The Justice League - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
History tends to embellish the lives of revered moral leaders by overhyping their achievements to an almost farcical degree.
We like to ignore the fact that even the best of us can fall short of their own lofty ideals. It doesn’t make them hypocrites, it makes them human and if history teaches us anything it’s that moral victories often go hand in hand with death, struggle and sacrifice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have been no stranger to this observation.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian, pastor, scholar, youth leader, musician and spiritual writer. He took his place in history framed against the rise of Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi Party won the right to rule Germany on 14th July 1933 (there’s more to that story too but I’m sure you already know that).
In modern Christian circles Bonhoeffer is revered as one of the greatest Christian teachers of our times - a passionate man of God, a resolute hero of modern theology and a staunch leader of peace and justice.
He also tried really hard to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
See what I mean about moral absolutes? The truth is invariably more complex.
And more interesting.
Bonhoeffer was undeniably an incredible academic. He blew through the German educational system, achieving his Staatsexamen (bachelors and masters degrees) and two doctorates by 1929. He went on to reach the pinnacle of German academic achievement, becoming a Privatdozent (literally translates to ‘private teacher’) before the age of 25.
Next his studies took him to New York where, although ultimately disappointed with the quality of the teaching he received, he became involved with a black majority Baptist church in Harlem. The experience was to have a profound effect on his life and work, witnessing, as he did, the daily persecution of black people in 1930s America.
It's a compelling image - this white German academic worshiping God with all his heart in a persecuted church, far from home.
It changed him.
An invigorated Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1933. The church at that time was in disarray as the Nazi’s forced an unconstitutional election on church leadership across the country. It was a rigged election and many German churches fell into Nazi hands, swearing fealty to the Nazi state and proclaiming it as the head of the church.
Bonhoeffer became a minority - a radical voice actively campaigning against Nazism. It pushed him and elements of the church underground. By 1939 war was inevitable. At the age of 32 he worried he might be conscripted into Hitler’s army and fled to America again, returning just 26 days later:
"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.”
Once back in Germany almost all his family became involved in a conspiracy to bring down Hitler. Bonhoeffer surreptitiously became a spy, joining his brother-in-law by working for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence.
Bonhoeffer, an undisputed man of God who had preached peace and justice his whole life, had to rapidly reconcile himself with his own involvement in a plot to kill another human being:
"When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace."
In terms of the assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was mainly involved in intelligence gathering but on a more practical level he also helped smuggle Jews out of Germany. It was for this that he was finally caught and imprisoned in 1943. However, it wasn’t until September 1944 that a number of secret Abwehr documents were discovered and Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the wider plot was exposed.
His execution was ordered by Hitler himself on 8th April 1945 and took place the following morning.
He was hung at dawn with fellow conspirators just two weeks before US soldiers liberated the prison camp and three weeks before Hitler himself committed suicide.
A witness to his execution said:
"I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."
History likes its heroes simple and resolute. I prefer the tale of Dietrich Bonhoeffer - academia, spirituality, sabotage, conspiracy and a godly man struggling to reconcile his faith with what needed to be done in impossible circumstances.
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)