Whenever I am asked to speak on the German Church under Hitler, I begin with a question. ‘Can you name me one church leader that spoke up publicly against the Nazi regime?’ The answer is always Bonhoeffer. When I ask for another name, there is usually silence. So why Bonhoeffer and not others who also spoke out during the twelve years of the Third Reich?
For those unacquainted with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brief introduction might be useful. He was born into an upper-middle-class family at the beginning of the twentieth century and had a privileged and well-educated upbringing. He attended the universities of Tübingen and Berlin, studying under the world-renowned liberal church historian Adolph von Harnack. At 21, he received his doctorate and went on to lecture at the University of Berlin where he soon became a popular prophesier.
A prophetic voice
It was at Berlin that Bonhoeffer began to speak publicly of the dangers of the growing Nazi movement and specifically its charismatic leader Adolph Hitler. On 1 February 1933, just two days after Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer criticised what was known as the ‘Führer Principle’ in a live radio broadcast. This principle included the idea that all the political and national troubles that had come from the loss of World War One could be dealt with by the Führer, a providential Nietzschean Superman who spoke a message of national rebirth for the Fatherland. Before many others, Bonhoeffer recognised the toxic mix of Christianity and German Patriotism and warned the church of his day not to imbibe the poisonous propaganda.
Of course, most did drink the tempting ‘Kool-Aid’, hoping that the new relationship between the church and the revived state would bring in a substantial dowry. In one way it did — in the early months of 1933 churches were once again well attended, though they were decorated with swastikas and their pews were filled by brown-shirted Stormtroopers and Hitler Youth. Bonhoeffer’s isolated and critical voice remained one of spiritual clarity in a church seduced by political alliances and deeply-felt nationalism.
Another lasting legacy of Bonhoeffer’s was the early stand that he took against the rampant anti-Semitism of his day. The Nazi party were openly anti-Semitic. Paragraph 4 of their manifesto included the phrase that ‘no Jew may be a part of the nation’ and this increasingly showed itself in acts of violence, persecution and exclusion of Jews from key government positions including the civil service, university posts and ministerial positions in the state Lutheran church.
In an attempt to rid the church of all Jewish influence an effort was made in 1933 to pass what became known as ‘The Aryan Clause’. This act would exclude all those defined as ethnically Jewish from acting as pastors in the church. Immediately, thousands of protestant pastors protested under the able leadership of Martin Niemöller and in a few months what became known as the ‘Confessing Church’ was born. This was a church holding to the historical, theological confessions of Christianity, in contrast to the ‘Deutsche Christian’ movement that wanted to Nazify church belief with an Aryan Christ and a Jew-free ecclesia. The Confessing Church insisted that Christian pastors that were of Jewish racial background were still brothers and sisters in Christ and should never be excluded. The 1933 Bethel Confession put it plainly: ‘The community of those who belong to the church is not determined by blood and therefore not by race but by the Holy Spirit and Baptism.’
Yet Bonhoeffer went further and called on the church not just to speak up when their own people were suffering but to speak out against the suffering of all German Jews, Christian or not. This clarion call for justice was muted by church leaders who felt that this might bring even more trouble to the churches already under stress. Bonhoeffer remained adamant. All Jews were to be protected in God’s plan. In his posthumously published Ethics, writing at a time when Jews were being deported to the East, he identified the crucified Christ with the suffering Jews. ‘An expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ.’ His clear stand against racism of any sort makes him a relevant voice in a European and American culture which is again experiencing a significant extremist right-wing threat to democratic principles with overtones of white supremacist propaganda.
Like many in the historical hall of fame, Bonhoeffer died a young and tragic death at 39 at Flossenbürg concentration camp, just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide. A Christian martyr to some… a traitor to his county for others. And was he a political or religious martyr? The answer is nuanced because his political views came out of his understanding of theology and Scripture. Clearly a pacifist in his early years, his views began to change as he saw the disastrous effect on Germany and Europe of Hitler’s totalitarian Reich. It was not an easy transition. From being a pastor concerned with church polity and practical piety he entered the murky and risky world of being an undercover spy and double agent in touch with the allied powers, eventually becoming involved with the German Resistance plot to assassinate Hitler.
Aware of the strong Lutheran emphasis on ‘being subject to the governing authorities’ (Romans 13:1), he sought to justify his more militant stance by arguing that ‘Shakespearean characters’ of extreme evil are ‘in our midst’ which calls for more than a passive response. He once illustrated his latter stance by asking himself the question what he would do if he saw a lunatic ploughing his car into the crowd. Would he stand coldly by on the pavement and say to himself, ‘I am a pastor. I’ll just wait to bury the dead?’ Bonhoeffer concluded that as a Christian he must stop the lunatic driver. And so this idea, birthed in 1933, of jamming the spokes in the wheel of the state to seek to save the Jews along with Western civilisation, became for him a willingness to assassinate the head of state.
Bonhoeffer remains both a popular and controversial figure in the story of the Church’s resistance to Hitler. Both evangelicals and liberals have sought to call him their own, with evangelicals pointing to his early works such as The Cost of Discipleship (1936) and liberals to his later writings, especially his Letters and Papers from Prison (1943–45). Yet he is by no means a perfect fit for either, and is critical of both.
For many, he has become the brave face of the Protestant church during the twelve years of the Third Reich, especially in his defence of the Jews. The problem with this view is that he was not the face, but just a unique and isolated face, hardly representative of the silent majority who chose to say nothing. Speaking of his church, he writes, ‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. We have become cunning and learned in the arts of obfuscation and equivocation.’
Excusing themselves from blame, many German believers claimed they were not aware of the extremity of the evil happening in their own backyards. ‘We did not know,’ became their default excuse. But the counter question that many asked was, ‘Did you want to know?’
Bonhoeffer sought to know, and more than that, he sought to act — however we interpret today the rightness of his actions.