60 YEARS AGO THE THEOLOGIAN DIETRICH BONHOEFFER WAS MURDERED
by Heinrich Fink
[This address from May 2005 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.rosalux.de/index.php?id-6680.]
After three days in Buchenwald, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was transported to the Flossenburg concentration camp in a military truck with other prisoners from the circle of the July 20 conspirators. There the evangelical theologian was hung on April 9, 1945 after a night court martial for "high treason", four weeks before the unconditional capitulation of Hitler Germany.
How can it be that the name of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is known and revered worldwide today although his demand of the prohibition of war and his conviction that Christians must always stand on the side of the despised has only brought a few communities to biblically commanded rethinking?
Does George W. Bush really know that Bonhoeffer regarded wars as blasphemies? When the president of the US in his 2002 address to the German Bundestag named the one murdered by the Nazis as one of the greatest Germans of the 20th century, the delegates applauded spontaneously and tumultuously. A pacifist was publically honored for the first time in the German parliament.
In a 1930/1931 sabbatical in the US, Dietrich Bonhoeffer met the French pacifist and pastor Jean Lasserre who convinced him that the Sermon on the Mount was a binding peace command. Returning again to Germany, he was a lecturer in the theological faculty in Berlin and assumed the task of a youth secretary in the "World Alliance for Friendship of the Churches." He was concretely engaged for understanding between hostile nations - against prominent theologians like Paul Althaus (Erlangen) and Emanuel Hirsch (Gottingen) who loudly proclaimed with the support of the press: "The victors of the First World War are still Germany's enemies."
In July 1932 Bonhoeffer said at a Christian Youth conference for Peace in Czechoslovakia: "The next war will be outlawed by the churches because we cannot understand war as God's order of preservation or God's command... We should not be afraid of the word pacifism." In one of his addresses on April 15, 1933, he turned against the organized flogging to death of the Jews and urged "falling into the spokes of the wheel, not only binding up the victims under the wheel. This should be the immediate political action of the church." In a leaflet written with his Jewish theologian-friend Hildebrandt, he even went so far to demand that one leave the church if it accepts the Arian laws since it can no longer be a church without and against the Jews. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew.
Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church that lodged its public veto against the racial theology of the German Christians with its 1834 Barmen Theological Declaration. Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations worried him and forced his criticism of armaments. He hoped that the international Christian conference at the end of August 1934 on the Danish island Fano would pass a clear condemnation of the imminent war - for the first time in church history. The theses of his address that Bonhoeffer previously offered to the World Council of Churches in Geneva excited and energized. The director of the research division, Schoenefeld, was outraged that war was so one-sidedly the central question in this text where Germans had much to contribute to theological reflection on race problems. Bonhoeffer's address was withdrawn from the program. However he presented his most important demand in his morning devotion: "Only the one great ecumenical council of Christ's holy church from the whole world can take the weapons from the hands of its sons in the name of Christ and forbid war... the ecumenical council is assembled here... The world bristles with weapons... The war fanfare could fade tomorrow... What are we waiting for? Do we want to become complicit as never before?" His church opponents in Germany did not pardon him for this peace appeal. Bonhoeffer was stamped as a "pacifist and enemy of the state." The theological faculty justified his dismissal from the Berlin university with the same argument.
When the churches voluntarily succumbed to the wagons of war in 1939, it was only logical that Bonhoeffer joined a non-pacifist circle that wanted to end the war - through a military coup or murder of the tyrant. His brother and two brothers-in-law were already involved. Risking their lives, they were ready "to fall in the spokes of the wheel." Bonhoeffer discovered how hard it was to gain support for the planned assassination.
On April 5, 1943 he was arrested. In prison he learned that the hoped-for end of the war did not occur on July 20, 1944. That Bonhoeffer could smuggle many letters and texts from prison was due to the guards. Fatally bound to obedience to authority, the church called the failure of the assassination attempt on Hitler a grace of God and those who organized the resistance traitors - and even repeated this judgment after 1947.
Translated into nearly all the languages of the world, Bonhoeffer's texts encourage liberating the Bible from the godless bonds of fundamentalist interpretations and protesting increasingly perfect weapons and destructive relations with the goods of the earth. In the 60 years since the end of the Second World War, the worldwide peace movement has tirelessly uncovered war interests and war dangers even when current wars could not be stopped. It is up to us to make the unfulfilled demands of those murdered for protesting against fascism and war into stumbling blocks in the plaster of remembrance and everyday policy.
Are we still needed?
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds. We have been washed with many waters. We have learned the arts of dissimulation and ambiguous speech. Through experience we have become distrustful toward people and often owe them truth and the free word. We are worn-out or perhaps even cynical through the unbearable conflicts. Are we still needed? We will need plain, simple, direct people, not geniuses, cynics, misanthropes or clever tacticians. Will our inner power of resistance against what is forced on us be strong enough? Will our outspokenness against the merciless be enough so we find our way again to simplicity and uprightness? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked this question to himself and other Germans in the depressing Nazi- and war time at the end of 1942.