Cathy Ramey

Associate Editor

Theologies in conflict—The German church and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Cathy Ramey

It was spring, with flowers beginning to break through the ground and the sun rising early, when three men were ordered from their cells. Each wore thin prison garb despite the lingering cold of winter, and one of the prisoners, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had only just been issued his uniform the night before. Now, after walking to a remote area of the Flossenburg prison yard he was ordered to remove the pants and jacket, fold them neatly, and move on with the other two men toward a gallows.
A physician associated with the prison camp observed the execution and wrote of it several years later.
"Through the half-opened door of a room in the barracks," he recalled, "I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison uniform, kneeling in fervent prayer to his Lord God. The devoted manner and faithful certainty that characterized the praying of this extraordinarily likable man shook me to the depths of my being."
The prisoners mounted the wooden steps rough and gray with age, and the camp physician continued to watch the pastor with interest.
"Even at the place of execution itself," the doctor noted with amazement, "he said another short prayer and then courageously and calmly climbed the steps to the gallows."
As a rope was pulled over his head and brought to rest around his neck, Dietrich Bonhoeffer slowly raised his hands toward his face. He removed the simple wire-framed glasses anchored at the bridge of his nose and handed them off to the guard. Only moments later, the trap door was loosed and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's body was suddenly suspended between heaven and earth.
"He died within a few seconds. In my nearly fifteen years as a doctor I hardly ever saw a man die so devoted to God," the man wrote.1
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died at the age of 39 after spending two full years imprisoned on charges of treason during the final grim days of Germany's war against the world. Despite having written two books and many sermons before his arrest and imprisonment, at the time of his death he was not seen as a great contributor to Christian thought and theology. True, he was greatly respected and viewed as having much potential for contributing. But when hanged most saw him merely as a man cut off before being allowed to live up to that potential.
Later, as poems, letters, and essays surfaced from among his various correspondents — communications smuggled out from the prison itself — it became apparent that Dietrich Bonhoeffer died leaving a wealth of valuable insight into the Christian life during times of crisis. His writings often seem difficult and obscure to the average reader, and indeed, if studied apart from the historical context in which they were written they can appear to be almost anti-theological.

The rejection of religion

Germany, even at the time of Bonhoeffer's birth in 1906, was becoming increasingly matriarchal, increasingly rejecting of religion.
In 1907 Sigmund Freud released a paper, "Compulsive Acts and Religious Exercises," stating that religion was born of a "fear of the father, father hatred, and patricide." It was identified as symptomatic of a compulsive neurosis to be overcome by any means. The ideas expressed revealed Freud's hatred of his own father, which he freely admitted to later on in his life, but also served to crystallize a type of anti-father revolution in society as a whole.
A fatherless seventeen year old boy epitomized the rejection of God and the old order in the very year of Bonhoeffer's birth. After many conflicts with school authorities, Adolph Hitler was finally forced to leave the realm of academia when he offended the religious sensibilities of his instructors by blaspheming the Eucharist.
At the same time, Lenin was preaching from a church pulpit about the need to dispense with the patriotic and feudal Eastern world. All of these ideologues were ultimately on a course destined to collide in one way or another with the theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The church as a secular institution

To an ever increasing degree, the Church found herself in the 1920's and 30's in a position of diminished authority. Her near-demise in society was announced by theologians as notable as Adolph Stocker, former court pastor to Kaiser Wilhelm I and Kaiser Wilhelm II, when he declared that Protestantism was no longer able to influence society. She accomplished nothing, he stated, and had lost her identity. All that remained was a Christian facade as most of Germany was becoming increasingly secularized.
As in other ages, the theology of Bonhoeffer's day was aimed at separating Christ (embodied in the Church) and the world in such a way that there was never any confrontation between them. It was a theology in which the world was less frequently called to be accountable.
The very existence of God was in question as Germans looked out on their world torn apart and aggressively humbled following what is now called the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles had significantly cost Germany as land was taken from her, reparation payments were required of her, and rearmament of her military was denied her. The once proud nation was emotionally and economically devastated despite her formerly rich Christian heritage. Surely, the strain of thought ran, there could not be a God else how was it possible for there to be no indication of His providence for Germany.
Bonhoeffer's response was to point out that "God is allowing Himself to be pushed out of the world." It was not, as some argued many years later, a "God is dead" theology. Instead, Bonhoeffer saw it as an act of God's strength and sovereignty that He would allow man the freedom to operate in a world without Him.
God's place in the world was being challenged by those outside the Church as, more and more, Christian ideas were being left out of politics. And for those secular Germans, in order to live as though God did not exist, it ultimately required more; it required that religion be denounced altogether. At least patriarchal religion.
But the shoving of God out of the world was not always clear and not an act of the secular realm alone. According to Georg Huntemann, a Bonhoeffer biographer, "The most horrifying thing about this, however, was that a kind of Christian sauce was still poured out over everything," and with hardly a murmur of discontent from the Church.
In the years preceding the dramatic rise of National Socialism in Germany, Adolph Hitler abused religion to stir up the masses for his own purposes. In a speech given in a beer hall in 1922, he stated, "I tell you: My Christian feeling points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. . . . It points me to the man who, at one time lonely and surrounded by only a few followers, recognized these Jews and raised the battle-cry against them; the man who, as true God, was not at his greatest as a patient sufferer, but as a fighter!"4
The German church was engaged in battle during those days, but it was not a battle bent on protecting the victims of National Socialism or correcting the heresies spoken by abusers of the Word of God. It was a battle for self-preservation as she sought to shift and maintain relevance in a world increasingly detached from her.
In such a climate of confusion, Christianity was effectively being split into two different realities. In one realm (the private) it retained validity. In the other (the public arena) it was archaic and invalid unless it could be fashioned to benefit the world-view. And there were serious schools of theological thought which reinforced this view of Christianity from the inside out.
Lutheranism argued for two separate kingdoms, God's and the World's. What was valid in one realm might not be in the other. In the extreme then, the world might operate without significant responsibility to the Christian ethos. In the areas of politics, education, and social engineering the world was more and more allowed to operate without God. And yet, because of an over-emphasis on Romans 13, Christians accepted a rigid responsibility to follow or at least tolerate egregious laws.
A competing second Liberal Theology followed after the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and espoused Christian principles that functioned in a manner that was detached from reality. Justice could be prayed for, but the physical outworking to provide justice was restricted to a relatively intimate sphere such as the family.
And the third school of thought, Pietism, only served to remove the Church further from expressing an influence in German society. Pietism was Christianity in complete retreat so that all service and devotion to God was accomplished inwardly. Personal salvation was all that mattered, and the world was left to proceed in her own decadent direction. After all, it was destined for destruction soon anyway.
German theologian Karl Barth summed up the problem nicely by defining it as an age of "And-Also-Christianity," referring to the broad tolerance Christians displayed for other, even radically competing, belief systems while their own was being systematically eradicated. By programming this great tolerance into the Christian mindset, Christians were ripe to accommodate or tolerate Nazi ideology. For those Christians troubled by it, it seemed the only option was retreat into a private, personal form of spirituality.

Bonhoeffer the theologian

In an age of philosophical theology where scholars debated moral issues at a distance, Bonhoeffer viewed the Church as "Christ present today." He proclaimed at a youth conference in Czechoslovakia in 1932 that the Gospel message of salvation and the Law must both, of necessity, be applied in the world in the context of concrete situations faced by all men.
"The Church is Christ's presence on earth. That is the only reason why it's word has authority." The message spoken by the Church had to be "valid and binding here and now" he told his audience.3
Bonhoeffer opposed those whom he referred to as "the religious." Christianity had a pervasive sentimental element to it that was nothing more than masquerade. "There is a kind of weakness that Christianity does not hold with," he argued, "but which people insist on claiming as Christian, and then sling mud at it."2
It was his observation that "the religious" were the ones who molded God in forms comfortable to themselves; forms that were incomprehensible to the world. By doing so, they left the lost, despised, downtrodden, and disenfranchised with a view of God that had no relevance.

The pre-war years

Incrementally, as the mystery of God's revelation, Christ's divine birth, miracles, atoning work on the cross, and His second coming, were dismissed as Jewish thought, a vacuum of enormous proportions developed. This progression made room for other ideologies, even anti-spiritual ones.
And as Christianity responded to the social pressures of the 20's and 30's she closed in upon herself, espousing less and less confrontation with the world's evils. Subsequently, having abandoned her post as watchman, she had no answers to the dramatic struggles of the day. Solutions arose, not from biblical revelation but out of a new theology reliant upon spiritual sounding language. In the meantime, Church hierarchy remained busy administering various functions like the spiritually dead church of Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6).4
In response to the void being left by the German church, Bonhoeffer and other theologian-pastors of like mind formed what they called "the Confessing Church," referring not to a particular denomination, coalition of churches, or school, but to all who would continue to proclaim the relevance of God's Word at a point when It was being most severely impugned. The Confessing Church was more than an ideological institution for Bonhoeffer. It represented an opportunity to demonstrate his allegiance to the cause of Christ.
Over time Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church became highly involved in the newly growing ecumenical movement, forging a vital relationship which endorsed the idea that there were no private national struggles, but that for the Church to be relevant, her message had to be one of proclaiming truth to the entire world.
While National Socialist pastors argued for peace and compromise with Hitler's regime and theologians outside of Germany argued against becoming involved in her "internal struggles," those in the ecumenical movement, like Bishop G. K. A. Bell of Chichester, England, advanced the notion that the true Confessing Church bore the responsibility to pronounce upon the evils taking place in Nazi-Germany.3
The ecumenical movement had no use for national borders and the extreme right-wing patriotism that served to send a German Christian into battle in order to kill an "enemy" Christian of another nation over territorial disputes.
With a concern for the universal Church, Bonhoeffer repeatedly preached in favor of a peaceful resolution to grievances that came, in his view, from the unfair Versailles Treaty. His teaching at the illegal Finkenwalde seminary, sermons, and his refusal to sign an oath of allegiance to the National Socialist Party (NSADP), mandated in April of 1938, gained him the solid reputation of a pacifist.
Noted French pacifist Jean Lassere recalled viewing a movie with Pastor Bonhoeffer. And while All Quiet on the Western Front portrayed soldiers fighting and dying on the battlefield, younger movie-goers laughed and made light of the drama. "I think it was there," he said, "both of us discovered that the communion, the community of the Church is much more important than the national community."5

Alone in the wilderness

In 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer crossed the English Channel to work as both pastor and liaison for those involved in the Confessing Church in London. It was an act that resulted from a growing sense of confusion because his beliefs put him so often at odds with others whom he respected. It was a desert journey, an opportunity to sort things out away from the national conflicts which surrounded him in his own country.
In a letter dated October 24, he wrote to his friend Karl Barth about the move.
"I felt that I had incomprehensibly come to a position of radical opposition to all of my friends; with my opinion on this matter I became more and more isolated, although I stood and remained in the closest personal relationship with these people—and all of that made me afraid, uncertain; I was afraid that I might lose myself in the arrogant certainty of being correct . . ."4
Relative to others who were working inside of Germany, Bonhoeffer's life was comfortable as he continued working with the ecumenical movement and the Confessing Church. His friendly relationships with theologians of other nations would earn him trouble from the Nazi government later on, but for the time it appeared relatively safe and imperative to continue urging the universal Church to advocate for peace and the unity of all believers without regard to ethnic origin or state claims.
In 1934, while Bonhoeffer was in England, Reich Bishop Muller of the German church decreed that there should be no further public discussion of church policy in Germany. Foreign theologians, by virtue of their criticism of Hitler's regime, were considered to have "forfeited the moral right to pass judgment on" German affairs. And while church puppets like Muller acted as tools for the state, conferences in Sofia and Novi Sad denounced the Nazi agenda on "the Jewish question." Despite the fact that it was considered treasonable activity for any German to participate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was there.
In 1935 he received a summons from Barth. In his letter he pleaded for his former pupil to come "Back with one of the very next boats, back to the country where the Church is in flames."6

The winds of war

Bonhoeffer immediately made arrangements and returned to Germany to teach at Finkenwalde, write, and make himself available to his country in her hour of need. As a member of the Confessing Church and the ecumenical movement, he continued to travel to conferences in other countries despite the restrictions meant to limit the interaction between German and foreign theologians.
Then, in 1939, Bonhoeffer accepted the opportunity to study and preach in America, all the while challenging the Church to reject the type of religiosity and compromise with the world that left Germany vulnerable to any ill spiritual breeze.
Bonhoeffer did more than reject the Nazi-regime in theory though. In July of 1939, after less than two months abroad in America, and smelling the winds of war blowing, he made a fateful decision to return to Germany.
As a theologian he recognized that up to that point the Church had engaged herself in a struggle for her own survival, her own preservation as an institution. Battling so vigorously on her own behalf left her with no reserve to lay down her life for anyone or anything else, including Truth. Now, during an era when millions of lives were in jeopardy, Bonhoeffer determined that what was essential was not to save the Church, for surely God could keep her as He saw fit, but to save distressed mankind.
Following his hasty return from America, he put his ideas of Christian activism into practice by joining the Abwehr, the German Intelligence arm of the military, a position secretly crafted to allow him to maintain contact with theologians and military officers from other, even "enemy," nations. He was expanding his efforts to help bring the war to a speedy resolution by turning against his own country because, in his view, Germany could not survive spiritually if she triumphed militarily. Germany, in order to be salvaged, would need to lose the war.
"It is only through defeat," he argued, "that we can atone for the horrible crimes which we have committed against Europe and against the world." And it was ultimately Germany's soul that concerned the pastor.
The struggle in Germany, as he saw it, was not a battle between political factions to establish "Windows on Europe" or so-called "ethnic-cleansing." No! It was ultimately a conflict being waged in the heavenly realm as well as on earth. It was a war that required a choice on the part of believers. Who would they serve, God or the State? Either Hitler or the Church must prevail in Germany, he told his students.6
His participation was never tactical, it was an act of rescue. "If we claim to be Christians, we must not be influenced by tactical considerations," he told his Geneva contact and co-conspirator Herr Visser 't Hooft.3
Bonhoeffer took responsibility for the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the German government, and he took responsibility for instituting the action and change necessary to stop his state. By including himself and the Church in his proclamation of guilt, Bonhoeffer helped to light the way for a national declaration the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt which, years later, would ultimately be considered an imperative confession necessary for Germany's reconciliation with the rest of mankind.

"A spoke in the wheel"

During his two years with the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer also became intimately involved with the Kreisau Circle, a more militant resistance group comprised of military personal high up in the National Socialist state, that engaged in secreting Jews out of Germany and officiating over plots to assassinate the Fuhrer. These activities proved to be morally justifiable for Bonhoeffer and other Christian resistance workers since "those who wanted to know had long been aware that the state itself had a criminal character."7
In fact, friend and biographer Renate Wind relates that Pastor Bonhoeffer eventually saw his own ethical rigorism—that which had kept him from acting forcefully to save the victims of Nazi-Germany—as problematic. It was "too much bound up in his own personal search for perfection." Eventually, and this had moved him toward the decision to work vigorously with the resistance, "he faced the question which was the greater guilt, that of tolerating the Hitler dictatorship or that of removing it. In particular, anyone who was not ready to kill Hitler was guilty of mass murder, whether he liked it or not," Wind wrote.7
The transition which was seen as unthinkable for most pastors was thinkable for Bonhoeffer because it was the logical outworking of his theology in which he identified with the lowly and the weak. It was birthed out of his own beliefs about the Church's responsibility toward government.
As far back as 1933 he spoke of Church responsibility to a group of pastors stating, "In the first place it can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with its character as state, i.e., it can throw the state back on its responsibilities. Secondly, it can aid the victims of state action. The Church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community. The third possibility is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself."8

Prison and "a world come of age"

Eventually, on the morning of April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's theology collided with the government of Nazi-Germany and resulted in his arrest at the home of his parents in Berlin. He was accused of treason, but no formal charges and no official warrant to justify his arrest was issued until nearly two years later. Instead, he was repeatedly interviewed by the Gestapo with the hope that he could be tied to treasonous activity.
From the confines of Tegel Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote extensively of his view of the world and of the Confessing Church. The world, he stated, was an "adult," irreligious and no longer open to the presentation of the gospel message. He distinguished ardently between his Confessing Church and the church institution because he foresaw what he called "a world come of age; a post-Christian" church and society. The thing then for the Church was to stop defending it's own brand of "religiosity" and to start living as an uncompromised presence as Jesus Christ had done.3
The Church as he saw it was too enmeshed in defending her own "existence instead of being prepared to live and die for the world." By abandoning such a self-centered struggle, he argued that the Church would then fulfill a critical function, one of being there for the oppressed and the weary. "Christ," he believed, "did not bear the sins of Christians; He bore the sins of the world. The Church must therefore live and suffer in the world, with the world, for the world."3 The struggles of those who were ill-treated and tossed aside were the struggles of the Church in an "adult" world, in his opinion. And the cost of discipleship for those wanting to act out their Christianity, he understood, was no small price.

On the trail of a conspiracy

Dietrich's brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, also members of the Kreisau Circle, suffered under the same imprisonment though each was housed separately from the others. Dietrich spent approximately 20 months incarcerated at Tegel, cell number 10. During that time, the war continued as did the hope that Germany might be defeated before the Reich Court could unearth definite proof and take action against the conspirators. As the state delayed trial for one reason and then another, it seemed possible that the American army might march on Berlin very soon.
Then, on July 20, 1944, at exactly 12:42 p.m., another attempt was made on the life of Adolph Hitler. This time the attempt was successful in that the detonating devise did not malfunction as on two previous occasions. But it was a disaster as Hitler survived when the suitcase carrying the bomb was kicked out of the way and underneath a table just seconds before the explosion occurred. Because the case had been brought into the bunker by a high ranking Abwehr officer, a trail led Gestapo police ominously close to the Kreisau Circle.
Immediately a massive purging of Hitler's inner circle began in an effort to ferret out co-conspirators and coerce new oaths of allegiance. Bonhoeffer's uncle, General Paul von Hase, was hanged less than twenty-four hours after the bomb failed to kill the Fuhrer and, since the assassination attempt was quite apparently an inside job, Gestapo agents renewed efforts to unearth and review old agency files.
Before his own arrest Hans von Dohnanyi had asked for all files to be burned, even a hidden reserve of secret files which, assuming Germany was defeated, had been intended to be turned over to a future war crimes court. They were meant to prove that there was some measure of decency, honor, and active opposition to Hitler and included the names and locations of internment camps, records concerning the disposition of Jews, and photos to prove the extent of Germany's crime. A few co-conspirators were concerned to preserve the records against possible future accusations that the resistance was merely comprised of men anxiously turning against their country only when it was evident that the war was lost. The one commissioned with the task of destroying them, Beck, did not comply, and eventually, on September 22, 1944, the records were discovered and seized by the Gestapo and SS.6 From that point on, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and all of the conspirators began running a race with time, still hoping and praying for Germany's defeat, and knowing that if it did not come soon all of them would be executed. On October 8, 1944 both Dietrich and his brother-in-law Hans were formally charged with treason and taken to Gestapo headquarters at Regensburg. Between interviews meant to extract other names and facts from them if possible, sometimes for several days in a row, the pastor-theologian read and worked on the outline and contents of a book. Only rarely was he able to make contact with von Dohnanyi who lay extremely ill in another area of the basement prison to which they had been brought. In reality, the sheer volume of the files, the long list of conspirators still to be tracked down and tried, and the fact that Dietrich and Klaus Bonhoeffer, Hans von Dohnanyi and others were securely caged all contributed toward keeping them alive in the months immediately following the discovery.6

"The beginning of life"

In February, as the battle front drew nearer to them all important prisoners from Regensburg were transferred on to Buchenwald. Though there were moments of optimism, for Dietrich Bonhoeffer and a few others the respite was interrupted when orders were given for their removal to the Flossenburg prison camp on April 3, 1945. Flossenburg had a reputation as a prison where trials and executions took place without delay.
Arriving at Flossenburg, the truck load of prisoners was turned away. The camp was overflowing and any additional transports were directed to locate space at another camp, perhaps even in an abandoned schoolhouse at Schonberg, or in the fields nearby. Again, it seemed as though Divine intervention might make it possible to survive the war, and the truck carrying Bonhoeffer settled into the acreage of a farmer whose wife brought out water and food in large quantity for the prisoners. It was a brief and almost pleasant delay until April 7 when SS guards appeared to take charge of prisoner Bonhoeffer.
Finally, on April 8, arriving inside the walls of Flossenburg after dark, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ordered to strip and exchange his clothing for camp garb. His personal belongings which included clothing, suitcase, and the manuscript written while in prison were tossed to the side and eventually burned.
Just before midnight Bonhoeffer was led before a summary court marshal in the presence of Judge Otto Thorbeck. Orders had arrived directly from Berlin that the prisoner was to be dealt with immediately. A brief trial, really nothing more than a reading of the charges took place and then he was taken to a crowded area for sleep. It was early when the guard came, before 6 a.m., and Bonhoeffer was ordered from his cell and into the presence of the judge once again. A verdict, guilty of high treason, was read. The sentence was death, and the prison was to carry out the order immediately. Always the pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke briefly to another prisoner after his death sentence was pronounced. In a calm whisper he instructed the English officer, Captain Payne Best, not to worry. "This is the end, for me the beginning of life," he said. Shortly after comforting Payne Dietrich Bonhoeffer was led toward the gallows where he died.

Resources and suggested reading: (1) Bethge, Bonhoeffer. (2) Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison. (3) Bailey & Gilbert, The Steps of Bonhoeffer. (4) Huntemann, The Other Bonhoeffer. (5) Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom. (6) Goddard, The Last Days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (7) Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer--A Spoke in the Wheel. (8) Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords. (9) Bonhoeffer, Life Together. (10) Bonhoeffer, Ethics. (11) Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. Video: Memories and Perspectives. For further information on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, contact the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Center, 7301 Germantown Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19119 or call (215) 248-4616.

Adolph Hitler rose to prominence at a point of crisis in the nation. Following her W. W. I. defeat, Germany experienced severe economic hardships. The population, angry at recriminations that lingered in treaties after the war—most notably the Versailles Treaty—demanded change. Hitler promised a new millennium of peace and prosperity, but it could only come at cost to the lives of those he deemed to be unclean or unfit for service. Desperate for the provision that he promised, many Germanseven many who claimed to be Christianjoined the effort to purge the nation, and eventually Europe, of the "unwanted." Spiritual leaders argued for compromise and acted as tools for the National Socialist regime, and most of the laity who belonged to the Church simply turned and looked the other way. For all of them, the state became an ultimate authority and took on the form of an idol. Prosperity and blessing no longer emanated from the hand of God. It was obtained through obedience to the dictates of a petty tyrant and laws aimed at depriving others of their property and lives.
As neighbors and friends were "relocated" never to return, much of the church joined the world in hoping that eventually Hitler's wrath would be satisfied and the fulfillment of all of his promises for the nation would be at hand. The state, viewed as provider and protector, became an idol both for Christian and non-Christian alike.
Like all false gods, Nazi-Germany and Adolph Hitler were ultimately headed for ruin. Just three weeks after the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Adolph Hitler committed suicide with his mistress Eva Braun in a lonely military bunker. The Great War was over.