Seekers of peace and social justice should take note of today’s 100th birthday celebration of the life of German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
As much as anyone – and as early as anyone – Bonhoeffer spoke out against the wickedness of Adolf Hitler’s regime and took some of the most significant actions to thwart it. It was Bonhoeffer and a small circle of Lutheran ministers who first condemned the virulent anti-Semitism and reawakened militarism in Germany. It was Bonhoeffer who most loudly denounced his country’s suicidal summons for war. It was Bonhoeffer who attacked the timidity of German churches when they shrank away from the most severe moral crisis in a thousand years.
His life deserves wider recognition.
It was only two days into Hitler’s reign that Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address critical of the Nazi party. He warned Germans for buying into a dangerous cult that would lead to the eradication of their freedoms. He labeled the strutting, newly installed chancellor a Verfuhrer – “misleader.”
Disturbed at the way Jews were being hauled off to the ghettos, Bonhoeffer called upon fellow ministers to speak up. The churches responded with sermons and empty platitudes. Rather than standing alongside the disowned and dispossessed, the churches rolled over. He admonished his brethren that they had a biblical command to “see the great events of the world from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled – in short, from the perspective of those who suffer.”
Then came Kristallnacht – “night of the broken glass.”
After thousands of Jewish homes, churches and synagogues were burned and ransacked by Nazi thugs, the response of most German citizens was a deafening silence. Bonhoeffer was livid. “If the synagogues are set on fire today,” he warned, “it will be the churches that will be burned tomorrow.”
Dejected and confused, he sailed to the United States for a yearlong teaching sabbatical in June 1939. The ostensible reason was to let the political storms in Europe die down and then return the following year. The more compelling reason was that by this time – only weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland – Bonhoeffer was a marked man. His friends in America had repeatedly warned him that to remain in Germany was folly. Either he would be drafted or jailed or shot. Come again to America and stay for a while, they said. War is imminent in Europe. It’s safe over here.
Then, only two weeks later, Bonhoeffer dramatically changed course. “I have made a terrible mistake in coming to America,” he confessed to his host, Reinhold Niebuhr. “I must live through this difficult period of our history with the people of Germany… (We) face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of our nation in order that civilization may survive, or willing the victory of our nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose – but I cannot make that choice in security… . I must go back.”
His boat departed for Europe on July 8, 1939.
Three weeks later the war began.
Between 1940 and 1943 Bonhoeffer was active in the movement to topple Hitler, by coup if possible or assassination if necessary. Defending his actions to his sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, he explained, “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
These efforts met with complete failure.
In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to prison.
After the failed attempt to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, he was taken to Buchenwald and then to the Bavarian prison at Flossenburg. A British inmate, Captain Payne Best, recalled that Bonhoeffer “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every small event of life, and deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.”
On the morning of April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and several of his fellow conspirators were executed. He had just turned 39.
Steve Argo teaches history at Baraboo High School and is a member of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Baraboo.
Originally published on Saturday, February 4, 2006 by the Madison Capital Times.