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Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an inspirational figure who resisted Nazi tyranny

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, World War 2 on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about World War Two first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, picture, image, illustration

Bonhoeffer was conducting a religious service at Schonburg when they came for him

Twenty-Three men were grouped round the table, peering at the maps which were laid out before them. A briefcase was propped against one of the table’s supports. Suddenly a loud explosion blasted the room, blowing out the walls and the roof. In the smoke and confusion one man was the centre of attention. His trouser leg had been blown off, his hair was scorched and his right arm hung stiff and useless. But he was still alive. It was 12.45 p.m. on 20th July, 1944, and the final attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler had failed. Twelve hours later the Fuhrer was broadcasting to his people and the round-up of the conspirators had begun. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. One of them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer was in his twenties when the Nazis seized power. He was already an accomplished theologian and his future as a minister of the Lutheran church and a professor of theology seemed bright. But only a month after Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer attacked the Nazi’s “leadership principle” in a radio broadcast. Needless to say, he was cut off before he had finished.

Then, in 1936, Bonhoeffer’s authority to teach was withdrawn and the seminary where he taught students who intended to enter the church was officially closed the following year. But not even the orders of the leader of the S.S., Heinrich Himmler, could stop its work, and the school continued underground.

In 1938 Bonhoeffer’s activities took a new turn. His brother-in-law, Hans, was a member of the German counter-intelligence service – the Abwehr. He was also a leader of the German Resistance Movement which aimed at Hitler’s downfall. Bonhoeffer learned a great deal from him about the efforts of General Beck and others to smash Hitler’s regime before Germany could be plunged into war. Their efforts failed, however, and in 1939, while Bonhoeffer was on a lecture tour in America, it suddenly became obvious to him that war was inevitable.

Friends there pressed him to remain in safety but he refused. He could not settle to work safely in America while his friends conducted the defence of the church and their opposition to Hitler in extreme danger in Germany. He took one of the last ships sailing from America. A month after he arrived home war broke out. Bonhoeffer, together with his lawyer-brother Claus, was soon enrolled by Hans in the Resistance Movement. He was unable to preach or teach, his books were condemned and he had to report to the police regularly; but on passes and papers quietly furnished by Hans and his friends in Counter-Intelligence, he was able to travel all over the country on behalf of the Resistance.

His most famous journey took place in May, 1942. The Resistance knew that it had to make contact with the British and Americans in the hope of securing some assurances as to the kind of peace the Allies would be prepared to make if Hitler was overthrown. Bonhoeffer had spent some time, during the thirties, as pastor of two German churches in London and in the course of his stay he had become friendly with the bishop of Chichester, Dr. Bell. The Bishop had friends in the British government and it was decided that Bonhoeffer should contact him on behalf of the Resistance. But how was it to be done?

Hans’ fellow-conspirators in the Abwehr took charge of the arrangements. Bonhoeffer was given forged papers which would get him to Stockholm in neutral Sweden. Bishop Bell made his way there too. They met and Bonhoeffer explained the conspirators’ plans and their terms for surrender. Bishop Bell passed on the information to the British government but the Allies were unimpressed and would not help. The Germans were left to act on their own with no encouragement from outside.

In April, 1943, Bonhoeffer heard that Hans had been arrested. He waited calmly, knowing that he would be next, and burned or hid as many incriminating documents as he could. It was not long before the Gestapo were at the door. He was arrested on suspicion only, however, and for 18 months was confined in the military section of Tegel prison in Berlin. He was treated with consideration, owing to his family connexions, and was able to send letters to his family and friends. His writings from this time were not published until 1951 but they made an impact greater, perhaps, than anything else he wrote and spread his reputation throughout the world.

Then came the plot of July, 1944. As Gestapo agents unravelled the complexities of the Resistance Movement their suspicion of Bonhoeffer’s implications became proven fact. In October he was transferred to the Gestapo prison, the fearsome building in Prinz Albrecht Strasse. He was deprived of his opportunities of contact with the outside world. His thoughts, scribbled on scraps of paper, had now to be smuggled out. Then the prison was bombed in an air-raid and he was sent to the concentration-camp at Buchenwald.

In April, 1945, when the American artillery could be heard rumbling in the west, Bonhoeffer and 16 others from Buchenwald – most of them from the Resistance – were ordered to climb into a lorry. As it bumped along roads crammed with refugees, they recognised the names of villages and discovered that they were travelling southeast. They guessed that they were headed for the extermination-camp of Flossenburg but to their surprise they drove past the camp. Finally, in the town of Regensburg, they were ordered out of the lorry and into the local prison. There they met more political prisoners and there were joyful reunions of old friends. They were even given decent food, a change from the watery soup to which they had became accustomed. Later they were taken to a camp at Schonburg where there were beds with blankets, rooms with windows and a glorious view.

After months in Buchenwald all this seemed like a dream. Yet at Flossenburg a high-ranking official was already arranging for the execution of the surviving members of the Resistance. Bonhoeffer’s name was on the list.

He was conducting a religious service at Schonburg when they came for him. Two Gestapo agents entered and called out: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” The words “come with us” had a special meaning for all prisoners: they meant death. Bonhoeffer’s words to one of his companions, as he was hurried downstairs, are the last that have been preserved: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” He was hanged at Flossenburg the following morning. A few days later the Allies liberated the camp.

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