Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

On October 17, 1933, Dietrich found himself standing outside a large, old brick house in Forest Hill, a southern suburb of London. He looked up at the second floor, where a visiting pastor told him he would be staying. “Just the two rooms,” the man said, “although they’re very large. The rest of the house is used as a German-speaking school, so you’ll have the place to yourself at night.”

Dietrich smiled and picked up his suitcase. “I’m sure it’ll be fine,” he responded. The house, though, lacked German precision. Even from the outside Dietrich could see that the window frames didn’t line up, leaving gaping holes for the wind to whip through. Sure enough, the house was drafty and cold, and it had no central heating. The only heat came from two coin-operated gas heaters that emitted a weak flame. Dietrich joked that he had to sit on top of one of the heaters to feel any warmth.

Still, most of Dietrich’s work was done away from the house. Dietrich was in charge of two very different German-speaking congregations. One church, located in Sydenham, included about forty people, most of whom worked at the German embassy in London. The other congregation, St. Paul’s in London’s East End, consisted of working-class German immigrants. Some of these people spoke only German, while their children tended to speak English. Dietrich was happy to pastor these two different groups. He loved both the intellectual stimulation of keeping up with the embassy staff and the challenge of helping the poorer, downtrodden immigrants at St. Paul’s.

Life in London developed into an easy pattern for Dietrich. He had sermons to prepare and church members to visit. He also had weddings, funerals, and baptisms to officiate—all the usual pastoral duties Dietrich enjoyed so much. There was also another side to his work. Each morning Dietrich scoured The Times newspaper looking for information on Germany. It was hard to know what was true and what wasn’t, as the Nazis were excellent at propaganda. Throughout the day he often talked with his mother on the telephone and with fellow pastors or his brothers. The news he gathered from these conversations was alarming. Just before Dietrich left Germany, a new law was passed stating that spouses of Jews were to be treated as if they were also Jewish. Dietrich was concerned even more about his sister Sabine, her husband Gerhard, and their two daughters.

Within days, another law was enacted so that Jews and their spouses could no longer attend entertainment or cultural events, such as art shows, movies, and book readings. Hitler insisted that this was done to protect Germans from their enemies both inside the country and around the world. He also played on German fears of the Soviet Union and how communism could spill over into Germany from there. To Dietrich’s dismay, most Germans didn’t notice that in an attempt to save themselves from communism, they had allowed a government just as harsh, if not harsher, to take root.

Also at the time Dietrich left Berlin for London, control of German newspapers had been handed over to the Nazi Party, and all Jewish journalists had been fired. “How could they be trusted to report the news accurately?” Hitler asked. “After all, Jewish reporters do not tell the truth and are easily influenced by communists.”

Stranger news followed, though Dietrich had no trouble believing it. The official German church deemed the Bible “too Jewish” and decreed that all references to Jews must be removed from it. Of course, this meant that the entire Old Testament, the story of the Jews, had to go, including the beautiful psalms read in church each Sunday. Jesus was declared to be “our greatest Aryan hero.” The fact that he was Jewish was completely ignored. Even hymns that had Old Testament words in them like Jehovah, hallelujah, and hosanna had to go. That did not leave many approved hymns.

Each morning The Times delivered more ominous news. Those churches not aligned with the Nazis were growing weaker by the day. Reich Bishop Ludwig Müller had already broken an earlier promise and now agreed that all Protestant youth associations should be rolled into the Hitler Youth Movement. At the same time, Hitler said in a speech, “I belong to no confession. I am neither Protestant nor Catholic. I believe only in Germany.” Dietrich found it incredible that a man who did not even profess to be a Christian was reshaping the church in his image.

For Dietrich, the last straw came when Ludwig Müller announced that the church in Germany had given up any struggle against the Aryan Paragraph, which banned Jews from worshiping in Christian churches. At the same time, the Reich bishop issued the “Decree for the Restoration of Orderly Conditions in the German Evangelical Church.” The title sounded innocent enough, but this made it illegal for anyone or any publication to discuss or mention anything about a struggle between the church and the führer. Now every time Dietrich made a phone call home to talk about what was happening in the church, he was committing a crime against the state.

To help put his time in England to best use, Dietrich flew to Germany every six weeks or so. His aim was to carry information back and forth so the outside world would know what was going on inside Germany and so that his Christian friends in Germany would be encouraged knowing that others were working hard to help them. Each time he returned to Germany, Dietrich heard of more pastors who had been jailed or had had bricks or bombs thrown through their windows by Nazi thugs.

Dietrich also hosted many Christian friends visiting England for various reasons. Among them was his friend and fellow pastor Franz Hildebrandt, who stayed for three months. Dietrich was delighted to have Franz around, and the two of them spent hours together praying and planning how to best help their fellow Christians and the German Jews.

One morning in late fall 1933, Dietrich’s cause received a tremendous boost—just the break he’d been praying for. Dietrich was invited to meet that morning with Bishop George Bell, the Church of England’s Bishop of Chichester. He had seen Bishop Bell from afar at interchurch conferences and always admired him. Now he wondered whether the bishop could help with the church situation in Germany. Dietrich and George Bell met at the bishop’s church chambers in Chichester. Dietrich immediately liked the bishop, who had a keen interest in Christian affairs outside his own church and his own country. The two men soon learned to trust each other and became firm friends and allies.

Christmas was a busy time for Dietrich. He produced a Nativity play for the church and entertained many visitors in his two-room parsonage. By now his mother had sent over Dietrich’s piano and several other large pieces of furniture and had hired a maid for him. This amused Dietrich, especially since the maid could not control the constant scampering of mice throughout the house. Nothing could. In the end, Dietrich and Franz gave up trying and placed all their food supplies in large tin cans. At night they watched as the mice scurried frantically. This became a conversation starter when visitors joined them for musical evenings.

All was not fun, however. Dietrich was playing a dangerous game, supplying Bishop Bell with specific information on what the Nazis were up to in Germany. He got much of this information from his brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the Reich Ministry of Justice, and Rüdiger Schleicher in the newly formed Reich Air Travel Ministry, as well as from extended-family contacts. Bishop Bell published the information Dietrich passed along in a stream of letters to the editor in The Times. It wasn’t long before Dietrich’s activities drew the attention of German church leaders in Berlin. Bishop Theodor Heckel was in charge of all German pastors serving in foreign countries. He visited England, arriving the day after Dietrich’s twenty-eighth birthday, to meet with seven pastors from the various German churches in London.

Bishop Heckel’s intentions were plain. He had come to get the pastors to sign an agreement declaring their allegiance to the German Reich church. The bishop started the meeting on a positive note, talking about all the wonderful things going on in Germany, how their beloved führer had taken the church youth groups under his wing, and how church leaders were really against the Aryan Paragraph and were just waiting for the right time to say so openly. He also talked about how the church, with the blessing of the Third Reich, had an unprecedented opportunity to win converts. But there was a darker side to his conversation. The bishop pointed out how unfortunate it would be if any of the London pastors were to commit treason by passing on to English church leaders, and in particular Bishop George Bell, information they believed to be true but clearly was not.

The meeting was held over to the next day, and Dietrich left the first session with a sense of doom. Throughout the meeting he had spoken truthfully, forcefully, and respectfully about his feelings with regard to the Reich church, so there was no doubt about where he stood.

The following morning, Bishop Heckel met with Bishop Bell. Dietrich knew that the German bishop planned to pressure the English bishop to stay out of the German church’s business. Dietrich was confident there was no chance of that happening.

That afternoon the seven London pastors resumed their meeting with Bishop Heckel, who was in a dark mood. Dietrich knew that the meeting with Bishop Bell had not gone well. This time the bishop dispensed with pleasantries and insisted the pastors all sign the document of allegiance. If they refused to do so, Bishop Heckel threatened to have their German citizenship stripped from them. In the face of this threat, Dietrich and two other pastors stood and walked out. Dietrich was glad to learn that not one of the seven pastors in London signed the document.

A week later, Dietrich was summoned to Berlin for a private meeting with Bishop Heckel. At the meeting Dietrich stood his ground and again forcefully and respectfully put forward his beliefs about how he considered the Reich church to be engaging in heresy by combining Christianity with Nazi ideals. As far as he was concerned, the two could not coexist in the church.

It was clear to Dietrich that it was impossible for a true Christian pastor trying to live by the Bible to work with the Nazified German church. His view was becoming increasingly clear to other Christian leaders in Germany, including Karl Barth. In late May 1934, delegates from various Protestant churches around Germany met in Barmen to discuss their next step. This was a bold and decisive move. The delegates decided to form their own church structure and to be called the Confessing Church, after Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:32: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (KJV).

Dietrich was not at Barmen, but from London he was in constant phone contact with those who were. He knew the die had been cast. There was now no turning back. Dietrich and his fellow pastors had defied Hitler and shown the truth about the German church. When people suggested the Confessing Church had broken away from the German church, Dietrich corrected them. In his thinking, it was the German church that had steadily moved away from the clear teachings of Christ, and it was the Confessing Church that held true to His teaching.

Hitler did not immediately respond to this challenge from the church, and Dietrich soon learned he had other things on his mind. One month later on June 29, 1934, Operation Hummingbird, or as it quickly became known, the Night of the Long Knives, was carried out. On that night and on into next day many top Nazi officials and other enemies of Hitler and the Nazis were brutally murdered by the SS, the Nazi Secret Police.

Hitler tried desperately to keep the killings secret, but news of the deaths seeped out, first one, then another. Hitler eventually took responsibility for ordering the deaths of sixty-one people, including Ernst Röhm, the leader of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary wing. Dietrich was shocked by the news of the killings. He soon learned from his brother-in-law Hans that the Ministry of Justice believed that many more than sixty-one had been killed, perhaps as many as four hundred people.