Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

The German public clamored for an explanation of the killings. On July 13, 1934, Hitler gave a speech to “clarify” why he had ordered so many executions without trials. The speech was broadcast nationally and was replayed on the BBC.

Dietrich sat by the radio, trying to fathom what was happening to his beloved country. He had been expecting something like this, and the brutality sickened him. He listened as Hitler declared,

In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people! . . . I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterize down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. . . . Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the state, then certain death is his lot.

As Dietrich gleaned more information from his sources in Germany, it appeared that Hitler had ordered the killing to appease German army generals and win their support. Hitler had learned that the generals were unhappy with the SA, and in particular its leader, Ernst Röhm, who was pushing for the army to be absorbed by the SA. By having Röhm and a number of other Nazi leaders murdered, Hitler crushed the power of the SA and secured the loyalty of the generals. But Hitler had not been content to just crush Röhm and the SA. He had used the opportunity to settle scores with many of his enemies by having them murdered too.

The Night of the Long Knives had another effect: it struck fear into the heart of every German.

Dietrich learned from his brother-in-law Hans that Hitler knew President Paul von Hindenburg was on the verge of death. He wanted to shore up his hold on power through gaining the support of the generals before the president died. On August 2, 1934, the eighty-six-year-old president of Germany died. Hindenburg had been an old and ineffectual leader in his last years, and Hitler was determined that there would be no new German president. He declared that the title of president would remain vacant out of respect for Hindenburg and that he, Adolf Hitler, would assume all of the responsibilities that had previously belonged to the president.

The nation was now firmly in the dictator’s hands. No man or political office stood between Hitler and whatever he wanted to do. Hitler’s first act was to require every member of the armed forces to swear a personal oath of loyalty to him. They would go wherever he pointed and do whatever he required of them.

On August 26, 1934, Dietrich found himself on the tiny island of Fanø, off the west coast of Denmark. The setting was enchanting. Tiny wooden cottages with bright green sod roofs dotted the landscape, while wildflowers bloomed in the gardens. But Dietrich was not on Fanø to enjoy the scenery. He was attending a conference of the World Alliance of Churches where he was scheduled to give one of the keynote addresses and direct the International Youth Conference.

The conference was held against a background of tense change, not only in Germany but also in other parts of Europe. A month before, on July 25, 1934, a group of Austrian Nazis had stormed the Austrian chancellery building and shot Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss. Over one million people attended his funeral in a show of support against the rise of the Nazis in Europe. Fearing that Hitler would move to annex Austria following the assassination, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini sent troops to the Austrian border as a warning to Germany to keep her hands off Austria, an Italian ally.

The Fanø conference was much as Dietrich had expected it to be. Some church leaders from around the world, including his friend Bishop George Bell and Swedish Bishop Valdemar Ammundsen, saw the growing threat of war in much the same light as Dietrich did. It was no surprise on the morning of August 28 when Dietrich addressed the conference on the subject of peace. His sermon was passionate and forthright. “There is no way to peace along the way of safety. . . . Peace is the opposite of security. . . . Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God. Battles are won not with weapons but with God,” Dietrich declared to the assembly.

While the conference delegates were stirred by Dietrich’s preaching, most of them believed he was exaggerating the threat Hitler and the Nazis posed. As a result, Dietrich left Fanø frustrated that the World Alliance of Churches had not cut ties with the Reich church and would maintain “friendly” contact with its leaders. To Dietrich this was making a pact with the devil.

Back in London, Dietrich felt his time in England was almost over. He received word that the new Confessing Church in Germany intended to set up a seminary to train young pastors, and Dietrich was invited to be its director. This was the kind of challenge he was looking for. It would give him a way to influence many young men who would be at the forefront of the Confessing Church’s battle with the Third Reich. It also meant that Dietrich would be leaving the safety of England to return to an increasingly dangerous situation, but issues of personal safety were far from his mind. Fellow Christians in Germany needed him, and Dietrich longed to be with them. On April 15, 1935, after a year and a half in England, Dietrich returned to Germany.

Chapter 12

Dietrich stood outside the old manor house. It was just what he needed—almost. The place was large enough and had plenty of grounds for growing crops and for sporting activities, but it was dilapidated. Railings hung off the stairs, windows were broken, birds nested in the fireplaces, and a large square addition gave the building a strange, unbalanced look. Still, he realized, it would have to do. The house had one big advantage—it was located in the tiny town of Finkenwalde in Pomerania, near the northeastern tip of Germany, far away from prying Nazi eyes. Dietrich was hopeful that the new Confessing Church seminary could exist there undetected, or at least ignored because of its isolation.

Once the decision was made to use the manor house at Finkenwalde, twenty-three students set to work transforming it into a seminary. A lot of scrubbing, sawing, hammering, and painting was needed before the place was fit to live in. Once it was habitable again, furniture was needed. Dietrich had his piano shipped in directly from London, and he went to Berlin to fetch his vast book collection to start the library. Once news of the seminary spread around the Pomeranian countryside, offers of help flooded in. The Pomeranians were traditional folk, not impressed with the Nazis. They happily contributed vegetables, sides of meat, and spare furniture to help anyone opposing the Nazis.

Dietrich had spent many years thinking about what should go into a well-rounded education for pastors. Having been a theology student himself, as well as a theology lecturer, he felt something was missing. Theology students came away with a lot of information in their heads and the ability to read Greek and Latin. But Dietrich had his doubts that they were really ready to lead a church congregation. Now that he was in charge of a seminary, he intended to try a new approach. He had six months to take the twenty-three theology graduates—twenty-two men and one woman—enrolled in the seminary and get them thinking and acting like pastors. His approach hadn’t been tried in a Protestant church in Germany, and its strictness startled many of the students.

Each morning the students awoke, washed, and dressed in silence. Since they were bunked ten to a room and shared two bathrooms, this routine was an exercise in cooperation. Once washed and dressed, the students headed downstairs for a Bible reading, the singing of a hymn, and prayer. This was followed by a simple breakfast, and then it was time for each student to head back upstairs and meditate on a single Bible verse for a half hour. The students were told not to come back downstairs until they understood how the verse was relevant to the day ahead.

Many students complained to Dietrich that this routine was a waste of time. They thought that they should be getting on with the business of learning how to be pastors. Dietrich patiently explained that preaching and teaching were useless unless you were able to hear directly from the God you preached about. As the students got accustomed to the routine, the complaining gradually subsided. The rest of the day was spent learning practical things like how to conduct a baptism, a wedding, or a funeral; how to comfort a widow or an orphan; and how to preach a sermon or lead a Bible study.

There was plenty of fun along the way. The nights were long, and Dietrich often played the piano in the evenings. When the weather was warm enough, classes were held outside or even cancelled in favor of a hike in the beech woods or a swim in the nearby lake.

Slowly the seminary students gained confidence, both in their personal faith and in their ability to share it with others. This made Dietrich happy—happier than he’d ever been. He was also delighted to see deep friendships developing among the students, and quite unexpectedly became close friends with one of the students, Eberhard Bethge. Eberhard’s father was a rural pastor, and Eberhard and Dietrich were from very different backgrounds, yet the two of them formed a firm friendship.

Dietrich also formed an unlikely friendship with a grandmother named Ruth von Kleist-Retzow. Ruth reminded him of his grandmother Bonhoeffer. She was feisty and opinionated, and she loved the Bible. She was also frustrated with the way so many pastors were kowtowing to the Nazis. Ruth was the daughter of a count and grew up in a palace at Oppern. She had married the wealthiest man in the district and had five children with him before being widowed at age twenty-nine. She was influential in the area and became a strong supporter of the seminary, bringing her grandchildren, Hans-Otto, Spes, Hans-Friedrich, Max, Ruth-Alice, and Maria, to seminary open meetings.

It would have been easy to shut off the outside world at Finkenwalde. Since few Nazi supporters lived in the area, there was no need to talk in whispers about what was happening in Germany. Yet Dietrich knew that Finkenwalde was only a resting place along the way. The Nazis would eventually catch up with them.

Even though he was far from Berlin in the countryside, Dietrich knew more about what was going on in the nation than most people. Each week he took the train back to Berlin, where he gave a theology lecture at the University of Berlin. While there, he learned about the state of affairs in the country from family and friends. His brother Klaus now served as a legal adviser at Deutsche Luft Hansa, Germany’s national airline. He, along with his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in the Reich Ministry of Justice and Rüdiger Schleicher at the Reich Air Travel Ministry, supplied Dietrich with all sorts of interesting tidbits about what Hitler and the Nazis were up to.

In October 1935, Dietrich’s parents moved into a smaller home at 43 Marienburgerallee in the Berlin suburb of Charlottenburg. Once again, Dietrich was given a room on the top floor for his use when he was home. His grandmother Julie Bonhoeffer, now ninety-three years old, moved in with them.

Early in the new year, Julie died of pneumonia, and the entire family gathered to honor her. Dietrich preached at the funeral, and his words were clear and direct: “Her last years were clouded with great sorrow that she bore for the fate of the Jews among our people, a burden which she shared with them and a suffering which she, too, felt. She stemmed from another age, from another spiritual world, and this world does not descend with her into the grave. . . . This heritage for which we thank her lays duties upon us.”