Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

A week before the Aryan Paragraph was to go into effect, Hitler called for a boycott of Jewish stores and businesses across Germany. At a rally in Berlin that day, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Enlightenment and Propaganda, railed against the Jews and all they had done to undermine Germany. He talked of “Jewish atrocity propaganda” and how the Jews controlled all foreign newspapers and were printing lies that hurt the image of their loving führer, Adolf Hitler. These must be stopped, he said. It was time for Germans to rise up against Jews and show them they must stop printing such falsehoods. Of course, most Jews had nothing to do with printing newspapers, but that didn’t seem to matter to those listening to Goebbels’s speech. They were angry and took to the streets with placards that read, “Germans, defend yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” Goebbels’s hate-filled tirade sickened Dietrich.

While German citizens took to the streets with placards, Nazi storm troopers (SA), the Nazis’ paramilitary force, clad in their distinctive brown uniforms, fanned out onto city streets across Germany. Through intimidation and bullying they tried to stop customers from entering Jewish businesses. They also painted the Star of David on the windows of Jewish businesses, along with the word Jude (Jew).

Dietrich was proud of his ninety-year-old grandmother, Julie Bonhoeffer, who despised the Nazis and their handling of the situation. She decided to go shopping at her favorite store in Berlin, Kaufhaus des Westens, the world’s largest department store. It also happened to be a Jewish-owned business. When she reached the store, Julie calmly walked up to the cordon of storm troopers positioned to stop people from entering. She shooed them aside, saying, “I have always shopped where I wanted to, and you will not change that!” Then she added indignantly, “All this nonsense about Jews and propaganda.” With that she walked right into the store.

On April 11, as Dietrich worked to come up with a Christian response to the latest round of Nazi edicts, he received word that Gerhard Leibholz’s father had died. Dietrich’s twin sister, Sabine, wrote asking Dietrich to preach at her father-in-law’s funeral. Dietrich was uncertain about this. Gerhard’s father had been Jewish and, unlike his son, had not converted to Christianity. Dietrich found himself in a difficult situation. He wanted to honor his sister and brother-in-law’s wishes, but now the Aryan Paragraph was in full effect. Given the emotional state Germany had been whipped into, a Christian pastor preaching at the funeral of an unconverted Jew could have repercussions for the Protestant church as it sought to clarify its response to the Nazis. Dietrich consulted his church superintendent, who advised him to stay away from the funeral. He followed the superintendent’s advice.

The Nazis continued to persecute Jews. On April 22, they issued an edict banning Jews from serving as patent lawyers and Jewish doctors from accepting state-run insurance. Then, on April 25, the number of Jewish children who could go to school was severely reduced.

As Dietrich observed what was happening to the Jews, he was reminded of his time in the United States, where he had witnessed firsthand the plight of the blacks there. He thought back to his experience visiting Washington with Frank Fisher from Union Theological Seminary. The Jim Crow laws in the South had forbidden them, as a white man and a black man, from sitting together in a restaurant or riding on the same bus or tram car. The blacks couldn’t even use the same restrooms. Dietrich had found the situation grotesque, especially in such a modern country as the United States. The phrase “separate but equal” was used to justify the segregated system, but Dietrich had seen enough in the United States to know that it was a sham. Black people in the United States were disadvantaged in every way compared to whites. And now in Germany, he saw the same system of segregation being put in place by the Nazis. This time, though, it was Jews who were the target of systematic segregation. Dietrich became more determined than ever to speak out about it.

Already many German pastors had given in to Nazi demands for the church, while other pastors and church members were confused about how to respond. On the one hand, Hitler talked about rebuilding a strong Christian country, bringing back morals, and eliminating God-hating communists. On the other hand, many of the Nazi ideals were harsh and went against the clear teachings of Jesus, particularly those found in His Sermon on the Mount. As far as the church and the Jewish question went, many pastors felt it a reasonable compromise that Jewish Christians should have their own pastors and worship in their own churches. What could the harm be? It wasn’t as though Hitler was telling them that the Jews could not go to church, just that they should separate themselves from Aryan Christians.

When Dietrich had finished drafting a Christian response to the Aryan Paragraph, he titled his essay The Church and the Jewish Question. He intended to present it at the upcoming pastors’ gathering.

Many important pastors were in attendance at the gathering at Gerhard Jacobi’s residence. Twenty-seven-year-old Dietrich pulled a copy of the essay from the breast pocket of his jacket, unfurled the pages, and began to address the meeting. He spoke about the three ways in which the church should respond to any government. The first response was to speak out when a government tried to do things that went against the clear teachings of Jesus Christ. The second response was to help church members who had been victims of a corrupt government. As he laid out this point, several of the pastors present stood and walked out in protest. Undeterred, Dietrich moved on to the church’s third response, which was to help anyone who was a victim of government repression, even if he or she was not part of the Christian community.

Dietrich paused for a moment to let the remaining pastors take in the full meaning of what he was saying: that the church should help Jewish people fight against any discrimination by the Nazi Party. Then Dietrich concluded, “What is at stake is by no means the question whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews. It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say: here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not.”

More pastors stood and walked out, but Dietrich stood his ground. Since visiting Rome and observing the Catholic church nine years before, he’d spent thousands of hours thinking and writing about the true meaning and nature of the church. For Dietrich, the church was made up of people from all ages, races, countries, and denominations. If any group called itself God’s church but did not welcome all of these people inside, it was not really God’s church, just a building filled with a group of self-important people.

After delivering his essay to the pastors, Dietrich began to regret that he had not followed his own advice more closely with regard to the church’s third response. He realized he had allowed himself to be swayed by fear when he declined to preach at Gerhard’s father’s funeral. He promised himself that he would not let fear sway his actions again.

Dietrich also had The Church and the Jewish Question published. The publication coincided with still more Nazi restrictions on the Jews. Jewish dentists were barred from accepting state-run insurance, and Jews were purged from cultural organizations throughout Germany. But the Jews were not the only ones Nazis set their sights on. Trade unions in Germany were abolished, and the remaining political parties in the country were outlawed, making the Nazi Party the only political party allowed. Adolf Hitler was now Germany’s dictator.

The next act in the Nazis’ Gleichschaltung policy was the “Action against the Un-German Spirit.” Universities across the country were to become centers of German nationalism. As such, they needed to be purged of Jewish intellectualism as well as any other “degenerate” ideologies that might undermine the pure German spirit and the affirmation of traditional German values.

This purge of universities began in spectacular fashion on the evening of May 10, 1933. On that night in most university towns across Germany, right-wing student groups gathered at the universities for torchlight parades and rallies. At the University of Berlin, where Dietrich still lectured in theology, nearly forty thousand people gathered at Hegelplatz at the rear of the university and marched across campus carrying flaming torches to the public square at Opernplatz, where a huge bonfire had been set ablaze. In the glow of the flames they listened as Goebbels delivered another fiery, emotional address. “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state! I consign to the flames the writings of Heinrich Mann, Ernst Gläser, Erich Kästner.” With that, he began to toss books onto the bonfire. The crowd, in a frenzy over Goebbels’s speech, tossed more books onto the fire.

Books by Jewish authors like Albert Einstein were not the only ones burned. Books by other German authors whose work the Nazis considered degenerate were also burned, including works by Karl Marx, Bertolt Brecht, August Bebel, Thomas Mann, and Erich Maria Remarque. (Remarque was the author of All Quiet on the Western Front, the film version of which had touched Dietrich deeply when he saw it in the United States.) Books deemed to have a “corrupting foreign influence,” including books by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, H. G. Wells, Theodore Dreiser, and Helen Keller, were also burned.

When he heard of the book burning at the University of Berlin, Dietrich was deeply troubled. He’d hoped for a better response from the university students, but in the face of so much Nazi propaganda, the students had given in to their base instincts.

During the summer of 1933, things began to change quickly in the German Protestant church. Those pastors who had aligned themselves and their congregations with the Nazis now called themselves “German Christians,” and the faith they practiced was termed “Positive Christianity,” a mix of Christian dogma and Nazi idealism. And now these German Christian pastors wanted to exercise more power over the church in Germany. Hitler helped them out by putting forward his personal adviser on church matters, an armed forces chaplain named Ludwig Müller, to be the Reich bishop. As such, he would be the head of the German Christian churches, coordinating their affairs and integrating them with the Nazis. The German Christian pastors quickly elected Müller as the new Reich bishop, despite the best efforts of Dietrich and a number of other important Protestant leaders who tried to persuade the pastors not to vote for Müller.

On Sunday, July 2, 1933, the German Christian congregations held services of thanksgiving at which a special message from Adolf Hitler was read from every pulpit. “All those who are concerned for the safe structure of our church in the great revolution of these times, must . . . feel deeply thankful that the state should have assumed, in addition to all its tremendous tasks, the great load and burden of reorganizing the church.”

A shudder ran down Dietrich’s spine as he read Hitler’s words to the German Christians. The Nazis were now firmly in control of Germany’s Protestant church. The question for Dietrich and other pastors now became how to respond to this situation. Was there still a place in Germany for the real, non-Nazi Christian church? What shape should this church take? And would the Nazis allow such a church to exist outside their direct control? Despite his best efforts, Dietrich had been unable to turn back the Nazi advance in taking control of the Protestant church. Now he wondered what the next challenge for him might be.

Chapter 11

In the fall of 1933, Dietrich was asked to take on the job of pastoring two churches in London, England. The two churches were under the same umbrella organization as the German church in Barcelona. At first Dietrich wasn’t eager for the job. He knew he was needed in the fight against Nazi intrusion into the Christian church. Yet as he thought and prayed about the situation, Dietrich realized he could do a lot of useful things from outside of Germany. He could serve as a spokesperson to the world about what was going on, and he could help raise support for German Christians resisting the “synchronization” of the church with the Nazis.