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MEET THE CHRISTIAN THEOLOGIAN WHO TRIED TO ASSASSINATE ADOLF HITLER

In the 1930s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of Germany’s most famous pastors and theologians—at a time when German clergy were increasingly capitulating and buying into Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church, a movement resisting Nazism, and eventually joined a plot to assassinate Hitler.

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DIETRICH BONHOEFFER was a twin. (He was born just before his twin sister, Sabine.)

Dietrich’s father, Karl, was Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist from 1912 until his death in 1948.

Dietrich was so skilled at playing the piano that for a time he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician.

At 14, Bonhoeffer announced matter-of-factly that he was going to become a theologian.

Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate in theology when he was only 21.

Though later he was an outspoken advocate of pacifism, Bonhoeffer was an enthusiastic fan of bullfighting. He developed the passion while serving as assistant pastor of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain.

By the end of 1930, the year before Bonhoeffer was ordained, church seminaries were complaining that over half the candidates for ordination were followers of Hitler.

In 1933, when the government instigated a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, Bonhoeffer’s grandmother broke through a cordon of SS officers to buy strawberries from a Jewish store.

In his short lifetime, Bonhoeffer traveled widely. He visited Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Libya, Denmark, and Sweden, among other countries, and he lived for a time in Spain, in England, and in the United States.

Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class in what he described as “about the worst area of Berlin,” yet he moved into that neighborhood so he could spend more time with the boys.

Bonhoeffer was fascinated by Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. He asked for—and received—permission to visit Gandhi and live at his ashram. The two never met, however, because the crisis in Germany demanded Bonhoeffer’s attention.

Bonhoeffer served as a member of the Abwehr, the military-intelligence organization under Hitler. (He was actually a double agent. While ostensibly working for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer helped to smuggle Jews into Switzerland—and do other underground tasks.)

Bonhoeffer studied for a year in New York City.

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Kevin Rudd
Cover: October 2006

Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey are arrayed ten great statues of the martyrs of the Church. Not Peter, Stephen, James or the familiar names of the saints sacrificed during the great Roman persecution before Constantine’s conversion. No: these are martyrs of the twentieth century, when the age of faith was, in the minds of many in the West, already tottering towards its collapse.

One of those honoured above the Great West Door is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, pastor and peace activist. Bonhoeffer is, without doubt, the man I admire most in the history of the twentieth century. He was a man of faith. He was a man of reason. He was a man of letters who was as well read in history and literature as he was in the intensely academic Lutheran theology of the German university tradition. He was never a nationalist, always an internationalist. And above all, he was a man of action who wrote prophetically in 1937 that “when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” For Bonhoeffer, whatever the personal cost, there was no moral alternative other than to fight the Nazi state with whatever weapons were at his disposal.

Three weeks before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was hanged by the SS because of his complicity in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. This year marks the centenary of his birth. This essay seeks both to honour Bonhoeffer and to examine what his life, example and writings might have to say to us, 60 years after his death, on the proper relationship between Christianity and politics in the modern world.

In both George Bush’s America and John Howard’s Australia, we see today the political orchestration of various forms of organised Christianity in support of the conservative incumbency. In the US, the book God’s Politics, by Reverend Jim Wallis, has dragged this phenomenon out of the shadows (where it is so effectively manipulated by the pollsters and spin-doctors) and into the searching light of proper public debate. US Catholic, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are now engaged in a national discussion on the role of the religious Right. The same debate must now occur here in Australia. As Wallis notes in his introduction:

God is not partisan: God is not a Republican or a Democrat. When either party tries to politicize God, or co-opt religious communities for their political agendas, they make a terrible mistake. The best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan. Both parties, and the nation, must let the prophetic voice of religion be heard. Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground.


Had Dietrich Bonhoeffer been at Oxford, he would have been one of the gods. He was at 21 a doctoral graduate and at 23 the youngest person ever appointed to a lectureship in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, in 1929. His contemporaries saw his career as made in heaven. Along Unter den Linden, just beyond the faculty walls, however, the living hell of the Nazi storm-troopers was being born.

At the core of Bonhoeffer’s theological and therefore political life was a repudiation of the doctrine of the Two Kingdoms. As James Woelfel has noted:

According to this doctrine, the proper concern of the gospel is the inner person, the sphere where the Kingdom of God reigns; the Kingdom of the State, on the other hand, lies in the outer sphere, the realm of law, and is not subject to the gospel’s message. German Christians used this argument to justify devotion to race and fatherland as ‘orders of creation’ to be obeyed until the final consummation.

These debates may seem arcane in twenty-first-century secular Australia, but in the Germany of the 1930s they were central to the decision of the majority of German Lutheran ministers to submit to the Reichskirche (resplendent with swastikas on their ecclesiastical stoles) and to retreat into a politically non-threatening quietism as the political repression of Hitler’s post-1933 chancellorship unfolded. Equally, it was Bonhoeffer’s theological dissent from the perversion of this Two Kingdoms doctrine that led him, at the tender age of 29, to establish in 1935 the German Confessing Church, with its underground seminary.

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by Stanley Hauerwas

Bonhoeffer For Us?

“Yet one may wonder how Bonhoeffer should be read by those in the ministry in our time. The challenges he faced are so different from the everyday tasks incumbent on those in the ministry in our day. Bonhoeffer confronted the Nazis and Hitler – it is hard to imagine a more dramatic conflict. Dangerous though it may have been, those confronted by the Nazi’s knew what sides they needed to be on. We seldom enjoy such clarity. The result is often a stark divide between activities associated with pastoral care and the social witness of the church.

Those in the ministry today must negotiate a very different world than the world Bonhoeffer encountered. We are unsure who our enemy is, or even if we have an enemy. We lack the clarity Bonhoeffer enjoyed – which, of course, is not a bad thing. But it leaves us confused about how to discern in the world in which we live what the primary challenge facing the church may be. Bonhoeffer saw quite early who the enemy was, though he was surrounded by many who did not see what he saw in the Nazis. Indeed, one of the interesting questions for Bonhoeffer’s relevance for pastors in our time is what enabled him to see the threat Hitler represented.”

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Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church
by Wendy McElroy

A destructive myth haunts World War II. It is that a flaw within the German character allowed the rise of Hitler and Nazism. How else can you explain the Holocaust coming from one of the world’s most cultured nations? Oddly, no one seems to consider Mussolini to indicate a flaw within Italians or view Stalin as proof of a Russian defect.

The ‘German character flaw’ is a destructive myth because it deflects attention from the crucial task of analyzing the dynamics that allowed Nazism to rise. It permits other nations to believe “it could never happen here.” But totalitarianism can happen anywhere, to any nationality. Understanding the evolution of totalitarianism involves institutional analysis, especially of the interrelation between institutions that were active or complicit in creating tyranny.

Two institutions are commonplace and powerful around the globe: the state and the church. In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly, many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. For example, the German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority who supported the Nazis, either explicitly or implicitly, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.”

No man spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in ‘the Confessing Church’ that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious body in protest.(Konfession is German for denomination.) Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage in every nation. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.

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by Michael Jinkins President, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

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“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”
(Edmund Burke, 1729-1797, Irish political philosopher)

Early on a gray spring morning in Flossenbürg, Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was taken from his cell, marched naked to the gallows, and hanged. The prison doctor later wrote a brief account of his last moments:

“Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”*

While virtually everyone now regards Bonhoeffer as a martyr to his faith, it is revealing to observe that at the end of the war, his home church refused to honor him as such, drawing a sharp line between those men and women who died for their Christian faith and those who died because of their resistance to the Nazi state. Perhaps this should not surprise us.

One of the most lamentable stories in all the history of Christianity must be the failure of the church in Germany to stand not only against Hitler and the Nazi movement, but to stand against the things that allowed fascism to flourish in Germany. There were notable exceptions in this sad history, of course; Martin Niemöller stands as an example of one whose faith placed boundaries upon the claims of his patriotism. But the relative paucity of exceptions (their notability, in fact) only makes the reality more painful. Christians became complicit in the crimes of the Nazi state, sometimes by remaining silent, and sometimes as enthusiastic and active participants.

Jack Forstman, in his remarkable study, Christian Faith in Dark Times: Theological Conflicts in the Shadow of Hitler, begins his book by quoting Kurt Tucholsky, a brilliant German Jew, who wrote: “Nothing is more difficult and nothing requires more character than to find oneself in open opposition to one’s time and to say loudly: No.”** And, if that “No!” must be spoken in opposition not only to one’s time, but also to the leadership of one’s country, to the followers of that leadership, and to one’s own church, how much more character does it require?

It is so easy – it is too easy – as a Christian living in the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century to stand in judgment of German Christians in the 1930s, to pretend that if we had been in Germany in the time of Bonhoeffer, we would have been his supporters and his colleagues, and that we would have stood with him against fascism.

We ask:

Did the German Christians not see the evil of the anti-Semitism that raged in their society?

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Earlier this month, I posted that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. This moment was a defining point for Bonhoeffer! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

Also:

For the next three years, until his arrest on April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer lived an unsettled life. He became a courier for the resistance group operating out of the Office of Military Intelligence (the Abwehr), even as he continued to teach and minister to the young seminarians and pastors of the Confessing Church.

DB was a seminary professor and involved in the resistance movement against Hitler. He was dedicated in preparing young men for the ministry and he was dedicated in stopping the Fuhrer.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

 

Earlier this month, I post that on June 17, 1940 (the day France surrendered to Germany), Dietrich Bonhoeffer was with his close friend Eberhard Bethge “in the Baltic village of Memel. They were relaxing in an “open-air café when suddenly a special announcement came over the loudspeaker that France had surrendered. Bethge wrote:

The people around the tables could hardly contain themselves; they jumped up, and some even climbed on the chairs. With outstretched arms, they sang “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles” and the Horse Wessel song. We stood up, too Bonhoeffer raised his arm in the regulation Hitler salute, while I stood there dazed. “Raise your arm! Are you crazy?” he whispered to me, and later: “We shall have to run risks for very different things now, but not for that salute!”  

This was a turning point for DB! Bethge “asserts that Bonhoeffer’s ‘double life’ truly began. This Confessing Church pastor and theologian became deeply involved in the resistance movement against Hitler and the Nazis.”

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1-2.

Wow! I have had numerous discussions with people over the years about why a Christian like Bonhoeffer could take an active role in the resistance. Many are troubled because Jesus said to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43).

I have struggled other it was well. Yet, we were not there. DB was! And somehow, he joined the resistance to stop a mad-man from murdering innocent people. Somehow, DB reconciled being a disciple of Jesus and plotting to kill Hitler.

In June of 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was safe and sound in the United States. He could have remained there but on June 20, 1939, he made the “fateful decision” to return to Nazi Germany. Why? In a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, he gave the following explanation:

I have made the mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make this choice in security.

~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945, 1.

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