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Apr 8 Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Nazis

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

Today we take the dark journey back to 1945 and travel to Germany and the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was condemned to death by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defence. Today's pod looks at his life, his experience training in America, a brief stint in London. His role in setting up the 'Confessing Church' and his resistance to the Nazis. How he was coaxed back to return to a darkening Germany by Karl Barth, refusing a place to train in India in an ashram with Ghandi.

Bonhoeffer, tragically, would be executed by hanging at dawn, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp, three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, was a key founding member of the Confessing Church. This was a movement within German Protestantism during Nazi Germany that arose in opposition to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church. It is estimated that 3000 pastors out of 19,000 in the country adhered to it. Bonhoeffer has left a rich legacy as a theologian, and gained stature because of his anti-Nazi stance, and is considered a martyr by many and his book The Cost of Discipleship has been described as a modern classic. His vocal opposition to Hitler's euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews lead to his arrest in April 1943 by the Gestapo.

His training at New York City's Union Theological Seminary studying under Reinhold Niebuhr, was a life changing experience. Not for the academic experience, he is quoted as saying dismissively "There is no theology here." but for the life-changing experiences and friendships. Particularly through Frank Fisher, a black fellow-seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals. He was also exposed to the preaching of the Gospel of Social Justice, but was struck by the ineptitude of the church to bring about racial integration. He began to see things "from below"—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, "Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God...the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision." Later, he referred to his time in the States as the point at which he "turned from phraseology to reality."

Returning to Gemany, his opposition to national socialism was immediate and constant. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to be Verführer ( which can be translated as a misleader, or seducer). He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence. Then in April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised the first voice for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews, declaring that the church must not simply "bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam a spoke in the wheel itself”. In a rigged election an overwhelming number of key church positions went to Nazi-supporting Deutsche Christen people, except for the Lutheran churches of Bavaria, Hanover, and Württemberg. He regarded these bodies as uncorrupted "intact churches," as opposed to the other so-called "destroyed churches."

He left for a two-year appointment as a pastor of two German-speaking churches in London: in Dacres Road, Sydenham, and then, Goulston Street, Whitechapel. As the political atmosphere was intensifying in Germany, the influential Swiss theologian Karl Barth accused Bonhoeffer of abandoning his post and wasting his "splendid theological armory" while "the house of your church is on fire," and chided him to return to Berlin "by the next ship.” Barth was largely responsible for the writing of the Barmen Declaration rejecting the influence of Nazism on German Christianity. He argued that the Church's allegiance to the God of Jesus Christ should give it the impetus and resources to resist the influence of other lords, such as the German Führer, Adolf Hitler and mailed this declaration to Hitler personally. This was one of the founding documents of the Confessing Church. Meanwhile back in London, Bonhoeffer was offered an incredible opportunity to study non-violent resistance under Gandhi in his ashram. However remembering Barth's rebuke, he returned to Germany instead, and became the head of an underground seminary in Finkenwalde for training Confessing Church pastors.

In 1938, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from Berlin. In summer 1939, the seminary was able to move to Sigurdshof, an outlying estate of the von Kleist family. Himmler had decreed the education and examination of Confessing Church ministry candidates illegal and the following year the Gestapo shut down the seminary following the outbreak of World War II. Bonhoeffer's monastic communal life and teaching at Finkenwalde seminary formed the basis of his books, The Cost of Discipleship which was a study on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he not only attacked "cheap grace" as a cover for ethical laxity, but also preached "costly grace."

Bonhoeffer served as a courier for the German resistance movement in hope of garnering support of the Western Allies through his ecumenical contacts abroad, and to secure possible peace terms with the Allies for a post-Hitler government. His visits to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland were camouflaged as legitimate intelligence activities for the Abwehr, the German Intelligence agency. In May 1942, he met Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester, through him feelers were sent to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. However, the British government ignored these, as it had all other approaches from the German resistance.

After the failure of the 20th July plot on Hitler's life in 1944 and the discovery of secret Abwehr documents relating to the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer was accused of association with the conspirators. He was transferred from the military prison Tegel in Berlin, where he had been held for 18 months, and then secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp. When the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service "This is the end—for me the beginning of life." Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged with six others including Admiral Canaris; his brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law were executed in Berlin on the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops were already fighting in the capital. The disposition of Bonhoeffer's remains is not known. His body may have been cremated outside the camp along with hundreds of other recently executed or dead prisoners, or American troops may have placed his body in one of several mass graves.

All sixteen volumes of the English Bonhoeffer Works had been published by October 2013. A volume of selected readings entitled The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Reader which presents a chronological view of Bonhoeffer's theological development became available by 1 November 2013. In his prison letters, Bonhoeffer raised questions about the role of Christianity and the church in a "world come of age,". Influenced by Barth's distinction between faith and religion, Bonhoeffer had a critical view of the phenomenon of religion which he called the "garment" of faith. Having witnessed the complete failure of the German Protestant church as an institution in the face of Nazism, he saw this challenge as an opportunity of renewal for Christianity.

He is considered a martyr by many for his courage to stand up to the Nazi's. Westminster Abbey


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