Today, April 9, marks 77 years to the day that theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was executed for his involvement in the most famous of several plots to assassinate Hitler. As a friend observed yesterday in Inkling Folk Fellowship’s Memorium for Bonhoeffer, he died exactly three weeks before Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. Within two months, Germany had surrendered.
I was first exposed to Bonhoeffer’s work because my father loved his book The Cost of Discipleship, which seems to be one of the core texts that most American Christians discover him through. Since I spent age 3-10 up in a small Roman Catholic village in Germany’s Eiffel region, I felt an odd connection to the stories I heard about Bonhoeffer’s generation. In some way, his story captured everything I found exciting, yet conflicting about the period.
On the one hand, I loved WWII historical fiction novels – Kris’s War by Carol Matas, Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, and the dozens of similar books that always appeared on school reading lists. They reminded me that terrible carnage happened in World War II, and that there were good people who fought against the evil regimes.
On the other hand, as I grew older I came to appreciate memoirs by people who had taken part in the war (The Spy Wore Red) and stories from Jewish writers (such as George Steiner’s alternate history novel about finding 90-year-old Hitler in the Amazon). These more complex works helped me see that the conflict was complicated than I’d thought. There were genuine certifiable psychopath who committed evil, and everyday people who just followed orders and contributed to the carnage. And there were people who fought evil, but not always as publicly or consistently as I would wish.
Seen in context, Bonhoeffer’s life shows that complexity. On a spectrum where one end has German resistance fighters like The White Rose, and the other end has German pacifists like Eberhard Arnold who fought the system in other ways, Bonhoeffer fits somewhere in the middle.
On the one hand, Bonhoeffer was involved in the assassination plot to kill Hitler. He also spoke out against the Nazis many times. He was initially arrested for his connections to Operation 7, which smuggled 14 Jews into Switzerland.
On the other hand, Bonhoeffer started out a pacifist and struggled with whether a Christian should take up arms against evil leaders. While Bonhoeffer did help Jews escape the Nazis, his organization the Confessing Church didn’t initially try to save all Jews (only Jewish converts to Christianity). As I learned in my research for an article commemorating his birthday, there is a lot of debate on how we should read Bonhoeffer’s final notes, a plan for a book on the need for a new “religion-less Christianity.”
In short, Bonhoeffer was a complex man. Different movements have co-opted him in various ways. The 1960s Death of God theologians saw his prison letters as fodder for Christian existentialism. More recently, conservative American Christians have seen him as a kind of Braveheart William Wallace for intellectuals. I try to remember, as Erik Larson put in his preface to In the Garden of Beasts, that “these were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.”