Seventy years ago Thursday, Lutheran theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg concentration camp in Germany for participating in the conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler.
There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer was “guilty” of being one of the conspirators. Although he had been in prison for two years at the time of his execution, beginning more than a year before the failed July 20,1944, Stauffenberg bomb attempt on Hitler’s life (Operation Valkyrie), Bonhoeffer had been a member of the conspiracy since 1940. He had been brought into it by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer and official in the Abwehr, the military intelligence office and a center of resistance to Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was determined from his early teens to become a theologian. His first pastoral church assignment was to a German émigré congregation in Barcelona, Spain. In the early years of the Nazi regime, he had a similar position with a church in London. His biographers point, however, to a visit to the United States in 1930-31 as a turning point. Bonhoeffer came as an exchange student, studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Among the friends he made there was an African-American student from Alabama who introduced Bonhoeffer to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was moved by the depth of conviction he witnessed in the preaching and worship.
Bonhoeffer also traveled to the South, where he was appalled at the racial injustices he observed. He wrote home that the segregated “conditions are really unbelievable … for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant … with a Negro, I was refused service.” He had not previously given much thought to the issue of race and the church, “especially since we don’t really have an analogous situation in Germany.”
With the rise to power of Hitler and National Socialism in 1933, Bonhoeffer was to devote much thinking — and, ultimately, action — to the question of how the church must respond to the racialism and rabid anti-Semitism of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer and other pastors ultimately broke away from the Nazi-dominated church of “German Christians” to form the “Confessing Church.” In a published article that somehow escaped the censors, Bonhoeffer discussed the relationship between state and church and declared that “the church has an unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community” and that the church was charged “not to just bind up the victims beneath the wheel, but to halt the wheel itself.”
In 1939, with war on the horizon, friends who feared for his safety in Germany arranged for teaching and pastoral positions for Bonhoeffer in New York. He went, but within a month decided he had made a mistake and departed again for Germany, explaining to his hosts: “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.”
When war did come, Bonhoeffer learned from Dohnanyi of the barbarism being perpetrated by the invading German armies and the SS, and he made the decision to join the conspiracy. His role in it, with his Abwehr cover, was to travel abroad and (while ostensibly promoting the interests of the German government) inform the Allies, through the many international contacts he had made over the years, of the active anti-Hitler resistance effort and to elicit their support.
For many, it is a paradox that this devoutly Christian man, who so often spoke and wrote about the importance of the Sermon on the Mount, could partake in an assassination conspiracy. He wrote nothing (understandably) that contains an explicit explanation. But we know from his writings that for him, Christian belief must be joined by “responsible action” in the real world in which we each live. In the concreteness of his times, to Bonhoeffer that meant taking guilt upon himself and acting as necessary to relieve millions of the suffering inflicted by Hitler.
In a letter Bonhoeffer wrote to family and friends shortly before his imprisonment, he reflected on their experiences under “the great masquerade of evil” brought with Hitler’s rise and asked of the future: “Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”
We don’t live in Bonhoeffer’s times, but one does not have to look hard around the world to see that evil, sometimes disguised, abounds and threatens, and that his questions remain as relevant for us as they were for him.
Kirk O. Kolbo is a Minneapolis attorney.