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ss nucleus - January 2016,  Heroes and Heretics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Heroes and Heretics: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Alex Bunn looks at the pastor who tried to kill Hitler
Alex Bunn is CMF Associate Head of Student Ministries (Field) and a GP in London.

Heroes 17: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: prophet, martyr, ethicist, spy

On 27 July 1945 an elderly couple in Berlin huddled around their wireless, awaiting a BBC broadcast. They had lost one son in the First World War, a trauma the wife never recovered from. Two more had died in the current war, but what about their beloved fourth and last? A neighbour just told them that Dietrich had perished, but would be remembered in a live service broadcast from HTB, London. But why would England celebrate an obscure theologian from the hated Germany?

Dietrich came from an eminent family of scientists. His brother would be one of the first to split the atom. His father was perhaps the most famous psychiatrist in Germany, and was disappointed that Dietrich chose such an unscientific career as theology.

An academic ready for a fight

Bonhoeffer was unashamedly Christ centred. Although he studied under the great liberals of the day, (1) he had a high view of Scripture. All knowledge came through Christ: 'We cannot speak rightly of God and the world without speaking of Jesus Christ'. He rejected man made religion, trying to reach up to heaven like the tower of Babel, through our own efforts. He sided with the theologian Karl Barth, who taught of the need to be 'grasped from above' by Christ. Christianity was not about a better set of rules, but about Christ himself: 'Christ scarcely gave any ethical prescription that was not found already in contemporary rabbis or pagan literature'. (2)

Perhaps his most famous quote centres on the costliness of Christ's grace: 'Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.' He would soon need robust theology to prepare him for some tough choices:

'The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ...Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.' (3)

Prophecy on national radio

In early February 1933, two days after Hitler was installed as chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer gave a brave radio broadcast. He warned of the dangers of the 'Führer Principle', the personality cult that few others were willing to oppose. His prophetic broadcast was cut off early by the authorities.

Bonhoeffer's family were sucked into politics again on 27 February 1933, when the Reichstag (the German parliament building) caught fire, an event blamed on the communists at the time. His father had to give a psychiatric opinion on the accused. This event gave Hitler a pretext for dissolving parliament and establishing a Nazi dictatorship.

When is a church not a church?

The church soon came under pressure to follow Nazi ideology, especially the 'Aryan Paragraph' (4) which excluded all Jews from employment and church. But Bonhoeffer knew that the Bible teaches that the gentile church is dependent on the Jewish root onto which it is grafted, and made one by God (Romans 11:13-21; Ephesians 2:11-22):

'What is at stake is by no means whether German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God, here is the proof of whether a church is still the church or not.' Solidarity with the Jews was essential: 'Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.'

Bonhoeffer recognised the anti-Christian heart of the Nazi ideology when many were happy to placate them out of self-interest. There were even false prophets within the official church, members of the 'German Christian' movement who formed a 'Brown Synod'. If ever there were wolves in sheep's clothing in the church, these were (Matthew 7:14-15). They were embarrassed by the 'weak saviour on a cross', ascribed to Jewish elements in German Christianity. They wanted stronger role models for a militant Germany, as found in secular writings like those of the philosopher Nietzsche.

Hitler was explicitly anti-Christian: 'You see, it's been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn't we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?' (5) His regime stopped publishing the Bible in favour of Mein Kampf, and ordered that all crucifixes be replaced with swastikas.

The Nazis rejected the Christian belief in the sanctity of life, judging the weak 'life unworthy of life' and 'useless eaters', wasting German resources. Bonhoeffer saw the 'madness that the sick ought to be legally eliminated'. He perceived Hitler's program as another Tower of Babel, one which was 'bound to avenge itself'. He was impressed by a Christian community in Biesenthal, caring for 1,600 disabled. What could be more counter-cultural? Jesus was the 'man for others', and the church's role was to speak for those who could not speak for others. But a stronger opposition was needed against such a determined regime.

A modern Daniel

Surely the faithful church would have to oppose the Nazis? But not everyone agreed. Some quoted Romans 13; wasn't there a duty to submit to authorities? Bonhoeffer helped draft the 1935 Barmen Declaration, which stated that the 'Nazi church' has excommunicated itself. It was no longer the church of Luther. (6) Whilst the Nazis had physically thrown orthodox Christians out of church, it was the Nazis who were actually on the outside. The 'Confessing Church' would remain faithful to the Jewish Christ of Scripture and historic creeds. They could not swear allegiance to Hitler, any more than Daniel could bow to Nebuchadnezzar.

Bonhoeffer sought allies abroad such as the Anglican Bishop George Bell. He kept the House of Lords well informed of life behind enemy lines, and galvanised the public via letters to the London Times. Sadly, British policy was not to support the German resistance, but their Soviet allies instead. Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was less than sympathetic, when he wrote off-record 'I see no reason whatsoever to encourage this pestilent priest!'. (7)

'They burn all God's houses in the land'

Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) was a sign of things to come. Hitler unleashed a wave of violence against the Jews, their homes and synagogues. Bonhoeffer meditated on Psalm 74:8 the next day 'they burn all God's houses in the land', and noted the date 9/11/38 in the margin. He preached on the horror of violence against God's chosen, 'the apple of God's eye' (Zechariah 2:8), to whom belong the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the promises and the bloodline of the Messiah (Romans 9). He published a book on the Psalms, showing that Christianity was unavoidably Jewish, as Jesus had recognised Old Testament authority, and died with a psalm on his lips. His Jewish sympathies meant he was never allowed to publish again.

Biblical activism

Bonhoeffer was not a natural political activist. He was an academic from a respectable family. But biblical reflection spurred him into action. He was also challenged by his sister-in-law: 'You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done, but it seems that you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it'. His theologian mentor Barth would also warn Bonhoeffer not to waste his 'splendid theological armoury' in academia abroad, when 'your church is on fire' at home. He returned to Germany on the last steamer to cross the Atlantic. (8) There was no turning back.

Killing Hitler

Driven by a 'restless holy anger', Bonhoeffer took a very rare decision for a pastor: he joined the conspiracy against Hitler. Close friends attempted assassination, although Bonhoeffer took no part in violence. He joined the Abwehr (military intelligence) as an international double spy. He passed coded messages to the resistance by dotting letters every ten pages in academic books. But it was the fees he paid to smuggle Jews out to Switzerland that eventually led the Gestapo to his door.

Bonhoeffer waited nervously to hear the outcome of some of the most daring attempts on Hitler's life. Operation Flash used a gift package to bring down Hitler's plane, but the timed detonator did not work in the cold aircraft hold. The English made bomb was a dud! Then on 5 April 1943 Major Gersdorf greeted the Führer wearing an activated overcoat bomb. But Hitler left just before the acid could dissolve the wire holding back the detonator cap. Gersdorf rushed to the restroom to rip off the fuses. It wasn't until 20 July 1944 that the Valkyrie plot came closest to ending the war, led by senior military friends of Bonhoeffer, such as Lieutenant von Haeften. Major von Tresckow, who later took his own life to prevent giving away names under torture, commented just before he died: 'God promised Abraham that he would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found. So I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany'. But the mission failed. The Catholic Colonel Stauffenberg delivered a briefcase loaded with explosives into Hitler's bunker, the Wolfs Lair. Unfortunately, a heavy table shielded the Führer who escaped blackened, hair on end, with tattered uniform, but even more resolute. His inability to read providence is sobering: 'this proves that I'm on the right track' he said. Hundreds of conspirators and family were rounded up and executed. Many were cruelly hanged on piano wire, sometimes revived in time to be hanged several times over.

Medical ethics

Sadly, the medical profession conducted some of the worst atrocities of the war. Some exceeded the demands of the eugenic program, which targeted 700,000 'defectives' to murder. Bonhoeffer's view was the polar opposite. On abortion he wrote that 'destruction of the embryo is a violation of the right to live', he thought it irrelevant to debate whether it is a person or not, 'the simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being'.

Whilst imprisoned at Buchenwald, Bonhoeffer came across Sigmund Rascher, former CMO of Dachau. Rascher killed 200 prisoners through high altitude and 300 through freezing experiments. But many in the Luftwaffe refused to participate on religious grounds. Himmler transferred Rascher to his elite SS where there would be no Christian objections: 'In these Christian medical circles...the life of a criminal is too sacred for this purpose and one should not stain oneself with this guilt. It will take at least another ten years until we can get such narrow-mindedness out of our people...I suggest a non-Christian physician should be charged'. Those who believe in the sanctity of life today are often accused of narrowmindedness, but perhaps a little narrowmindedness is nothing to be ashamed of where basic boundaries are called for.

Homesick for heaven

By personal order of Hitler, Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before liberation by the Allies. He had been engaged to marry, but he was awaiting a greater consummation:

'No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God...and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence...Why are we so afraid when we think about death?...Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible if only we can be still and hold fast to God's word. Who knows whether in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?'


    Following Bonhoeffer's example:
  • Are there sections of the church today in danger of excommunicating themselves?
  • Which issues should prompt Christians to engage in civil disobedience?
  • Do we have the same love of the Jewish people and those threatened by eugenics?
  • Do we have the same hope of heaven?

Recommended Bonhoeffer

  • Life together (1939)
  • The cost of discipleship (1937)
  • Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy (2010)
  1. See Bunn A. Heroes + Heretics: Shaking the foundations.Nucleus 2012;43(1):32-34
  2. Metaxas E. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy. Thomas Nelson, 2010. Unless otherwise stated all quotes are from this excellent biography
  3. Bonhoeffer D. The Cost of Discipleship. New York: Macmillan, 1966:99
  7. Brocker M (ed), Dahill LE (trans). Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940-1945. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works vol 16. New York: Fortress 2006:349
  8. Clements KW (ed), Best I (trans). London 1933-1935. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works vol 13:40
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