Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains such an intriguing figure. A pastor who stayed in Germany in WWII so that he might resist Hitler and Nazism, he is one of the more original and evocative 20th century theologians. The 70th anniversary of his assassination has led me back to his work.
Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship in 1937; by 1945 he demonstrated that he really knew what that cost was. He stayed firm against isolation, prison, torture, and threat to his family and friends. Instead of giving in to a holocaust of hope, he chose to to be an encouragement to his own captors, whom he felt suffered also under the inhumanity of National Socialism. Even when the Western world would not listen to his warning against the real threat of Naziism–the Jewish Shoah and a threat to global freedom–Bonhoeffer continued to speak.
When picking up Discipleship, I read the memoir of Bonhoeffer by Leibholz. He begins fairly typically, sketching out what is an unusually provocative family history. But as he moves through Bonhoeffer’s timeline, Leibholz is really writing a primer on Christian humanism. And he does it not only through biographical details, or even through sermons, letters, and books. Instead, Leibholz focusses on some of Bonhoeffer’s prison poetry, set with important life moments. I was so taken by this approach, and the impact of Bonhoeffer’s life, I thought I might share from the memoir. If you are tempted, pick up the book. I am still reeling over its first chapters.
Memoir by G. Leibholz
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau on February 4th, 1906, the son of a university professor and leading authority on psychiatry and neurology. His more remote ancestors were theologians, professors, lawyers, artists. From his mother’s side there was also some aristocratic blood in his veins.
His parents were quite outstanding in character and general outlook. They were very clear-sighted, cultured people and uncompromising in all things which matter in life. From his father, Dietrich Bonhoeffer inherited goodness, fairness, self-control and ability; from his mother, his great human understanding and sympathy, his devotion to the cause of the oppressed, and his unshakable steadfastness.
Both his father and mother brought up their son Dietrich with his three brothers, his twin sister and three other sisters, in Breslau and (from 1912) in Berlin, in that Christian, humanitarian and liberal tradition which to the Bonhoeffers was as native as the air they breathed. It was that spirit which determined Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life from the beginning.
Bonhoeffer was as open as any man could be to all the things which make life beautiful. He rejoiced in the love of his parents, his sisters and brothers, his fiancée, his many friends. He loved the mountains, the flowers, the animals—the greatest and the simplest things in life. His geniality and inborn chivalry, his love of music, art and literature, the firmness of his character, his personal charm and his readiness to listen, made him friends everywhere.But what marked him most was his unselfishness and preparedness to help others up to the point of self-sacrifice. Whenever others hesitated to undertake a task that required special courage, Bonhoeffer was ready to take the risk.
Theology itself was somehow in his blood. On his mother’s side Bonhoeffer’s grandfather, von Hase, had been a chaplain to the Emperor, whose displeasure he incurred when he allowed himself to differ from his political views. When the Emperor stopped attending his services, Hase was urged to tender his resignation. His great-grandfather was Carl von Hase, the most distinguished Church historian in the Germany of the nineteenth century, who tells us in his autobiography of his visit to Goethe in Weimar in 1830, and who (just as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grandfather on his father’s side) was himself imprisoned for his subversive liberal views in the fortress of the High Asperg in 1825. On his father’s side he belonged to an old Swabian family which had been living in Württemberg since 1450 and which was also able to claim not a few theologians in previous generations.
This tradition of the Bonhoeffer family may explain why Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already made up his mind at the age of fourteen, when he was still at school, to read theology. At the age of seventeen he entered Tübingen University. A year later he attended courses at Berlin University, and sat at the feet of Adolf von Harnack, R. Seeberg, Lietzmann and others. Harnack soon formed a very high opinion of his character and abilities. Later he came under the influence of Karl Barth’s theology which, though he never went to his lectures or studied under him, left its mark on Bonhoeffer’s first book, Sanctorum Communio. In 1928 he went as a curate to Barcelona for a year and in 1930 at the age of twenty-four he became a lecturer in Systematic Theology in Berlin University. But before actually starting with his academic career he went to Union Theological Seminary in New York as “a brilliant and theologically sophisticated young man.” His writings quickly gave him a firm reputation in the theological world, especially his Nachfolge which through his death gained a new and deep significance; this book greatly impressed theologians throughout the world at the time when it first made its appearance. Some of his other books, especially his Ethics, written by him in prison, are published in English, and others will appear before long.
A splendid career in the realm of theological scholarship lay thus open before him. In the light of his achievement and in the prospect of what he might have achieved, his death is a great tragedy. But worldly standards cannot measure the loss adequately. For God had chosen him to perform the highest task a Christian can undertake. He has become a martyr. “And seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not. For behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh; but thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest.” “I cannot get away from Jeremiah 45,” wrote Bonhoeffer from the prison cell.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a great realist. He was one of the few who quickly understood, even before Hitler came to power, that National Socialism was a brutal attempt to make history without God and to found it on the strength of man alone. Therefore in 1933, when Hitler came to power, he abandoned his academic career, which seemed to him to have lost its proper meaning. He was not, however, expelled from the University until 1936 and even lectured there in the summer and winter of 1935–36. As late as February 1933 he denounced on the wireless a political system which corrupted and grossly misled a nation and made the “Führer” its idol and god.
In October 1933, after six months of the Church struggle, he decided to leave Berlin for London, where, as a pastor, he ministered to two congregations and tried to explain to his British friends, among them especially the Bishop of Chichester, the true character of the German Church struggle. He quickly realized that in the situation in which the world and the Churches found themselves in the ’thirties nothing was gained any longer for the Churches by citing their old credal statements. The ecumenical movement seemed to him to offer the only way of reuniting the various members of the body of Christ. This explains why Bonhoeffer considered it the duty of the Churches to listen anew to the message of the Bible and to put themselves in the context of the whole Church. Therefore no wonder that Bonhoeffer soon played a remarkable rôle in the ecumenical movement1 and that it was he who, more than any other teacher in a German university or theological seminary, had made German students familiar with the life, the history and development of the non-Lutheran Churches.
In 1935 Bonhoeffer, already one of the leaders of the Confessional Church, returned to Germany. He went to Pomerania to direct an illegal Church Training College, first in a small peninsula in the Baltic, later on in Finkenwalde near Stettin. This College was not formed after any existing model. It was not an order comprising men living in ascetic seclusion; nor was it a Training College in the ordinary sense of the word. The attempt was made here to live the “community life” of a Christian as described in one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s shorter writings. Young ministers who came from all over the Reich learned here what is so sorely needed to-day—namely, how in the twentieth century a Christian life should be lived in a spirit of genuine brotherhood, and how such a life could naturally and freely grow if there were only men who entirely belonged to the Lord and, therefore, in brotherly love to one another. It was not until 1940 that the College was finally closed down by the Gestapo.
When war seemed inevitable, Bonhoeffer’s friends abroad wanted him to leave Germany to save his life, for he was unalterably opposed to serving in the Army in an aggressive war. When asked by a Swede at the Ecumenical Conference at Fanö, Denmark, in 1934, “What will you do when war comes?” he answered: “I shall pray to Christ to give me the power not to take up arms.” In June 1939, American friends got him out of Germany. But soon he felt that he could not stay there, but that he had to return to his country. When he came to England on his return from the United States, his friends quickly realized that Bonhoeffer’s heart belonged to his oppressed and persecuted fellow Christians in Germany and that he would not desert them at a time when they needed him most.
The reasoning which brought Bonhoeffer to his decision belongs, as Reinhold Niebuhr1 says, “to the finest logic of Christian martyrdom.” “I shall have no right,” Bonhoeffer wrote to Niebuhr before leaving America, “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…. 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 this choice in security.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer never regretted this decision, not even in prison, where he wrote in later years: “I am sure of God’s hand and guidance…. You must never doubt that I am thankful and glad to go the way which I am being led. My past life is abundantly full of God’s mercy, and, above all sin, stands the forgiving love of the Crucified.”
At the outbreak of the war friends in Germany managed to spare him the ordeal of serving in the Army, so that he was able to go on with the work for the Confessional Church and to combine it with some activity for the political underground movement to which the war had given its chance. Bonhoeffer, qualified both by character and general outlook, soon belonged to the few who had a strong spiritual influence on the growing opposition in Germany.
Bonhoeffer (together with his sister Christel and her husband, Hans von Dohnanyi) was arrested by the Gestapo in the house of his parents on April 5th, 1943. In prison and concentration camps, Bonhoeffer greatly inspired by his indomitable courage, his unselfishness and his goodness, all those who came in contact with him. He even inspired his guards with respect, some of whom became so much attached to him that they smuggled out of prison his papers and poems written there, and apologized to him for having to lock his door after the round in the courtyard.
His own concern in prison was to get permission to minister to the sick and to his fellow prisoners, and his ability to comfort the anxious and depressed was amazing. We know what Bonhoeffer’s word and religious assistance meant to his fellow prisoners, especially during their last hours (even to Molotov’s nephew Kokorin, who was imprisoned with Bonhoeffer in Büchenwald and to whom the teaching of Christ was brought home); we know what Bonhoeffer’s practical aid meant in prison (Tegel) during political trials to those men of whom ten or twenty were sentenced to death by a military court every week in 1943 and 1944. Some of these (among them a British soldier), charged with sabotage, were saved by him (and his father and solicitor1) from certain death. We have heard that his fellow prisoners were deeply impressed by the calmness and self-control which Bonhoeffer displayed even in the most terrible situations. For instance, during the very heavy bombings of Berlin, when the explosions were accompanied by the howling of his fellow prisoners, who beat with their fists against the locked doors of their cells clamouring to be transferred to the safe bunkers, Bonhoeffer stood, we have been told, like a giant before men.
But this is only the one side of the picture. The other side is that Bonhoeffer was a man who lived in, and loved, this world. He, a giant before man, was but a child before God. While he was in the body, the fight between flesh and spirit, Adam and Christ, was going on in him. Sometimes he seemed to have become a riddle to himself. One day he gave expression to this conflict in his soul in a moving poem written from the prisoncell and entitled:
WHO AM I?
Who am I? They often tell me
I stepped from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Squire from his country house.
Who am I? They often tell me
I used to speak to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I bore the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all.
Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person to-day and to-morrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!
On October 5th, 1944, Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel to the main Gestapo prison in the Prinz Albrechtstrasse in Berlin. Although fully aware of what he had to expect there, he was perfectly calm, saying goodbye to his friends as though nothing had happened, but, as a fellow prisoner remarked, “his eyes were quite unnatural.” The direct contact hitherto maintained with the outside world was now cut. One of the last messages received from him was a poem composed at the Gestapo prison in Berlin during the very heavy air raids on Berlin. It was entitled “New Year 1945” and reads as follows:
With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.
The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of our sorrow still endure.
Father, grant to the soul thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised—the healing and the cure.
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.
But, should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us
and all our life be dedicate as thine.
To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light,
leading us haply to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine e’en our darkest night.
When now the silence deepens for our harkening,
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.
While all the powers of Good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
And oh, most surely on each new year’s day!
In February, when the Gestapo prison in Berlin was destroyed by an air raid, Bonhoeffer was taken to the concentration camp of Büchenwald and from there to other places until he was executed by special order of Himmler at the concentration camp at Flossenburg on April 9th, 1945, just a few days before it was liberated by the Allies. This happened just about the time when his brother Klaus and his sisters’ husbands, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher, met their execution at the hands of the Gestapo in Berlin and in the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen.
The guiding force in Bonhoeffer’s life, underlying all that he did, worked and suffered for, was his faith and love of God, in whom he found peace and happiness. From his faith the breadth of vision came which enabled him to separate the gold in life from the dross and to differentiate what was and what was not essential in the life of man. From it came the constancy of mind, persistency of purpose, love of suffering humanity and of truth, justice and goodness. But it was not enough for him to seek justice, truth, honesty and goodness for their own sake and patiently to suffer for them. No, according to Bonhoeffer, we have to do so in loyal obedience to Him who is the source and spring of all goodness, justice and truth and on whom he felt absolutely dependent.
It is the same call of God which also obliges us only to make use of freedom with a deep feeling of responsibility. Bonhoeffer believed in man as a free spiritual being, but this freedom was conferred and inspired by divine grace and granted man, not for his glorification, but for the conservation of the divine ordering of human life. If Christian teaching does not guide us in the use of freedom and God is denied, all obligations and responsibilities that are sacred and binding on man are undermined. A Christian has then no other choice but to act, to suffer and—if it has to be—to die. As he put it in his poem, “Stations on the Road to Freedom,” composed in prison when he realized that his death was certain, the last verse of which runs as follows:
Come now, solemnest feast on the road to eternal freedom,
Death, and destroy those fetters that bow, those walls that imprison
this our transient life, these souls that linger in darkness,
so that at last we see what is here withheld from our vision.
Long did we seek you, freedom, in discipline, action and suffering.
Now that we die, in the face of God himself we behold you.
It was his brotherly love of his fellow-men which also caused Bonhoeffer to believe that it was not enough to follow Christ by preaching, teaching and writing. No, he was in deadly earnest when he called for Christian action and self-sacrifice. This explains why Bonhoeffer always acted spontaneously, “in hiding,” far from all publicity, and why he considered self-righteousness and complacency great sins against the Holy Spirit, and regarded ambition and vanity as the start of the road to hell.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Courtyard of Tegal Prison
Bonhoeffer stood for what is called Christian Humanism to-day. For he offered his life for a new understanding of the personal life which has its roots in the Christian faith. It was he who made true the word that “the spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord” (Prov. 20.27) and that God’s revelation is through man and for man only. To Bonhoeffer, Christianity was not the concern of the believing, pious soul who shuts himself up and keeps himself within the bounds of the sacramental sphere. No, according to him Christianity has its place in this world and the Church as the Body of Christ, and the fellowship in him can only be the visible Church. Man must follow him who has served and passed through this world as the living, the dying and the risen Lord. Therefore, wherever it pleases God to put man in this world, the Christian must be ready for martyrdom and death. It is only in this way that man learns faith.
As he himself has put it: “The Christian is not a homo religiosus, but simply a man as Jesus (in distinction from John the Baptist) was a man…. Not the flat and banal ‘This-sidedness’ of the Enlightened, of the deep ‘This-sidedness’ which is full of discipline and in which the knowledge of the Death and Resurrection is always present, this it is what I mean.1 When a man really gives up trying to make something out of himself—a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called clerical somebody), a righteous or unrighteous man,… when in the fullness of tasks, questions, success or ill-hap, experiences and perplexities, a man throws himself into the arms of God… then he wakes with Christ in Gethsemane. That is faith, that is metanoia and it is thus that he becomes a man and Christian. How can a man wax arrogant if in a this-sided life he shares the suffering of God?”
The idea that God himself has been suffering through Christ in this world and from its remoteness from him, had occupied Bonhoeffer’s mind again and again. Bonhoeffer frequently felt strongly that God himself shared his suffering. In the second verse of the poem “Christian and Unbeliever,” composed by Bonhoeffer a few months before his death, this feeling is expressed as follows:
Men go to God when he is sore bested:
find him poor and scorned, without shelter and bread,
whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead.
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
Bonhoeffer’s standing with God in his hour of grieving explains, ultimately, why he did not take his own suffering seriously and why his courage was so great and uncompromising.
This steadfastness of mind and preparedness to sacrifice everything has been proved on many occasions. For instance, when in the summer of 1940 despair had seized most of those who were actively hostile to the Nazi régime and when the proposal was made that further action should be postponed so as to avoid giving Hitler the air of a martyr, Bonhoeffer unswervingly and successfully opposed this suggestion: “If we claim to be Christians, there is no room for expediency.” Thus the group led by him went on with its activities at a time when the world inside and outside Germany widely believed in a Nazi victory. Or when the question arose as to who was prepared to inform the British Government, through the Bishop of Chichester, of the exact details of the German resistance movement, it was again Bonhoeffer who, as early as May 31st, 1942, at the risk of his life, undertook this task at the instigation of his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in the hope of a sympathetic understanding on the part of the British Government.
Further, in his hearing before the Gestapo during his imprisonment, defenceless and powerless as he then was and only fortified by the word of God in his heart, he stood erect and unbroken before his tormentors. He refused to recant, and defied the Gestapo machine by openly admitting that, as a Christian, he was an implacable enemy of National Socialism and its totalitarian demands towards the citizen—defied it, although he was continually threatened with torture and with the arrest of his parents, his sisters and his fiancée, who all had a helping hand in his activities. We know of another scene in October 1944, when friends made an attempt to liberate him and to take him to safety abroad, and he decided to remain in prison in order not to endanger others.
We also know from the testimony of a British officer, a fellow-prisoner, of the last service which Dietrich Bonhoeffer held on the day before his death and which “moved all deeply, Catholics and Protestants alike, by his simple sincerity.” When trying afterwards to keep the imprisoned wives of men executed for their leadership in the plot against Hitler from depression and anxiety, he was taken away. We know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was never tried, went steadfastly on his last way to be hanged, and died with admirable calmness and dignity.
God heard his prayer and granted him the “costly grace”—that is, the privilege of taking the cross for others and of affirming his faith by martyrdom.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and work has far-reaching implications. First, Bonhoeffer’s and his friends’ political activities show that the still widely-held view that the plot of July 1944 was simply a “conspiracy of a small clique of reactionaries and discouraged officers,” who saw that Hitler was losing the war and had made a mess of their profession, is wrong. There also was in the German opposition movement another strand of uncorrupted spiritual forces which opposed all that Hitler and National Socialism stood for on grounds of Christianity and the basic values of life, of truth, justice, goodness and decency. This trend drew its members from quite different political parties and religious groups. None of these men stood for a special party belief, but for a certain way of life, the destruction of which was the avowed purpose of National Socialism. Here there was the “other Germany” of which there was so much talk in the ’thirties. These men were in truth the upholders of the European and Western tradition in Germany, and it was Dietrich Bonhoeffer who more than anybody else realized that nothing less than a return to the Christian faith could save Germany. The failure of these men was not only a tragedy for Germany, but for Europe as a whole, and historians may well come one day to the conclusion that the consequences of this failure cannot be made good.
The existence of this strand within the German opposition movement confirms that the last war was, ultimately, ideological in its basic character and that we are living to-day in a primarily ideological age. Only thus can we fully understand the motives of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s action. No doubt, Bonhoeffer was a great patriot and he loved his country so much that he preferred death to safety. But he was also too astute a political analyst not to see that Germany would be engulfed in the coming catastrophe. The fanatical devilish forces within National Socialism left no alternative. They were aiming at the destruction of Germany as a European and Christian country. By planned political action he hoped to avoid this tragic disaster. As he used to say: it is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all.
Ultimately, it was the allegiance which he owed to God and his master which forced upon him the terrible decision, not merely to make a stand against National Socialism (all the underground movements in the German-occupied countries did that), but also—and this in contradistinction to all the underground movements which appealed to nationalism—to work for the defeat of his own country, since only thus could Germany as a Christian and European country be saved from extinction. For this very reason Bonhoeffer and his friends were tortured, hanged and murdered. It was Bonhoeffer and his friends who proved by their resistance unto death that even in the age of the nation-state there are loyalties which transcend those to state and nation. They proved that even in this age nationalism stands under God and that it is a sin against him and his call for fellowship with other nations if it degenerates into national egotism and greed. This message, which implies the virtual death sentence of the still prevailing materialistic concept of nationalism, belongs to the spiritual inheritance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s and his friends’ martyrdom. Only from this point of view can it be proved that Hitler and his gang were not only the destroyers of Europe but also traitors to their own country; and, further, that men can lose their country if it is represented by an anti-Christian régime.
True, it cannot be said that the war had actually been waged by the Western countries on these ideological lines. We know that in the later stages of the war, when the regrettable “unconditional surrender” policy of Casablanca was accepted by the Western countries, the war had gradually lost its ideological character and taken on a more and more nationalistic outlook. This was due to the fact that the West and its political leaders were, ultimately, not confronted with the tragic conflict of loyalties to which Christians in Germany were exposed. Of course, there were in the Western countries outstanding Christians and non-Christians who felt this conflict weighing heavily on their conscience and their thought and courageously refused during the war to bow down to public opinion.1 These men raised the claims of a higher loyalty than the national, and challenged politicians and churchmen alike. But they had not experienced the full weight of the tragic issue at stake. Only those who paid with their lives for the tragic conflict of loyalties can claim to be the martyrs of a new age.
Secondly, the religious implications concern the Protestant Church in Germany especially, but also affect the Church as a whole.
In the earlier stages of his career Bonhoeffer accepted the traditional Lutheran view that there was a sharp distinction between politics and religion. Gradually, however, he revised his opinion, not because he was a politician or because he refused to give Caesar his due, but because he came to recognize that the political authority in Germany had become entirely corrupt and immoral and that a false faith is capable of terrible and monstrous things. For Bonhoeffer Hitler was the Antichrist, the arch-destroyer of the world and its basic values, the Antichrist who enjoys destruction, slavery, death and extinction for their own sake, the Antichrist who wants to pose the negative as positive and as creative.
Bonhoeffer was firmly and rightly convinced that it is not only a Christian right but a Christian duty towards God to oppose tyranny, that is, a government which is no longer based on natural law and the law of God. For Bonhoeffer this followed from the fact that the Church as a living force in this world entirely depends on her this-sidedness. Of course, Bonhoeffer understood this term neither in the sense of modern liberal theology nor in the sense of the National Socialist creed. Both modern liberal theology and secular totalitarianism hold pretty much in common that the message of the Bible has to be adapted, more or less, to the requirements of a secular world. No wonder, therefore, that the process of debasing Christianity as inaugurated by liberal theology led, in the long run, to a complete perversion and falsification of the essence of Christian teaching by National Socialism. Bonhoeffer was firmly convinced that “this side” must be fully related to, and permeated by, Christian love, and that the Christian must be prepared, if necessary, to offer his life for this. Thus all kinds of secular totalitarianism which force man to cast aside his religious and moral obligations to God and subordinate the laws of justice and morality to the State are incompatible with his conception of life.
This explains why Bonhoeffer did not take the pacifist line, although his aristocratic noble-mindedness and charming gentleness made him, at the bottom of his heart, a pacifist. But to refrain from taking any part in the attempt to overcome the National Socialist régime conflicted too deeply with his view that Christian principles must in some way be translated into human life and that it is in the sphere of the material, in state and society, that responsible love has to be manifested.
Again, it was typical of Bonhoeffer that he did not commit the Church by his actions. The responsibility was his and not that of the Church, and therefore he cannot, alas, be said to have represented by his action the Confessional Church as a whole. True, the Barmen Declaration had committed the Church to action in the political as well as in the religious sphere, and Bonhoeffer left no doubt that deciding for or against Barmen was deciding for or against the Confessional Church in Nazi Germany. As he once said: “He who severs himself from the Confessional Church severs himself from the Grace of God.” But there were only a few of its members who took the Barmen message so seriously that they were prepared courageously to act upon the practical consequence of their conclusions. Therefore we cannot be surprised that Bonhoeffer was filled with increasing sorrow about the course the Confessional Church took in the later years of the National Socialist régime. He felt that the Confessional Church was more concerned with her own existence and inherited rights than with preaching against the war and with the fate of the persecuted and oppressed. Thus it was Bonhoeffer who first brought home the full lesson of the Oxford Conference to the Lutheran Church in Germany, namely, that the life of the Church must be linked with the life of the people. This is the deeper meaning of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom and death for the Protestant Church in Germany. Her future depends on her right understanding of them.
Those who attended the service held at Holy Trinity in London at the instigation of the late Bishop of Chichester on July 27th, 1945,1 felt that, on April 9th, 1945, when Dietrich Bonhoeffer met his death at the hands of the S.S. Black Guards, something had happened in Germany that could not be measured by human standards. They felt that God himself had intervened in the most terrible struggle the world has witnessed so far by sacrificing one of his most faithful and courageous sons to expiate the crimes of a diabolical régime and to revive the spirit in which the civilization of Europe has to be rebuilt.
Indeed, if self-sacrifice is the highest fulfilment of the human being, and if the value of man with his bodily existence depends on the measure of sacrifice he is called to exercise for the sake of responsible love in the material environment in which he has been set, then Bonhoeffer’s life and death belong to the annals of Christian martyrdom, or, as Niebuhr said, “to the modern Acts of the Apostles.” His good fight has been a living symbol that the spiritual has the primacy over the material. His story has become the story of the victory of the spirit of the loving and truly human person over evil, evil which was not able to break the last stronghold of responsible spiritual freedom. “The life of the spirit is not that which shuns death and keeps clear of destruction: rather it endureth death and in death it is sustained. It only achieves its truth in the midst of utter destruction.”
It has often been said that those of the many who are not directly guilty for the crimes of the former régime in Germany must be punished for their passive attitude towards it. In a modern dictatorship, however, with its subterranean ubiquity and all-embracing instruments of oppression, a revolt means certain death to all who support it. To reproach in a modern tyranny a people as a whole for failing to revolt is as if one would reproach a prisoner for failing to escape from a heavily guarded prison. The majority of the people in all nations alike does not consist of heroes. What Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others did cannot be expected from the many. The future in modern society depends much more on the quiet heroism of the very few who are inspired by God. These few will greatly enjoy the divine inspiration and will be prepared to stand for the dignity of man and true freedom and to keep the law of God, even if it means martyrdom or death. These few perform the law because they “look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are unseen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Bonhoeffer often asked himself about the deeper meaning of his life, which seemed to him so disconnected and confused. A few months before his death, when coming events cast their shadows before, he wrote in prison: “It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments which are only good to be thrown away, and others which are important for centuries to come because their fulfilment can only be a divine work. They are fragments of necessity. If our life, however remotely, reflects such a fragment… we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it.”
Indeed, we have to rejoice in God’s mercy. We have not found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s grave, but the memory of his life will safely be guarded, not only in the hearts of those who are indissolubly united with him, but also in the heart of the Church who draws her life-blood again and again from those who “follow him.”
Beyond that we know that the time will come when we shall have to realize that we owe it to the inspiration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death, and of those who died with him, that Western civilization can be saved. For not only in its material standards, but also in its spiritual vitality, has Western civilization been falling steadily and with increasing rapidity into ruin and desolation. The good message of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death is that Western civilization must not die. It will be born again to youth. It has already recaptured faith and vitality. What was said of Moses as he went to his death, “And the Lord showed him all the land” (Deut. 34.1), applies to Bonhoeffer and to those who have given their lives for the new humanity which will arise through their martyrdom.
Thus Bonhoeffer’s life and death have given us great hope for the future. He has set a model for a new type of true leadership inspired by the gospel, daily ready for martyrdom and death and imbued by a new spirit of Christian humanism and a creative sense of civic duty. The victory which he has won was a victory for us all, a conquest never to be undone, of love, light and liberty