Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Sure enough, Hitler had misjudged the British. Instead of pushing for a diplomatic solution, on Sunday, September 3, 1939, two days after the invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

Dietrich sat quietly when he heard the news. It was like 1914 all over again. Once more Germany was at war with Britain and France. He was glad that many of his friends and his sister Sabine and her family had escaped in time. There was no telling when he would see them all again.

Dietrich studied his mother’s face as she sat across the room from him. Paula looked worn. Dietrich was sure she was thinking of his brother Walter and wondering who else in the family might lose his or her life this time around.

The next day Dietrich received word that one of the 150 men who had graduated from the Finkenwalde seminary had been killed in the fighting in Poland. He feared that this was the first of many such deaths.

The declaration of war on Germany meant that Dietrich now had to find a way to move forward. He refused to fight in Hitler’s army, but he did consider becoming a chaplain. He spoke with his mother’s cousin, General Paul von Hase, commander of Berlin, and asked for his help. Paul did all he could, but the regulations were clear. A person must enlist in the army before being considered for chaplain duties. Dietrich knew he could never enlist in the army, but refusing the draft and enlistment carried the penalty of death—by beheading. Somehow Dietrich was not immediately called up for military service. This left him free to continue encouraging the Confessing Church pastors still left at their posts.

The declaration of war by Great Britain and France did not stop Hitler from invading Poland. Dietrich began to dread his brother-in-law’s visits to the house. Every new piece of information Hans brought with him was more shocking than the last. Hans told how Hitler planned to turn the Poles into slaves and Poland into a huge labor camp. As far as Hitler was concerned, the Poles were subhuman and only good for work. Toward this end, the SS brutality in Poland was unfathomable. Under Hitler’s orders, the SS had begun systematically killing Jews, clergymen, intellectuals, the nobility, and anyone who showed leadership potential. According to Hans, the Polish people were being so brutally dealt with by the SS that German officers and regular soldiers were sickened by what they saw.

Hans also related that it wasn’t just the Poles who were on the receiving end of Nazi brutality. Hitler had also turned his focus on the extermination of “defective” Germans. According to Hans, children born with genetic defects and patients in hospitals deemed to be “unfit” were being secretly rounded up and executed by the Nazis.

Dietrich was stunned. The Nazis’ brutal and murderous ways were beyond comprehension. How could Germans do such things to other human beings? Didn’t they know they were tearing the fabric of German civilization to shreds with such barbarism? Hitler had to be stopped before Germany was completely destroyed.

Hans told Dietrich that he wasn’t alone in that feeling. Many top German generals were so repulsed by what was happening they were planning to kill Hitler and his henchmen and stage a coup. Hans said he was willing to be part of any plot to do away with such evil. He also confided that he was keeping a record of all the atrocities Hitler and the Nazis had carried out so there would be no doubt as to their crimes when the war was over. His superior at Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, supported what he was doing. Hans reported that he’d already collected a lot of evidence, which he called his “Chronicle of Shame.” The record included papers and other documents and film footage of many terrible things the Nazis had done in Poland.

By the end of September, Poland had surrendered, and Dietrich hoped that Hitler and the Nazis would stop their madness, at least for a while. But it was not to be. Dietrich learned from his brother-in-law that Hitler planned to follow up his success in Poland with surprise attacks on both Belgium and Holland, followed by attacks on France and then on England, Denmark, and Norway. It seemed almost too preposterous to be true, but Dietrich had learned enough by now not to underestimate Hitler’s resolve or his bloodlust.

The main problem the conspirators faced revolved around the question of what would happen to Germany once Hitler was killed. Would the British and French, or the Russians, flood into Germany in retaliation for what the Nazis had done to Poland? Would they understand that not all Germans were aware of what was going on and did not support the Third Reich? These were difficult issues, and Germans who had connections with the outside world were needed to reach out to foreign countries and get their assurances that they would support the building of a democratic and peaceful Germany upon Hitler’s assassination. In this regard, Hans had a serious proposal to put before Dietrich. If he could find a way to get Dietrich the necessary travel documents, would Dietrich be prepared to go and talk with Bishop Bell in England and his friends in Norway and Denmark in a bid to get their governments to work with the conspirators?

Dietrich considered the offer. Hans, his brother Klaus, and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher were all now active participants in the conspiracy. Dietrich had no problem encouraging them in their resistance, but joining them was a different matter. He told Hans that he would pray about it.

Meanwhile, in April 1940, German forces overran Denmark and Norway. While they were doing this, Hitler would announce the invasion date of Belgium and Holland to his officers, then change the date, and change it again. In fact, he changed the date nearly thirty times, throwing the assassination attempt, which was scheduled to take place right before the invasion was to start, into chaos. Finally on May 10, 1940, Hitler ordered the invasion of Holland and Belgium. As German troops rolled into both countries, there was no assassination. The German conspirators had lost their best opportunity.

German troops subdued Holland in just five days and then marched on through Belgium into France. A month later, on June 14, German troops marched into Paris. Three days later French Prime Minister Marshal Philippe Pétain asked for an armistice with Germany. Hitler had the same railway car in which the Germans had signed the 1918 Armistice removed from a museum in Paris and placed at the precise spot in the forest of Compiègne where it had been located in 1918. Hitler then sat in the same chair in the car that French Marshal Ferdinand Foch had sat in when he faced the defeated German representatives. Thus seated, Hitler faced the French representatives as France surrendered to Germany.

Dietrich and Eberhard were in the eastern Prussian town of Memel at the time, visiting one of the pastors trained at the Finkenwalde seminary. They were enjoying a cup of coffee at an outdoor café when they heard the announcement of France’s surrender over the café’s radio. People all around went wild with joy. Patrons climbed on their chairs and sang patriotic German songs. Someone raised his hand in salute of Adolf Hitler, and the others followed. “Heil Hitler” echoed down the street. Dietrich stood and raised his hand too. Eberhard looked at him in shock. “What are you doing? Have you gone mad?”

Dietrich muttered, “I’m not crazy. Raise your arm like everyone else. There will be times when we have to make a stand, but not for this silly salute.”

Eberhard hesitated and then raised his hand.

As Dietrich sang “Deutschland über Alles” (“Germany above All,” the German national anthem), he realized that he had crossed the line. The decision had been made. Hitler and the Nazis would stop at nothing to gain more power and more territory, and Dietrich would do whatever he could to stop them, even if it meant pulling the trigger on the führer himself. He had thought about it from every angle, and his conscience was clear. Hitler and the evil he was perpetrating upon Europe had to be stopped by any means available. Dietrich was now part of the conspiracy.

In early August, Dietrich and Eberhard met with Hans and other members of the resistance within Abwehr. Admiral Canaris and the chief of staff, Colonel Hans Oster, were intent on overthrowing Hitler and the Nazis. Hans explained that Admiral Canaris wanted Dietrich to work out of Abwehr’s office in Munich, where he would be out of the spotlight of Berlin. From there Dietrich would be sent on missions outside Germany to shore up support for the coup and inform the “enemy” of what was going on.

Dietrich also learned that Colonel Oster had warned the Dutch military before Hitler invaded, but they had taken no action because their government could not believe it possible that Germany would attack a peaceful nation. This gave Dietrich an inkling of the problems he would face in dealing with foreign powers. It was difficult for anyone outside Germany to fully understand the evil intentions of the führer.

Before the meeting was over, Dietrich had agreed to become a double agent for the resistance, working for German Military Intelligence while passing along information on the Allies. While awaiting his first assignment, Dietrich stayed with Ruth von Kleist-Retzow in the peaceful Pomeranian countryside. Dietrich worked on the new book he was writing, Ethics.

In October 1940, Dietrich learned that all the preparations were in place, and he moved to Munich, where he stayed with his aunt, Countess Kalckreuth. It wasn’t an ideal situation, as her neighbors and acquaintances were curious about Dietrich and began asking questions about what he did. Soon a much better opportunity presented itself. Dietrich was invited to stay with the Benedictine monks of Ettal, about fifty miles south of Munich in the Bavarian Alps. The abbot, Father Johannes, was a member of the resistance and understood how valuable Dietrich was.

Living in the abbey at Ettal, Dietrich found himself very much at home. Although it was a Catholic order, many similarities existed between the abbey and the Finkenwalde seminary. Dietrich loved the morning prayers and the readings at mealtimes, along with times of silent meditation. He also loved the abbey’s large, well-stocked library, where he studied, wrote, and awaited his first assignment for the resistance through the Munich office of Abwehr.

On February 24, 1941, Dietrich was sent on his first foreign assignment. He was to travel to Geneva, Switzerland, where he was to make contact with Protestant leaders outside Germany and inform them of the conspiracy to do away with Hitler. He would also try to find out what sort of peace terms the government that took over in Germany could come to with the Allies.

In Geneva, Dietrich met with Willem Visser ‘t Hooft, a Dutchman. As secretary general of the World Council of Churches, he had the ear of many influential leaders. Dietrich told him all about what was happening inside Germany, including the way the Nazis were exterminating “defective” Germans. He also explained to Visser ‘t Hooft how the conspiracy to get rid of Hitler had lost some of its momentum after Hitler’s stunning victories in the west, especially the surrender of France. For many Germans this was a moment of pride as the humiliation they had endured twenty-two years before at the end of World War I was swept aside. Given Hitler’s popularity in Germany following the event, many top military men involved in the coup attempt had lost their resolve. But Dietrich assured Visser ‘t Hooft that the conspiracy was gaining in strength again as more generals secretly got in touch with the resistance group inside Abwehr. Visser ‘t Hooft assured Dietrich that he would pass the information on and put out feelers as to the sort of peace terms the Allies might be willing to extend to a new government in Germany.

In Switzerland, Dietrich was free to write letters to his friends in other countries. He wrote to Sabine and Gerhard in Oxford, England, saying he missed them deeply and bringing them up to date on what was happening in Germany and with the family in Berlin. He also wrote to Bishop George Bell in London. In Geneva he visited Erwin Sutz, his Swiss friend from Union Theological Seminary in New York. And before leaving Switzerland, Dietrich traveled to Basel to visit Karl Barth. After a month away, Dietrich returned to Germany and reported on his Geneva meetings to Hans and Admiral Canaris.