The Anti-Nazi Voice of Courage
The Lord always has His remnant. In the evil days of King Ahab, He had Elijah and 7,000 people “whose knees have not bowed to Baal” (1 Ki. 19:18). And in the evil days of Adolf Hitler, He had, among others, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was like a voice crying in the wilderness that was Nazi Germany. The German-born theologian and pastor studied at the University of Berlin in Tübingen and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He received his doctorate with honors and then returned to Germany and began lecturing on theology and teaching at the University of Berlin.
Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler from the outset. In January 1933, when Hitler was appointed chancellor, Bonhoeffer sounded a clarion call of the impending evil to all who would listen. He openly rejected the State Church, which incorporated the “Aryan Paragraph” in its official confession. This statement barred from the pastorate all men who were Jewish believers in Christ, who came from Jewish descent, or who married Jewish women.1
Bonhoeffer was instrumental in creating what became known as the Confessing Church, which defiantly rejected the pro-Hitler, state-run church. Although Bonhoeffer’s theology may have differed in some points with that of The Friends of Israel, he nevertheless demonstrated great courage and love for the Lord by standing against the sweeping tide of fascism and anti-Jewish sentiment.
Bonhoeffer fled Germany in 1933 and pastored in London for almost two years. But a vacuum developed within the Confessing Church in Germany, and new pastors needed training. With the state in control of all the universities, Bonhoeffer started to teach at a covert training institution and underground biblical seminary near Berlin.2 He found ways to train young pastors even after his seminary was shut down by the Gestapo. He was also a very strong advocate for the struggling Jewish people and helped a group of them escape to Switzerland.3
His family, in fact, had a history of being courageously pro-Jewish. His Grandmother Bonhoeffer defied the Nazi storm troopers’ blockade of Jewish shops and walked defiantly through their barriers—at the age of 91.4
His part in helping Jewish people flee to Switzerland and his extremely vocal, public stand against Hitler and the Nazi regime—coupled with his working association with the Abwehr, the military intelligence agency that tried to assassinate Hitler in 1944—led to Bonhoeffer’s arrest as an enemy of the state in April 1943. Also arrested were his brother Klaus and his brother-in-law, Hans Dohanyi. They were accused of scheming and plotting against the state and its leader. Bonhoeffer was first imprisoned at the concentration camp in Buchenwald. Finally he was shipped to Flossenburg, where he was executed in April 1945 at the age of 39, three weeks before the Americans liberated the extermination camp.
Wrote author Victor Shepherd: “Today the tree from which he was hanged bears a plaque with only ten words inscribed on it: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren.”5
Bonhoeffer was a prolific author. Many of his works were published after his death. In The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer provided authoritative, practical, biblical insights into his heart for the Lord and how servants of the Lord should live. He strongly believed, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son….There is trust in God, but no following of Christ.”6
When it came to the subject of bearing our cross and following our Lord, he had this insight:
To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for us….All that self denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to Him…and take up his cross.”…Only when we have become completely oblivious of self are we ready to bear the cross for his sake. If in the end we know only him, if we have ceased to notice the pain of our own cross, we are indeed looking only unto him.7
To endure the cross is not a tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ. When it comes, it is not an accident, but a necessity.8
In view of what is happening in today’s world, these words from Berit Kjos should strike an ominous chord:
God calls us to have fellowship with each other. But in a fallen world, His people are often separated from those who share their faith. Many today are standing alone in the midst of nominal “Christians” who neither know God nor desire to follow Him. Bonhoeffer was surrounded by lukewarm pastors and cultural “Christians” who supported Hitler. To most people in the established German Lutheran church, security and wealth had become more important than Biblical truth and faithfulness to God.9
Today, some 60 years after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s death, people love money, power, prestige, position, and any number of other worldly baubles better than they love God. Scripture warns us, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15).
Back then the main churches supported Hitler; today they sympathize with Islam. Few have learned from the past. Tragically, the Confessing Church that Bonhoeffer gave his life to protect from the evils of Hitler has evolved into a movement within the Presbyterian Church (USA) that today supports the Palestinians and promotes divestiture from companies doing business with the State of Israel.
Yet the Lord still has His remnant. He will always leave a voice that proclaims the truth. The message is the same. The problem is the world is still not listening.
- Miles H. Hodges, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” <www.newgenevacenter.org/biography/bonhoeffer2.htm>.
- Victor Shepherd, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer” <www.victorshepherd.on.ca/Heritage/deitrich.htm>.
- “Who Is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” International Dietrich Bonhoeffer Society <www.dbonhoeffer.org/node/3>.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (in German, Nachfolge), 2d rev., trans. R. H. Fuller (1937; New York: Macmillian, 1959), 64.
- Ibid., 97.
- Ibid., 98.
- Berit Kjos, note on “Excepts From The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer” <www.crossroad.to/Persecution/Bonhoffer.html>.