Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Rebel, Spy!

A destroyed city has a certain smell. Dust of smashed bricks mingles with the sweet stench of bodies that are still buried under the rubble. There is a faint whiff of phosphor, the main ingredient of incendiary bombs. It is overlaid with the odor of cooking fires. They are boiling rutabaga, the staple of the German diet in the Berlin of 1945. It is just a few weeks that the guns fell silent and World War II ended in Europe. 

Pariser Platz and Brandenburg Gate, June 1945

Karl and Paula, an elderly couple, dwell in one of the ruined buildings. Many houses are fixed with scrap wood and cardboard to keep the elements at bay. They turn the nob on their radio and try to tune into the BBC. There will be a broadcast from Trinity Church, just off Brompton Road in London. George Bell, the bishop of Chichester will celebrate a memorial service for one of his friends. They look into each other’s eyes and they hope that what they suspect to happen will not come true. They raised eight children. One son fell in World War one. A daughter and her Jewish husband fled to Great Britain, thank God that they got out before the people famous for their poets and thinkers succumbed to unmitigated barbarism. Another son died in a concentration camp and one more son was arrested in 1943. Since Germany fell apart in the spring of 1945 they haven’t heard anything from him.

The BBC announces in the best King’s English that they will now tune into the service at Trinity church, just off Brompton road. George Bell eulogizes his friend. The friend is a German. Many people find it inappropriate to celebrate the life of an enemy, especially as more and more of the horrors of the concentration camps slowly comes to light. But George Bell insists to celebrate the life of a pastor, a theologian and a German spy.

Rev. George Bell

When the bishop of Chichester speaks, Paula and Karl find out that their son Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in the concentration camp Flossenbürg, just a few days before American forces liberated the camp.

Dietrich Boenhoieffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in a non-religious household.  His family didn’t go to church, but he was done with his doctorate in theology before he was 25. In his doctoral thesis in 1927 Bonhoeffer writes a dogmatic study of the sociology of the church. For him the church is neither an institution nor a historical entity, but as he writes 

“Christ existing as a church community.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer does not separate reality into a secular and a divine realm. Christians are called to act in the world as the hands of Christ. Having finished his studies that early meant he was too young to be ordained as a Lutheran pastor.

Because he had time, he went to New York city to study at Union Seminary, which since its founding in 1836 had been a bastion of ecumenical and progressive thought. It was and is a place where Holy Cows are slaughtered and where theologians dare to assume that God’s love might cross narrow denominational boundaries. However, Bonhoeffer was not impressed by what he experienced in the classroom. He wrote: 

“There is no theology here.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Union seemed to be preoccupied with humanism and social justice and not with dogmatics. Bonhoeffer had stumbled into the war between theological Liberalism and Fundamentalism that held New York in its grip in the 1930s. The camps were personified by Harry Emerson Fosdick preaching at Riverside Church that was custom built for him by John D. Rockefeller on the liberal side, and Walter Duncan Buchannan on the fundamentalist side, who preached from the Pulpit of Broadway Presbyterian. Bonhoeffer noticed the same theological demarcation lines in many white congregations.

He had a completely different experience through his friendship with Albert Franklin Fisher, a black man from Alabama who took him to Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem. There he heard the gospel preached and he experienced the liberating power of God’s word. Bonhoeffer learned to see the racial divide of America through black eyes, the eyes of the downtrodden and marginalized who found the hope and power to endure injustice through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not subject of academic debate and sophisticated dogmatics, but Jesus was a real and immediate presence that made a tangible difference in the lives of the people. 

In the 1930s, black people were mostly excluded from public life. The Ku Klux Clan was considered to be an honorable institution by white America. In the segregated South, black people were frequently lynched without consequences for the murderers. But segregation didn’t stop at the Mason Dixon line. Also in the north, the races didn’t mix. Bonhoeffer was one of the few who crossed the line. From a front row seat at Abyssinian Baptist church Bonhoeffer saw the pain and suffering of black people, but he also saw that faith in Jesus Christ made people resilient and tough.

Bonhoeffer saw the purest expression of this close connection to Christ in the music of the black community, especially in gospels and spirituals. Bonhoeffer grew up with the classical musical traditions of the West and before the proliferation of American music after World War Two, gospels and spirituals were virtually unknown in Germany. Bonhoeffer had never heard music like this and these new sounds touched his deepest inner being. This music was born while its creators endured the sinful inhumanity of slavery and those heavenly sounds still continued to serve as a beacon of hope for the oppressed community. It was this music that infused life into the body of Christ. Bonhoeffer amassed a huge collection of records that he would take home and play for his friends and students in the darkest days of Nazi barbarism, when all music that was based on black roots was outlawed by the Nazis. The experience in Harlem would inform Bonhoeffer’s stance just four years later, when the Nuremberg laws racially segregated the German nation by eliminating Jewish people from German society.

Another formative experience in America was Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Jean Lasserre, a French man. The antagonism between German and French people ran deep at the time and many back home would have considered this friendship inappropriate. Both recognized in each other that one could not be a Christian and a nationalist at the same time. Either they believed in Christ and the communion of the church, or in the eternal mission of one nation to wipe the other nation from the face of the earth. 

These views took hold in both men not through their discussions, but through them seeing the movie “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The now classic antiwar novel by Erich Maria Remarque, had burst onto the scene in 1929. In its first year it sold one and half million copies in Germany alone and according to Publishers Weekly it was the best-selling novel of 1929 in the United States. Remarque’s novel shone a realistic light on trench warfare that was usually camouflaged by nationalistic pathos.

The reactions were strong, both positive and negative. The novel became a movie in 1930 and, as the first non-musical, won the Oscar for best picture. Bonhoeffer had a complete emotional breakdown in the movie theater. Lasserre could hardly console his friend after the movie. He later stated that in the movie theater in New York, Bonhoeffer became a pacifist. After a mere nine month, which seemed to Bonhoeffer like a lifetime, he returned to Germany.

On his return to Germany Bonhoeffer took a post as a lecturer at Humboldt University of Berlin, and for the first time in his life he became a regular church goer. 

These were troubled times for Germany. No government lasted longer than half a year. The parliamentary process had broken down. There were no majorities, just a multitude of small and medium sized parties who were not willing to compromise. Various governments ruled with emergency declarations and martial law. The Weimar republic was on the brink of collapse. Political violence and civil war like conditions were a regular occurrence. The Nazis were still a minor player, but their power grew steadily. Eventually, in November 1932, the Nazis won 33% of the vote. Because Social Democrats and Communists could not overcome their deep-seated antagonism, Reichspresident Hindenburg appointed Adolph Hitler chancellor of Germany in January of 1933. 

Adolph Hitler and Reichspresident Hindenburg

Two days later Bonhoeffer gave a radio address. He outlined the fundamental problems of the Fuehrer principle, the leadership of a single person on which Naziism was built. According to Bonhoeffer this person inevitably becomes an idol and a miss-leader. Real authority comes from God, source of all goodness, and worldly authority is therefore responsible to God. In contrast, the Fuehrer by definition has to submit his authority to nobody. Before he could finish the speech, the broadcast was cut off. This might have been a glitch, or it might have been the Nazi regime attempting to silence the voice of faith. Whatever it was, it was a portend of the things to come.

Within the same year, Hitler, who never won the majority of the vote, managed to send the communists to the first concentration camps and get the German parliament to dissolve itself. That left him as the sole governing authority. To consolidate power all major institutions in Germany were forced into alignment with Nazi ideology and were submitted to Nazi leadership. That included the church. The Roman Catholic church signed a Reichskonkordat, an agreement in which they traded silence and obedience to the Nazi state for limited independence. The Protestant church, which was traditionally divided into several independent regional church bodies was united and governed by a Reichsbischof, a single Nazi appointed bishop. That led to the Kirchenkampf, the church struggle.

From the very beginning of Nazi rule German clergy were willing to throw overboard 2000 years of Christian doctrine, turn Jesus into a displaced Aryan instead of a Jew, and remake the Christian faith in alignment with Nazi ideology. In that endeavour they even tried to get rid of the bible. The book was written by Jews, while Jesus, who they professed to be the polar opposite of Judaism, never wrote anything. That meant it was time for German Christians, as they called themselves, to move beyond words. They threw God from God’s throne and replaced God with Hitler. 

Bonhoeffer was a prominent opponent of the German Christians. He was essential in organizing the resistance in practical and theological ways. But Bonhoeffer’s side was losing ground. He felt increasingly isolated as many of his friends, the church and the whole country fell under the spell of the Nazis. In frustration, he applied for a pastorate in England. The church was more than happy to see him leave, while his friend Karl Barth insisted that Bonhoeffer’s place was in Germany to fight for the future of the church. Bonhoeffer took Bart’s arguments seriously, but nevertheless he left. In London he made the acquaintance of George Bell, the bishop of Chichester. They developed a friendship that would become vital during the war, when Bonhoeffer, then a spy for the German military intelligence agency and part of the German resistance movement tried to establish lines of communication with the allies.  

In 1935, while he was in England, he was offered the opportunity to study non-violent resistance with Ghandi in India. Bonhoeffer refused and instead he returned to Germany to head an underground seminary of the confessing church. The confessing church was the remnant of church resistance in Germany. Even though the churches in Germany used it as a fig leave after the war, before the war, it was a minority movement of Protestants that was slowly strangled to death by the Nazis. In 1937 the Gestapo closed the seminary and threw some students and teachers into jail. Bonhoeffer who survived the crackdown continued his work traveling constantly through Eastern Germany with his seminary on the run. 

In this time, he published his best-known book, “The Cost of Discipleship”, in which he attacked cheap grace as cover for ethical depravity like aligning Christianity with Naziism. According to Bonhoeffer –

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In 1938 Bonhoeffers brother-in-law Hans von Dohnany introduced him to a resistance cell in the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Agency. The group wanted to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer also learned that war was on the horizon and that more likely than not he would be conscripted. As a committed pacifist he would never be able to swear an oath to Hitler or fight in the army. This was likely a capital offence and so Bonhoeffer took an invitation from Union Seminary in New York to come to America. In June 1939 he left. Bonhoeffer immediately regretted his decision. He wrote to a friend:

Hans von Dohnany

“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the 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. […] Christians in Germany will have to 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 civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After just two weeks in New York, he returned. On September 1, World War 2 began. 

When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, the Nazis barred him from teaching, speaking and publishing. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnany recruited him into the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence Agency. His official reasoning was that Bonhoeffer’s multiple international and ecumenical contacts might prove useful for intelligence gathering; likely the real reason was that he wanted to protect him from conscription and military service. 

Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS
Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of Main Security Office of the SS

Most intelligence agencies belonged to the SS Reichsicherheitshauptamt, the main security office of the SS. The SS is not a formation of the German military, but the armed wing of the Nazi party. The Abwehr as part of the Wehrmacht, the German military, was able to maintain a certain degree of independence and employ a person that was a known enemy of the regime. The Abwehr was indeed a hotbed of the military resistance in Germany, but it still was an agency that supported Germany’s war goals. The military resisters were not liberal minded supporters of democracy, as post war Germany likes to portray them, but they were rather ultraconservative nationalists, veterans of World War One, educated in elite military schools of the German empire; and they wanted to eradicate the shame of the lost First World War as badly as anyone else in Nazi Germany. 

Bonhoeffer likely knew of the atrocities committed by the SS and the Wehrmacht, especially in the East. The Head of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, had his agency document these atrocities in the hope that this evidence would draw more generals onto the side of the resistance. However, as long as Germany was winning, the conscience of Germany’s military elites remained largely untroubled. That only changed when it became clear that the war was lost. In contrast, Bonhoeffer wrestled with the sinfulness of his involvement in the war. He wrote: 

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Head of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence)

“The ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

He was convinced that only God’s grace would save him for his sinful action of supporting a war of conquest and extermination. 

Under the cover of legitimate intelligence business Bonhoeffer travelled to Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland. As a courier for the military resistance, he tried to establish a line of communication to the allied governments. The purpose was to secure support and favorable conditions for a post-Hitler Germany. Among others, Bonhoeffer met also with his friend George Bell, the bishop of Chichester. Bell was a member of the house of Lords and could convey Bonhoeffers messages to the British government. However, all attempts of communication, Bonhoeffer’s as well as others, were ignored. Germany would be defeated in the field, that and nothing else would end the war. 

Bonhoeffer likely knew of several plots to assassinate Hitler that were planned by Hans von Dohnany. He was convinced that Hitler had to die, but assassination was still a violation of the commandment that Christians should not murder. Again, Bonhoeffer surrendered to the grace of God who promised to forgive all his sins. All plots to kill Hitler failed, and at times they failed in a way that it seemed that Hitler was right and he was indeed an instrument of fate protected by divine forces.  

Conference room in Hitler’s Wolfschanze destroyed by a bomb on July 20th 1944.

The SS was always suspicious of the Abwehr. A currency violation of one Abwehr agent eventually put the SS on the path that led them to suspect Dohnany and Bonhoeffer. When Bonhoeffer noticed that he was observed by Gestapo agents, he realized that his involvement with the resistance could have only one outcome. He made his will. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and brought to Tegel prison. For over a year, he managed to play the simple and idealistic pastor, while at the same time smuggling encoded messages out of prison with the help of sympathetic guards. Canaris and the Abwehr supported Bonhoeffer as much as they could, until the SS achieved their goal; to abolish the Abwehr and concentrate all intelligence operations in the Main Security Office of the SS.

After the failed assassination attempt in July 1944 Canaris and his staff were arrested for their involvement in the attempted coup. When Canaris secret diary was found half a year later, Hitler was outraged about what Canaris had written about him; and he ordered the conspirators of the Abwehr to be executed. This included Bonhoeffer, Dohnany and Dietrich’s brother Karl.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

After his last communion service, Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led to the gallows naked. To a fellow prisoner, a British agent, he directed a final greeting to his friend George Bell, bishop of Chichester. Then Bonhoeffer was hanged in the concentration camp Flossenbürg, on April 9, 1945, 14 days before American Forces liberated the camp. Dohnany and Bonhoeffer’s brother Karl died the day before in Berlin. 

Gallows at Flossenbuerg

Hermann Fisher Hüllstrung, the doctor of the camp, reported after the war that Bonhoeffer displayed his deep faith by praying before he walked up the steps to the gallows and that his death was a matter of seconds. 

“Never was a man more willing to command his spirit into God’s hands and never did God accept a spirit more quickly.” 

Hermann Fisher Hüllstrung

That account was challenged 50 years later, when modern historians noticed that the gallows in Flossenbürg didn’t have any steps. Instead, it was custom in Flossenbürg to torture the delinquents to death, by stringing them up and taking them down just in time so that the good doctor could revive them and they could go through that procedure again and again until hours later they finally died. Most likely, this is what Hüllstrung did also to Bonhoeffer, and to the rest of the conspirators of the Abwehr, who died on the same day on the same gallows. Bonhoeffer’s body was never found.

Three months later, Bishop George Bell ended his eulogy with the words: 

“He was quite clear in his convictions, […] he saw the truth and spoke it out with absolute freedom and without fear. […] He devoted his heart and soul to his parents, his friends, his country, as God willed it to be, to his church and to his master.” 

George Bell

When the broadcast from Trinity church off Brompton Road was finished, Dietrich’s parents Paula and Karl switched off the radio. 

Paula von Haase-Bonhoeffer
Karl Bonhoeffer

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