Elsewhere in this issue is the account of Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death. He was killed by his Nazi captors only a few days before the collapse of the Nazi regime. Until the news of his death arrived, ecumenical leaders here and in Britain hoped and prayed that his life would be spared.
The story of Bonhoeffer is worth recording. It belongs to the modern Acts of the Apostles. Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders of the Confessional Synod. He was the head of the secret theological seminary conducted by the Synod after the Nazis had corrupted the theological education of the universities. Despite his youth, for he was in his thirties, he was one of the most influential religious oppositional leaders in Germany. He was certainly the most uncompromising and heroic.
During the last two years Bonhoeffer was in and out of prison. He was in prison when the attempt was made on Hitler’s life last June. He might have lost his own life at that time because he was an intimate adviser of some of the men who, inspired by religious motives participated in the plot on Hitler’s life, hoping thereby to bring the evil Nazi regime to an end. He was actually sentenced to be executed; but his life was spared when the judge who sentenced him lost his life in a bomb raid upon Berlin before he had signed Bonhoeffer’s death sentence. Delay in the certificate of execution first postponed and finally led to the commutation of the death sentence. It now appears, however, that the Nazis killed him and his brother Klaus, together with some known anti-Nazi leaders shortly before the American armies advanced upon his prison.
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young theologian who combined a deep piety with a high degree of intellectual sophistication. He was strongly under the influence of Barthian theology. When he was in this country in 1930-31 as German fellow at Union Theological Seminary he was inclined to regard political questions as completely irrelevant to the life of faith. But as the Nazi evil rose he became more and more its uncompromising foe. With Barth he based his opposition to Nazism upon religious grounds. I still remember a discussion of theological and political matters I had with him in London in 1939 when he assured me that Barth was right in becoming more political; but he criticized Barth for defining his position in a little pamphlet. “If” he declared in rather typical German fashion “one states an original position in many big volumes, one ought to define the change in one’s position in an equally impressive volume and not in a little pamphlet.” He himself was too busy in the affairs of a militant church to state his own position in many books. One book by him on “Discipleship” was written in 1937. But it is safe to say that his life and death will become one of the sources of grace for the new church in a new Germany.
In July of 1939 Bonhoeffer made one of his periodic visits to Britain, where he often conferred with ecumenical leaders, particularly with the Bishop of Chichester, who was then, as now, a kind of unofficial “protector” of Confessional Synod militants. At that time Bonhoeffer told me that Hitler would attack Poland before the end of the summer; that the executive committee of the Synod had agreed with him that he ought to leave Germany rather than be destroyed, since he was unalterably opposed to Hitler’s war. It was felt that his life might well be saved for the work of the church after the war.
Quick communication to America procured for him the desired official invitations which were necessary to get him out of Germany. Dr. Coffin of Union Seminary arranged for various invitations, including one to teach in the summer school at the seminary.
The war had already begun when I next heard from him. He wrote somewhat to this effect: “Sitting here in Dr. Coffin’s garden I have had the time to think and to pray about my situation and that of my nation and to have God’s will for me clarified. I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. 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 brothers in the Confessional 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 man must make for himself. Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.״
Bonhoeffer had remarkably clear religious insights and the purity of a completely dedicated soul. Considering how recently he had developed his political and social interests, his shrewdness in assessing political and military tendencies was also remarkable. When Hitler invaded Russia and his armies stood deep in Russian territory, Bonhoeffer assured Dr. Visser t’Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, that the Russian invasion spelt Hitler’s doom. In 1942 he met his friend, the Bishop of Chichester, in Stockholm and gave him advance information on the coup d’état involving an attempt on Hitler’s life, which finally took place in June, 1944. He wanted the Bishop to let British and American authorities know that if certain people, whom he mentioned, were involved in the plot, they could regard it as a bona fide anti-Nazi venture. Unfortunately the little group which prepared this plot were in some respects too unskilled in the dangerous work which they undertook. Yet they came, according to reliable information, rather more closely to success than is usually assumed. But what the group lacked in skill it compensated for in devotion. Another young Christian layman, associated with Bonhoeffer, Adam von Troth, was among the 19 who were executed.
Some American Christians have been rather dismayed by the fact that the great Martin Niemoeller, who has become the symbol of Protestant Christian resistance to Nazism, seems to have learned so little about the relation of Christian faith to civic virtue. The interviews he has given since his liberation prove the greatness of his soul but also his inability to transcend some of the errors which had dogged Christians in Germany, when dealing with matters of political justice and civic virtue. He still thinks that the church deals with men’s souls and the state with their bodies, and thus he denies the spiritual unity of man in his various relationships.
Bonhoeffer, less known than Niemoeller, will become better known. Not only his martyr’s death but also his actions and precepts contain within them the hope of a revitalized Protestant faith in Germany. It will be a faith, religiously more profound, than that of many of its critics; but it will have learned to overcome the one fateful error of German Protestantism, the complete dichotomy between faith and political life.
In an ecumenical group meeting in Geneva in 1941 Bonhoeffer made a remark which symbolizes the purity and the profundity of his faith. Asked for the content of his thought in a period of meditation he declared: “I am praying for the defeat of my nation. Only in and through defeat can it expiate the grievous wrong which it has done Europe and the world.”