Who Is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

During this period, Bonhoeffer’s own theological views were deepening, even as he searched for what his practical role as a Christian in Nazi Germany should be. The relationship between Judaism and Christianity became a focal point in his teaching and own reflection. At a Confessing Church meeting in October 1938, he asked his colleagues whether, “instead of talking of the same old questions again and again, we can finally speak of that which truly is pressing on us: what the Confessing Church has to say to the question of church and synagogue?” 10 Here, for the first time, he described Judaism using the same terminology as he did for Christianity: he spoke of the equivalence, in God’s eyes, of “church and synagogue,” of the Jews as “brothers of Christians” and “children of the covenant.” 11 These were radical statements at a time when the leaders of the German Evangelical Church were denying all links between Christianity and Judaism (culminating in the establishment, in 1939, of the “Institute for the Research and Removal of Jewish Influence on the Religious Life of the German People.”)

On November 9, 1938, when the synagogues burned throughout Germany, Bonhoeffer was with students in the hinterlands of Pomerania. Only a telephone call the next day alerted them to what had happened; Bonhoeffer immediately traveled to Berlin to learn more details. Upon his return, his students began debating the theological significance of the Kristallnacht. As one later recalled, several of the students “spoke of the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus’ death on the cross.” Bonhoeffer rejected this vehemently, stating that the pogrom was a case of “sheer violence” that only revealed Nazism’s “godless face.” 12

Bonhoeffer’s response to the November 9 pogrom reflected his growing conviction of the significance, for Christians, of the persecution of the Jews. In the margin of his Bible, he wrote the date November 10, 1938 (it is the only date marked in his Bible) next to the words of Psalm 74, verse 8: “They said in their hearts, let us plunder their goods! They burn all the houses of God in the land . . . O God, how long is the foe to scoff? How long will the enemy revile your name?”

Outside of Germany, too, ecumenical leaders abroad were shifting their focus from the problems of the Confessing Church to the intensifying persecution of the Jews. After the November pogrom, the three leading ecumenical organizations in Geneva sent a joint letter to their member churches, stating:

At the moment when the terrible persecution of the Jewish population in Germany and in other Central European countries has come to a violent climax, it is our duty to remind ourselves of the stand which we have taken as an ecumenical movement against anti-Semitism in all its forms. 13

The ecumenical movement had, until then, focused on the plight of “non-Aryan” Christian refugees; now this focus broadened. The letter urged churches to press their governments to take in more Jewish refugees. Both in Geneva and in New York, ecumenical leaders, for the first time working together with Jewish organizations, intensified their efforts on behalf of refugees. 14 Contacts were established with the “Grüber Office,” a Berlin organization led by Confessing pastor Heinrich Grüber, which eventually helped 2,000 refugees leave Germany. Several Confessing Christians who had been forced to leave Germany worked actively with their former colleagues in Germany.

One was Adolf Freudenberg, who had fled to Switzerland in 1939, and directed the World Council of Church’s special office for church refugee work there. In New York, Henry Smith Leiper, Executive Secretary of the Federal Council of Churches, sought to establish a similar office on American soil. Leiper, who had visited Germany in 1932 because of his concerns about antisemitism, was an outspoken critic of Nazism. He had called for a boycott of the 1936 Olympics because of the Nuremberg Laws, and worked closely with Christian and Jewish groups in the US to spread awareness about what was happening in Nazi Germany.

By 1939, then, the international ecumenical community was closely watching developments in Nazi Germany. At the same time, the first meetings among the German resistance were taking place. Among them was Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer married to Bonhoeffer’s sister. Dohnanyi, a passionate enemy of Nazism, moved in 1939 from the Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command office of Military Intelligence. This office, led by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Major-General Hans Oster, soon became a center of the conspiracy.

In early 1939, Dohnanyi approached Bonhoeffer about possible resistance against the regime. It was a time of personal uncertainty for Bonhoeffer, who was seriously considering leaving Germany. From Dohnanyi, he knew that war was imminent. He also knew that he could never fight in Hitler’s army. Troubled, he wrote to friends in the ecumenical movement, who soon responded with a formal offer of a position at Union Seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer left for New York in June 1939.

Believing that Bonhoeffer wished to leave Germany permanently, Henry Smith Leiper asked him to lead the Federal Council’s office to help refugees in the US. By the time he arrived in the US, however, Bonhoeffer had decided that his place was in Germany. His misgivings were confirmed by a letter he received from Freudenberg, who told him that the Federal Council position should be given to a permanent emigrant. Bonhoeffer wrote Reinhold Niebuhr:

I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. . . I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people. 15

His return to Germany in July 1939 marked a new stage in his life: active resistance. Virtually the only man in a position to do so, Bonhoeffer became the crucial link between international ecumenical efforts and the German conspiracy against Nazism. 16

10 Christine-Ruth Müller, Op. cit., 228.

11 For a thorough discussion of these developments in Bonhoeffer’s thought, see Müller, Ibid., 213–222. 

12 W. D. Zimmermann, ed. I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Harper and Row, 1966, p. 150.

13 Visser’t Hooft, Willem A. Memoirs. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1973, 91.

14 For a study of ecumenical involvement here and in the German resistance, see Klemens von Klemperer, German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad 1938–1945. (Oxford: Clarendon Press Oxford, 1992). 

15 Bethge, Op. Cit., 736.

16 Details of his work in this respect can be found, of course, in the Bethge biography. In addition, the memoirs of Visser’t Hooft and the book by Winfried Meyer (both cited above), as well as the two-volume study by Armin Boyens, Kirchenkampfund Ökumene (Munich: Kaiser Verlag, 1973) portray in detail the extent to which Bonhoeffer was involved on both fronts.