Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Faith and Action

Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Hebrews 11:1


Dietrich was the son of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer.


Dietrich was born February 4, 1906 and was born 10 minutes before his twin sister, Sabine.


Dietrich was born in Breslau where his father, Karl, held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university and was director of the hospital for nervous diseases.


Karl, in 1912, accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin and this put him at the head of his field in Germay, and he held that until his death in 1948.



As an empirical “scientist”, Karl Bonhoeffer kept Freud, Jung and Adler at arms length and with skepticism and avoided speculation regarding the mind and things that can’t be observed or deduced with one’s senses. This applied to psychology and religion. We would probably call him an agnostic.


Karl loved his children and taught them how to respond with calm and emotionless way in order to keep their senses about them. This would serve Dietrich well later as his ability to be rational while responding with passion would serve him well.


Karl would not have called himself a Christian, but he did show respect for his wife’s teaching the children Scripture and hymns. Karl even went to the level of participating with his wife and the children in their participation in Christian holidays.



Paula Bonhoeffer was is said to have presided over a well-appointed home. She taught the chidlren at home until they were 7 or 8 because of a distrust of the German public school system. She subscribed to an apparently common maxim, “…that Germans had their backs broken twice, once at school and once in the military.”



Paula’s education as a child was at Herrnhut (the Lord’s watch tower). Founded by Count Zinzendorf in the 18th century, Hurrnhut continued in the pietist tradition of the Moravian Brethren.


Paula appointed over the children two ladies to help educate the children, Fraulein Kathe and Maria Von Horn, both schooled at Hurrnhut as well.


No doubt, this devotion to Scripture and the disciplines of the faith influenced Dietrich later in his theological studies and, I would argue, served in the providence of God to direct Dietrich away from the prevailing liberal theology of the day in the direction of Karl Barth who he would study under.


Under this teaching is where Dietrich began to show a desire for the study of the Lord. He was intensly curious about theology questions. He would ask his teachers and the Pastor who presided over his catechism lots of questions.


Bonhoeffer would love to read Scripture and be involved in singing hymns.


Dietrich had 7 siblings:


Karl-Friedrich – professor of physics and the only son to die a natural death

Walter – died on the western front in WW1

Klaus – lead attorney for Lufthansa and sentenced to death with Rudiger Shlieger (head of Lufthanza and married to one of the Bonhoeffer girls), his brother-in-law

Ursula –

Christine –

Sabine – Dietrich’s twin sister



Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging at the age of 39 on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg concentration camp along with others who has been working with him to end the life of Adolf Hitler. Dietrich’s death came just 3 weeks before the allies liberated this camp.


Klaus had been executed as well and buried in a mass grave. The surviving family held out hope that Dietrich was still alive.


Finally, some time later family heard about Dietrich’s memorial service from friends who had heard the announcement of the memorial service on an American radio broadcast from England.


Many people lived and died in Germany in WWII. So, what makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer worth our taking a look at?


Bonhoeffer’s contribution is not his success in taking out Hitler. Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators failed.


It would not be so much Bonhoeffer’s individual works that are most popular like “The Cost of Discipleship” or “Life Together” or “Ethics”. Those works are wonderful reads and worth the time to plow through them.



It is the combination of the living out of the faith epitomized in all his works that make Bonhoeffer worth the time.


Bonhoeffer is worth learning about because Bonhoeffer understood, unlike many in his day and our current time, that faith and action must go hand in hand or it is not faith.








Providence, just the right stuff at just the right time for Bonhoeffer


The more I read Scripture and the more I read about the lives of saints known and unknown to pop culture the more I’m taken with the doctrine of God’s providence.


The reality that Father is working to preserve and govern his creation and creatures and history to fulfill his purposes and the good of his people and the destruction of rebels while using the willing actions of men to do so.


From Muller’s 10 days with an unnamed pastor who shifted the trajectory of his life and ministry while recovering from an illness in Teinmouth, England that would lead to his ministry to thousands of orphans.


To Bonhoeffer, whose mother and early educators who were trained at Herrnhut in the pious and outward looking Moravian tradition. This pious and spiritual and solid foundation took in Bonhoeffer such that even the prevailing liberalism of his day under which he was educated did not take root in him, but rather, slid off of him.


Bohoeffer would be attracted to Karl Barth, who actually believe the Bible accurate and historical and that the God of the Bible exists (not meant to be funny) and that the Gospel was real and that sinners could be saved from rebellion and that Jesus’ incarnation and death for sinners established salvation and the basis for life in community in the church.


This system of belief would then affect Bonhoeffer’s decision to enter the resistance from his stufy of Scripture in determining the will of God.


Where did it start? It started when he was a little fellow? Why did it only take in him? We don’t know.


As far as can be determined, Dietrich and his mother, were the only one’s of the Bonhoeffer family to embrace the Gospel.


Although the Bonhoeffer family observed Christian holidays and read Scripture and were allowed to be baptized into the Lutheran church, they never attended church.


Dietrich’s interest in theology and the Gospel began as a child due to a mom and some early teachers.







Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s American Experience


Bonhoeffer’s trip to America was key for one reason alone.


It’s not that Bonhoeffer attended a liberal seminary and found American academics lazy and with that lazy students. It’s not that he had to face questions from his American friends about Hitler and what he might do if drafted to fight.


It would be Bonhoeffer’s exposure to the black culture in New York city and becomeing friends Franklin Fisher.


Bonhoeffer learned about oppression and racism. Bonhoeffer attended the Absynnian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York and loved to listen to their songs.


This stirred Bonhoeffer’s emotions, which like a good Bonhoeffer and a good German theologian, one did not do.


However, Bonhoeffer could not help but hear how the theology of the song writers was conveyed with passion and force and this caused Bonhoeffer to think and meditate on theology and theology’s practice.


This experience in American also allowed Bonhoeffer to realized that he could not stay in America.


He would have one last short trip back to America and he realized within a few days that he had to return because if he did not suffer and fight with the Confessing Church then he could not minister in the aftermath of the war.


So, the comfort of American proved to be a bur in his saddle to move him back to the conflict of his homeland.

Bonhoeffer’s Church Struggle


In terms of religion, the Nazis were neo-pagans.


They wanted to destroy Christianity, although Hitler thought the churches were too strong to do this all at once.


The Nazis did ban church youth groups, took over schools, including church-run schools (and most schools were confessional ones).


Furthermore, the Nazis attempted to have churches turn over, through baptismal records, the names of Jews who had converted to Christianity, even going as far as Christians who had Jewish ancestry through parents or grandparents. Obviously, this was because the Nazis were racists and wanted to use that information against those people.


The Nazis also sought to take control of German Protestant churches, promoting the so-called German Christian movement, which attempted, through state pressure, to take over key leadership positions in Protestant churches.


This movement wanted to eliminate things considered “too Jewish” in Christianity. This even included downplaying the Old Testament.


Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders of the “Confessing Church,” a group of Protestant church leaders who stood up against the Nazis.


The Confessing Church broke ties with the state church that had been infiltrated and taken over by the Nazis and allowed to do so by the remaining who did not want to cause trouble.


Bonhoeffer worked with some of the greatest theologians of his day on this, including Karl Barth, one of the most important Reformed theologians of the twentieth century, and Hermann Sasse, likewise one of the most important conservative Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century.


As a theologian, Bonhoeffer gradually moved from a more liberal position, which was the rage in many German universities, for example with Adolf Harnack, to a more conservative or orthodox position that matched his Moravian influenced education (see the work of the Lord in weaving life together!)


Standing up against the Nazis and staying in Germany when he could have left took great personal courage not simply because the Nazis had created a totalitarian government and used terror (secret police, concentration camps) against their opponents, but because it was going against his own country in a time when patriotism was at an all-time high.



The Confessing Church set up its own seminaries (Zinkst, Finkenwald) to train it’s pastors.


Seminary students had a bible and they spent hours meditating on passages. Otherwise, they had no other books.


The students spent extensive time doing an exegesis of The Sermon on the Mount.


They came to the conclusion that they should not fight or go to war. Then, in 1939 the seminary students began to be drafted. Their options were to fight or to be lined up and be shot.


So, the Confessing Church Seminaries were declared illegal and many of the students sent off to fight on the eastern front.


Bonhoeffer would spend much time writing in response to letters from his former students who were forced to shoot prisoners because they were Jews or other undesirables.


The church was now faced with a decision of defying their government, which ran against the grain of the German soul or complying with their government and thus casting a vote for it’s atrocities.


For the German, the church and the state were linked. Therefore, they were forced to see the lines between the two.


To our denomination’s credit, the seperation of church and state was properly understood and adopted as a high value.


Seperation of Church and state says that the church should not run the state and the state should not run the church. SCS does not say that the church and Christians should not play a prominant role in affecting policy or that relgious practices should not be allowed at public events. In a free country all religious expression should be allowed as long as it does not interfere with persons freedom to assemble peacefully.


Bonhoeffer believed that the church, individual Christians and especially, the church’s pastors, should lead the way in doing what is right.


Unfortunately, many of Bonhoeffer’s fellow pastors would not be willing to follow him that closely into the fray, and this is a sad thing.


Also, for Bonhoeffer, his involvement would alienate himself form the people he respected most like Karl Barth. The reason is that it looked like he was working for the Nazis, but Dietrich could not tell them the truth that he was actually a counter agent. So, many of the Confessing Church pastors thought Dietrich an advocate of the Nazi regime. Little did they know that faith was working with action to actually do the thing they would not do.


Many mistakingly believed that they should seek to guard the church and ride out the storm.


However, for Bonhoeffer, and rightly so, simply “guarding” the church fell way short of the biblical idea of what the church is.


Bonhoeffer rightly understood that the church is the present manifestation of the body of Christ and was to be ministers of Jesus’ care for man.


This is what Bonhoeffer called the “I / Thou” relationship. Bonhoeffer believed that Jesus Christ is most epitomized in man working for the good of man.


Since Jesus came to die for and serve the good of man in dying for man, then man would most make his life match his words when he was willing to die for his fellow brother or man in general.


Therefore, a willingness to do what was necessary to do good for man was to work to stop the men who were mercilessly killing other men while doing it under the guise of Nazi’s teisted “religion” and brand of Christianity.


(See “Hitler’s Cross” by Erwin Lutzer)


For Bonhoeffer, the church could not be on the sideline. The church has to be in the fray either rescuing people or seeking to eradicate people who were doing the atrocities.



Bonhoeffer’s Magnum Opus, Ethics 


“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Ethics 


All of his life, Bonhoeffer had applied the same logic to theological issues that his father applied to scientific issues. There was only one reality, and Christ was Lord over all of it or none of it. A major theme for Bonhoeffer was that every Christian must be “fully human” by bringing God into his whole life, not merely into some “spiritual” realm.


The incarnation, for Bonhoeffer, was the ground and center of ommunity life and ehtical reality.


Jesus’ coming to take on flesh and die for sinners was the definition of what it meant to be truly human and to be truly in community and to be truly engaged in the world around them. Therefore, the Christian, taking on the struggle of the people around them and doing what is best for them was essential in the Christian’s development of an ethical system.


Again, Bonhoeffer called it the “I / thou”. I for you and you for me defines community.


I for others as their advocate more showed the work of Christ than words alone. This does not negate words, but it puts flesh on our words as the incarnation puts flesh on the second person of the Trinity to die for sinners.


To be an ethereal figure who merely talked about God, but somehow refused to get his hands dirty in the real world in which God had placed him was bad theology.


Through Jesus, Father had shown his people that he meant us to be fully engaged in this world. Father had sent the Son and the Son had actively taken on flesh to achieve Father’s mission of making atonement for sinners


Jesus has instructed his followers to believe and to obey him with our actions.


So, Dietrich would get his hands dirty because he believed Father was speaking to him to take his actions further and he must obey.


Here is the deal. The Scriptures do not address every situation that fallen life throws at the Christian.


Scripture preaches the Gospel, who God is as Father, Son and Spirit, who man is, how man is to treat each other, what justice is, what mercy is, what grace it, what love is and so on. the Scriptures don’t tell us what to do when mass genocide is being propagated outside your front door.


It is up to the Christian to then apply the truths of Scripture to the situation at hand and then not merely tweet about it, but act.


“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Ethics


There are no nice and neat pre-packaged answers to all of the globe’s challenges. 


One may sit idly by and debate the rightness or wrongness of how some seek to do something, however, what one can’t do is for fear of sinning in small ways be guilty of rebellion in large ways by doing nothing in the face of moral challenges.


Ethics begins with these lines:

“Those who wish to focus on the problem of a Christian ethic are faced with an outrageous demand – from the outset they must give up, as inappropriate to this topic, the very two questions that led them to deal with the ethical problem: ‘How can I be good?’ and ‘How can I do something good?’ (how can I be right in this problem? and how can I do right in this problem)

Instead they must ask the wholly other, completely different question: ‘What is the will of God?’”



How did Bonhoeffer determine God’s will applied to ethical decisions?


Faith and Works


James 2:18-26

But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder! Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. And in the same way was not also Rahab the prostitute justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead.


Bonhoeffer wrote about cheap grace. Cheap grace is faith that has no cost to it. Cheap grace is faith divorced from works.


“When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship


It was not conceivable biblically that a person could claim to be a redeamed follower of Jesus Christ and not work that out in his service to and for other people.


This does not mean going to church.


Many Germans continued to go to church and ignored the atrocities that were taking place under their noses. Faith had to work itself out in practice through community with each other and each other fighting for with will of God in truth.


The Will of God


Romans 12:1-2


“To try to explain ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ – to talk about ethics – outside of God and obedience to his will is impossible.”



Right and wrong, when not expressly dealt with in Scripture in chapter and verse, for Bonhoeffer, had to be determined by obeying and knowing the will of God from the expanse of his word and personal knowledge of Father in relationship to him.


Then the Christian must act with courage on the will of God.


The will of God in a circumstance had to be determined by (1) knowing the God of the bible intimately, (2) knowing the Scriptures as intimately, (3) applying every necessary and biblical action to the resolution of the challenge and (4) acting courageously.



For Bonhoeffer, this meant actively engaging in the plot to kill Adolf Hitler as a spy for the Nazis in the Abwher, or so they thought, while working with the active conspiracy against the Nazis and particularly, Hitler.



The Necessity to Move from Confession to Conspiriacy (for us, action in general)


For Bonhoeffer, knowing the will of God meant becoming involved in the plot to assasinate Adolf Hitler.


As Bonhoeffer worked to lead the confessing church, train pastors, fight for peace, fight for the protection and defense of the Jews, fight for the right to worship and train pastors his hand was forced.


Bonhoeffer tried every peaceful avenue. He exhausted every other option on the table.


March 15, 1940 the seminary at Zingst was shut down by the Gestapo and his students drafted.


Bonhoeffer was protected from the draft by his being “drafted” into the Abwher, the Nazi spy agency as arranged by military personnel involved in the plot to kill Hitler.


Bonhoeffer would serve as a spiritual guide, pastor and friend to those involved deeper in the plot. He would also be involved in work to smuggle Jews out of Germany.


As time progressed, Bonhoeffer would get deeper involved in deception and schemes to overthrow Hitler.


As Bonhoeffer contemplated the will of God, a conversation with his sister-in-law, Emmi, wife of Klaus spurred him to deeper action.


“You Christians are glad when someone else does what you know must be done, but it seems that somehow you are unwilling to get your own hands dirty and do it.”



For Bonhoeffer, following Jesus, now meant he had to be willing to go and rid the land of those who were tyranically exterminating millions.


Bonhoeffer from Prison and Religionless Christianity


While putting on a “show” for their Parents celebrating Karl Bonhoeffer’s 75th birthday, the Bonhoeffers and their spouses, who were likewise involved in the plot to kill Hitler, were at the same time waiting on news from Admiral Canaris on the status of the Valkyrie plot to kill Hitler.


While they were singing and celebrating, Dietrich received the news that the blast had failed to kill Hitler. Of that plot, Hitler would say that his survival of the blast was “providence and proof that he was on the right track.”


It would not be long before the Gestapo would come and arrest Bonhoeffer. However, it was not over his involvent in the plot. The Gestapo did not yet know of Bonhoeffer’s involvement nor this group’s involvement.


The Gestapo and Abwher were jealous of each other and always playing cat and mouse poitically during this time. Bonhoeffer was actually arrested for some discrepecny in accounting that someone else had let slip while they were smuggling Jews out of the country and the Gestapo wanted to know how the Abwher was spending the Reich’s money.


It would be during this 18 months at Tegel Prison that the plot would be uncovered and Bonhoeffer transfered to Gestapo prisons and finally to Flossenburg where he would be hung with some of his fellow conspirators.


However, while in prison, Bonhoeffer wrote to his best friend Eberhard Bethge many times. He shared with him some of his deepest thoughts and some of his most hard questions.


In some particular correspondence, Dietrich coined a term that has often been landed on by liberal circles and claimed Bonhoeffer was claimed as a pioneer of a modernity laden “Christianity”.


Bonhoeffer spoke of a “religionless Christianity” because the current terminology of “religion” in Germany was no longer adequate to describe what “Christians” and “Christianity” was doing, or failing to do.


Many Nietche influenced liberals of the day pounced on this terminology spoken of by Dietrich in prison correspondence to his best friend as a justification of their beliefs and sought to use Bonhoeffer as their martyred advocate.


I don’t believe that was the case. I believe Bonhoeffer saw something prophetic and wrote prophetically about his time and ours.


Bethge’s own words at a lecture at Coventry Cathedral in England in 1967 shed light on Dietrich’s words. Eberhard said, “the isolated use and handing down of the famous term ‘religionless Christianity’ has made Bonhoeffer the champion of an undialectical shallow modernism which obscures all that he wanted to tell us about the living God.”



Here is what Bonhoeffer said:

“What is bothering me incessantly is the question what Christainity really is, or indeed who Christ really is, for us today (in other words, how are we interpreting Jesus today in Germany)

. The time when people could be told everything by means of words, whether theological or pious, is over, and so is the time of inwardness and conscience – and that means the time of religion in general (that is it’s time to stop contemplating and wrestling with the question of ‘is this right or wrong’)

. We are moving towards a completely religionless time; people as they are now simply cannot be religous any more. Even those who honestly describe themselves as religious do not in the least act up to it, and so they presumabley mean something quite different by religious.



What Bonhoeffer meant by “religion” was not Christianity as defined by Scripture, but the religion that he has spent his theological life in word and deed fighting against.


What I believe Bonhoeffer was addressing was what we call “cultural Christianity”.


This is the system that takes names for identification purposes and has none of the substance of what that name means.


The church in Germany and Christians in general, had been too long, and Perhaps Dietrich had, in his own reflection, taken too long to get in the fight and that inaction could no longer be called “religion”. There needed to be a new term to describe the church in Germany. Dietrich called it “religionless Christiantiy”.


Can cannot be inactive in addressing the issues of the day and carry the name Christian. The reason is that Jesus was not inactive when it can to addressing the fall and rebellion. Rather, he made war on Satan and, as Paul states, in military terms in Colossians 2:15, by disarming the demonic powers, shamed them and triumphed over them.


Jesus is returning again to conquer and reign. The church is is body. It cannot be silent or actionless. It must, as it’s head, fight the battles necessary and with all appropriate means.


Cultural Christianity makes statements as a presidential candidate did recently saying “all people are children of the same God” while claiming to be a Christian. The connotation is a universalist love that saves and redeems all people who try hard enough to be good regardless of what system of belief they follow and what they do with that belief.


Cultural Christians or “religionless” Christians:

1. Do nothing to oppose evil actively

2. Speak only of their beliefs but do nothing about them

3. Use the church to sooth their conscience but care nothing for the spiritual havoc they

make through their sin

4. Have a form of godliness but deny its power

5. Has a theological depth equated to Christian fiction books


What are some initatables to carry away from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life?


1. Take great joy knowing, that as an adopted child of Father, you are being

providentially led for Father’s purpose and your maximum joy


2. Do not divorce yourself from the rest of the world and be insulated from it. There are

works that need to be done and it may take seeing something in some other place that

ignites the passion for which you were created. You can visit the world by reading

international news, watching internationl news or just engaging the melting pot

of your own culture.


3. Do not take the church for granted. Although the state does not run the church in

our country, its vital to not only guard the church’s ability to remain free from

influences that prevent us from being effective but it is our responsibility to fight

for truth and right and be engaged in the war of ideas.


4. Actively begin pursuing the will of the Lord. Know the God of the bible. Know

God’s word. Apply every necessary and biblical action. Act courageously.


Bonhoeffer’s life shows us the lengths we must ultimately be willing to go to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer’s death illustrates what the cost of discipleship may well entail.



5. Do not be a cultural Christian. Be a biblical Christian


Quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer in various works:


“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Letters and Papers from Prison


“We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God…..We must not…..assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God.” Life Together


“It is not that God’s help and presence must still be proved in our life; rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ. It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, in God’s Son Jesus Christ, than to discover what God intends for us today. The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important than the fact that I will die. And the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, will be raised on the day of judgment”  Life Together


“How would you expect to find community while you intentionally withdraw from it at some point? The disobedient cannot believe; only the obedient believe.” Discipleship


“Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” Cost of Discipleship


“Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” Ethics


“Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him.” Letters and Papers from Prison


“When all is said and done, the life of faith is nothing if not an unending struggle of the spirit with every available weapon against the flesh.” The Cost of Discipleship


“It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end all is disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evildoers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christian, too, belongs not in the seclusion of the cloistered life but in the thick of foes.” Life Together


“Christianity means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. No Chrisitan community is more or less than this.” Life Together


“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. the man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by other and by himself.” Life Together


“God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.” Life Together


“Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.” Life Together


“When a person becomes alienated from a Christain community in which he has been placed and begins to raise complaints about it, he had better examine himself first to see whether the trouble is not due to his wish dream that should be shattered by God; and if this be the case, let him thank God for leading him into this predicament.” Life Together


“Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin.” Life Together


“Love, in the sense of spontaneous, unreflective action, spells the death of the old man.” The Cost of Discipleship


“Nothing can be known either of God or man until God has become man in Jesus Christ.” Christ the Center


“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.” Life Together


“Perhaps you still think you ought to think out beforehand and know what you ought to do. To that there is only one answer. You can only know and think about it by actually doing it.” The Cost of Discipleship


Some History


It is important to note that Bonhoeffer and many of the church leaders that he worked (Herman Sasse, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth) with against the Nazis came from the lands where the Protestant Reformation began, namely Germany (Luther) for Bonhoeffer, Sasse and Niemoller and Switzerland (Zwingli, Calvin and the early Anabaptists) for Barth.


When the theological and political dust of the Reformation had settled with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the brutal Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the German states were divided. Strictly speaking, there was no united Germany in 1648. Instead, there were a whole host of independent German states, some large, some small, that were part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was less of an empire as the name suggested and more of a loose association of states.


Religiously, the northern and eastern German states were Lutheran, the western and southern states (notably Bavaria, the current pope is Bavarian BTW) were Catholic, and a few areas, particularly in the Rhineland, which is in the west, were Reformed.


The city of Heidelberg in the Rhineland was an important an influential center for Reformed theology, even displacing Geneva in importance for the Reformed shortly after Calvin’s death, hence the Heidelberg catechism.


Although the German states were religiously and politically fragmented, one of the things they had in common by 1648 was that all churches were established and official state churches closely linked to the state. This was one of the negative legacies of the Reformation in the German states, which would later have serious consequences for the church, especially when the Nazis took control of the government as people in Germany closely associated the church with the state.


Because the German states were divided after 1648, it was easier for foreign nations, most especially France under strong rulers such as Louis XIV and Napoleon to invade the German states and push them around.


The Holy Roman Empire came to an end under Napoleon and was replaced by the German Confederation, with Prussia and Austria as its two most important members. Still, the German states were divided. During the nineteenth century, which was a time of rising nationalism in Europe, this division was shameful to many Germans. German unity finally came when Otto Bismarck became prime minister of Prussia. Bismarck, who was a conservative, meaning he favored monarchy, was determined to unite the German states under his king, the king of Prussia. To accomplish this, Bismarck engineered a series of wars between Prussia and Denmark, then Austria and finally and most importantly, France. Prussia won all of these wars, and after defeating France and occupying Paris in 1871, united Germany under Prussia’s king William. William was proclaimed emperor of Germany, beginning the second German empire (Reich). The Nazis would later claim to be the Third Reich.


When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany (in the eastern part of Germany, now part of Poland (Germans were brutally expelled from the city in 1945 at the end of the war) in 1906, Germany was a very powerful nation. Germans were nationalistic and have much to be proud of in their nation.


Other people are often as intensely patriotic about their nation as we are of America. In 1906, Germany was one of the most advanced nations in the world. It was the second most important industrial nation, only behind the United States. Germany had the best universities in the world.


The most important scientists of the day were German. American universities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries purposely modeled themselves after German ones. Germany also had the best quality army in the world and a powerful navy. Yet Germany was not without problems. Along with the industrial revolution and urbanization came some secularization. Karl Marx was from Germany and Germany had a large socialist party. Obviously, Marxism is anti-Christian. Some of Germany’s universities also pushed “historical criticism” in biblical studies.


Germany in Bonhoeffer’s day:


The outbreak of the First World War in 1914 changed everything for Germany. Because of Britain’s naval blockade, German civilians experienced food shortages and hunger during the war.


Germany lost over 2 million dead and 4 million wounded in the war. It was horrible war beyond anything that Germany had ever experienced. For several years, Germans thought they were winning the war. Yet in 1918, their emperor William II abdicated the throne and Germany surrendered. The Versailles Treaty that followed in 1919 blamed Germany for the war, greatly reduced its military, stripped it of territory and colonies and forced it to pay huge reparations to France, which it had invaded during the war.


Germany had a new government, a democracy called the Weimar Republic. This democracy, however, was weak and faced several attempts by extremists on the far left and far right to overthrow it. When France occupied part of Germany (the Ruhr) in 1923 because the German government was dragging its heels on paying reparations, the German government reacted by firing up the printing pressed to pay France. This led to hyperinflation, which destroyed the savings of middle class Germans. Money became so worthless that it was cheaper to burn money for fuel or wallpaper the wall with money than pay for fuel or wallpaper.


Between 1925 and 1929, things stabilized in Germany and it appeared that the Weimar Republic might work. Then the US Stock market crashed in 1929, signaling the beginning of the Great Depression. The Great Depression was actually worse in Germany than America. The unemployment rate topped out at 25% in America. It reached 33% in Germany. By the early 1930s, the Germans, who again remember were a proud people who loved their country (as do many Americans today), were in utter despair.


Between 1914 and 1932, a mere eighteen years, they had experienced a horrible war, which they lost, a humiliating peace treaty, hyperinflation, which destroyed many people economically, great cultural changes, a new and weak government (a democracy) and then the Great Depression. These were much, much harder times than we Americans have experience of late. All of this is the circumstances under which Bonhoeffer grew up and the Nazis rose to power.


The Nazi (Nazi is short for National Socialist German Workers Party) emerged after the First World War in Germany. It was largely made up of bitter ex-veterans, such as the man who rapidly became its leader, Adolph Hitler. The Nazi party was a fringe, extremist party during the 1920s. It only began to receive many votes during the Depression, when some Germans turn to it out of despair. For most historians, the Germans who voted for the Nazis did so because they wanted to restore Germany to greatness and feared a Communist revolution, not out of support for Nazi ideology, especially its racism.


This was no idle fear as the Communist were on the rise in the early 1930s and Communists had recently staged a bloody revolution in Russia. The Nazis were extremely racist and especially anti-Semitic. They were anti-democratic, anti-Communist and extremely nationalistic. Still, the Nazis never received a majority in parliamentary elections, only 37% of votes at their height in 1932 elections. It is a common misconception that the Nazis won a majority, but it is not the case, which is important. It means the majority of Germans never voted for the Nazis.


The Nazis took power in 1933 after the German parliament had gone through a series of chancellors who were unable to resolve the problems of the Depression and was in a state of deadlock. German conservatives, who looked down on Hitler as gutter rabble, thought they could temporarily turn power over to Hitler, figuring he would fail, which in the meantime would take the political heat off of the conservatives. This was a major miscalculation. After Hitler was allowed to become chancellor in early 1933, he used a bombing by Communists and anarchists at the German parliament (Reichstag) building as an excuse to force the parliament to give him “temporary” emergency powers.


Hitler then banned all other political parties, took control of the police, created a secret police, took over the press and threw political opponents in concentration camps. Hitler became the dictator of Germany.


The Nazis ultimate goal, and recent scholarship has shown this quite conclusively, was to conquer Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in a bid to take more “Lebensraum” (“living space”) for German settlement. The Nazis believed that Germany was too small and that nations such as the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union had grown strong through territorial acquisitions, either through an overseas empire with Britain or westward expansion in the case of the United States. The Nazis admired the United States for taking land from Native Americans (something to pause and think about), and hoped to do the same to Slavic peoples (Czechs, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, etc.) and Jews living in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. They viewed these people as racially inferior and believed they should either be displaced, enslaved or eliminated, which is why the war on the eastern front was so bloody (two-thirds of the fighting and dying was between Germany and the Soviet Union, American losses will mild by comparison) and why the Holocaust occurred the way that it did.


During the 1930s, Hitler broke the Versailles Treaty and began preparing Germany for another war. His military build-up also put people to work, ending the Depression in Germany. When Germany went to war again in 1939, the first few years of the war went well for Germany. By the end of 1942, with France and much of the Soviet Union occupied, it appeared Germany might well win the war. Hitler grew more popular in Germany with his successes, all of which the Nazis used for their propaganda that Hitler was a political messiah of sorts. Of course, beginning with the battle of Stalingrad in 1942-1943, the war began to go badly for Germany. As things grew worse and worse, the Nazis became more desperate and more brutal, especially killing many political enemies such as Bonhoeffer in 1945 just before the end of the war.


In terms of religion, the Nazis were neo-pagans. They wanted to destroy Christianity, although Hitler thought the churches were too strong to do this all at once. The Nazis did ban church youth groups, took over schools, including church-run schools (and most schools were confessional ones). Furthermore, the Nazis attempted to have churches turn over, through baptismal records, the names of Jews who had converted to Christianity, even going as far as Christians who had Jewish ancestry through parents or grandparents. Obviously, this was because the Nazis were racists and wanted to use that information against those people.


The Nazis also sought to take control of German Protestant churches, promoting the so-called German Christian movement, which attempted, through state pressure, to take over key leadership positions in Protestant churches. This movement wanted to eliminate things considered “too Jewish” in Christianity. This even included downplaying the Old Testament, or pace Marcion, a heretic of the early church, eliminating the Old Testament from the canon entirely.


Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders of the “Confessing Church,” a group of Protestant church leaders who stood up against the Nazis. See for instance the Barmen Declaration. Bonhoeffer worked with some of the greatest theologians of his day on this, including Karl Barth, one of the most important Reformed theologians of the twentieth century, and Hermann Sasse, likewise one of the most important conservative Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century. As a theologian, Bonhoeffer gradually moved from a more liberal position, which was the rage in many German universities, as for example with Adolf Harnack, to a more conservative or orthodox position. Bonhoeffer linked faith in Christ closely with obedience in Christ, as with his “Cost of Discipleship.” He lived this as well. Standing up against the Nazis and staying in Germany when he could have left took great personal courage not simply because the Nazis had created a totalitarian government and used terror (secret police, concentration camps) against their opponents, but because it was going against his own country in a time when patriotism was at an all-time high.


Bonhoeffer did love his country, but Christ was more important for him. It is idolatry to put country over church and Christ. Bonhoeffer clearly believed that and even wished for his country’s defeat in war because of its ungodly government, which is something to really consider. A huge dilemma for Bonhoeffer and theological struggle was whether it was biblical to fight against his own government and use violence. He ultimately concluded that it was biblical. He was involved in a plot against the government, which is what led to his execution in 1945.


While history outside the Scriptures, as in this case the history of twentieth century Germany, does not reveal as clear of a spiritual lesson, much less God’s view of past events or his exact workings in them, as do the Scriptures themselves, I believe that it does hold some lessons for Christians. Bonhoeffer’s life shows the importance of resisting evils such as racism, idolatry of country, oppressive governments and state control of the church.


Above all, Bonhoeffer’s life shows us the lengths we must ultimately be willing to go to follow Christ. Bonhoeffer’s death illustrates what the cost of discipleship may well entail.


Much of Nazi ideology was driven by Social Darwinism, “scientific racism” and eugenics. Eugenics is the idea, and it went hand in hand with racism in the 1920s and 1930s, that genes determine behavior. Those who favored eugenics wanted to keep “inferior” peoples from reproducing. Eugenics was quite popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, strongly influencing Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood (no surprise there, they’ve been a vile organization from the beginning) and sterilization programs in several states, most notably California, which had the largest one in the world.


The Nazis were influenced by American scientists, academics and activists who pushed eugenics. However, the Nazis took things further and had a euthanasia program called the T-4 program that killed thousands of handicap and mentally ill Germans in gas chambers as “life unworthy of life” as the Nazis put it. The same personnel that ran the T-4 gas chambers later, once the war was underway, ran the first gas chambers during the Holocaust. German Christians, both Protestants and Catholics, did voice some opposition to euthanasia, and it was another problem they faced. It was difficult to be a Christian and speak up under Nazi rule. Many chose to keep their heads down for fear of persecution, which was quite real as you could end up in a concentration camp for voicing opposition.


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