Monday, 18 June 2012

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906 -1945: The Christian who wanted to kill a murderous dictator

On the morning of Sunday April 8th 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer held a Christian service for his fellow prisoners in the small Bavarian town of Schonberg. As he finished his last prayer, two men entered the room and said, ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us’. According to Payne Best, an English spy imprisoned with Bonhoeffer, ‘Those words, ‘Come with us’ for all prisoners had come to mean one thing only – the scaffold.’[1] Bonhoeffer was driven to Flossenburg concentration camp, where he sat before a ‘summary court’. Early the next morning on April 9th he was hanged. According to the camp doctor Bonhoeffer said a short prayer, ‘and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.’

Throughout Christendom the brilliant theologian and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer is regarded as a martyr. But he did not die for his faith. On April 4th 1945 the Gestapo discovered a diary with details about a team of conspirators planning to murder Adolf Hitler. When the diary reached the Fuhrer he erupted with rage and, just three weeks before he took his own life, gave this order: ‘Destroy the conspirators!’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer, already in prison, was one of those conspirators. He was hanged not because he was a Christian, but because for nearly five years he had been ready to kill a murderous dictator.




Brilliant and radical

If Bonhoeffer had not lived and died in the midst of the Nazi nightmare his life would still have had an extraordinary impact, not least because he campaigned to revive the Lutheran church which was suffocating in nominalism and theological liberalism. Berlin University, where Bonhoeffer studied from 1924 -1927, was considered both the finest faculty for theology in the world – and the greatest bastion of liberalism. The faculty was headed by the renowned Adolf von Harnack, a disciple of Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern liberal theology. Bonhoeffer was not only Harnack’s student, he was also his friend. The two would travel by tram together from the well to do Berlin suburb of Grunewald where they both lived to the university. In June 1930 the twenty four year old Bonhoeffer spoke warmly of his professor at his memorial service.

But Bonhoeffer rejected Harnack’s liberalism. Influenced by the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, arguably the greatest theologian of the 20th C, Bonhoeffer saw the Bible not as a text to be studied for its historical value – but as an agent to reveal God. Later in a series of lectures, when he was just twenty two, Bonhoeffer challenged his listeners to take Christ seriously. ‘The religion of Christ is not a tidbit after one’s bread, on the contrary it is the bread or nothing.’ He already has the tone of a man on a mission – to declare war against liberal formalism and bring Christ back to the centre of the church in Germany.

Experiencing Christ in Harlem

There is some discussion among Bonhoeffer scholars as to when he experienced the living Christ for himself. While Bonhoeffer was from a very cultured and upper class family with a strong emphasis on Christian values, they were certainly not evangelical or regular church goers. Indeed his father, the most senior psychiatrist in Germany, was not a believer. Nor were some of his siblings. And when the teenage Bonhoeffer announced he would study theology his father and his elder brothers, Karl-Friedrich, a brilliant physicist, and Klaus, a gifted lawyer, were disapproving. Bonhoeffer would not have heard the new birth preached either in his home, or at Berlin University. In 1921 and 1923, when he was fifteen and seventeen, Bonhoeffer went to hear the great evangelist and founder of the Salvation Army General Booth. He was decidedly impressed. It might have been then he gave his heart to Christ. Bonhoeffer himself though would probably mark his stay in New York in1930 as the time when had a definite experience of Christ. For shortly after his year long stay there Bonhoeffer wrote to a friend that while he had known all about church, ‘I had not become a Christian…I was quite pleased with myself…then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from all that. Since then everything has changed.’

Bonhoeffer went to New York as a research student at Union University. This place of learning had no spiritual impact on him at all. ‘There is no theology here’, he wrote. Students ‘are intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.’ Nor was he impressed by many of the liberal churches: ‘In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed…the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ However Bonhoeffer did eventually find a church in New York where his spiritual thirst was quenched. It was the black Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was led by Dr Adam Clayton Powell, a son of slaves, who preached Christ as the Saviour of sinners and society. By the mid 1930’s the church was to have fourteen thousand members. Bonhoeffer was ‘entirely captivated’. He attended this church for the rest of his time in New York, and taught Sunday School there. No doubt important seeds were sown in Bonhoeffer’s soul by the warmth of his family circle, his own rigorous study of the Bible, and the evangelistic meetings of General Booth, but it is surely fitting that the Christian most associated with fighting the evil of Nazi racism, was most probably born again under the preaching of the son of black slaves.

Enemy of ‘cheap grace’

Whether Hitler was going to rise to power or not, Bonhoeffer believed he was called to bring revival to the smouldering liberal wick that was the Lutheran church. So in October 1932 on ‘Reformation Sunday’ Bonhoeffer, freshly back from the spiritual feast of Harlem, bravely declared from the pulpit of the grand Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin that the German church was dying. Bonhoeffer continued to preach in this vein, and in 1937 his classic book, ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ was published. It is a sustained plea for Christians to totally reject what he calls ‘cheap grace’ which ‘means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner’ and embrace ‘costly grace’ which condemns sin and justifies the sinner. For Bonhoeffer it is cheap grace, the idea that sinners need not bother to follow Christ, but can live however they want and still eventually be forgiven that has contaminated the church. ‘We Lutherans’, he writes, ‘have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace and there we have drunk of the poison which has killed the life of following Christ.’

Bonhoeffer combined this radical preaching with a strong devotional and practical emphasis on Christian living. Though he had a brilliant mind, his Ph.D. thesis was praised by none other than Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer no longer believed in the university as a setting for training pastors who could revive the church. Instead he set up a seminary, which later had to go underground, where all the emphasis was on communal living. His ideas on this were published as the book ‘Living Together’ in 1938, which has also become a Christian classic. At Bonhoeffer’s almost monastic seminary the would-be pastor learned not only about theology, but also about communal and private worship, and especially Bible meditation. This is a practice Bonhoeffer insisted on, the taking of one verse or phrase of Scripture, and mulling it over for half an hour, expecting God to speak directly into your life.

Bonhoeffer also emphasized the need for the church to be for ‘the other’. He had learned from Pastor Powell in Harlem that the dichotomy of either a spiritual or social Gospel was entirely false. It was both. Though naturally a little aloof in character, Bonhoeffer proved himself successful working with children and with the poor. Shortly after his ordination in November 1931 he was sent to a rough district of Berlin to prepare fifty rowdy working class boys for confirmation. When he entered the room they all started shouting at him, ‘Bon! Bon!’ Then he started speaking quietly, and soon they were all listening. Later he took them to his family’s holiday home for a break. This belief, that Christ was for ‘the other’, remained with him till the end. During his more than two years of imprisonment he lived for others – sharing food parcels, refusing to move to a more comfortable cell when offered because he knew another would have to take his, comforting other prisoners.

Enemy of Nazism

Costly grace was the message to revive the church; it was also the message bound to set Bonhoeffer against Adolf Hitler. There could be no reconciliation between the Darwinian racism of Nazism with its glorification of a ruthless supreme leader and true Christianity. Unlike most Germans and many Europeans, Bonhoeffer immediately saw this, and since he had no time for ‘intellectual abstractions’ he took action to resist the evil of Nazism both in the church, and on the political stage.

Resisting evil in the church

Adolf Hitler despised the Jewish roots of Christianity and the emphasis on meekness. But though some of his top henchmen, especially Martin Bormann and Heinrich Himmler, were virulently anti Christian and urged their leader to crush the churches, Hitler knew this was not politically expedient: because out of a population of 63 million, 61 million Germans called themselves Christians[2]. So Hitler stayed in the Roman Catholic Church and presented himself to the world as a Christian[3]. However the church was to be controlled by Hitler’s place men, and adapt to his racist policies. Soon there was a very large and active group within the Lutheran church called the ‘German Christians’ who preached Jesus as the fighting anti Semite and the cross as a ‘symbol of war against Jews’[4]. Their leader, Ludiwg Muller, a foul mouthed ex Navy chaplain who said that ‘love’ for a German had a ‘hard, warrior-like face’, became Hitler’s bishop. These ‘German Christians’ then tried to introduce ‘The Aryan Clause’ into the church which banned anyone with a Jewish background from ministering in the Lutheran church. There was to be religious apartheid: Jewish converts would have to have their separate church.

As soon as the heresies of the German Christians started to infiltrate the churches, Bonhoeffer resisted. He fought hard to try and stop the election of Ludwig Muller. And when the Aryan Clause was partially adopted at the infamous Brown Synod[5] in September 1933, Bonhoeffer ‘called for a strike (churches would refuse to take weddings and funerals) and schism. He was not supported. Karl Barth wrote that if there was to be schism, it should come ‘over an even more central point’. This disturbed Bonhoeffer – what could be more central than denying fellowship to Christians because of their racial background? Later he declared, ‘Only he who cries out for the Jews, may sing Gregorian chants’. Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller, an evangelical leader, did manage to draft a statement of opposition to the German Christians which was supported by six thousand other pastors. This group became known as the ‘Pastors Emergency League’.

From 1934-5 Bonhoeffer was a pastor in London, looking after two German congregations, but also very much fighting against the Nazification of the church at home. Things were getting worse. In a speech at a German Christian rally Reinhold Krause, had mocked the symbol of the cross as ‘a ridiculous, debilitating, remnant of Judaism, unacceptable to National Socialists.’ The Aryan Paragraph was to be fully enforced. And the church youth groups were to merge with Hitler Youth. Martin Niemoller, taken in by the Fuhrer’s claims over Christianity, eventually met Hitler in the vain hope that he would intervene. But here he saw the Fuhrer’s true colours. Nothing was to get in the way of his Third Reich, least of all unscientific pastors. Later Martin Niemoller was to spend seven years in prison as Adolf Hitler’s personal prisoner. In London Bonhoeffer was able through his friendship with George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, to alert the rest of the world to what was really going on in Germany which infuriated both the Nazis and their German Christians.

Now when he returned home he was no longer alone in wanting schism. In May 1934 he attended a synod of the Emergency Pastors League which drew up the ‘Barmen Declaration’. This rejected the ultimate authority of the state and the anti Semitism of the German Christians. This was the founding document of what became the Confessing Church in Germany. It had almost immediate success on the international stage when at an Ecumenical Conference in Fano a motion expressing ‘grave anxiety’ about the German church was voted through, and Karl Koch from the Confessing Church was appointed as an official. The seed the activist Bonhoeffer had sown had now started to grow, and he was to give the next years of his life to training pastors for the new church till his seminary was closed down by the Gestapo. As though the Nazis became ever more brutal, so too Bonhoeffer came to the conclusion that resisting evil within the church was not enough.

Ready to kill Hitler

Before he became the great conspirator against Hitler, Bonhoeffer might first have ended up a respected refugee in America. For in 1939 he was again back in New York, this time as a lecturer. Friends had arranged for him to teach there to avoid joining the army and taking an oath of loyalty to Hitler, something he was not willing to do. But as soon as Bonhoeffer got to New York he was agitated. He felt terrible being away from his home country when it was experiencing such turmoil. And he knew that if he did not return, he would have no right to play a part in the reconstruction of Germany after Hitler’s demise. So even though he could have easily spent the war years in peaceful America, he chose to return. He was only there twenty six days.

Once back in Germany Bonhoeffer moved from words to action in opposing Hitler. There were two main arguments. One was moral: preaching Christ alone did not stop any of the Nazi crimes which with the invasion of Poland were becoming ever fouler. As Bonhoeffer’s close friend Eberhad Bethge explained: ‘If we did not cross the border (to resistance) our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with criminals.’ The other was common sense. It was the considered opinion in the Bonhoeffer household, led by Dietrich’s father, an expert psychiatrist, that Hitler was possibly a psychopath[6]. So in a famous analogy Bonhoeffer said, ‘It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motor-car in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving.’

Amongst the senior ranks of the army and the German establishment there had been groups wanting to bring down Hitler since he spelt out his war plans to his generals in 1937. They considered it national suicide. The Bonhoeffers knew some of them as friends, and one of them was family. This was Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother in law, a senior lawyer and judge who saw internal reports on the Nazi atrocities. So it was not difficult for Bonhoeffer to join the resistance. Like many other conspirators he joined the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence) in June 1940 which was led by Wilhelm Canaris, a secret opponent of Hitler. As well as helping Jews escape to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer’s main task[7] was to make contact with Christian leaders outside Germany to raise support for the conspiracy. Probably his most important and dangerous meeting was with Bishop George Bell in Sweden in May 1942. Afterwards Bell contacted the British government for direct support for the conspirators. The reply was that the conspirators had to act to be believed. With or without Allied support the conspirators, especially with the horrors of the Russian invasion, were more than willing to act. A bomb was planted on a plane taking Hitler back from the Eastern Front: it failed to go off. Brave Major von Gersdoff had two bombs under his overcoat primed to explode as he showed Hitler round an exhibit of captured weapons: Hitler left early. The bomb in the briefcase placed under a table near to the Fuhrer by the military leader von Stauffenberg certainly did go off. But Hitler survived, protected by the massive legs of the table.

In July 1944 when Stauffenberg’s bomb failed to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer had already been in prison for over a year[8]. Suspicious of his activities with the Abwehr, the Gestapo had arrested him on April 5th 1943, just eleven weeks after he had got engaged[9]. When he heard on the radio that the Stauffenberg attempt had failed, he knew things would become very serious as conspirators were rounded up and tortured. In February 1945 he was moved to Buchenwald concentration camp. In April he was hanged at Flossenberg.

Lessons and a question

Bonhoeffer leaves some lessons for the church - and a question. One lesson is to speak out against ‘cheap grace’ and its accomplices, liberal theology and formalism, and to speak up for ‘costly grace’, urging people to follow the living Christ with all their hearts. Another is to beware of nationalism for there is always a tendency for the church to be taken over by patriotism[10], as happened in Germany. Closely related to this is to have fellowship with international Christian leaders, to believe in the world wide church, not just the national church. Another important lesson is to separate from flagrant heresy when necessary. And finally there is Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the disciplines of Bible meditation, community living, and church being for ‘the other’.

The question is obvious: can a Christian kill a murderous dictator? Bonhoeffer decided it was his duty to do so, because he was a Christian. But he recognised that many other Christians would refuse to kill another human being, because they are Christians. His life leaves us with an example for a very particular situation. There is no command, no principle. In November 1942 at a dinner party Bonhoeffer was suddenly asked by one of the guests, a staff lieutenant at the Army High Command – ‘Shall I shoot? I can get inside the Fuhrer’s headquarters with my revolver.’ Bonhoeffer talked with him for hours, but refused to take the decision for him.



[1] Quoted in ‘Bonhoeffer’ by Eric Metaxas page 528. Much of the detail in this article relies on information gleaned from Metaxas’ fine biography.
[2] According to a 1925 census 40 million were Protestant, mainly Lutherans, and 21 million were Roman Catholic.
[3] To reconcile his anti Semitism with the church Hitler used the story of how Jesus threw out the Jews from the temple – ‘The Lord at last rose in his might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple broods of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. (Speech 1922); and in his book ‘Mein Kampf’ Hitler wrote that ‘By destroying the Jews, I am fighting Christ’s battles.’ He repeated the same argument opening the Oberammergau passion play in 1943, suggesting he was the fulfilment of the curse the Jews called on their children when sending Christ to be crucified (see Matt 27:25)
[4] Quoted in ‘Bonhoeffer’ by Eric Metaxas page 172 from Doris Bergen’s book ‘Twisted Cross’
[5] Brown Synod because 80% of the delegates wore the brown shirts of the Nazi uniform.
[6] Karl Bonhoeffer wrote that one of his reasons for regarding the rise of Hitler as a misfortune was ‘because of what I heard from professional colleagues about his psychopathic symptoms.’
[7] Bonhoeffer also found time to carry on pastoral work, and continue writing what would have been his magnus opus, ‘Ethics’.
[8] Bonhoeffer wrote to many friends during this time which were collected into the book ‘Letters and Papers from Prison’, not yet available in Persian.
[9] Bonhoeffer’s fiancĂ© was the nineteen year old Maria von Kleist-Retzow, the grand-daughter of an aristocratic friend who supported his seminary.
[10] At a Christian meeting for Iranians a poet first declared that the wise men were from Iran. By the end of his speech he was saying Jesus Christ was Iranian. Some people were excited. A similar emotion is encouraged when it is stressed there is something special about Iran simply because Iran features in the Bible. 

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