How One Pastor Fought the Nazis (And Showed Us How It’s Done)

Sculpture by Edith Breckwoldt, Photo by Emma7stern

Back in the early 1930s, a young German pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in a quandary. Adolf Hitler was a rising power. And the Nazis party was swallowing more and more of German culture, assimilating it into the Third Reich. The church was no exception. I wish I could say that the bulk of the religious leaders were coerced and bullied into joining the Nazis. But the truth was, many of them not only willingly supported Hitler, but they also saw his vision of making Germany great as a part of God’s plan to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.

Ponder that for a moment.

But not all of the religious leaders were seduced. A handful of them refused to give their endorsement and even became outspoken critics of the government and their complicit colleagues. In 1934 they issued the “Barmen Declaration” which urged Germans to test government propaganda with the Word of God, and where it differed, to reject it. In typical fashion, the Nazis responded with swift brutality. Pastors who signed the document were drafted into the army and sent to the front. Professors were required to sign statements of loyalty to the Third Reich, and if they refused, they were thrown into jail.

At the time, Bonhoeffer lived outside of Germany, and he was feeling increasingly uncomfortable with his life of ease while his fellow clergymen were being persecuted back at home.  And he was probably still reeling from the death of his grandmother, who had died defying Nazi orders concerning the Jews. And so, when a group from the Confessing Church invited him back to Germany to teach at Finkenwalde, an underground seminary, Bonhoeffer accepted, despite the vocal protests of his friends.

bonhoeffer with congregation
By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

The young pastor soon found himself struggling alongside his fellow countrymen under the scrutiny and oppression of Hitler’s henchmen. The Gestapo increasingly made things difficult for him, disbanding his seminary, exiling him from Berlin, and intimidating him in order to keep him silent. But Bonhoeffer continued to actively work against the Third Reich. Prior to his move to Germany, he had been an ardent pacifist. But after being immersed in a culture of moral decay, he came to the conclusion that he could not sit idly by and let others make the hard choices for him.

This is one of the things I greatly admire about Bonhoeffer, and the big idea I feel he teaches us today. In a word, Bonhoeffer recognized the dangers of fundamentalism, whether it came from a political or theological perspective. He understood that truth and morality and ethics called for constant reevaluation. And sometimes tough choices had to be made in the middle of complicated situations. In Bonhoeffer’s context, after coming face to face with the raw evil expressed in the Nazi regime, and the noble courage of his fellow pastors who stood up to the SS bullies with shaky but resolute legs, he acted on a conviction that his love for humanity must take priority over his commitment to pacifism.

After a great deal of agonizing, Bonhoeffer chose to join a group of conspirators who sought to assassinate Hitler. If Jesus had been alive in Germany at this time is that what He would have done? It’s a great “what if?” But we’re not Jesus. We’re not even close. The reality is that Jesus left us in this very beautiful and broken world, filled with good and evil and everything in between; and He commanded us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. It is a vague charge. And as Bonhoeffer wrestled with this idea, he concluded in his classic work, The Cost of Discipleship, that it means that we have to give up the comforts of our shallow Christianity and its offer of “cheap grace” to live a life of discipleship that will cost us everything. Bonhoeffer put it this way,

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Bonhoeffer had become convinced that the world had become “religionless.”  But unlike his former mentor Karl Barth who had argued that the church must only do theology for itself, Bonhoeffer felt convicted that the Church must still find a way to effectively communicate with the world somehow, even one controlled by Nazis.  He concluded,

There is no God apart from the world.

Now, that’s sounds great on paper. But how do you apply it? For Bonhoeffer, it meant not giving up on the world, even if it cost you everything–which in his case, it did. When the Gestapo found out about the assassination plot, they arrested him, and threw him into Tegel Prison. What made this, perhaps, especially brutal was the fact that at the time he was engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer.

Photo by Concordiadomi. Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945.

Though a reluctant activist and assassin, Bonhoeffer was a passionate pastor. While in prison, he befriended fellow inmates and even the guards and administrators, continuing to give of himself as he offered comfort and counsel to friend and enemy alike. In return, they helped him smuggle letters and writings out of the prison, allowing him to continue to be a powerful voice in the conflict. Eventually, as the war regressed and it became clear that Germany was about to lose, the government decided to exterminate prisoners it deemed most dangerous. A few days before his prison was liberated by the Americans, Bonhoeffer was hanged.

What’s remarkable about Bonhoeffer’s story is that it is a beautiful illustration of the struggle to understand how to live the teachings of Jesus during times of moral decay. We like to couch issues in black and white terms. We are the good guys and they are the bad guys. But Jesus doesn’t give us that option. We want choices to be clear, simple, and easy. But life doesn’t give us that luxury. Bonhoeffer challenges us to apply our theology to the real world. Which means that in the end, like him, we are all left to do the best we can, sometimes with no comfortable options to choose from. Because loving one’s neighbor isn’t as simple as clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. And it isn’t as easy as always turning the other cheek. And that’s OK. Because, as Bonhoeffer wrote,

When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.

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