Much has been written and recounted in documentaries and movies of the countless acts of courage and heroism during World War 2. Whole libraries have documented the bravery of soldiers in battle against the tyrannies of Nazi Germany and Imperialist Japan. Less has been written about the brave souls who served in the resistance movements in Europe and particularly within Germany itself. These were ordinary citizens who risked arrest, imprisonment, torture and execution in order to aid the Allies in the conquest of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler. For German resistors, the ethical conflict was vexing. In order to save Germany, they had to help the enemies of Germany and thus become traitors. The difficult reality was that their treachery was, ironically, an act of faithfulness toward their country, to save it from a madman.
One of these resistance leaders was a young Lutheran pastor in Germany named Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a brilliant young theologian and would have been destined to become a great church leader had not the sweeping events in Europe led him to involvement in the resistance movement in Germany during the reign of the Third Reich.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born, along with his fraternal twin sister Sabine, to a comfortable middle class family in 1906. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a respected doctor of neourology and psychiatry in Germany. Dietrich was the sixth of eight children. His older brother Walter was killed in World War 1 and the family would suffer more terrible losses in World War 2. It was expected that Dietrich would follow his father into medicine, but from a his early teen years Dietrich knew that he wanted to study theology and become a pastor. He studied first at Tubingen University before matriculating to the University of Berlin where he graduated summa cum laude and later earned his doctorate by age 21. He was strongly influenced by the writings of the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth.
Bonhoeffer developed into a man and a pastor who, though only in his early twenties, impressed all who knew him with his maturity and gravitas. His extensive writings focus on a life of Christocentrism: making the entire focus of one's life the Person of Jesus Christ. For Bonhoeffer, the Incarnation, the coming of God to earth in human form as Jesus Christ, was the central focus of human history and thus should be the focus of a person's life. It would be this unshakable devotion and faith in Christ that would empower Dietrich Bonhoeffer to resist the terrors of Hitler and the Nazis and ultimately to bravely face execution at the young age of 39 at the hands of the Gestapo.
A crucial turning point in Bonhoeffer's life came from a trip to America to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer was invited to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he was swept away by the passion and adoration of Christ by the black church and in particular by their spiritual music. He juxtaposed their passion for Christ with the staleness of the tepid theology of Union that elevated humanism above biblical theology, and this experience would lead to his transitioning from a purely intellectual, scholarly faith to a living, energized faith, fueled by passion for the living Christ. Also, his awareness of the needs of the oppressed and down trodden grew, which would later become a crucial factor in his early and open denunciation of the Nazis persecution of the Jews in Europe.
When Bonhoeffer returned to Europe he was confronted with the growing influence of the Nazi menace in his home country of Germany. Bonhoeffer was appalled by the rising influence of Adolph Hitler, the poisonous teachings of Aryanism and the fact that the church in Germany was being harrassed and hectored by the Nazi established state church called the Reich Church. Church leaders were being forced to decide whether to adhere to true Christian doctrine or to buckle and adopt a theology that elevated National Socialism and Adolph Hitler above Christ and the church. Hitler's plans for the extermination of the Jews of Europe were becoming increasingly clear, and church leaders in particular were in a position to speak out...or silently, in meek humiliation, look the other way. Bonhoeffer would famously say that it was not enough for the church to bandage the wounds of those crushed under the wheel of state oppression. Rather, the church should "jam" the spokes of the wheel.
Bonhoeffer lead a movement that became known as the Confessing Church; pastors and theologians who would not submit to the impositions of the Reich Church. Bonhoeffer began an underground seminary at Finkenwald to teach truly biblical Christian doctrine to seminary students. This act alone risked harrassment and possible arrest by the increasingly powerful Nazi regime.
As Hitler led Germany, Europe and the world into the abyss of world war, his own military hierarchy began to conspire to assassinate him before he destroyed Germany and Europe. Hitler had surrounded himself with a cadre of trusted generals and only by force could he be removed by the leaders trying to save Germany. A secret underground resistance of civilians coalesced along with the generals and other officers that were seeking an opportunity to kill Hitler and his most trusted generals such as Himmler and Heydrich. Bonhoeffer, though not at the heart of the assassination plots, was able to land a position in the German intelligence division from which he could feed information to the resistance.
After many aborted plots to take out the Fuhrer, in July of 1944 a plot called Operation Valkyrie finally reached fruition, led and carried out by Col. Claus Von Stauffenberg. Von Stauffenberg planted a briefcase bomb next to Hitler at a meeting and excused himself from the room. After he left, someone moved the briefcase. The bomb exploded but the heavy conference table shielded Hitler from most of the blast and he escaped with only minor injuries. The plot was quickly and ruthlessly investigated and names of conspirators extracted through torture. The conspirators closest to the plot were executed almost immediately. Though only minimally involved at the fringes, Bonhoeffer had other strikes against him with the Nazi regime due to his resistance to the evil influence of the Reich Church. He was arrested and imprisoned for nearly two years. Toward the end of the war, just a few weeks before the Allied armies conquered Germany and liberated the concentration camps, Hitler ordered the execution of the remaining conspirators and other undesireables, including Bonhoeffer. He was hanged in Flossenberg prison in April of 1945 at the age of 39.
While Bonhoeffer was in prison, it was reported that he was always peaceful and fearless. He was always a gentleman and was kind and generous even to the Nazi guards, so much so that he won them over and they treated him well. He was allowed extra privileges and small freedoms around the prison because the guards so admired and respected him. He would, however, often refuse to accept some privileges if it meant that his fellow prisoners would receive less or be somehow caused to suffer. This demonstrates one of the basic traits crucial to overcoming fear: cultivating selflessness. By focusing on others, we become less fixated on what may happen to us. Bonhoeffer modeled this character strength, showing more regard for the needs of others than himself, even living in abhorrent circumstances.
His fellow prisoners were amazed by his courage and peace in the midst of terrible circumstances. One fellow prisoner wrote of him, "[Bonhoeffer] was very happy during the whole time I knew him, and did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety."
Another description of him said, "His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison...[he] had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test, but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid."
So Bonhoeffer did have fears. But his fears were submitted to his greater desire to serve others and not himself. Bonhoeffer also taught that it is not just our good principles that help us to face trying circumstances and even to face down evil itself. He taught that it was a close, abiding relationship with God and Christ that was essential to triumph. He once wrote:
"If we are to learn what God promises, and what he fulfills, we must perservere in quiet meditation on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus. It is certain that we may always live close to God and in the light of his presence, and that such living is an entirely new life for us, because all things are possible with God; that no earthly power can touch us without his will, and that danger and distress can only drive us closer to him."
Bonhoeffer, already the author of great works such as "The Cost of Discipleship", used his time in prison to write what he considered his life's work, simply entitled "Ethics". He did not let the horrors of imprisonment in a Nazi prison camp snuff out his life's work.
Like a diamond set upon a black velvet cloth, Bonhoeffer shone the brilliance of the eternal God and his goodness out of the gloom of Nazi oppression. Lives of people like Bonhoeffer offer at least a partial response to the question of theodicy...the theological dilemma often posed as "If there is a God, why does he allow evil to exist in the world?" Heroes such as Bonhoeffer offer the stark contrast of God's goodness and purpose in a world reeling from seemingly unchecked evil. Against such blackness, the Holy One shines like a nova through his humble and courageous servants.
Bad things do happen to good people. Dietrich Bonhoeffer sets the example that we can have peace and courage even in the most trying of circumstances, by focusing on Christ and on others. In so doing we draw a supernatural strength that ministers to others, and, ironically, returns to us to impart strength and courage. Important qualities to absorb when we are tempted to succumb to much smaller fears of common day to day life.