Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Part 2: What Was At Stake?

written by Dr. Joe Thomas, Assistant Professor of History of Christianity

“You’ll see the day, ten years from now, when Adolf Hitler will occupy precisely the same position in Germany that Jesus Christ has now.” Reinhard Heydrich, high ranking Nazi official and one of the main architects of the Holocaust

“…the Nazi regime intended eventually to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists.”  William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

“The question is really: Christianity or Germanism?  And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day the better.”  Dietrich Bonhoeffer

So how bad was it?  By 1938 the army, teachers and the majority of the Protestant clergy had sworn a personal oath of loyalty and obedience to Adolf Hitler.  The Catholic Church had signed a concordat with Hitler which virtually guaranteed their silence if he agreed not to mettle in their internal politics.

How could this happen?

First, Hitler kept his promise during the 1930s to restore Germany to greatness and remove the shame of defeat from the aftermath of the First World War.  Nationalist Germans, including many Christians, welcomed Hitler as someone who could rebuild the tattered fabric of German culture.  The Reverend Martin Niemoller, who later joined the Confessing Church, believed at first that the Fuhrer would bring about a revival in German morality.

Second, Germans were fearful of the rising Red menace to the east.  The growing might of the Soviet Union had everyone alarmed, including the other western democracies, and a strong Germany was seen as a necessary bulwark to hold back the communist threat.  Surely Hitler could be tolerated for the greater good of everyone.

But underneath the political and economic successes there brewed a dark underworld of demonic activity.  The goal of a master Aryan race for a Thousand Year Reich meant that those deemed imperfect must be “removed” from society.  The first to be put to death were the most vulnerable.  The T-4 program targeted the physically disabled or those suffering from mental disorders.  The Nazi’s referred to them as “useless eaters.”

But the Nazi scientists and doctors were not acting in a vacuum; they were part of an international eugenics movement. The idea to prevent the weak in society from reproducing was quite popular and scientifically acceptable.  In the United States, one eugenics organization awarded prizes for Christian ministers who gave the best sermons on eugenics.  After the war, Nazi scientists at the Nuremberg Trials would point to eugenics work in California as inspiration for their actions.  While eugenics work in the United States did not include rounding up “undesirables” and killing them, forced sterilizations and other procedures certainly set potentially horrifying precedents.  One is reminded of the verse in Luke 12:3, “What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”  The Nazis were shouting the science of eugenics from the rooftops!

The capstone of Nazi ideology was its radical anti-Jewishness.  Like a tightening noose, the rights and privileges of German citizens of Jewish descent were slowly stripped away during the middle years of the 1930s.  Because of family connections, Bonhoeffer was in the know from the beginning, knowledgeable of the worst actions of the Nazi regime.  The “Aryan Clause” would make it personal for him.  The “Aryan Clause” stated that Jews could no longer be part of the German Civil Service, and by extension could not hold office in the German church.  Bonhoeffer’s best friend was a Jewish-Christian pastor, and his twin sister was married to a baptized Jew.  Thus began the quick march to strip the Christian Church in Germany of its Jewish roots.

Dr. Hans Kerrl, Minister for Church Affairs, declared in 1935 that Christianity does not consist “in faith in Christ as the Son of God.  That makes me laugh…No, True Christianity is not dependent upon the Apostles Creed…True Christianity is represented by the party, and the German people are now called by the party and especially by the Fuhrer to a real Christianity…The Fuhrer is the herald of a new revelation.”

Under the Nazi’s the church became divided between those known as “German Christians” – who followed Nazi ideology but wanted to keep the outward forms of the Christian church – and the Confessing Church.  Bonhoeffer would be an original member of the Confessing Church.  As early as 1934 the opposing sides were being drawn.  It was in this context that Bonhoeffer would attempt to pursue first a path of nonviolent direct action against the Nazi government, before turning away in frustration and joining a small group of highly placed Germans planning to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

Stay tuned….Next week we will follow Bonhoeffer’s every move as he searches for a way to stop the Nazis and save Christianity in Germany.