Bonhoeffer’s Role in the Resistance

The meaning of the word “Resistance” in a political context may well conjure up images of steely-eyed insurgents moving through a network of underground safe houses to carry out sabotage missions on key strategic locations such as bridges and railway stations. This popular association must be revised substantially, however, when it comes to talking about Bonhoeffer’s role in the resistance. 

While he was every bit as purposeful as his camouflaged counterparts, planting explosives and toting machine guns simply weren’t his style. Instead, he poured his considerable energies into attempting to instigate a political - some might even say, a theological - solution to the problem posed by the Third Reich. 

As a liaison officer in German Military Intelligence, he traveled to Switzerland, Italy, and Sweden at the bidding of the Nazis. That, however, was only a front - a means of not only keeping him from being conscripted into the army, but also allowing him to do his work in the resistance. In reality, Bonhoeffer sought to rekindle old or establish new ties with representatives of bodies as disparate as the World Council of Churches and the British Government. 

That he was largely unsuccessful in this undertaking was due in the main to one thing: the sheer monumental nature of the task he was trying to communicate. Churchill, for example, was aware of the stranglehold which Hitler had on the German people. As such, he felt it was inconceivable that a sufficiently large opposition could not only topple the Führer, but also go on to set up a viable government in the political vacuum left after his overthrow. To the British Prime Minister’s mind, the assignment facing the resistance wasn’t that of David going up against Goliath. It was David going up against a whole army of Goliaths. And that without so much as a pebble or a sling. 

Nevertheless, in May 1942, Bonhoeffer flew to Sigtuna in Sweden to meet with Bishop George Bell. The British clergyman was a member of the House of Lords and, as such, had a direct line to Churchill’s government. Bonhoeffer asked Bell to secure guarantees from the Allies to cease hostilities in the event that the resistance assassinated Hitler. When it came, the answer was curt in the extreme: “No answer.” This was nothing if not consistent. As was later set in stone at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the Allies would accept nothing less than Germany’s “unconditional surrender”. That, however, left the members of the German resistance out in the cold. They didn’t desist in their efforts to bring down the Nazi state. They were efforts, though, which many of them, including Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and two of their brothers-in-law would pay for with their lives.


Photoby Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash