Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Dietrich and Eberhard stayed at the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin, and from there traveled the country, trying to help pastors and their families cope with the challenges they faced. Many of them still believed that Hitler was good for Germany and that in time the church’s problems would all be sorted out.

This view proved shortsighted. By September, tanks were parading through Berlin. Again, under the guise of uniting all German-speaking lands and territories with Germany, Hitler was demanding that large parts of Czechoslovakia populated by German-speaking people be handed over to Germany. However, the Czech government refused to comply, and rumor suggested that Germany would soon invade the country.

On September 9, 1938, Dietrich, accompanied by Eberhard, escorted his sister Sabine, her husband Gerhard, and their two daughters to the Swiss border. Hans had told them it was time to flee Germany. He had learned that Jews would soon be forbidden to leave the country. The Leibholz family crossed the border just in time. Once in Switzerland, they made their way to England, where Dietrich had arranged for Bishop George Bell and several other friends to help them get settled. Dietrich breathed a sigh of relief when he learned they were safely in England. He was even more delighted when he learned that Gerhard, a brilliant legal scholar, had been invited to lecture on political science at Magdalen College, Oxford. Gerhard also served as an adviser to Bishop Bell, who had recently become a member of the House of Lords in the British Parliament.

The imminent invasion of Czechoslovakia did not occur. The governments of France, Great Britain, and Italy intervened, and at a conference in Munich on September 30, a deal was struck. Czechoslovakia would cede to Germany the territory in which the Sudeten Germans lived. In return, Hitler declared that with the addition of Sudetenland to Germany, his goal of uniting all German-speaking lands and territories with Germany was complete. There would be no more territorial demands.

On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers and civilians went on a rampage throughout Germany, ransacking Jewish homes and shops and setting synagogues on fire. The rampage was quickly dubbed Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass.” At the time, Dietrich was in the mountains visiting a group of young pastors training in secret, and he did not learn about the rampage right away. When he did, he was not surprised. He’d seen it coming and was sad that the Confessing Church had not made more of a stand against Nazi hatred and violence. Some pastors did preach against the violence, and when they did, they were hauled off to prison. Generally though, most Confessing Church pastors no longer had the strength or the will to oppose Hitler and the Nazis.

The situation became a turning point for Dietrich. Until now he had put all his energy into helping the church confront the evils of the Nazis. Now he gave up hope that this would be enough. It was time to change tactics, and the change of tactics he began contemplating was joining his brother-in-law Hans in a secret conspiracy to overthrow Hitler’s government. It was a bold move, but Hitler had to be stopped. He was a madman capable of spewing hatred and havoc far beyond the borders of Germany.

Hans no longer worked for the Ministry of Justice. He was now a supreme court judge in Leipzig. However, he traveled to Berlin once a week to lecture at the University of Berlin, as Dietrich had done until dismissed from the position. These weekly visits provided Hans the opportunity to meet with key friends and past colleagues who were happy to pass on to him information about what was going on deep inside Hitler’s government. Hans told Dietrich that a number of high-ranking military members had already planned to carry out two coup attempts, but both had been thwarted by the fast-moving events of the time.

Dietrich felt he was at the biggest crossroads of his life. Should he move away from his role as an encourager of the Confessing Church and position himself to do whatever he could to help his brother-in-law in the plot to bring down the Nazis? Dietrich wrestled with his conscience. He talked to his parents and friends about the choice, but there was one man who understood him better than anyone else—Bishop George Bell. In early 1939, Dietrich obtained the necessary passes to travel to England.

In England, Dietrich was kept busy. He spent time with Sabine and Gerhard, as well as with his old friend Franz Hildebrandt. He also preached in his old parish churches in London and met with a number of German pastors Bishop Bell had helped escape to England. Dietrich traveled to Sussex to meet with Reinhold Niebuhr, who was visiting from the United States. Niebuhr had been a professor at Union Theological Seminary in 1930 when Dietrich had been there, and he was considered the United States’ best theologian. Dietrich had a great time catching up with him, reminiscing about his time in New York, and talking about the challenges the church faced in Germany. And, of course, Dietrich spent time talking things over with Bishop Bell.

Yet for all his time and effort in England seeking clarity, Dietrich was still uncertain. It was clear that in the near future all German men of fighting age would be called up to join Hitler’s military, and at thirty-three Dietrich was of fighting age. Yet from his experience watching All Quiet on the Western Front in New York with Jean Lasserre, Dietrich knew that he could not take up arms against his fellow man. He knew he would have to refuse military service. He also knew it would mean more turmoil for the Confessing Church if one of its leaders became a conscientious objector. This was one of the issues he talked over with Bishop Bell. The bishop offered helpful advice, but Dietrich was unable to come to a long-term decision.

The short term was different, however. During his visit with Niebuhr, Dietrich was invited to give a series of lectures in New York. It seemed a perfect opportunity for him. It would get him away from Germany and give him time to think things through. It would also give him the opportunity to speak to the world about what was happening in Germany.

Indeed, just as Dietrich decided to accept the invitation to go to the United States, news reached England that Hitler had broken the agreement he had made with Great Britain, France, and Italy just six months before. On March 16, 1939, German troops marched into Prague, Czechoslovakia, and took over the country.

Back in Germany, Dietrich made preparations for his lecture series in New York. His brother Karl-Friedrich, who had been asked to give a series of physics lectures in Chicago, decided to travel with him. On June 2, the two Bonhoeffer brothers boarded an airplane at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin and flew to London. There they took a train to Southampton and boarded the SS Bremen for the trip to New York.

The voyage across the Atlantic was a restless one for Dietrich. He knew he was headed to safety and security and away from the threat of war and doom, but he was not happy. He could not shake the idea that he was running away, leaving his brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church to fend for themselves. No matter how he tried to look at the situation, Dietrich could find no peace. By the time the Bremen slipped into New York Harbor, he wondered whether he’d made a mistake.

The next morning Dietrich had breakfast with Dr. Henry Smith Leiper, who was organizing Dietrich’s visit. It was a painful meeting. Dr. Leiper was eager to plan a lecture tour while Dietrich was wondering whether he should be there at all.

A week later Dietrich had a second meeting with Dr. Leiper, at which he was to present the outlines of the lectures he planned to give. The night before, he had wandered the streets of New York City alone. He longed to hear what was going on at home in Germany. Had the Confessing Church found someone to replace him as coordinator of training? How was his friend Eberhard getting on? And his parents? And what about the conspiracy to be rid of Hitler that his brother-in-law was involved in?

Dietrich realized that if he stayed in the United States he would have to get used to unanswered questions. It was difficult enough getting information out of Germany now, since those who wrote letters to people outside the country risked their lives. How much worse would it be when war broke out and there was no communication? Could he stand on the sidelines lecturing about theology while his brothers and sisters in the church in Germany suffered? Dietrich didn’t think he could do that.

In the end, Dietrich realized he would have to tell Dr. Leiper that he wanted to go back home to Germany to face war and hardship shoulder to shoulder with his church and family. He wrote in his journal, “At the end of the day I can only ask God to give a merciful judgement on today and all its decisions. It is now in his hand.”

Many of Dietrich’s friends and colleagues in the United States tried to convince him to stay. War seemed inevitable, they argued, and in the United States he would be safe and could lend a helping hand to rebuild the German church when the war was over. Dietrich agreed that their arguments were all reasonable, but he’d made up his mind. On July 7, 1939, just over a month from the time they’d left Berlin, Dietrich and Karl-Friedrich, who had finished delivering his physics lectures in Chicago, boarded a ship in New York. They were on their way home to an uncertain future.

Chapter 14

Nearly three months had passed since Dietrich left the United States, and he and Karl-Friedrich were out for a bicycle ride near their parents’ home. Suddenly sirens sounded all over Berlin. “This can mean only one thing,” Karl-Friedrich said grimly.

Dietrich nodded. “War! God help us all.”

The two brothers peddled back to the Bonhoeffer house on Marienburgerallee and joined their mother in the living room. She was listening to the radio. The voice of Adolf Hitler permeated the room. “We refuse all efforts to force us to recall the troops which have been sent for the protection of the Reich. . . . From now on, bombs will meet with bombs.”

Soon Hans joined them. He now worked for Abwehr, German Military Intelligence, as he assisted those involved in the conspiracy against Hitler and the Nazis. He had the latest information. That morning at 5:45, German troops began an invasion of Poland. The invasion was supposedly in response to a Polish attack on a German border post, but Hans had learned that this was a lie. Hitler had staged the attack. The only person killed was a German citizen whom the Nazis had killed to make it look like Polish soldiers had shot him.

Dietrich listened carefully as his brother-in-law spoke. Bombers from the Luftwaffe, the German air force, had launched wave after wave of bombing attacks against Warsaw, the Polish capital. They were also targeting road and rail junctions and Polish troops. Towns and villages were being bombed to create a mass of fleeing, terror-stricken civilians who would block the roads and hinder the flow of Polish reinforcements to the fighting. Meanwhile, two German army groups had invaded the country, one from Prussia in the north and the other from the new country of Slovakia in the south. These troops were accompanied by hundreds of panzers (German tanks) and were steadily capturing Polish territory.

Dietrich sighed deeply as he thought of all the Polish people being killed that day. Hitler’s thirst for territory seemed unquenchable.

According to Hans, Poland had already requested immediate military assistance from France and Britain, with whom the country had a military alliance. But Hitler didn’t think the British would intervene. He thought British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain would push for a diplomatic solution and not resort to war. As far as Hitler was concerned, Great Britain was too weak to go to war with Germany.

“We will all pay for that arrogance,” Dietrich said, sounding dejected. Those around him nodded.