April 1995 Newsletter
Association of Contemporary Church Historians
(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)
John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia
Newsletter no. 3, April 1995
In Memoriam Dietrich Bonhoeffer
For April 9th
Fifty years ago, on April 9th 1945, the noted German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was murdered by the SS-Gestapo in Flossenburg Concentration camp in southern Germany. His “crime” had been to be associated with the group of men who sought to overthrow the Nazi regime, culminatin in the traic failure of their attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20th July 1944. Bonhoeffer had become involved with this heroic Resistance group through his brothers-in-law, whose positions in the army and civil service had led them to their determination to put a stop to the Nazis’ criminal barbarities, if necessary by directly conspiring against Hitler himslef. The failure of their attempts and their subsequent executions for high treason deal a decisive blow to any hopes for an early end to the Nazi regime.
Bonhoeffer himself, out of a strong sense of national loyalty, had long opposed the anti-Christian and immoral deeds of the Nazis. As a theologian teaching at Berlin University, he had already spoken out against the Nazi perversion of the Gospel in 1933, and had been sent into banishment to be Chaplain to the Lutherna congregations in London. But then he was recalled to lead a clandestine and later illegal theological seminary for young pstors, and had been drawn in closer to more conspiratorial activities trying to undermine the regime.
In 1939, during a brief visit to the United States, he was offered the chance to stay there in safety. But he refused. “Christians in Germany, he wrote, 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 must choose,. but I cannot make that choice in security”.
So he went back, and became involved in various secret moves, including one to smuggle Jews to Switzerland. He was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion in April 1943, and so was not directly involved in the July 1944 plot. But his close ties to the conspirators led Hitler to order that on no account was he to survive the end of the war. In fact, only a few days after his murder, Flossenburg was liberated by the U.S.army.
While he was imprisoned, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of letters to his friend and pupil, Eberhard Bethge, then serving in th German army in Italy, which were smuglled out by a friendly warder. These letters were buried underground for reasons of safety, but later rescued and published under the title “Letters and Papers from Prison”. Bonhoeffer’s stimulating ideas about the future of Christianity, as seen from his prison cell, made a tremendous impression in the post-war world, and established his reputation as one of Germany’s most significant theologians of this century. Together with his important but unfinished work on Ethics, these writings presented a new and challenging view of Christian responsibility in a world of totalitarian dictatorships, and were to have a profound influence in later years, particularly in Communist-dominated East Germany.
But above all, it was Bonhoeffer’s faith which shines through. After the discovery ofnthe 20th July plot, Bonhoeffe, his brother, his uncle and two brothers-in-law were all aware that they would have to pay the ultimate price. His last word to the outside world was a request to a fellow prisoner to deliver a message to his long-time friend Bishop George Bell of Chichester. “Tell him that for me this is the end, but also the beginning of life. With him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain”.
Three months later Bishop Bell paid a fitting tribute at a memorial service in London. “As one of the noble company of martyrs of differing traditions, Bonhoeffer represents both the resistance of the believing soul, in the name of God, to the assault of evil, but also the moral and political revolt of the human conscience against injustice and cruelty”.
Fifty years later Bonhoeffer’s witness is still a valid testimony for the Christian church, not only in his homeland Germany, but world-wide. He is now remembered in the Anglican Calendar on his birthday, February 4th.
With best wishes