Who Is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

Bonhoeffer’s activities on this front intensified rapidly. Several days before the Wittenberg Synod, he attended the ecumenical World Alliance meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he “spoke completely openly about the Jewish question, the Aryan paragraph in the church . . . and over the question of the future of minorities” in Germany. Prompted by Bonhoeffer, the delegates passed a resolution condemning the Nazi actions against the Jews:

We especially deplore the fact that the State measures against the Jews in Germany have had such an effect on public opinion that in some circles the Jewish race is considered a race of inferior status. 5

Bonhoeffer took a copy of the resolution to the German consul in Sofia, to prove that Nazi policies toward the Jews were damaging Germany’s image abroad. The leaders of the German Evangelical Church in Berlin angrily demanded that he withdraw from ecumenical activities; Bonhoeffer refused. The Sofia resolution even prompted a protest from the German Foreign Office:

Provocation against Germany because of the Jewish question has been taken into circles that were previously genuinely favorable to us, and has been expressed loudly and publicly at the very moment when Germany, because of the upcoming meeting of the League of Nations, will probably be viciously attacked because of the Jewish question. . . . 6

The criticism only strengthened Bonhoeffer’s resolve. Personally, too, he grew more decisive. In April of 1933, he had been asked by his sister and her husband, Gerhard Leibholz, to conduct the funeral of Leibholz’s father. The Leibholzes, although converted Jews, were affected by the Nazi racial laws; Gerhard Leibholz had already lost his teaching position. The elder Leibholz had belonged to neither church nor synagogue, however, and Bonhoeffer, warned by his church superintendent not to conduct the funeral of a non-church member, refused.

By November, Bonhoeffer regretted this. In a moving letter to his sister and her husband, he apologized: “How could I have been so terribly afraid? . . . I must ask you both to forgive me my weakness. Today I know for certain that I should have done otherwise.” 7

In the fall of 1933, Bonhoeffer turned down a parish post in Berlin, saying that he could not accept at a time when his “non-Aryan” colleagues were barred from such positions. He decided to accept a position at one of the German-speaking congregations in London. In a letter to Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer wrote that he suddenly found himself in opposition to all of his friends and had decided that “it was time to go for a while into the desert.” 8 He left Germany despondent over his church’s cowardice.

Bonhoeffer’s London parish became a haven for Christian and Jewish refugees, and a close friendship grew between Bonhoeffer and Bishop George Bell of Chichester. Bonhoeffer continued his battle for ecumenical recognition of the Confessing Church, achieving victory at the August 1934 World Alliance conference in Fanö, Denmark, where the ecumenical organization decided, despite protests from the official German church, to recognize delegates from both German church factions. In late 1934, Bonhoeffer’s London parish and several other German parishes in England withdrew from the official German Evangelical Church, declaring their support for the Confessing Church.

In April 1935, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, where the Confessing Church was under increasing pressure from the Gestapo. Yet most church leaders, including some in the Confessing Church, not only refused to openly oppose the Nazi regime, but criticized their colleagues who did. As a result, more radical Confessing Christians found themselves embattled on all sides.

In September, 1935—less than two weeks after the announcement of the Nuremberg Laws, which eliminated all remaining civil rights for Jews—Confessing Church leaders convened in the Berlin suburb of Steglitz. In their midst was a small group of activists who had already begun, in small ways, to help Jews. One was a Berlin deaconess, Marga Meusel. While most who sought her help were Jewish Christians, Meusel was angered by the persecution of all those affected by Nazi racial laws.

In fact, Meusel had written a memo to church leaders about the plight of “non-Aryan” Christians in May 1935. But four months later, she rewrote it, referring no longer to “non-Aryan Christians,” but to all Jews, and denouncing the church’s silence on the matter. She particularly condemned those who saw the Nazi persecution of the Jews as God’s will: “Since when has the evildoer the right to portray his evil deeds as the will of God?” 9 It was imperative, she continued, that the church publicly oppose these measures and help everyone—Christian or not—affected by them.

Berlin church superintendent Martin Albertz fought to put Meusel’s statement on the Steglitz Synod agenda. But, most delegates wanted to avoid the issue entirely; several, in fact, threatened to leave the meeting if the “Jewish question” came up. Some even proposed a resolution explicitly supporting the state’s right to regulate Jewish affairs; this, of course, would have given the Confessing Church’s sanction to the Nuremberg Laws.

Bonhoeffer had just begun teaching at Finkenwalde, a Confessing Church seminary; now he received an urgent request from his friends in Berlin to come to Steglitz. Their efforts at the synod met with mixed success. Meusel’s memorandum and the deeper issue of what was happening politically in Nazi Germany were avoided; the debate bogged down on the old issue of whether baptized Jews could remain in the church. The synod finally passed a statement supporting the baptism of Jews; Meusel and Bonhoeffer condemned its failure to move beyond a very limited concern for “non-Aryan” Christians.

Bonhoeffer returned to Finkenwalde and quietly continued to train young clergy in the Confessing Church. Most of his students were prevented by the official church from getting positions; their future was uncertain. Gestapo pressures culminated in the August 1937 Himmler Decree, which declared the education and examination of Confessing ministry candidates illegal. In September 1937, the Gestapo closed Finkenwalde; by November, 27 of Bonhoeffer’s former students had been arrested.

Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly travelling from one eastern German village to another to supervise his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes. Under growing Gestapo observation, he limited his public pronouncements. The Gestapo banned him from Berlin in January 1938, and in September 1940 issued an order forbidding him from speaking in public.

5 Bethge, Ibid., 369.

6 Müller, Christine-Ruth. Dietrich Bonhoeffers Kampf gegen die nationalsozialistische Verfolgung und Vernichtung der Juden. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag), 1990, 60–61.

7 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. VI. Eberhard Bethge, ed. (Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag), 290. 

8 Bonhoeffer, Ibid., Vol. II, 134. 

9 Quoted in Röhm, Eberhard and Thierfelder, Jörg, eds. Juden, Christen, Deutsche 1933–1945. Vol. 2. (Stuttgart: Calwer Verlag, 1989), 44.