Today is the anniversary of the birth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian pastor and theologian who joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and was executed by the Nazis at Flossenburg concentration camp on April 8th, 1945.
It seems oddly appropriate for this anniversary to fall during the unrest in Egypt- one man remembered for fighting a dictator in the past while others fight a dictator in the present.
I wonder what Bonhoeffer would say about Egypt if he were alive today?
At any rate, here is my previous essay on his life:
The new film Valkyrie claims to tell the story of the 'July 20' plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Prior to its release I spent some time watching trailers for the film on YouTube. Among the promotional clips was a featurette describing the conspirators in the plot.
One name was missing: Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
This piece aims to tell his role in the Valkyrie story.
Dietrich Bohhoeffer was born into an intellectual, aristocratic German family in 1906. His father was a noted professor of neurology and psychiatry; his mother also held a college degree. Never especially devout, the Bonhoeffer family was shocked when Dietrich decided to study theology. He enrolled in Tubingen University and soon proved to be a prodigy, earning his doctorate at the age of 21.
Too young to be ordained,in 1930 Bonhoeffer was awarded a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. During his stay, an African American classmate, Frank Fisher, introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Bonhoeffer began attending services and teaching Sunday school there, drawn to the fervent Evangelical preaching:
"...here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God...the black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision."
That passion and vision influenced Bonhoeffer's own writing and preaching. Phrases coined by Adam Clayton Powell, pastor of the Abyssinian Baptist Church, can be found in his work. Bonhoeffer also collected recordings of Black Gospel music, which would remain a lifelong inspiration for him.
Perhaps most important, he witnessed the brutality of American segregation and racism.
Bohoeffer set sail for Germany in 1931, armed with youth and faith and an array of new ideas.
Hitler's rise to power had just begun.
'Way down in Egypt's land
Tell ol' Pharoah
'Let my people go....'
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Two days later Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not yet 27, delivered a national radio address he titled The Younger Generation's Changed View of the Concept of Fuehrer.
"...should the leader allow himself to succumb to the wishes of those he leads, who will always seek to turn him into an idol, then the image of the leader will become the image of the misleader. This is the leader who makes an idol of himself and of his office, and who thus mocks God."
The German government cut off the broadcast.
The Reich Church
Popular culture has ignored the persecution of German Christians during the Nazi period, leaving many to assume that National Socialism was enthusiastically embraced by all German churches. The real story is more complex. Some religious leaders clung to the hope that, by extending a hand in friendship, their churches would be spared. Others felt that short-term survival was more important than protest.
Some attempted to merge Nazi philosophy with Christian teaching. This last group was known as the German Christian Movement.
The German Christian Movement was founded in 1932. Nominally Protestant, it endorsed 'positive Christianity.' Positive Christianity insisted that all Jewish influences should be removed from the Christian faith. It discarded the Old Testament and portrayed Jesus as a tragic, Aryan figure. It's symbol was a cross with a swastika in the center. At this time Germany had roughly 17,000 Protestant pastors; 3,000 would join the German Christian Movement.
At the beginning of the National Socialist period, Germany was roughly two-thirds Protestant. Believers were scattered across the country in 28 regional churches. In his testimony at the post-war Nuremburg trials, Goering said the Nazis found this lack of cohesion irritating:
"The Protestant Church, however, was divided into provincial Churches; there were various small differences which the dogmatists took very seriously...but these differences did not seem so important to us."
Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist- it was all the same to Hitler. Goering described his solution to the problem:
"The Fuehrer wanted to achieve the unification of the Protestant and Evangelical Churches by appointing a Reichsbishop, so that there would be a high Protestant Church dignitary as well a high Catholic Church dignitary."
A consolidated Protestant Church would be easier to control. Rather than suppress and intimidate dozens of independent churches, the Fuehrer could simply impose his will from the top down in a single step. With this in mind he appointed Ludwig Muller the first Reichsbishop in 1933.
Muller was a member of the German Christian Movement and a fervent Nazi. He believed in the "Fuehrer Principle" which held that Hitler was lord of the German Church and that Christ and Christianity were uniquely Aryan. At his confirmation as Reichsbishop a measure was passed forbidding ministers or their wives to have 'jewish blood.'
Seventy-five delegates walked out in protest.
When Pope Pius XI signed an official Concordat with the German government in 1933, pledging not to interfere so long as the Catholic Church was not harmed, all German Christians were placed under Nazi control.
The Emergence of the Confessing Church
With the creation of a state-sanctioned Reich Church, the Nazi goverment now had punitive authority over religious leaders. Dissident pastors were suspended, fired or arrested. In response, Pastor Martin Neimoller created the Pastor's Emergency League to assist harrassed or threatened churchmen. Seven thousand pastors joined the League, including Bonhoeffer.
Niemoller was a troublesome figure to the Nazi regime. A decorated World War I hero, he had initially supported Hitler. His support began to wane with the introduction of the 'Aryan Paragraph,' which forbid Jews to take government positions and, with installation of Reichsbishop Muller, prevented converted Jews from participating in the Christian community.
By 1934, Niemoller, Bonhoeffer and the other members of the Pastor's Emergency League were ready to take a stand against Nazi corruption of church doctrine. Together, they founded the Confessing Church at Barmen, Germany. The Confessing Church publicly announced it's dissent by publishing the Barmen Declaration, which said in part:
In opposition to attempts to establish the unity of the German Evangelical Church by means of false doctrine, by the use of force and insincere practices, the Confessional Synod insists that the unity of the Evangelical Churches in Germany can come only from the Word of God in faith through the Holy Spirit. Thus alone is the Church renewed.
Therefore the Confessional Synod calls upon the congregations to range themselves behind it in prayer, and steadfastly to gather around those pastors and teachers who are loyal to the Confessions.
Now officially ordained, Bonhoeffer was offered a post as head of a German church in England. Some say he accepted the post because he was disheartened with the state of the church in Germany. Others speculate that it may have been a means for the Confessing Church to protect its rising young star- a man not yet 30 who had already spoken out against Nazism on many occasions.
Whatever the reason, the year Bonhoeffer spent in England was far from wasted. While there, he became a friend and colleague of Bishop George Bell- a member of Parliament as well as a churchman. When Hitler finally dragged Europe into war, Bell's influence and assistance would become vital the Bonhoeffer, the Confessing Church- and the German Resistance.
During Bonhoeffer's absence, German President Paul von Hindenburg died. Hitler was now both Chancellor and President.
Illegal Teachings, Underground Seminaries
Having declared its opposition to Nazi distortions of Christian theology, the Confessing Church now needed to train its own pastors. An underground seminary was established at Finkenwalde and Bonhoeffer was invited to return to Germany as its director.
The Seminary existed entirely on donations; rejecting the Reich Church meant foregoing government support. The young men who studied there did so knowing that, as long as the Reich Church and the Nazi regime existed, their studies were illegal and it was unlikely they would ever be paid to preach. The German government harrassed the seminary from the beginning; by December Himmler would declare the training offered there invalid and threaten to arrest all the students.
By the time the Nuremburg laws (which revoked citizenship for Jews) were passed in September, the charade of tolerance for the Confessing Church was over. In July 1936, Martin Niemoller was arrested. He would spend the next 7 years in Sachsenhausen. In September 1937, the Gestapo closed the Seminary, arresting 27 pastors and students.
Sunday sermons were now monitored by the Gestapo. Gangs of Hitler Youth roamed the streets, firebombing dissident churches.
Although he had by this time spoken against Nazi oppression at international gatherings and published essays and books that flew in the face of the Nazi 'gospel,' Bonhoeffer was not arrested. He knew the time had come to do more than write and speak.
In 1938 he quietly contacted the German Resistance.
The Abwehr and the Schwarze Kappelle
The Abwehr was established in 1920 as an intelligence-gathering agency. By 1938 it was under the command of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris' dealings with Heinrich Himmler and the SS had convinced him to become a double agent, working against Hitler from within the Nazi machine.
The Nazis filled Canaris with disgust. A veteran of World War I, he considered himself an honorable man and a professional soldier; to him the Nazis were simply thugs. At the postwar Nuremberg trials, former subordinate Erwin Lahousen described Canaris:
"Canaris was a pure intellect, an interesting, highly individual, and complicated personality, who hated violence as such and therefore hated and abominated war, Hitler, his system, and particularly his methods. In whatever way one may look at him, Canaris was a human being."
From the moment he took office, Canaris began secretly building an inner circle of ant-Nazi staff. In his testimony, Lahouse described their attitude toward the regime:
"We did not succeed in preventing this war of aggression. The war implies the end of Germany and of ourselves...However, a misfortune even greater than this catastrophe would be a triumph of this system. To prevent this by all possible means is our personal struggle."
Canaris' goal was to remove Hitler from power, install a new government and sue for peace. To achieve this he looked for conspirators with a variety of skills: military expertise, business connections (Oskar Schindler joined the Abwehr in 1938), international contacts. This group was dubbed the Schwarze Kappelle- the Black Orchestra- by suspicious members of the Gestapo and SS, who were constantly trying to expose them.
Canaris walked a tightrope, providing enough reliable intelligence to remain credible in the eyes of the Fuehrer while secretly using his position to undermine Nazi goals. One of his schemes was to hire Jews who would then masquerade as spies for the Reich. They would be given papers for international travel, then vanish into unoccupied Europe.
Bonhoeffer's first contact within the Abwehr was likely his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. Von Dohnanyi, a lawyer, was employed by the German High Command and passed details of Nazi atrocities to Bonhoeffer. (Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and another brother-in-law, Rudi Schleicher, were also involved in anti-Nazi espionage.) It is a mark of Canaris' cunning that the dissident pastor- now a published author and international speaker- could be quietly added to the Abwehr staff.
Mixed Motives, a Common Goal
The assortment of aristocrats, lawyers, soldiers and politicians that constituted the Schwarze Kappelle brought to it a variety of motivations. Many of the military men believed that if they could remove Hitler the international community would permit Germany to keep the territory it had siezed in Austria and Poland. Their chief concern was the destruction of the German army and the prospect of another disastrous Versailles-style treaty. Other conspirators were willing to simply depose Hitler without assassinating him. (One plan called for Hitler to be captured and detained in a mental asylum, where he would be declared insane.) Bonhoeffer's perspective- perhaps influenced by his experiences at the Abyssinian Baptist Church- was simple and unequivocal:
"Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chant."
Bonhoeffer would later be described as the conscience of the Schwarze Kappelle, its moral gadfly.
Momentum of Events
On March 12, 1938 Germany annexed Austria. In April the German government ordered all pastors to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler.
On November 9th, the violent orgy of Kristallnacht destroyed 300 synagogues and 7500 Jewish-owned businesses. Thirty thousand jewish men were arrested.
To many observers, Germany was out of control, events hurtling toward some terrible climax. Bonhoeffer's sister Sabine escaped with her Jewish husband and their two children. Fearing for his safety, friends arranged for Bonhoeffer to return to the United States.
He reluctantly agreed. Before his departure, he spoke with a group of his former students and colleagues. While discussing what he hoped to accomplish in the United States, Bonhoeffer suddenly said,
"Would you grant absolution to the murderer of a tyrant?"
Unaware of his work with the Schwarze Kappelle, the group was shocked into silence.
In June 1939 Bonhoeffer set sail for the United States. Once there he remained uneasy, agonizing over his escape while others suffered. He paged through his Bible, looking for inspiration, and came upon a verse in Isaiah:
He who believes does not flee.
Bonhoeffer booked passage on the last ship to sail from America to Europe. He had been in the United States only 4 weeks.
1940-Bonhoeffer the Conspirator
By now Germany had invaded both Czechoslovakia and Poland. Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany. In the spring Germany would also invade Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. In August the Luftwaffe would begin bombing London.
Bonhoeffer was now required to report regularly to the police. He was forbidden to speak in public. By 1941 he was forbidden to publish.
Yet during this time he managed to make two trips to Switzerland on behalf of the resistance. Using bogus papers issued by the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer arranged secret meetings with various officials, spreading news of the conspiracy and asking for support. The Schwarze Kappelle could not simply assassinate Hitler; they needed diplomatic contacts with other governments in order to sue for peace and assurances that a provisional government would be recognized.
Time and again, Bonhoeffer would be their courier. In April 1942 he met with his old colleague Bishop Bell in Sweden. Bonhoeffer gave Bell the names of the conspirators and Bell promised to petition the British government for support.
Bishop Bell had already played a role in protesting Nazi outrages. When Martin Niemoller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen 1937, Bell effectively prevented his execution by making his case a cause celebre in the British press.
But now Bell's efforts failed. After weeks of stalling he was told that the British government's official policy toward Germany was Unconditional Surrender.
"I was told the cleansing of Germany was a German duty, to be performed for its own sake, and that no promises in advance could be expected from the Allies," he later recalled.
The conspirators were on their own, but they had not been waiting for any official approval from the Allies. Attempts to depose or assassinate Hitler had begun as early as 1938. Among the plots was an assassination planned to take place during a speech in Munich in 1939; Hitler cut the talk short and the plan failed. In March, 1943, a bomb disguised as two bottles of Cointreau was placed in Hitler's plane, but failed to explode. Just a few days later an officer concealed a bomb beneath his coat as he accompanied Hitler to a military exhibit, but Hitler managed to slip away before the bomb exploded, leaving the conspirator to dash to the men's room and diffuse it.
By some accounts, the Valkyrie plot was the 15th attempt on Hitler's life. For all his heroism, von Stauffenburg might be viewed as the last man brought into the last plot at the last minute.
By the time von Stauffenburg agreed to assassinate Hitler, many of the Schwarze Kappelle were already in jail- including Bonhoeffer.
A Long Loneliness
"Dietrich became a theologian because he was lonely," said Eberhard Bethge, his friend and biographer. Bethge could be right; Bonhoeffer's dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of the Saints) and many of his later works, such as Life Together, dwell on the subject of creating Christian communities.
Bonhoeffer's opposition to the Nazis left him isolated in many ways. His support of the Pastor's Emergency League and Confessing Church placed him in opposition to many established churchmen he had admired. Restrictions on his right to speak and publish prevented him from exchanging ideas with others. His rejection of anti-semitism set him apart from a society propagandized into hysterical jew-hatred. His work with the Schwarze Kappelle had to be carried out in secret.
By 1943 his greatest consolation might have been his engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer.
They were an unlikely couple: Maria von Wedemeyer was a vivacious, fun-loving girl of 18 and Bonhoeffer was a 35-year-old religious scholar. He made her a bet that she could teach him to dance; she said he was a hopeless case. He responded that, of the two of them, he was the better cook. Her innocent enjoyment of life was a tonic for a man whose phones were now tapped and correspondence read by the German government.
"You must know how I really feel and must not take me for a pillar saint...I can't very well imagine that you would want to marry one in the first place-- and I would also advise against it from my knowledge of church history," he wrote to her.
Three months after the couple announced their engagement, Bonhoeffer was arrested.
Prisoner of the Reich
The arrest of his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, on April 5, 1943 led authorities to Bohoeffer. Technically, he was charged with embezzling (he had helped siphon funds to smuggle Jews out of Germany), but his arrest was part of the ongoing SS/Gestapo campaign to dismantle the Schwarze Kappelle.
He was taken to Tegel prison in Berlin. He would spend the next 2 years in Nazi prisons and concentration camps.
After 3 months he was granted a visit from his fiancee. The procedure was strict: Bonhoeffer and Maria were to be led into the visiting area through separate doors at opposite ends of the room. They were permitted to sit on a sofa together, but not allowed to touch. The entire visit would be observed by officials; they were instructed to speak loudly enough for everyone to hear.
At the end of the visit, guards led Bonhoeffer and von Wedemeyer back to their separate doors. Suddenly, Maria broke away from the guards, ran across the room, and threw herself into Bonhoeffer's arms.
"Your life would have been quite different, easier, clearer, simpler, had not our paths crossed," he wrote to her.
"You're all around me," she wrote to him.
"Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."
1 Cor. 13:7
While at Tegel, Bonhoeffer was permitted to write a limited number of letters per week. (Some guards were persuaded to smuggle extra correspondence back and forth.) Friends and family could leave small packages of necessities for him. He could have a controlled number of visits.
Still, conditions were harsh. Bonhoeffer was repeatedly interrogated. Pictures taken of Bonhoeffer just before his arrest depict a man on the verge of middle age spread; in a photo taken in the Tegel courtyard a year later, Bonhoeffer's pants appear two sizes too big and are held up by a tightly cinched belt.
Admiral Canaris was dismissed from the Abwehr and placed under house arrest in February, 1944. The failure of the Valkyrie plot on July 20 spawned an investigation that uncovered evidence of at least 10 other assassination plots. The dying National Socialist regime now began a fanatical pursuit of its internal enemies. Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher were arrested. Hans von Dohnanyi was sent to Sachsenhausen. Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel to a series of concentration camps.
On the night of April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer was abruptly transferred to Flossenburg concentration camp, where he was put on trail in a military court. He offered no defense. Canaris was also transferred to Flossenburg, court-martialed, and sentenced to die.
Bonhoeffer, Canaris, Karl Sack, Hans Oster and Ludwig Gehre were stripped naked, then hanged from meathooks in nooses made of piano wire at Flossenburg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945.
Dr. H. Fischer-Huellstrung described the scene:
"On the morning of that day between five and six o'clock the prisoners...were taken from their cells...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 lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of exectution, 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 that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
Afterward, Dr. Fischer-Huellstrung signed Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death certificate.
There are a number of memorials in Germany honoring those who fought the Nazi regime from within. A plaque at Flossenburg commemorates Bonhoeffer, Canaris, Sack, Oster and Gehre; another in Berlin honors von Stauffenberg and the German Resistance.
But Bonhoeffer left another memorial, a living legacy. His life and work retain a meaning beyond a daring attempt to end a brutal dictatorship; they are more than the musings of a theologian contemplating his own death. His writings have influenced Martin Luther King, Jr.,Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh. They point to a way that all people of conscience can exist in a flawed world:
"I discovered later, and I'm still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944.
(I warmly recommend the above documentary to anyone unfamiliar with the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I'm mystified that the Sundance Film Festival rejected it.)
Ethics and the Will of God: the Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer- Speaking of Faith, Feb. 2, 2006
(This above podcast is a good summation of the documentary with plenty of audio clips, if you are unable to locate the DVD. The page includes bonus materials and excerpts from Bonhoeffer's books and letters.)
Text of the Barmen Declaration-www.crivoice.org/Dennis Bratcher
Admiral W. Canaris-brief bio