Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Dietrich spent Easter 1941 with his parents at the summerhouse in Friedrichsbrunn. Just as he had during World War I, Dietrich found the surroundings relaxing and rejuvenating. War and Nazi mayhem all seemed so far away. While at Friedrichsbrunn, he found time to keep writing.

Dietrich was aware that Hitler was not content with the territorial gains he’d made in the west. Hitler had a deep disdain for the “eastern” races, which included the Poles and Slavs, and he was gearing up for a massive military attack in the east against the Soviet Union. This was known as Operation Barbarossa. By early June nearly three million German troops had amassed along Poland’s border with the Soviet Union. In preparation for the attack, on June 6, 1941, Hitler issued an order to his military commanders known as the “Commissar Order.” According to this order, the army was to shoot and kill on the spot all captured Soviet military leaders. No mercy was to be shown.

The Commissar Order sent shock waves through the German military ranks. In the invasion of Poland it had been the SS that carried out the ghoulish brutality against the Poles. Now Hitler expected regular soldiers to do that work for him. Such unprecedented brutality went against the ancient military code and sense of honor that military officers lived by. As a result, many more generals began seeking out the conspirators and offering their support for the assassination of Hitler and overthrow of the Nazis.

At the same time, word reached the resistance group within Abwehr that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was reluctant to separate the Nazis from regular Germans. As far as he was concerned, all Germans should be treated as Nazis. This was not the news the conspiracy had hoped to hear. They wanted Britain and France to understand that there were those Germans who abhorred Hitler and were willing to risk their lives to bring him down but didn’t want Germany to be destroyed and humiliated by the Allies, as had happened after World War I. They wanted peace and the opportunity to build a new, peaceful and democratic Germany.

As a result of the uncertainty about how the Allies would treat Germany if Hitler were killed, no assassination or coup attempt occurred before Hitler ordered German troops to attack the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Despite their reservations and deep disdain for Hitler and his orders, the dispirited generals led their troops into battle. Dietrich was discouraged that another opportunity had been lost.

By September 1941, something that Hans had long warned Dietrich about became a reality. Hitler was no longer content to kill only “defective” Germans. He had set his sights on systematically killing another group of German citizens—Jews and their relatives. According to Hans, Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official, was putting together a plan to achieve this goal, which would start with Jews being forced to identify themselves by wearing a Star of David on their clothing. Dietrich was deeply distressed when he learned this. The utter evilness of Hitler and the Nazis overwhelmed him. They had turned the country he loved into hell.

Chapter 15
Work of a Spy

On September 2, 1941, Dietrich was riding in an overcrowded train back to Berlin after his second visit to Geneva. As he boarded the train, he noticed hollow-eyed men and women wearing yellow stars sewn onto their clothing. Dietrich took a deep breath and thought about the things Hans had warned him about regarding the Jews. In the week Dietrich had been away in Switzerland, a decree had been issued ordering all Jews over the age of six to identify themselves by wearing the Star of David with the word “Jude” on their outer clothing.

After explaining the details of his Geneva trip to Hans and Admiral Canaris, Dietrich reported back to the Abwehr office in Munich. He and another resistance worker named Justus Perels, a legal adviser to the Confessing Church, were assigned to collect all the information they could about the Jewish situation. They reviewed many highly confidential documents and made visits to the Rhineland, where Jews were already being rounded up and shipped east by train to concentration camps in western Poland. Dietrich and Justus’s findings were contained in a thorough report they wrote detailing precise information about how the Gestapo and the SS were carrying out their operation of rounding up Jews and shipping them east.

Copies of the report were carried to Geneva, where they found their way to Allied governments and were shared with sympathetic military leaders inside Germany. Surely now, Dietrich thought, was the time to kill Hitler. As reports came back from the Soviet Union, where German troops were marching at a speedy clip toward Moscow, the pressure mounted to do away with Hitler.

On a personal level, Dietrich and many others did what they could to save Jews from falling into the hands of the Nazis. Across Germany many pastors, at great risk to themselves and their families, sheltered Jews in their homes. Dietrich became involved in what became known as Operation 7, a plan to save a group of seven Jews by helping them get across the border into Switzerland. The seven were friends of Admiral Canaris and Hans, and the plan called for them to be allowed across the border so they could tell the Swiss government how “well” the Nazis were treating Jews. There were those in the leadership of the Gestapo and SS who believed Jews should be expected to lie on behalf of the Nazis, so freedom for a small group of Jews going to Switzerland to speak well of the Nazis was an acceptable price for such an action. Of course, Hans and Admiral Canaris did not expect the group to speak well of the Nazis once in Switzerland. Quite the opposite. They wanted them to tell the Swiss the real truth of what was happening to Jews inside Germany.

The plan, however, proved more complex than Hans had expected. Not only had the escaping group of Jews grown to fourteen, but also Switzerland, a neutral country, was reluctant to accept a group of German Jews. Finally Dietrich and several other men, including Justus Perels, were asked to contact various church leaders in Switzerland and ask them to pressure their government in allowing the group to enter the country.

When this approach wasn’t successful, Dietrich contacted his old friend Karl Barth for help. Eventually Barth was able to persuade the Swiss to take the group, but their decision came at a price. The Swiss government wanted a payment of a large amount of foreign currency to cover the costs of the Jews being in Switzerland, since they would not be able to work to support themselves. Hans went to work on securing the foreign currency. This was the riskiest part of the plan, as it was difficult to secretly secure and transfer foreign currency without the Gestapo noticing. Eventually Hans succeeded, and the fourteen Jews escaped to freedom in Switzerland. Dietrich was greatly relieved. He just wished that every other Jew in Germany and Nazi-controlled territory could attain such freedom.

Following Operation 7, Dietrich was forced to take a break from his work in November 1941 when he became ill with pneumonia. He moved to Ruth von Kleist-Retzow’s estate in Pomerania to recuperate. As soon as he felt a little better, he resumed writing Ethics. It was difficult being away from the daily news Dietrich had received in Munich and Berlin. So much was happening with the conspiracy and the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union. Dietrich prayed the war would end soon, and for a while it looked like it might.

Throughout October 1941, many German generals involved in the conspiracy believed it was time to overthrow Hitler. They continued to be deeply troubled by the brutality of the SS. Even General Walther von Brauchitsch, the commander in chief of the German army, believed it was time for Hitler to be done away with. As a result, planning for a new coup to overthrow Hitler began. But things changed quickly during November. The German military suffered its first loss when the Russians routed German troops at Rostov as they advanced toward Stalingrad. Hitler was furious and ordered the German forces forward, no matter what the cost to the troops.

By December 2, the first German battalion reached the outskirts of Moscow. Then the vicious Russian winter descended, stalling the German advance in its tracks. The temperature plummeted to more than thirty degrees below zero. German soldiers, ill equipped for such extreme weather, began to die of frostbite, and the fuel in German tanks froze and rifles seized up. Then on December 6, Russian troops attacked the Germans with overwhelming force, causing the Germans to retreat as fast as they could through the frozen terrain.

Hitler was incensed that his armies were in retreat. He fired many of his top generals, including General Brauchitsch. Instead of appointing another commander in chief of the army, Hitler took over the role himself. The firing of General Brauchitsch and so many other German generals involved in the conspiracy brought the impending coup to a halt.

At the same time, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, bringing the United States into the war. Four days later, on December 11, Germany declared war on the United States.

With the United States now in the war and German troops mired in Russia, Dietrich was more convinced than ever that it was only a matter of time before Germany lost the war and Hitler was dealt with. As he thought about that day, he imagined what he would tell German Christians when the fighting was over. He came to the conclusion that every Christian, and the church as a whole, would have to examine their own hearts to see what part they had played in letting such evil loose on the world. It would not be good enough to point the finger at others who had done worse things. He put it this way in writing: “Confession of guilt happens without a sidelong glance at the others who are also guilty. This confession is strictly exclusive in that it takes all guilt upon itself.”

With this in mind, Dietrich wrote a document he hoped that Christians in Germany would embrace after the war.

The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to their help. It has become guilty of the lives of the Weakest and most Defenceless Brothers and Sisters of Jesus Christ.

On February 4, 1942, Dietrich passed his thirty-sixth birthday quietly. He had little reason to celebrate. His brother-in-law Hans had just informed him that his mail was being read and his telephone tapped.

Aware that he could be arrested at any time, Dietrich wrote up a will, which he gave to Eberhard for safekeeping. He also set up a coding system that could be used to smuggle messages in and out of prison if necessary. The system relied on the hope that if Dietrich or other members of the family were arrested they would be able to swap books. It was decided that if a book arrived with the owner’s name underlined on the flyleaf (a blank page at the end of a book), there was a message inside. The code consisted of spelling out words by placing a tiny pencil dot under a letter on every tenth page of the book, starting from the back. The dot was almost impossible to see unless a person was looking for it. Dietrich tried the technique several times and showed his parents and brothers and sisters how it worked. He hoped none of them would ever have to use the secret system.

Once Dietrich had his will and the secret coding system in place, he could do nothing more but continue his work as a pastor and a spy. He kept in constant touch with his students from the Finkenwalde seminary. The letters sent from the front lines from those serving in the military were grim. One wrote,

For days at a stretch we cannot even wash our hands, but go from dead bodies to a meal and from there back to the rifle. . . . We often dream of being relieved, but we are now reduced to forty men instead of 150, still more we dream of Germany—I dream of the “calm and quiet life in all godliness and integrity.” But we do not, any of us, know whether we shall be allowed to go home again.

Another student wrote,

In mid-January, a unit of our detachment had to shoot fifty prisoners in one day because we were on the march and could not take them with us. In districts where there are partisans, women and children who are suspected of supplying partisans with provisions have to be killed by shooting them in the back of the neck. . . . “Blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy” [Matthew 5:7]. The contradictions are enormous, for many, no doubt, unbearably great.

Not a week went by without news that one of Dietrich’s brilliant young students had been killed in the fighting. Sometimes Dietrich was almost relieved that they had been removed from such a hellish situation.