In April 1933, Bonhoeffer wasn’t content to simply warn against the rise of the Third Reich. Instead, he proposed that action desperately needed to be taken to stop it. Perhaps his most famous statement in this context is the following:
“Es reicht nicht, die Opfer unter dem Rad zu verbinden. Man muss dem Rad selbst in die Speichen fallen.”
The translation here is interesting. As English is a half-Germanic language, I'll take you through the steps in the hope that the journey won’t be too arduous.
Here's the German again:
"Es reicht nicht, die Opfer unter dem Rad zu verbinden. Man muss dem Rad selbst in die Speichen fallen."
This breaks down as follows:
"Es reicht nicht" -
"It reaches not" -
That is,"it doesn't reach (some unspecified goal)". That is, "it's not enough".
"die Opfer unter dem Rad zu verbinden" -
"the victims under the wheel to bind" -
German often puts its main verb at the end, so this becomes "to bind (bandage) the victims under the wheel".
"Man muss dem Rad selbst in die Speichen fallen."
"We must the wheel (dative) itself into the spokes (accusative) fall."
This is the most difficult line - and one which almost every translation comes unstuck on. It does NOT mean "we must drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” The spoke isn't a weapon to be used AGAINST the wheel but an integral part of the wheel itself (obviously).
The wheel here is a wheel with spokes, like a bicycle wheel, a wagon wheel, or a car wheel contemporary to Bonhoeffer's time. Think: a wheel of a Model T Ford.
"In die Speichen… fallen” literally means “to fall into the spokes”, as in “Muhammad Ali fell into George Foreman”, i.e., “attacked him”. However, "we must fall into the wheel" sounds like some sort of suicide mission - human beings THEMSELVES falling into the spokes. NOT what we want. Hence, "We must attack the spokes of the wheel itself."
This gives us the following translation:
It’s not enough to bandage the victims under the wheel. We must attack the spokes of the wheel itself.
Hope this helps.
Photo by Jon Cartagena on Unsplash