Each April 9 brings two people in history to my mind.
One is Robert E. Lee who surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia 149 years ago this past Wednesday ending the Civil War – at least in the north. During the month following most remaining Confederate generals in the south surrendered their forces. The last surrendered in June.
The other historic figure is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was hanged on the morning of April 9, 1945 by order of Adolf Hitler.
This is his story.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided at age 14 that he would be a pastor – a goal from which he never wavered. By age 21 he had earned a doctorate summa cum laude from Berlin University and before age 25 he had completed post-doctoral work that awarded the highest university degree possible.
Still, he was too young to be an ordained pastor, so Bonhoeffer traveled to New York for a year to study and teach at Union Theological Seminary as a Visiting Fellow. Returning to Germany in 1931, he was appointed to teach systematic theology at Berlin University. But he had become interested in ecumenism, perhaps as a result of having been introduced to black churches during his stay in America and having come to understand racism. His papers and letters suggest a shift in thinking from an intellectual interest in Christianity to a transformed faith in the message revealed in the gospels.
Bonhoeffer was ordained later that year having reached the age of 25 just as Nazism was beginning its rise to power under Adolf Hitler. It would brook no rival ideology. Germans were two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic before Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria and about half and half thereafter. Hitler was able to strike an agreement with the Catholic Church that would prohibit political activism and Jewish conversions to Christianity. (Many in the Catholic Church power structure were sympathetic to Nazi anti-Semitism.)
The Protestant churches were another affair. When Hitler attempted to unify their 28 sects into a single anti-Semitic Reich Church, some Protestants were sympathetic to expelling Jewish Christians; others weren’t. Those opposed to the Kirchenkampf – the church struggle that sought to Nazify the Protestant church – formed the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer aligned with them.
Early in the Kirchenkampf, Bonhoeffer authored a paper, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was sure to attract the attention of the Nazis. He contended that baptized Jews were members of the Christian Church. Those who weren’t members were nevertheless under the protection of the church, which had an obligation to “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel” of the state “but at times halt the wheel itself.”
Thus, Bonhoeffer’s religious ideology put him on a collision course with the Nazi state. It also put him in opposition to Catholic and Protestant church leaders who chose to remain silent in order to avoid attracting Nazi attention. Still, more than 2,000 Confessing pastors joined Bonhoeffer to warn the world of Nazism’s threat.
In 1933 Bonhoeffer accepted a two-year position in London to be the minister for two German-speaking evangelical churches. He spent a good portion of those two years drumming up ecumenical support for the Confessing Church and its fight against Nazism. When he returned to Germany, Nazi suppression of the Confessing Church had grown harsher. Karl Barth, a founder of the Confessing movement, decided in 1935 to return to his home country, Switzerland. The next year Bonhoeffer was denounced for his pacifism, declared an enemy of the state, and forbidden to teach at Berlin University. He turned his energies to training Confessing Church pastors in an underground seminary in Finkenwalde. Another Confessing founder, Martin Niemöller, was arrested in July 1937. That year Himmler declared it illegal to train Confessing Church minister candidates and the Gestapo shut down Finkenwalde, arresting 27 pastors and students.
The product of these persecutions was Bonhoeffer’s best known book, The Cost of Discipleship, an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it he condemned “cheap grace” the cosmetic imitation of the “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer likely learned the meaning of cheap grace from the protest culture of the black churches during his American sojourn. It would empower his discipleship during the Nazi era.
Throughout 1938 and into 1939 it became evident that Hitler’s demands would provoke war. The potential for national conscription loomed large. It would require an oath of allegiance to Hitler, a great concern for Bonhoeffer. When his mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr invited him that summer to return to the Union Theological Seminary and arranged a teaching job there for him, Bonhoeffer accepted. But almost immediately he regretted his decision. Despite the encouragement of friends to stay in America, Bonhoeffer wrote Niebuhr:
I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in late 1939 on the last steamer to sail before the outbreak of war.
Once there he was forbidden to speak publicly. Then he was forbidden to publish, and then he was forbidden to be in Berlin. Hans von Dohnanyi, husband of one of his sisters, invited Bonhoeffer to work in the German intelligence unit, Abwehr, which would keep him out of the army and its detestable loyalty oath. Many anti-Hitler resisters were at work there and were in contact with other resisters in the army and government. In Abwehr Bonhoeffer learned that several unsuccessful attempts had been made to kill Hitler – of which Hitler and his henchmen were unaware. Killing even Hitler, however, deeply conflicted Bonhoeffer’s pacifism. He once asked students if they believed it right to kill a person in order to save others.
As a courier for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer was able to obtain travel permits to other countries, ostensibly for intelligence work, but actually to make contact with the allies fighting Germany. Beyond the prying eyes of the Gestapo, he used these occasions to put out “peace feelers.” Moreover, anti-Hitler resisters wanted the world to know that they existed. One trip to Switzerland allowed him to meet Visser’t Hooft, the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, who asked Bonhoeffer what he prayed for “in these days.” Bonhoeffer answered, “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation …”
Another trip in May 1942 introduced Bonhoeffer to Anglican Bishop George Bell in neutral Sweden. Bell was a member of the House of Lords, an ally of the Confessing Church, and connected to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. Bonhoeffer revealed the plot to kill Hitler and the names of the plotters, asking that the British government publicly distinguish Germany from the Nazi regime so the conspirators would be able to negotiate a truce if they could rid Germany of Hitler. Eden refused.
There had been a long-standing turf feud between the Nazi SS and the Abwehr over military intelligence. The SS suspected the loyalty of the Abwehr but could find no substantiating evidence. Consequently, the SS was always on the lookout for something that could be used to discredit their adversary. The opportunity came when a Jewish couple was arrested leaving the country with a large sum of cash, a currency violation. It was traced to the Abwehr and to Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi who were helping Jews leave Germany. Both were arrested in April 1943 on orders from SS Chief Heinrich Himmler. Bonhoeffer was sent to a military interrogation prison in Tegel and solitary confinement where he awaited a trial for a year and a half.
At Tegel Bonhoeffer ministered to his fellow prisoners as well as his guards. Some of the guards were sympathetic enough to smuggle his letters to his family and former students, one of whom was Eberhard Bethge. Bethge would ultimately be imprisoned himself. After the war he would tell Bonhoeffer’s story to the world, which otherwise had not heard of him. The two were together for Bonhoeffer’s final days. Bethge posthumously published Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison as well as the definitive biography of Bonhoeffer.
While Bonhoeffer wasn’t tortured in Tegel, his conditions were deplorable. To combat his depressing situation, he maintained a strict daily regimen, which included daily reading of the Psalms. He asked his family and Bethge for books and wrote to the latter, “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity or who is Christ actually for us today?” The question shaped his remaining days.
In June 1944 the allies landed at Normandy as the Third Reich entered its death throes. Then on July 20 another attempt was made on Hitler’s life at Wolfsschanze, Hitler’s East Prussia headquarters. Once again Schicksal saved the Fuhrer’s charmed life. Generals Beck and Olbricht, along with Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, and other conspirators were shot that night in Berlin. Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer finally learned of the attempt but, since they were imprisoned, believed they were safe. Yet the ever-resourceful SS, searching Abwehr headquarters came upon some hidden papers belonging to Dohnanyi which they concluded identified him as “the spiritual head of the conspiracy” against Hitler. Bonhoeffer was identified as one among other co-conspirators.
In October, Bonhoeffer was moved from Tegel to the ultimate place of terror – the prison cellar of Gestapo headquarters in Berlin on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Although there was enough information about the plot to kill Hitler to execute Bonhoeffer without delay, Hitler wanted the names of every conspirator. So Bonhoeffer remained in the Gestapo prison cellar and was tortured until February 1945 when 20 prisoners were moved to Buchenwald to escape the allied advance. Bonhoeffer and a captured British intelligence agent, Captain Sigismund Payne-Best, were among this group. Sixteen of these prisoners were moved on April 3 – including Bonhoeffer and Payne-Best – to Flossenburg, an extermination camp in the Bavarian forest.
Arriving there, the transport truck was turned away because the camp prison was full. Allied artillery could be heard nearby. The prisoners’ hopes were raised as they were housed in Schonberg nearby.
Unknown to the prisoners, a German prosecutor arrived with his pregnant wife and several officials on April 8. A judge was en route by freight train, which could only get him within 12 miles of Flossenburg. He traveled the remaining distance by bicycle.
April 8 was a Sunday and the prisoners asked Bonhoeffer to conduct a devotional service. According to Payne-Best, who survived the war, the devotional was drawn from a text in Isaiah: “With his wounds we are healed.” Shortly after a prayer two men appeared at Bonhoeffer’s open cell door and said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.”
Bonhoeffer knew the end was near. He quickly gave mementos to several prisoners and told Payne-Best to get word to Bishop George Bell. “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
The bicycling judge, prosecutor, and two witnesses conducted a “trial” that lasted all night and into the morning against Bonhoeffer, General Oster, General Thomas, Admiral Canaris, and other prisoners. There were no defense lawyers or defense witnesses. All were returned to their cells for a few hours, then between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. the prisoners were read their death sentences and, to add to their humiliation, told to strip naked. A camp doctor-witness, Dr. H. Fischer-Hullstrung, says he saw Bonhoeffer on his knees in his cell praying. He was calm.
The condemned were led down stairs and out into the courtyard to the gallows. Bonhoeffer prayed once more, according to the doctor, before climbing the stairs to the scaffold where he and the others stood naked.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39 years old.
The US Army liberated the Flossenburg concentration camp just 14 days later on April 23, 1945.
A week after Hitler committed suicide effectively ending the war.
“When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.” –The Cost of Discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer