9 April 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor executed by the Nazis as an outspoken critic of the national socialist ideals. He was the founding member of a Christian community – the Confessing Church – that countered Aryan and anti-Semitic ideals and belonged to Germany’s Resistance movement that sought to overthrow Adolf Hitler. Anthony Egan reflects on the significance of Bonhoeffer’s theology today and his legacy as a Christian witness in daily life.
Above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London one sees a series of statues – of 20th century Christian martyrs. Among them is a balding, bespectacled figure: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theologian and pastor, he was a pacifist who joined a conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler, a scholar who in his own words became a Christian, and a witness to Christian truth at time when even his church was being contaminated by an ideology of hate. Though his life was short (39 years), his writings and his witness have inspired thousands across the world, particularly in situations where the Christian Church is forced to take sides in the struggle against injustice.
He died today 75 years ago, hanged with other members of the German Resistance.
From Academic to Martyr: A Brief Biography
Born in Breslau, Prussia, on 4 February 1906 into a family of middle-class German professionals, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s family was nominally Protestant. His father was a professor of psychiatry whose career brought the family to Berlin. His siblings were also professional people, as was the milieu in which he grew up. Bonhoeffer would himself admit that his primary interest was in becoming a theologian, an academic rather than a pastor. His other great passion was music.
He commenced his theological studies at the University of Tubingen, before moving to Berlin to complete them. At 21 he completed his doctorate, later published as Sanctorum Communio, a thesis that examined the tensions in being the church as a holy community of saints functioning in a worldly social form – prescient perhaps for what was to follow. It was expected that he be ordained, so he embarked on his pastoral preparation by serving a German expat community in Barcelona, Spain. He also prepared his habilitation – a thesis (almost a second doctorate) required by the German university system for those wishing to be professors. Titled Act and Being, it explored how God could be understood to be working in human history.
In September 1930 he travelled to New York City to do a final year of study before ordination at Union Theological Seminary. This short time was perhaps more influential than any other time in his life. Through encounters with seminarians from many countries, and particularly a friendship with an African American minister who organized that he do pastoral work at a black Baptist church in Harlem, Bonhoeffer developed a love for pastoral work and a deepened personal relationship with God. After his ordination on his return to Germany he would say of himself that he’d started out as a theologian and become a Christian in the process.
The Germany in which Bonhoeffer pastored and lectured was changing. The Nazis’ meteoric rise to power over a few years, and the failure of the Left and Centre parties in parliament to form a coalition to block it, led to Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in early 1933. Within a few years the Nazis had assumed total control, eliminating opposition parties and rebuilding Germany in their image.
Part of this ‘Nazification’ extended to the Church, Protestant and Catholic. Within the Lutheran-Reformed church Nazi sympathisers organised a ‘German Christian’ movement, emphasising nationalism, anti-communism and anti-Semitism. At its extreme some members who were theologians tried to rewrite the Bible, redefine doctrine and in effect make Jesus an ‘Aryan’.
From the start Bonhoeffer was horrified. He saw the state attempt to take over the Church and to redefine doctrine as heretical and blasphemous, as was the Fuhrer-cult emerging around Hitler. He also detested Nazism’s anti-Semitism, not least because it struck at the heart of his own family: he had a Jewish brother-in-law.
Bonhoeffer’s resistance began when spoke out in a radio broadcast against the Fuhrer-cult. He was cut off on air. He then aligned himself with the Confessing Church movement, which tried to wrest the Church back from the German Christians. Despite many efforts, they failed. Bonhoeffer’s next response was to set up an underground preachers’ seminary in Finkenwalde to prepare trainee Confessing Church clergy to minister in a hostile environment. This too was closed down, and as war loomed, Bonhoeffer faced getting drafted into the Army.
After a brief sojourn once again at Union Theological Seminary – Union in fact had offered him a post to get him out of Germany – he returned to Berlin and was recruited into the Abwehr, German military intelligence. There was method in such madness.
The Abwehr was a hotbed of anti-Nazi opposition, one of a range of groups that constituted the Resistance, a strange mix of monarchists, military officers, socialists and religious people who had reached the conclusion that Hitler and Nazism had to be overthrown. And increasingly it was clear that in all likelihood that meant Hitler’s assassination.
Even Bonhoeffer, a Christian pacifist by conviction, came to see the necessity of the latter.
Within the Abwehr, he used his cover as a theologian to attend ecumenical meetings, usually in neutral places like Sweden. At one of these he encountered the Anglican bishop of Chichester, England, George Bell. He conveyed to Bell the Resistance plans to overthrow the Nazi regime and negotiate a peace. In effect, these two clergy were the conduit of communication between the Allies and the German Resistance.
But by 1943 the Gestapo were on to the Resistance. Bonhoeffer and his network in the Abwehr were rounded up and jailed, pending trial. Bonhoeffer, recently engaged to be married, spent months in Tegel prison. To occupy his time he wrote letters to family, his fiancée and to his pastor colleagues, including Confessing Church minister and friend Eberhard Bethge. These writings, collected and published posthumously as Letters and Papers from Prison, reflected on among other things the future of the Christian faith in an increasingly secularised world.
Hopes of release through a coup failed in 1944 when the bomb brought into the Fuhrerbunker by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg failed to kill Hitler. As the Allies pressed forward from west and east towards Berlin, orders were given to execute the Resistance.
Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenberg concentration camp on 9 April 9 1945. His last words to a fellow prisoner, were directed to his old friend George Bell: “This is the end, for me the beginning of life”.
Twenty-one days later Adolf Hitler committed suicide. A few days after that the War in Europe was over.
On July 27th 1945 Bishop Bell celebrated a memorial service for Dietrich Bonhoeffer in London. It was broadcast by the BBC. Unlike for Bonhoeffer, it was not cut off midway.
Theological Legacy for Us Today
The theologian Bonhoeffer has left a legacy for us today. His writings, including works unpublished in his short life, have been put together into an extensive Collected Works by his friend Eberhard Bethge, and translated into many languages. I cannot present a comprehensive overview here, but simply highlight what I think are definitive works that speak to the 75 years since his death and point, in many cases, to the challenges of faith in the future.
Written in 1934 and clearly influenced by what would become the Confessing Church movement, Life Together is a manifesto of sorts against the climate of hatred and division the Nazis were generating. Drawing on an observation in Act and Being that the Church is “Christ existing in community”, it is Bonhoeffer’s declaration that love and service is the heart of Christian living. Rejecting the Nazi attempt to co-opt the Church into an organ of nationalist racism, he argued that the Christian community “will remain sound and healthy only where it does not form itself into a movement, an order, a society, a collegium pietatis, but rather where it understands itself as being a part of the one, holy, catholic, Christian Church. . .” with Christ as its centre.
During the short period when he ran the seminary at Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship (1937; in the original German, and in new translations, it is called simply Discipleship). Here he asked the question: what does it mean to be a disciple of Christ? And his answer is profoundly challenging. Reacting against an overly simplistic understanding of the Lutheran/Reformed doctrine of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), he warned against ‘cheap grace’, which he defined as
“the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Such an easy definition fails to call the Christian to discipleship. The real challenge of discipleship is to embrace ‘costly grace’, which “confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”” As the Church moved from being a fringe group to becoming part of the social establishment, it split into two parts: monasticism, which practised costly grace and the rest which embraced cheap grace. (Historians familiar with corruption in many medieval monasteries might suggest that Bonhoeffer may have overemphasised the split, I would suggest). The Church in the process became increasingly secularised, conforming to the world and ultimately irrelevant.
Bonhoeffer did not believe, however, that Christendom – a society dominated by the Church – was the solution. Discipleship meant living in the world, not withdrawal, as a witness to different values, to Christ himself.
This trajectory is further elucidated in the third, and final, book I shall mention here: Letters and Papers from Prison (1951; English translation 1953; expanded edition 1997). In between letters to his family and friends (there is a separate book, Love Letters from Cell 94, to his fiancée published in the 1990s), there is a tantalizing summary – mainly in correspondence with Bethge again – of a book Bonhoeffer would never write. Reviewing the history of secularization in the world, and particularly in traditionally Christian areas, he concluded that the world had ‘come of age’, that most people had somehow outgrown Christianity. It was futile, he suggested, to resort to apologetics and attempts to find Christian explanations for the things that science already explained. Such a ‘god of the gaps’ approach would simply push God into an ever-decreasing zone of influence. What was needed, he proposed was a ‘religionless Christianity’ – living out the Christian faith in a world etsi deus non daretur (sometimes translated as ‘even if there were no God’, or ‘as if God were not a given’).
In saying this had Bonhoeffer abandoned faith? Read against the rest of the book, and based on the testimony of friends and fellow prisoners up until his death, no. What it means, however, is subject to debate.
My sense of the book, read with his earlier books, is that Bonhoeffer held that institutional religion was utterly bankrupt beyond repair. Religion as a system or structure was finished. Faith however would continue in small communities who centred themselves on Christ and tried to live out the costly grace of discipleship, in a secular manner – in a secular world.
Letters and Papers has perhaps resonated more than any of Bonhoeffer’s writings. It has been read by Christians across the world who resonate with his ideas and, no doubt, reread them in their contexts. Whether it’s the challenge of being a religious minority in non-Christian Asian cultures or in the avowedly atheist communist world, and in the struggles for justice and liberation in Africa and Latin America, the book has spoken to many.
READ – Tutu foundation honours anti-Nazi hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 23 January 2020 // Cape Argus
Here in South Africa, for example, Bonhoeffer was a theological staple among Christians struggling against apartheid. No wonder, if you think of it. How does one confront a Christian with a racist, nationalist state that has co-opted large chunks of the church, silenced other parts, with the rest acting at best ambivalently to apartheid? Similarly, how does one act as a Christian in a struggle that comprises people of other faiths and none, whose moral values are closer to you than that of many co-religionists?
Bonhoeffer as Witness
While theology matters, and Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy (highly selectively and crudely summarised above) is considerable, I think the greatest contribution he made – and why we need to remember him – rests elsewhere. It is his life and witness to the Gospel that ultimately matters. In telling his story, we saying that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life made a difference, had an impact not only on history but on Christianity. His decision to resist Nazism as an expression of faith is a lesson to us. His fidelity to that mission unto death is a challenge to us. He is an example to us a Christian witness in a time of evil and suffering.
Had he never written a word, Bonhoeffer would still have been a Christian witness. One of many good and courageous souls of different faiths (and sometimes none) who bucked the trend to complacency and defied Nazism. People like Martin Niemöller, former U-boat commander and pastor, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp from the 1930s till the end of the war; similarly his Catholic counterpart, Fr (now Blessed) Rupert Mayer SJ. There was also the young Fr Alfred Delp SJ, executed for his involvement in a politically diverse and religiously ecumenical group, the Kreisau Circle – the latter led by the German-South African Count Helmut James von Moltke. (His mother was from the Rose-Innes family). And there was the young Sophie Scholl, her brother, and their group of fellow university students, executed for distributing anti-Nazi leaflets.
Many others too. In that respect, Bonhoeffer is representative of a ‘cloud of witnesses’ whose faith drove them to action…and to martyrdom. That so few of them are formally recognised as saints by the Church is, how shall we put it gently, interesting. Does it really matter that many, including Bonhoeffer, are Protestant? Would we really be ‘colonising’ if we declared Bonhoeffer a saint of the universal Church? Or would it send out a message to the Church and the world – a world that Bonhoeffer and many others believe has ‘come of age’ – that Christian witness, Christian martyrdom, has no confessional boundaries?