The Lines of Duty

Throughout history rare men have risen in times of strife, acting unselfishly while striving to achieve an end for the betterment of mankind. In many cases they succeed, to be long remembered for their words, battlefield exploits, or deeds: William Wilberforce, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and George Patton are a few that spring to mind.

Too often success is elusive, as was the case with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose name has been often overlooked in history. His is a name deserving to be remembered, not forgotten.

One historian who has told the story is Eric Metaxas, in his biography of Bonhoeffer, he describes him as being a “theologian, martyr, a spiritual writer, a musician, a pastor, and an author of poetry and fiction”.

Bonhoeffer, a Christian of deep integrity, lived in the troubled times of Hitler’s rise to power and the ensuing war. During this time, the good Pastor went through a period of self-doubt regarding his faith. Ultimately believing that faith allowed him to cross the line between potentially violating a commandment, while also serving God and humanity.

Bonhoeffer recognized that participation in assassination conspiracies against Hitler was not a violation of the sixth commandment and indeed that humanity would be served by this action. He understood the difference between ‘murder’ and ‘kill’ but the rationalization of such an action posed a tremendous internal conflict.

It was 70 years ago this month that Bonhoeffer’s life ended at Flossenburg, a German prison camp located in Bavaria near the border of the Czech Republic.

Metaxas quotes the camp doctor, H. Fischer-Hullstrung:  

“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying most fervently to his God. I was deeply moved by the way this most 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 steps to the gallows, brave and composed. In the almost fifty years I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

What led a devout man of God to such an end was years in development.

The path taken began during the rise to power, prior to the approaching storm. Bonhoeffer, an outspoken critic of Hitler before he took office, was one of the first to recognize the probability of evil that was existent in the National Socialist philosophy.

After Hitler assumed power, first a few, then more Germans of strong faith began questioning (behind closed doors) what they saw or heard. Christians began seeing other Christians labeled as Jews, not based on their faith, but based on blood content passed down from past generations. The descendants of a Jewish grandmother, one who had married a Christian for example, were now classified as Jewish.

This was a result of an early action, taken in 1933; modification of lineage rules in the “Aryan Paragraph”. This policy allowed the government to forbid employment to anyone with Jewish blood, no matter how miniscule the amount.

One of the outcomes of this was to create a division within the German Church splitting it into those who feared their fellow man and those who put their faith in God. Unfortunately there were far too many of the former and far too few of the latter. Bonhoeffer was one of those few.

Seeing evil before evil is revealed poses problems for any individual. How does one convey the existence of such a reality to those wrapped up in the non-reality of a leader, viewed as a deity by their acolytes? Bonhoeffer saw the evidence of the true evil of the Third Reich, through family members, Germans, not Nazis, well placed at the highest levels of the German Government.  

For example: His brother-in-law, Hans Dohnyani, a lawyer, worked for the Reich Minister of Justice (analogous to our Chief Justice). Dohnyani, also an early Hitler opponent, had begun keeping a file; the “Zossen files” aka “a Chronicle of shame” which documented the authorization of pending plans which would result in numerous atrocities within the Third Reich.

One such example was associated with the Bethel Community, which was responsible for the care of over 1,600 patients of varying disabilities. Bonhoeffer, as part of his ministry, had spent time there years earlier. He had a deep love for the patients at Bethel whom he saw as unwanted innocents cast off by society.

Dohnyani had seen the reports on Bethel and other facilities; “useless eaters” and “life unworthy of life” were common references to the patients.

The documents also revealed how the Reich was preparing for war:  food shortages were expected, a list of preferred survivors was established. That list did not include the patients of any of the ‘Bethels’ throughout Germany.

Dohnyani had also seen the orders for massive numbers of railroad cars being shifted to areas where there was no immediate need. The need became apparent all too soon.

How does one live with such knowledge and fail to act? How does one see such inhumanity and carry that burden inside?

Bonhoeffer came to the realization that Bethel, the Aryan Paragraph and numerous other actions were merely the start. He recognized that the Reich was about to descend to an unimaginable level of inhumanity, far beyond the examples stated above.

With war approaching and conscription imminent Bonhoeffer, with official permission, left Germany returning to Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary in New York.

It is likely he intended never to return to Germany. Given the chance to escape the developing horrors, would anyone blame him for not doing so?

However, to live expatria in the states was in conflict with the triumvirate of principles upon which his life was based: Faith, love for family as well as country, and of equal importance; his humanity.

In New York feeling deeply distressed, Bonhoeffer sought guidance. Searching for direction he found it in various signals: a sermon on facing fear, another from the book of Revelations, as well as in his daily Biblical readings: Timothy 4: “Do thy diligence to come before winter.” Or Isaiah 28.16: “The one who believes does not flee.”

To him the signals were clear and he soon set sail for home. He carried with him his burdens, not knowing his destiny, but knowing he had to “share the trials” he knew were ahead.  

Bonhoeffer’s words, expressed in a letter to his family, stated it best:

 “I shall 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 with my people”

Once back in Germany amongst his first actions was assisting ‘Jews’ to escape to Switzerland. Bear in mind that in addition to those of the Jewish faith, many of these people were in fact Christians, but not labeled as such, by the Nazi’s, due to the ‘Aryan Paragraph’.

Bonhoeffer straddled the lines between honoring his faith and being loyal to his country, while also recognizing that destroying pure evil was his calling.

It is a difficult task to attempt to rationalize participation in a murderous plot while also remaining true to one’s faith in God.  It is more difficult to understand the cost to the German people, as well as millions of others, if such a task was not undertaken.

The cost to Bonhoeffer was steep: arrested in April 1943, he spent two years in prison before being executed on April 9, 1945.

Hans Dohnanyi summed up their work thusly: “we were 'on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.' So few traveled that path -- anywhere."

An admirable modesty is revealed in those words, which belies the strength, courage, faith and dedication of such men as Dietrich Bonhoeffer.