Deitrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Theological Symbol of Resistance to the Third Reich

In contemporary times, as national and international conflict continue to terrorize our world; we do well to remember such stories, as that of ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ http://www.ushmm.org/museum/exhibit/online/bonhoeffer/ . Bonhoeffer has become a theological symbol of resistance to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Bonhoeffer chose to follow his conscience and Christian principles and stood steadfastly against the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist regime (Raymond Mengus in Resistance Against the Third Reich 1933-1990 [1994]).

This blog gives a brief outline of my research project, regarding Bonhoeffer, whom I discovered when researching the Churches’ resistance to the Third Reich. He was a resistance fighter against the Third Reich, involved in conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and was finally executed, just days before the final collapse of the Third Reich. He was also a Christian pastor and theologian and co-founder of the Confessing Church, which was formed to resist Hitler’s racially unacceptable policies (Eberhard Bethge in Dietrich Bonhoeffer A Biography [2000]). My project led me to ask “To what extent was Dietrich Bonhoeffer representative of the Confessing Church and what it stood for?”

Bonhoeffer’s story was situated in a period of German history under Hitler’s leadership that led to horrific atrocity. What began in September 1935, with Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws of the segregation of Jews in Germany, led to mass murder of the Jews, which eventually included two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe of approximately 6 million Jews. Lethal Nazi persecution and murder also extended to the mentally and physically disabled, Gypsies (or Roma), pacifists (Jehovah’s Witnesses), homosexuals, political opponents and millions of Soviet prisoners of war (Roderick Stackelberg in Hitler’s Germany Origins, interpretations, legacies [1999]). It was in this socio-political context that Bonhoeffer demonstrated an increasingly radical engagement in resistance against the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer was a member of the Protestant Church and his resistance to the National Socialist regime was based upon a deeply ethical and religious point of view. Although Hitler stated that he was not interested in a ‘religious reformation’, deliberate policies of the Third Reich affected all the Christian churches and brought them in line, in accordance with Adolf Hitler’s desire for ‘political reorganisation’ of Germany (Martyn Housden in Resistance and conformity in the Third Reich [1997]). The new German Protestant Church or Reich Church was created on 23 July 1933. However, Hitler insisted through his rhetoric and policies that the Nazi fight against Jews was consistent with Christian values and he advocated the fusion of ecclesiastical and racial doctrines (Richard Breitman (Ed.) in German History in Documents and Images, Volume 7. Germany, 1933-1945. [1975]). It is at this juncture, where Hitler incorporated anti-Judaism as an integral part of Christian belief, that a split formed between the German Christians and other protestant Christians, and eventuated in the formation of the Confessing Church, of which Bonhoeffer was a co-founder.

The official beginning of the Confessing Church is usually acknowledged to have taken place in May 1934 at Barmen, where the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church wrote up the ‘Barmen Declaration’ (Kurt Hendel in Currents in Theology and Mission. 36.2 [2009]). The theological essence of the Barmen Declaration was that all authority came from Jesus and it rejected Hitler’s authority in Church matters (Michael Balfour in Withstanding Hitler in Germany 1933-45 [1988]). The Barmen Declaration did not specifically mention persecution of the Jews but its theology took an inclusive approach of including all races within Christianity (Hendel in Currents in Theology and Mission).  Bonhoeffer remained loyal to the foundational belief of the Barmen Declaration, while most Confessing Church Christians failed to uphold the spirit and content of the Barmen Declaration (Hendel in Currents in Theology and Mission).

Bonhoeffer became involved in underground anti-Nazi activity as a member of the Abwehr and came to support the assassination of Hitler. He reconciled his involvement regarding Hitler’s planned assassination and went beyond doctrinal boundaries, believing that Hitler’s new methods of oppression towards his victims required a response that justified new types of disobedience (Mengus in Resistance Against the Third Reich 1933-1990, Balfour in Withstanding Hitler in Germany 1933-45). Bonhoeffer strived to find a spiritual basis and theology for his co-conspirators and his actions and he wrote, “In the end, the man of duty will have to do his duty even towards the devil” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in German History in Documents and Images Volume 7. Germany, 1933-1945 [1975]). 

Bonhoeffer lived by his theological beliefs of personal moral duty and responsibility and paid the ultimate price through his execution. Bonhoeffer was exceptional in his resistance to the Third Reich by remaining faithful to the Barmen Declaration, which declared that Nazi racial ideology and Christianity were incompatible (Breitman (Ed.) in German History in Documents and Images). Bonhoeffer’s sustained rejection of Nazi policies was not a typical representation of the Confessing Church, and his resistance against National Socialism continued far beyond that of his fellow confessors. Bonhoeffer’s story of martyrdom, along with his letters and papers, written in prison before his execution, gives moral inspiration to people today and continues to show the importance for society to possess a moral compass.

Further Reading
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Letters and Papers from Prison. An Abridged Edition, Edited by Eberhard Bethge. UK: SCM Press, 2001.

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One comment on “Deitrich Bonhoeffer

  1. Interesting to read an article on WWII which centres around something of which so little is publicly circulated. Great topic! Like you I’ve always been amazed that someone could see Hitler clearly for who he was and rally against him and ‘the Fuher’ identity from day 1. What separates a man like this as so many minitsters and church members would celebrate the Nazi rule? I remember reading that the Nazi’s appealed to the large Protestant population with conservative slogans about supporting families and the German way of life… so how did Bonhoeffer see through it? Was it his faith and theological understanding that anyone who platforms himself as a ‘Fuher’ goes against Christ? Interesting stuff.

    What also draws my interest is that you say that Bonhoeffer started to plot against Hitler and the Nazis, by whatever means necessary. Does this go against his pervious writing that taking a life is abhorrent and leads to judgement? But then I suppose his question will be, ‘Who will speak and act for those who do not have a voice?’ You really lift out interesting questions and thoughts.

    Really enjoyed reading this. Well done!

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