Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer -- 65 years after martyrdom
It was sixty-five years ago today that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenburg Concentration Camp. His execution, together with other conspirators in the attempted assassination of Hitler, including Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and General Hans Oster, came as the Soviets were bearing down on the region. It would be just three weeks after this that Berlin would fall.
Bonhoeffer's legacy is powerful, in large part due to the fact that he did die at the hands of such a brutal regime. He died because of his resistance to his own nation's leaders. Despite his own pacifism, he chose to enter into this conspiracy because he believed Hitler's continued rule was the greater evil. He was clear, however, that such an act was not a Christian one.
I recently read an excellent book on Bonhoeffer's involvement in the resistance, not just to Hitler, but to the legacy of generations of Prusso-German History. My review appears in the most recent issue of the Christian Century, but unfortunately it can't be accessed on-line. The book is authored by John A. Moses, a historian of Germany, and is entitled The Reluctant Revolutionary: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Collision with Prusso-German History, (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009).
One of the observations that Moses makes about Bonhoeffer's legacy is that he was considered by many in his country to be a traitor. Many in the German church weren't ready to let go of their "Lutheran-Hegelian" vision of the German state, an ideology that Bonhoeffer had systematically dismantled. The first observances of his execution were held not in Germany, but in England. It would not be until the mid-1950s that the first Bonhoeffer conferences began to occur in Germany.
Moses notes the difficulties that confronted the legacy of Bonhoeffer, due in large part to the German people not being ready to face the realities of an ideology that had given room for such a monstrous regime:
Clearly, Bonhoeffer was far too revolutionary a figure because his theology, as it developed, overthrew centuries of endemic anti-Judaism and simultaneously also challenged the accepted understanding of the sacrosanct status and function of the head of state as n authority answerable only to God for his decisions. . . . As Bonhoeffer eloquently phrased it, there were not two spheres, a sacred and a secular, where the secular authority exerted power int he world uncontrolled by any moral law; there was only one sphere in which everything was subject to the sovereignty of God. Bonhoeffer had, in short, disposed of a centuries-old doctrine that justified princely absolutism and had reached its most grotesque form under the dictatorship of Adolph Hitler (Moses, Reluctant Revolutionary, p. 234).
Because Bonhoeffer died so young, before he had the chance to fully develop his ideas, many different people have tried to interpret him and claim him as one of their own. We must, honor him, by allowing him to be himself -- as John Moses puts it: He was a "reluctant revolutionary." He was a product of the German classes, and had sensibilities that were rooted in that upbringing. And yet, he was willing to step outside that context and question ages old views of the German state and of the Christian relationship to Judaism. Few among his peers were as willing to take the risk as was he. For that we give thanks.