness was in fact one of Bonhoeffer’s abiding qualities despite the horrors of prison. In his famous prison poem, “Who am I?” the opening stanza reads: “They often tell me I would step from my cell’s confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly, like a squire from his country-house.”

Indeed, Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison are surprisingly dotted with glimpses of humour. He quips: “Prison life brings home to one how nature carries on uninterruptedly its quiet, open life, and it gives one quite a special, perhaps a sentimental, attitude towards animal and plant life, except that my attitude towards the flies in my cell remains very unsentimental.” Bonhoeffer and Bethge wrote back and forth over the naming of Bethge’s first child. When the name “Dietrich” was floated, Dietrich wrote back to the couple amusingly: “You still seem to be thinking of ‘Dietrich’. The name is good, the model less so.”

Perhaps those corny coronavirus memes scattered across social media serve a purpose. In Bonhoeffer’s case cheerfulness was no accident of temperament; it was born of his unshakeable confidence in God: “I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.”

Third, embrace optimism. Bonhoeffer’s approach to prison life was not to allow the confinement to restrict his activity. Quite literally, he did not sit still while waiting for his hope for freedom to materialize:

I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell — without rubbing myself sore against the walls like a polar bear. The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do — there is still plenty left — and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and the feelings of resentment and discontent.

This is good advice for anyone facing the frustrations of an ongoing disappointment and restrictive circumstances.

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Today in History: German Foreign Office Warns about Dietrich Bonhoeffer

February 29, 1936: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who would later be executed by the Nazis for his involvement in the resistance, had already made a name for himself, stirring up trouble with his actions alongside the Confessing Church. He had broken with the (much) larger German Christians and already declared that they represented a false Christ to the world, in part due to their allegiance to the Nazi state.

Bonhoeffer was heavily involved in ecumenical movements, and had informed the Foreign Office that he would be traveling as the director of the Preacher’s Seminary at Finkenwalde to support ecumenical work in Sweden. Today in history, the Foreign Office sent a letter to the German Legation in Stockholm warning them about Pastor Bonhoeffer’s actions:

The Reich and Prussian Ministry for Church Affairs as well as the Church Foreign Office would like to warn you about Pastor Bonhoeffer because his activities are not conducive to German interests. State and church officials have serious objections to his trip abroad, which has only now become known.
I respectfully ask that you report back concerning his public activities and concerning possible reactions in the Swedish press.

(From Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937[DBWE 14:146])

This message’s import should not be understated. It shows that Bonhoeffer was already being monitored both at home and abroad.

For the rest of the post…

Charlotte Pence

People of religious faith carry a burden of belief around with them. In recent years, Americans have witnessed a rise in the maligning of Christians and dismissals of their faith and practices. I have come to believe this burden isn’t constrained to time or shifts of culture.

Some argue that the past few decades have resulted in a more secular society where citizens substitute a pursuit of moral truths for selfish endeavors. However, I don’t think the 21st century is the culprit for people of faith being put on the defense for their beliefs.

Religious groups felt isolated long before Twitter was an idea in anyone’s mind, and they will continue to. The call to a life of religious belief is a lonely one; it will set you apart, but it promises to give back much more. Separation is an anticipated sacrifice. It is a companion to the decision to live for a purpose higher than the mere physical world.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor active during Hitler’s regime, repeatedly put his life at risk to decry injustices happening within Nazi Germany; he even lost his life doing so. But just like Christians today, he grappled with questions of how best to engage.

Examine Bonhoeffer’s concept of “religionless Christianity.” While he was imprisoned in Germany, he wrote letters to his friend, Eberhard Bethge, asking, “What do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world?” He wanted to understand how people of faith should interact in the world without getting bogged down in inaccessible theology or swayed by non-religious values.

To be “religionless” while still religious means to engage with the secular world while maintaining one’s cherished belief system. This shouldn’t lead to religious doctrines being replaced with more world-friendly ideas. Instead, Bonhoeffer told Christians they ought to meet non-religious people where they were—all while sharing the love of Christ.

It isn’t only Christians who are at risk of being sequestered by the louder voices of the culture. Religionlessness is a complicated concept and best broached alongside people who share the desire to live a life of faith, even when their specific beliefs differ from one another.

For the rest of the article…

 

by Richard Penaskovic

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who was executed in 1945 for his involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler. His (book, The Cost of Discipleship) was published after his death, and includes a section on what he calls “cheap grace”.

Cheap grace is the idea that we can obtain salvation and forgiveness of sins without any personal cost to ourselves. Faith in God becomes merely “fire insurance”, and there is no compelling reason to change the way we live. We’re saved and forgiven, therefore we can do as we please without another thought.

Here in Canada, we have relative freedom to practice our faith. We don’t face imprisonment or death, and there are laws to protect us from being fired from our jobs because of our beliefs. Have we forgotten that our salvation cost God everything? We so often live as though His sacrifice is nothing more than a Get Out of Jail Free card that requires nothing more from us.

I read an account of a man who visited a country where it is illegal to practice Christianity. Early one morning, his Christian hosts took him on a boat ride down a river. The boat was loaded with fishing equipment, but no one was fishing. About an hour into the trip, in the middle of the enormous river, they met up with another boat filled with what looked like fishermen. After a while, another boat joined them. A lookout was appointed to watch for other boats that might carry government authorities or law enforcement, because to be caught could mean their arrest or immediate execution. This group of forbidden Christians spent hours reciting passages of Scripture they had memorized, since no one owned a Bible. They prayed, sang hymns quietly, and encouraged one another. At dusk, with many tears and deep emotion, they parted and went their separate ways. 

 

In a letter on July 21, 1944, to his longtime friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in prison, recalled a conversation he had some years ago with a young French pastor. They discussed what they both wanted out of life.

The pastor opined that he aspired to eventually become a saint. Bonhoeffer disagreed, stating that he would like to have faith by attempting to live a holy life. It’s possible that both men were on target with their desires, though we’ll never know that will be the case. (See “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” edited by Robert Cole, Maryknoll, New York Orbis Books, 1998).

Who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? Dietrich, born in 1906, one of seven siblings, came from a prominent aristocratic family in Breslau, Germany, that moved to Berlin. Dietrich studied theology at Tübingen University and then at Berlin University where he received the doctoral degree in theology with a dissertation on “The Communion of Saints.” He was an outstanding student who played the piano brilliantly and was an excellent tennis player, to boot.

In 1928, Bonhoeffer took a position as a curate in a Lutheran church in Barcelona where he enjoyed taking care of the spiritual needs of blue-collar workers. They loved the talks he gave because they were thoughtful and punctured with biblical verses. For example, he once stated that Christ had been left out of a person’s life, if that person only gave to Christ a tiny part of his/her spiritual life. Bonhoeffer told his audience that one needs to give one’s life entirely to Christ, if they wanted to really understand their spiritual life.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer decided to go to Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan as a Sloan Fellow where he gained the respect of outstanding theological faculty like Paul Lehmann, with whom he developed a close friendship. After the year was up, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin University as a lecturer in theology, while working on his second doctorate. 

Two days after Hitler rose to power as German Chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer railed against Hitler and the Nazi party on the radio, when suddenly he was cut off in the middle of his remarks. That same year, inspired by Pastor Martin Niemoeller, Bonhoeffer again spoke out against Nazi rule. Many members of the Lutheran Church, including bishops and pastors supported Hitler and some even wore brown Nazi shirts, to the dismay of Bonhoeffer and Pastor Niemoeller who helped organize the “Confessing Church” that opposed the Nazis.

Bonhoeffer had to leave Berlin in 1938, and in 1941, the Nazi government forbade him to write. He then became part of an anti-resistance movement, along with six military officers who tried to overthrow the Nazi government by force. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer became a prisoner at the Tegel Prison and then at Flossenbürg, a small village in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria.

Flossenbürg had a barracks that held 1,000 prisoners, but was built to hold 250 prisoners. Both Jews and special enemies of the state were housed in Flossenbürg. Special enemies like Bonhoeffer received “special treatment’ such as interrogation, torture and execution. Bonhoeffer was hanged in this prison — witnessed by Dr. H. Fischer who said that Bonhoeffer knelt on the floor and prayed before he was hanged.

What made Bonhoeffer a special person?

For the rest of the post…

Pastor Niemöller spoke out against Nazism. In 1937 he was sent to the camps for “misusing the pulpit.”

By Doris Bergen
In the annals of the Holocaust, Martin Niemöller cuts an awkward figure. A celebrity in his day, the impulsive German pastor is now remembered, if at all, as the tag to the quote that begins, “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Communist.” Though a political prisoner, he is sometimes called a martyr but did not die at Nazi hands. In fact, Niemöller remained alive for decades after the war, time he used to try to reckon what he had been part of—and frequently to put his foot in his mouth.

Niemöller’s only meeting with Adolf Hitler was a fiasco. It was January 1934, and Hitler had been in power for just under a year. The chancellor, obsessed with his image, was irritated about strife in the German Protestant church and the foreign press coverage it attracted. Disunity made him look weak. To manage the situation, Hitler summoned a dozen prominent clergymen to his presence. Among them was the Lutheran pastor and former submarine captain Martin Niemöller.

THEN THEY CAME FOR ME

By Matthew D. Hockenos
Basic, 322 pages, $30

Martin Niemöller (1892-1984), a U-boat officer during World War I, received the Iron Cross in 1917. PHOTO: ULLSTEIN BILD VIA GETTY IMAGES

A junior member of the group, Niemöller stood near the back. When Hermann Göring, head of the newly formed Gestapo, spoke he pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase and began to read the transcript of a phone call recorded that very morning. It was a conversation between Niemöller and a friend. Frozen with dread, the churchmen heard how a cocky Niemöller had promised that everything would be fine. Hitler would come to see that the people he considered opponents within the church were in fact loyal Germans. Anyway, President Hindenburg would take their side, Niemöller predicted gleefully, and by the end of the meeting the old man would be “administer[ing] the last rites” to the upstart Hitler.

The meeting thus torpedoed, the future of the outspoken Niemöller quivered in the balance. Would the devout Christian emerge a champion against the moral evil of Nazism? Or would the ardent nationalist, who voted for Hitler in 1924 and again in March 1933, redouble his efforts to prove that he could serve both his country and his faith and in the process become complicit in Nazi crimes? The answer, Matthew Hockenos reveals in a gripping biography, is “yes” and “yes,” or, more precisely, “yes but.” Niemöller was heroic but flawed, and his life and legacy challenge the popular notion of the individual hero as society’s best hope. In its place, “the pastor who defied the Nazis” offers two modest messages for those under threat in our own troubled times: help one another and don’t wait too long.

For the rest of the review…

Defying Hitler: The Germans Who Resisted Nazi Rule
By Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis
Dutton, 542 pages, $30

The most famous episode of German resistance to the Nazis is Operation Valkyrie, the unsuccessful July 20, 1944 plot to kill Hitler and install a constitutional government to negotiate the end of the war.

That joint civilian-military conspiracy is the centerpiece of the German Resistance Memorial Center, housed in the onetime Berlin headquarters of the German Army High Command. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the would-be assassin whose suitcase bomb exploded without killing its target, both worked and died at this historic site. His office is integral to the exhibition, and a commemorative courtyard marks the location of his peremptory execution. The museum details both the meticulous planning that led to his brave attempt, and the disastrous consequences of its failure, including hundreds of executions of the conspirators, their allies and others.

In their powerful new book, “Defying Hitler,” Gordon Thomas (a British investigative journalist who died in 2017) and Greg Lewis (a documentary filmmaker and journalist) give Operation Valkyrie, as well as years of frustrated coup planning by German military counter-intelligence officers, it’s due. But they re-contextualize the plot, according more weight to a broader narrative of German anti-Nazi resistance that included leafletting, graffiti, espionage and industrial sabotage.

Elucidating the contours of German resistance to the Nazi terror state has always been difficult. (It’s been equally hard to gauge the full extent of popular support for the regime, as opposed to fearful, tactical acquiescence.) From 1933 on, thousands of the Nazis’ political opponents were arrested, imprisoned and, in many cases, murdered. Public protests were rare, and even a refusal to give the Hitler salute or join the mandated Hitler Youth brigades entailed risk.

“Defying Hitler” foregrounds the extraordinary courage of the regime’s most implacable foes: The predominantly Jewish Baum group, the student martyrs of the White Rose, the German military counter-intelligence officer Hans Oster, the Protestant religious leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the spy Fritz Kolbe and others.

Read more: https://forward.com/culture/423434/hitler-nazis-german-opponents-sophie-scholl-baum-group-fritz-kolbe/

During his (Bonhoeffer) final years in school, there is increasing evidence of his opposition to the right-wing radicalism that was becoming more and more obstreperous. When he left for his last school holiday, he wrote to his parents that on the train he found himself sitting opposite “a man wearing a swastika” and spent the whole time arguing with him. The man “was really quite bigoted and right-wing.”

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 33.

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