Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Now that he had control of the unruly class, Dietrich wanted to invest more than just an hour a week in the boys. He rented a room in the neighborhood and moved in. His room was above a bakery, and Dietrich gave the baker instructions that if any of the boys showed up to see him, they should be allowed up to his room, even if he was not there. He also let the boys know his new address and that his door was always unlocked and open for anyone who wanted to visit.

Before long, boys started showing up at Dietrich’s room in the evenings. Dietrich taught them chess, and as they played, Dietrich talked to the boys, learning more about them while trying to reinforce what he was teaching in the confirmation class. In no time at all, Dietrich had won both the boys’ friendship and their respect.

Confirmation day for the boys was to be held March 13, 1932, the same day as Germany’s presidential election. The German president held a lot of power, and Paul von Hindenburg had served in the post for seven years. At eighty-four years of age and in poor health, Hindenburg wanted to step down but was persuaded to put himself up for reelection when the Nazi Party leader, Adolf Hitler, entered the presidential race.

As an Austrian rather than a German citizen, Hitler should have been ineligible to run for president. He had also been tried and convicted of treason for his role in a failed attempt to overthrow the government in November 1923. He spent a year in prison, where he passed the time writing a rambling book about his life and beliefs, titled Mein Kampf, “My Struggle.” But in the days leading up to the presidential election, Hitler found a loophole that allowed him to become a German citizen and run in the election. To stop Adolf Hitler from attaining the post, Hindenburg ran again.

As confirmation day in Wedding and election day in Germany approached, Berlin’s streets were filled with Nazi Party members riding around on the backs of trucks with megaphones in hand, trying to stir up support for Adolf Hitler.

On Sunday, March 13, Dietrich was at Zionskirche in Wedding, delivering the confirmation sermon. It was normal in such a sermon to deliver a stern warning to the boys, but given all that was happening in Germany that day, Dietrich decided not to be hard on the boys. Instead he told them, “Today I must not make your prospect for the future seem harder and darker than it already is—and I know that many of you know a great many of the hard facts of life. Today you are not to be given fear of life but courage. And so today in the church we shall speak more than ever of hope, the hope that we have and which no one can take from you.”

In the presidential election, Hindenburg eventually won 53 percent of the votes, while Hitler received 36 percent. Dietrich breathed a sigh of relief. Yet he was greatly concerned about Hitler. Gaining 36 percent of the votes cast for president gave Hitler a lot of power, even if he wasn’t president.

The Bonhoeffer family waited and watched as German parliamentary elections were held on July 31, 1932. When the results were announced, the Nazi Party had won nearly 38 percent of the votes and 230 seats in the Reichstag. However, it was not enough for them to rule Germany outright. In the weeks following, despite intense negotiations, it became clear that none of the other parties wanted to enter into a coalition with the Nazis, and a political stalemate ensued. As a result, a second parliamentary election was called for November 6.

Dietrich was deeply concerned. Something sinister seemed to be happening in Germany. Dietrich wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but he felt the need to alert Germans to the dangers ahead for the nation. An opportunity to do this came when he was asked to speak at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Berlin’s beautiful cathedral, on Reformation Sunday, the same day as the election: November 6, 1932. On Reformation Sunday, German Protestants celebrated their hero, Martin Luther, who had led the Reformation.

As Dietrich made his way to the church to deliver his sermon, the streets were again filled with Nazi Party members riding on the backs of trucks with their megaphones. As Dietrich stood to deliver his Reformation Day sermon, his words quickly cut through any thought of celebration. He told the congregation they had strayed far from Luther and that it was time for them to live by their convictions, just as Luther had stood by his convictions when he nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517.

The sermon was not popular. People had come to church that day to feel good about themselves and their heritage. They left feeling confused and angry with Dietrich. But he didn’t care. Something told him tough times were ahead and people needed to take a serious look at the changes happening in their country.

Later that day Dietrich learned the results of the parliamentary elections. They were no more conclusive than those of the July election. The Nazis had won 33 percent of the votes, or 196 seats in the Reichstag; the Social Democratic Party, 121 seats; the Communist Party, 100 seats; the Catholic Center Party, 90 seats; and the Nationalist Party, 52 seats. A range of other small parties held 32 seats among them. The Nazis had lost 34 seats from the July election, while the Communists had gained 11. Although Dietrich was pleased that the Nazis had lost seats in the latest election, still no single party had enough seats to form a government.

The weeks that followed were filled with political wrangling and rancor, but eventually Hitler and the Nazi Party wore down President Hindenburg. In an attempt to overcome the political impasse in the country, on January 30, 1933, Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor of a coalition government. Without the majority’s vote, an Austrian criminal had become the most powerful man in Germany. Few Germans worried too much about this. They were just glad that Germany once again had a strong and vital leader. They hoped he would show the rest of Europe that Germans were strong and brave and would no longer be bullied by other countries as they had been in the Treaty of Versailles.

Now that Hitler was chancellor, the entire Bonhoeffer family held their breath and waited to see what would happen next. Twenty-eight days later they found out. On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag, the German parliament building, went up in flames. Nervously Dietrich watched the fire from the second-story window of his parents’ house, certain that Hitler and the Nazis would turn the incident to their advantage.

The next day the newspapers in Berlin carried the headline that a Dutch communist by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe had been found in the burned-out building. Van der Lubbe was accused of setting the fire. Instead of treating the incident as arson and allowing the German justice system to deal with the situation, the Nazi Party treated the fire as a matter of national security. Hitler whipped the German people into a frenzy of hatred toward foreigners and communists alike. Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, proclaimed, “This is the beginning of the Communist Revolution! We must not wait a minute. We will show no mercy. Every Communist official must be shot where he is found. Every Communist deputy must be this very night strung up.”

On February 28, Hitler responded to the situation with the Reichstag Fire Decree. He claimed that a secret investigation had uncovered a plot by the communists to pillage and burn Berlin to the ground, murder anticommunists, and create civil war in Germany. The burning of the parliament building, Hitler said, was the first stage in this campaign of terror against the German people. Hitler then proposed a perfectly simple solution: he and the Nazi Party would take care of everything and keep everyone safe. All the German people had to do was give them the power to make decisions for them and the good of Germany. To many Germans this seemed like a great idea. They would be safe and secure, led by a strong man with a loyal party to back him up. Peace and prosperity would surely follow.

President Hindenburg quickly signed the Reichstag Fire Decree into law. The decree suspended most of the civil liberties in Germany as set forth in the Weimar Constitution. This meant that German people could not expect any privacy. Their phone calls could be tapped, their letters read, their houses searched, and their children questioned—and they had no right to protest. It also meant an end to certain freedoms. German newspapers could print only things the Nazi Party approved of. People could not assemble in groups without approval or talk about anything that was anti-Hitler or against the Nazi Party. The decree also stripped away the right of states within Germany to make their own laws—all laws now came from the Reich government and were to be obeyed without question.

Dietrich and his family were shocked at the speed at which things were changing. The Nazis were right-wing extremists using emotionalism and nationalistic slogans to stir up the people. They also knew how to manipulate the German political system to their advantage, evidenced by the way they got the Enabling Act passed in the Reichstag on March 23, 1933. To pass, this act needed two-thirds of the Reichstag members to vote for it, and the Nazis had nowhere near the number of seats needed for that kind of majority. However, the Reichstag Fire Decree allowed the Nazis to eliminate from contention the communists, who held one hundred seats. Through intimidation, threats, thuggery, and intense negotiation, the Nazis managed to get enough votes to pass the Enabling Act into law.

The Enabling Act was so named because it enabled the chancellor and his cabinet to enact laws in Germany without the participation of the Reichstag. In short, Hitler and his fellow Nazis could now pass laws without any parliamentary consent or control. In certain circumstances those laws could deviate from the constitution. Any thought of cooperation or coalition in government had been swept away. The German people wanted to feel safe and proud again, and Adolf Hitler now had the power to do that for them. The Third Reich had begun.

Dietrich did not trust the Nazis, and it took only two weeks for him to learn that Adolf Hitler had darker plans for Germany than anyone could have imagined.

Chapter 10

In the second-floor bedroom of his parents’ house, Dietrich sat quietly, though his mind was in turmoil. He found it hard to take in what was happening in Germany. Adolf Hitler had instigated a policy he called Gleichschaltung (synchronization), which was meant to bring the entire order of German life into line with Nazi Party values. One piece of this reordering in particular stunned Dietrich. It was known as the Aryan Paragraph, and it would take effect on April 7, 1933. The Aryan Paragraph stated that in the interest of restoring order to Germany’s Civil Service, all government jobs must be held by people of Aryan or European heritage. Those people of Jewish heritage, even Jews who had converted to Christianity or been raised as Christians, were to have their jobs terminated immediately. Hitler had made it clear that he expected German churches to follow the same approach outlined in the Aryan Paragraph.

Dietrich thought of his good friend and fellow theology student Franz Hildebrandt, who was now a pastor at Kleinmachnow. Franz’s mother was of Jewish descent, which meant that Franz would be affected by the introduction of the Aryan Paragraph. And what about his own brother-in-law, Gerhard Leibholz? Gerhard was a successful law professor at Göttingen University and had converted from Judaism to Christianity. What would the Aryan Paragraph mean for him?

As he thought about what the Aryan Paragraph meant for Germany and in particular, the church, Dietrich realized he had few answers. However, he intended to come up with some. Gerhard Jacobi, pastor of Berlin’s Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, had asked Dietrich to address a gathering of pastors at his home at the end of April. Dietrich was determined to have a Christian response to the Aryan Paragraph when he spoke to the pastors.