In Memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
April 9 marks the 70th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by his Nazi captors in 1945.
Picture yourself in Hitler’s Germany where the Nazis were murdering children with genetic defects and adults with disabilities. Your Jewish neighbors were disappearing to concentration camps, never to be seen again. What would you do? Bonhoeffer, driven by his Christian faith, decided to join a resistance movement against Hitler and was arrested for his activities. While Bonhoeffer was in prison, the resistance group that he was a part of attempted to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944. Because of Bonhoeffer’s involvement with the resistance group, he was condemned to death. He was hung at Flossenbuerg concentration camp two weeks before it was liberated by the US Infantry.
Who was this man Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
Bonhoeffer was born into an aristocratic German family in 1906. He had a remarkable sensitivity combined with a piercing intellect. At age 14 he decided to become a theologian and minister, eventually earning a doctorate in theology from Berlin University. Two days after Hitler came to power on Jan. 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer was on the German radio warning his listeners of the dangers of the new concept of Fuehrer.
His address was terminated in mid-sentence. When the Nazis co-opted the German Evangelical Church, making it the “Reich Church,” Bonhoeffer protested its anti-Semitism and helped found the Confessing Church which placed Jesus above Hitler and the state. The Confessing Church called on Bonhoeffer to head an underground seminary, training many pastors who would be imprisoned for opposing the Nazis.
In 1939 he served as guest faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. This could have been his chance to escape Germany, but he wrote “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.” So, he returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic before World War II.
The Germany to which Bonhoeffer returned in 1939 was one of anti-Semitism, repression, and warmongering. Through his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer was able to secure a position in a German agency independent from the Gestapo, which served as a convenient front for some of those involved in political resistance. On April 5, 1943 the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer, his brother-in-law, and some friends on the pretext of having broken certain Intelligence laws. Bonhoeffer was to spend the remainder of his life in either a prison or a concentration camp. Instead the Nazis executed him four days later.
With Bonhoeffer’s death, the world lost a highly principled man who did not let concerns for his personal well-being dissuade him from speaking out. His life serves as a challenge and example to all of us. Are we willing to speak truth to power?
Jim Manning is a retired physician who lives in Alameda