Graduate Theological Union
A Spoke in the Wheel: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and His Development into Political Resistance
A lecture delivered at the GTU on March 31, 2003. Lisa Dahill’s response to the lecture is available here.
by Renate Wind, professor of biblical theology at the Lutheran School of Theology, University of Applied Sciences, Nürnberg, Germany. She is the author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel, and is currently writing on the love letters between Bonhoeffer and his fiancée.
On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, protestant theologian and pastor of the Confessing Church, was condemned to death on charges of high treason by an SS special court and hanged in Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was one of the millions of victims of Nazi barbarity, one who had conciously taken sides with the persecuted and was willing to share their fate. He could have had it otherwise.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 the world still seemed to be in order. His childhood years fell in a period which was later called “the good old days“. Dietrich was the sixth of eight children. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a renowned physician, director of the famous University clinic in Berlin, his mother Paula, née von Hase, was a self-assured woman with a critical mind and teaching qualifications. The family in which Dietrich grew up was among the cultural élite of the German Reich.
Dierich Bonhoeffer’s childhood in the academic upper class suburb of Berlin Grunewald was an intact one. Later he was to say that his home had protected him for a long time from the darker sides of life. But he also noted what he owned to his origins: the feeling of having “a place in the world“, the confidence of being able to achieve something special and the awareness of being responsible for what happens in the world.
When Dietrich was eight the First World War began. In Europe the lights were going out, what had seemed to be a sound world was coming unstuck, and it would never return to its old order. Dietrich had come to terms with the death of a brother and face up to crisis and conflicts of a changed world. He decided to study theology. That is also noted in his school-leaving certificate which he was given in 1923 with the best marks. There was one exception: handwriting very bad!
His decision was a matter of controversy in his enlightened scholarly family. The Bonhoeffers kept aloof from a church where the “cassocks hid a thousand years of mould“. And the theology student who hoped his studies would bring him an answer to the “riddles of his life“ remained an outsider in the conservative German church of the 1920es. It was not until he encountered other forms of church life and theological thought that he came closer to what he was seeking : a Christian community in which the gospel takes a new social form. His guides to this “communion of saints“—“Sanctorum Communio” was the title of Bonhoeffer’s doctoral thesis - were mainly the representatives of the Social Gospel in the United States. I am convinced - in opposite to most of the German Bonhoeffer recipients, but in accordance to old Bonhoeffer friends like Eberhard Bethge, Albrecht Schönherr and Otto Dudzus—that the decisive change in Bonhoeffer’s theological thinking took place during his studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.
(Please allow me a personal remark at this point. Two weeks ago, I saw a short TV-report on the first New York anti-war-demonstration after the attack on Iraque. In front I noticed the banner of the Union Theological Seminary—it was just like a sign of peace given by friends...)
From 1930 to 1931 the young scholar spent a study year at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was chilled by the bourgeois white churchliness of conservative America. However, in the base communities of the “other America“ he found evidence of the church he was searching for. In the United States it became clear to Bonhoeffer that the gospel surpassed the social and national bounds in which the church in his own country was held. The storefront churches and self-help centers of Harlem and the ecumenical and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the seminary impressed Bonhoeffer deeply. In the black churches of Harlem and the settlement movement of the base communities he found the gospel as “good news for the poor” hand in hand with concrete social commitment. He was impacted by the antecedents of the American civil rights movement and the encounter with the representatives of the Social Gospel who sought to think and practice the commands of Christ in social and political categories. Conversation partners and friends like Frank Fisher from Harlem, Paul and Marion Lehmann from the base communities, and Reinhold Niebuhr, professor for social ethics at the Union, gave a new direction to Bonhoeffer’s search for a concrete expression of “communion of saints“ as “Christ existing as community“. The friendship with Jean Lasserre, a French scholar at the Union Seminary, who confronted Bonhoeffer with the commands of the „Sermon on the Mount“, decisively changed his life: “I believe I know that inwardly I shall be clear and honest with myself only if I truly begin to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount ... There just happen to be things that are worth an uncompromising stand. And it seems to me that peace and social justice, or Christ himself, are such things.“
From then on Dietrich Bonhoeffer was constantly to stress that in the Christian communion national, racial and social boundaries are abolished. He himself would step across these barriers time and again. He transcended the conservative Lutheran ethics which was still following the doctrine of the two kingdoms, which assigns to the church the proclamation of the “pure gospel” of grace and leaves the world its “autonomy”. Now he was to insist that faith in Christ and discipleship have a political and a social dimension. In Bonhoeffer‘s subsequent praxis, inspired by the ideas of the Social Gospel, what he later called “the church for others“ became concretely visible. In summer 1932, being engaged in political and social movements in Berlin, he said: “Consider what is on earth. By that much will be decided today, whether we Christians have enough strength to bear witness to the world that we are no dreamers with our head in the clouds, that we do not let things come and go as they are, that out faith is not the opium which leaves us content in the middle of an unjust world. But that precisely because we look to what is above we protest all the more stubbornly and deliberately on this earth.”
When in 1933 the Protestant Church in Germany greeted the brutal exclusion of entire social groups as the “restoration of order“ Bonhoeffer was a single voice speaking for the victims. “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community“. Intimations of the positions and efforts of the American Civil Liberties Union, which engages on behalf of politically and ethnically excluded citizens, here should not be ignored. At the beginning of the Nazi terror Bonhoeffer wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr that “a horrible cultural barbarity is threatening so that we too here must immediately form a Civil Liberties Union“. And he added, “the way of the church is darker than almost ever before“.
In June 1931 Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin At the Reichstag elections in September 1930 the Nazis had climbed from 12 to 107 seats. Klaus Bonhoeffer had already written to his brother in America: “They are flirting with Fascism. I am afraid that, if this radical wave captures the educated classes, it will be all up with this nation of poets and thinkers.“
On January 30, 1933, Hitler came to power. His followers celebrated their victory with a torch-light parade through Berlin. Soon millions of Germans would be reciting on every possible opportunity: “Führer command, we follow!“ At the same time, war broke out within the country. On February 27 the Reichstag burned down; the allegedly “Communist conspiracy“ fitted in with Nazi strategy all too well. In the very same night four thousand Communist functionaries were arrested in accordance with previously prepared lists, many of them were murdered in the SA cellars or „shot while attempting to escape“. The next day appeared the “Emergency Decree for the Protection of the Nation and the State“, which provided the “legal“ basis for the incipient National Socialist terror.
At first it was directed almost exclusively against the Left—and was applauded in the highest church circles. Under the slogan “better Brown than Red“, representatives of both catholic and protestant churches welcomed the destruction of the labor movement and also the persecution of all those who had always been a thorn in the flesh especially of nationally minded Protestants: democrats, liberals, pacifists, socialists. They included also the critical Jewish intelligentsia, indeed all of “Jewry that dominates the press, the stock exchange, the theatre et cetera“, as the Rhineland General Superintendent wrote in a letter to his vicars. And the Berlin General Superintendent Otto Dibelius gave a sermon on the occasion of the reopening of the Reichstag on March 21, 1933, in which he proclaimed: “If the state exercises its office against those who undermine the foundation of state order, above all against those who with corrosive and mean words destroy marriage, cast scorn on faith and besmirch death for the Fatherland, then may it exercise its office in the name of God.“
Three weeks later Bonhoeffer spoke before a group of Berlin pastors on “The Church and the Jewish Question“. This talk was to be the first and only reaction from within the Protestant church as early as 1933 to the abolition of civil rights for Jewish citizens, which began with the boycott of Jewish stores and the proscription of Jewish civil servants, and which was to end in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The “Law on the Reconstruction of the Civil Service“, the so called Aryan Paragraph, adopted on April 1933 was reason enough for Bonhoeffer to resist the state: “The church has an unconditional obligation to the victims ...“ Moreover, the church has the possibility and the duty, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.“ ( Or, more exactly: the church has to throw itself between the spokes of the wheel in order to stop it!) After these words, Bonhoeffer continued his lecture to an almost empty room. With his call for political resistance he remained alone in his church.
But things were to get much worse. On July 1933 church elections took place in the Protestant church. Although there had been an opposite election list “Gospel and Church” 70 per cent of the vote went to the German Christians, who demanded for the Germans “a racially appropriate Christianity“, in keeping with the “German spirit of Luther and heroic piety“. The “German Christians“ occupied all key positions in the church and began to build “the new church of Christ in the new state of Adolf Hitler“. The first step was the introduction of the Aryan Paragraph at the “Brown Synod“ in Wittenberg in September 1933, the exclusion of baptized Jews out of the church. . At that time Bonhoeffer preached: “We must decide, we must discern between the spirits ... Come, you who have been left alone, you who have lost the church, let us return to Holy Scripture, let us go forth and seek the church together ... Church, remain a church! Confess, confess, confess!“
This commitment to Holy Scripture and to Jesus Christ as the sole Lord of the church was to become the common concern of many men and women in the Protestant church who were now increasingly seeking to resist the heresies of the German Christians and the “Reich Bishop“ by the grace of Hitler. They joined forces in the “Confessing Church“, which in April 1934 with the “Barmen Theological Declaration“ set a clear signal for resistance against the attempt of the state to bring the church into line. At the same time, however, its representatives declared that they were concerned “only with the church“, and did not represent political opposition to the Hitler regime. On the contrary: “We stand by our state in obedience and love“. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was unable to accept this attitude: “This is the capitulation of the church to politics!“ And little later he wrote: “There must be in the end a break with theological backing for restraint against state action. Open your mouth for the dumb—who in the church is still aware that in such times this is the least demand that the Bible makes?“ And ten years later, Bonhoeffer wrote in a draft for a church confession of guilt—which was made by the German churches only a half century later: “The church was silent where it had to cry out... the church confesses that it had witnessed the lawless application of brutal force, the physical and spiritual suffering of countless innocent people, oppression, hatred and murder, and that it had not raised its voice on behalf of the victims and has not found a way to hasten to their aid. It is guilty of the death of the weakest and most defenseless brothers (and sisters!) of Jesus Christ.“
No person is born as a hero, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no exception When he felt increasingly isolated even in the Confessing church with his demand for political resistance against the Hitler regime, he went “into the desert for a time“, but followed the continuation of the church struggle with burning interest from his foreign pastoral office in London. He had taken leave of his students with the words: “We must now endure in silence, and set the firebrand of truth to all four corners of the proud German Christian palace, so that one day the whole structure may collapse.“
The time Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent in London gave him the opportunity not only to think through his political and theological position, but also to clear his mind about himself—about his readiness to endanger himself, about the extent of his power to resist, and about the cost of renouncing all security of his privileged social background.
When in 1935 he was recalled by the Confessing Church, the positions in the church struggle had been clarified. A small, determined section of the Confessing Church resolved to establish an “emergency church“ under the leadership of a “Council of Brethren“ in opposition to the Reich church government, which was now composed of less radical German Christians, moderate representatives of the Confessing Church and “Neutrals“. Bonhoeffer was asked to take on the directorship of the preacher’s seminary of the “confessing“ Confessing Church, which, as an new and exciting experience began to train its own clergy. This period initiated a phase in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life in which, as he later said, an attempt was made “to live something like a holy life“. The idea was not a new one, for the “communion of saints“ , the particular form of Christian community of living in the world had always interested him. Now, however, the issue had become a radical one; for the traditional form of existence of this community, the church, had been destroyed where he was to live—and he was to help to discover and to build up new forms. But how was this to be done without those who wanted this new church embodying it themselves, making it visible through their entire human existence?
Bonhoeffer expected no less than this of himself, but also from the candidates of the preacher’s seminary in Finkenwalde. For them he was an extraordinary seminary director. He shared everything he had with his students, lived and worked, discussed and celebrated with them, trying out an alternative style of life and work in preparing the young theologians for their insecure existence as pastors in an underground church. Two of his best known books were written in this situation; “Life together” and “Cost of Discipleship” : “The life of Jesus Christ on earth is not finished yet, for he continues to live in the life of his followers.”
In this discipleship Bonhoeffer demanded unconditional commitment, discipline and a refusal to compromise , also vis-à-vis the section of the moderate part of the Confessing Church which was meanwhile collaborating with the Reich church in a Committee set up by the government. He soon found himself under fire once again within the church. When he was denounced by the Lutheran Oberkonsistorialrat and later bishop Theodor Heckel as a “pacifist and enemy of the state” and was banned from teaching in all German theological faculties, there was no protest at all from church circles. Only the small church of the Council of Brethren remained loyal to him. However, in 1937 its governing institutions were destroyed, its leaders were partly imprisoned, its preacher’s seminaries shut down by the Gestapo, but continued their work in underground activities.
In this situation the most sensible policy once again seemed to retreat. American friends organized a teaching contract and United States visa for the highly endangered Bonhoeffer. In June 1939 Dietrich became once more the guest of the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he spent the most difficult and agonizing weeks of his life. He was unable to come to terms with having left the young theologians, whom he had so often exhorted to resist, alone in their struggle. Many of them where already in prison without any church leadership coming to their aid. Bonhoeffer could not remain in exile; he wanted to “participate in the fate of Germany” side by side with his friends. “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian 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 . My brethren in the Confessing Synod wanted me to go. They may have been right in urging me to do so; but I was wrong in going. Such a decision each person must make for him- or herself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilisation may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilisation. I know which of these alternatives I have to choose. But I cannot make the choice in security.” Bonhoeffer took one of the last ships back before war broke out. In July 1939 he returned to Berlin.
Back in Germany, Bonhoeffer had to face a further difficult decision. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, lawyer in the political section of the Military Intelligence Service, the so called “Abwehr”, and an adamant opponent of Hitler, asked him to take on the job of department courier, thus reinforcing the resistance group within the “Abwehr”. He was to use his ecumenical contacts to communicate secret information about the plans and aims of the German resistance movement to Western countries. That was high treason with the aim of killing Hitler and toppling the Nazi regime. But in public it looked like collaboration: Bonhoeffer had become an “agent of grace”.
The straightforward and uncompromising Bonhoeffer did not find this an easy role. At all events it was not the “holy life” he had once sought to lead. For a long time he had considered that the appropriate form of resistance for him was a “resistance to the utmost”, with non-violent methods which he wanted to learn from Mahatma Gandhi, with whom he corresponded in his London time. Now things were quite different. The confessor became a conspirator, who took part in planning an assassination attempt on Hitler and the leadership of the Nazi regime, and who, in his last and uncompleted book “Ethics” thought through his new role. The discipleship of Jesus, he asserted, can in extraordinary situations also mean becoming guilty for the love of one’s neighbor. “Jesus is not concerned with the proclamation and realization of new ethical ideals; he is not concerned with himself being good. He is concerned solely with love for the real man (and woman), and for that reason he is able to enter into the fellowship of guilt of human beings and to take their burden upon himself... If any person tries to escape guilt in responsibility, he or she cuts him- or herself from the redeeming mystery of Christ’s bearing guilt without sin and has no share in the divine justification which lies upon this event. He or she sets his or her personal innocence above their responsibility for human beings and they are blind to the more irredeemable guilt which they incur precisely in this.”
Bonhoeffer wanted to impress on his church that the neutrality in political conflicts which it liked to claim ceased to be neutrality when it de facto tolerated existing power and prevailing injustice because it did not fight against these actively , even with force. It had become clear for him that his own ethical rigorism no longer worked; that it was too much bound up with his own personal search for perfection. Now 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. Bonhoeffer left no doubt that any use of force is and remains guilt. But he insisted that there can be situations in which a Christian must become guilty out of the love to suffering human beings.
The church might not have been struggling with this problem at the same time, but that was not true of a large number of Christians who found themselves involved into resistance to the Hitler régime. Hans Scholl, a medical student in Munich, was studying the attitude of mediaeval theologians to tyrannicide in a monastery library in Bavaria. The “White Rose” student resistance group had so far written and distributed pamphlets against the Hitler régime. Now it sought contact with other resistance groups and discussed the possibility of taking part in attempts at an overthrow. Dietrich and Klaus Bonhoeffer acted as contacts. But the meeting did not take place. The Munich group came to grief in a pamphlet campaign; its members were condemned to death after a hasty trial. Even after the war there were chaplains and bishops who dissociated themselves from commemorations of Hans and Sophie Scholl and their friends: they said, the church had nothing to do with enemies of the state and revolutionaries.
Christians in resistance had to face all by themselves the question what guilt they were ready to shoulder. “As good Christians we had to become criminal”, said Gertrud Staewen from the Berlin discussion group around Karl Barth. She was part of a resistance group which helped Berlin Jews to disappear—with forged passes and stolen food coupons. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a regular resource person and contact with the Confessing Church. Hardly anyone had posed as consistently as Bonhoeffer the question of incurring guilt in borderline political situations and had then reflected on it. He did so on behalf of many Christians in resistance who had been abandoned by their church. But he was also to be the only German Protestant theologian who would later play a role in the ecumenical movement, in the liberation churches and movements of South Africa and Latin America.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood his participation in the preparations for an assassination attempt as a voluntary assumption of guilt to prevent further crimes and violence from being committed in the name of the German people in the occupied areas and in the concentration and extermination camps. In his essay “After ten years” written on Christmas 1942, he wrote: “The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity, or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts ... Who stands fast? Only the person whose final standard is not his or her reason, principles, conscience, freedom or virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all this when called to obedient and responsible action in faith and in exclusive allegiance to God—the responsible person, who tries to make his or her whole life an answer to the question and call of God.”
Bonhoeffer stood by this decision to the last. When the news of the failure of the assassination attempt reached him in his prison cell in Tegel, on July 21 1944 he wrote these words in a letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge: “During the last years I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity ...I thought that I could acquire faith by trying to live a holy life, or something like that. But I discovered later , and I am still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.”
For a long time the Protestant Church in Germany found it impossible to understand Bonhoeffer’s attitude. As late as 1953 the Bavarian Lutheran bishop Meiser refused to take part in a memorial service for Bonhoeffer in Flossenbürg on the grounds that he had been a member of the political resistance and not a church martyr for the sake of Christian faith. It was a sign of rethinking and of hope that fifty years after his death a great church commemoration took place in Flossenbürg and in all parts of Germany. How ever, it will be more important that the remembrance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in our church is bound up with the will to stand by the victims and to thrust a spoke in the wheel where ever human rights are forgotten.
One of the keywords in Bonhoeffer’s fragment of “Ethics” is responsibility, with which he describes the form of Christian existence in the midst of the world in its conflicts and agonies. This attitude however, was not first of all grounded on social ethics, but rather on Christology.
“Who are you, Christ?” asked Bonhoeffer at the beginning of his Christology lecture in 1933 at the Theological Faculty of the University in Berlin. He would pose it anew and even more precisely in a letter to Eberhard Bethge from his prison cell in Tegel on April 30, 1944: “Who is Christ for us today?” In reply he would offer no simple, generalized answers, but instead raise liberating and disquieting questions, opening horizons and empowering a praxis that was inspired by the thought that Christ is “the person for others” and church “is only church when it is there for others.” In his Christology lecture Bonhoeffer stressed, that the self understanding and praxis of Christians and the “communion of saints” depends on Christ the Crucified. Therefore he took a clear stand against the fatal euphoria and the godless pride of the German Protestant “national revival”. Here was a denial of the stance of the Reichskirche that rejected the revelation of God in the crucified Christ in favor of “natural “ revelations of God in a people, race, nation, blood and soil. Because responsibility is grounded in Christ, the crucified, the “person for others”, it cannot be misused for an imperialistic “God with us” ideology. Bonhoeffer’s Christology lectures ended with a penetrating reference that the center of Christian faith and community is the humiliated and crucified Christ , whom the church must follow into humility. His hope was, that this perspective from below would immunize the church against all temptations to pervert the cross of Jesus Christ into a cross of triumph.
“Who are you, Christ?” Bonhoeffer asked this question ever anew and concretely. Because of the hiddeness of God in the Crucified Christ, discipleship of Christ became the only visible sign of his presence. The act of believing became an act of living, and the question about who Christ is came to be connected with the question about where he here and now was concretely to be found. In the moment of greatest existential affliction and haunted by the question whether the safety American exile was his proper place, Bonhoeffer wrote in his journal: “Have I, after all, avoided the place where He is for me?”
The place where Christ would be present for Bonhoeffer was in the political conspiracy, in the perilous praxis of a piety that voluntarily assumed guilt, in the encounter with fellow human beings who had been forsaken by the world in the prison of Tegel and in the hell of the extermination camps. Bonhoeffer both personally and theologically achieved the shift in the perspective from top to bottom that he demanded of his church: ”It remains an experience of incomparable value, that we have learned to see the great events of world history for once from below, from the perspective of those who are excluded, suspected, maltreated, powerless, oppressed and scorned, in short the sufferers.”
In this experience Dietrich Bonhoeffer crossed a final bridge. The pastor and theologian, who had often spoken of the church as the “communion of saints” and the “communion of brethren” (let’s hope he included the sisters in his mind!) expanded this concept in the emergency community in Tegel prison. In a profoundly moving poem “Night Voices in Tegel” he describes how e fellow inmate was led away to execution in the early hours of the morning. The scene ends with the words: “I go with you, brother, to that place, and I hear your last words: Brother, when my sun has waned, live on for me.” Brethren are now to be found not only in the communion of saints, brethren are all who share in suffering and persecution and in the desperate hope to survive. “Brother” now also means the non-Christian, the Jewish, the atheist the socialist ( and let me now add the Muslim) brother and sister. This conception of brother- and sisterhood transcends the border of nation, class, race and also of religion.
At the end of his life Bonhoeffer’s understanding of Christian faith is secular, religionless, committed to solidarity. It exists from the “prayer and action of the righteous in human life” and through a border-crossing ecumenical movement from below. In this movement it becomes clear, that , like Christ himself, his disciple is the “man and woman for others” and that the church is only the church when it is there for others. This church is not remote from the struggle for a just, habitable world for all human beings. In following the humiliated Christ it must share in the messianic solidarity with the afflicted and the outcast. A church that, like the German church, through silence and collaboration must share the blame for the devastation of two world wars and for the systematic murder of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ can only act in His name if it offers resistance today to the merciless exclusion of entire regions of the world and of ever larger groups of people from the centers of power, profit and consumption. In the Christ who suffered in solidarity with his humiliated brothers and sisters lies the deepest roots for the secular and responsible existence of those women and men who follow Him, and who—within and outside the church and perhaps even beyond every institutionalized church—will be both the salt of the earth and a subversive element, in praying and doing what is right in human life.