June 17, 1940, marked a watershed moment in not only Bonhoeffer’s life, but also the history of the 20th century. It was on this day that France capitulated to Nazi Germany. This was such a significant event because the German victory meant that, in the eyes of many Germans, the country had finally made up for its loss of the First World War. As proof of the importance of France’s surrender for Germany, Hitler took part in the signing of the papers himself. THAT certainly came as a surprise the French delegation! Not content with that, he even had the self-same railway carriage where the German capitulation papers had been signed in 1918 removed from its museum and brought to the identical location of Germany’s humiliation. The power of symbolic gestures wasn’t lost on the Führer.
France’s defeat was celebrated throughout Germany. Bonhoeffer heard the news over the radio in a restaurant in the East Prussian seaside town of Memel (Klaipèda in modern-day Lithuania). Already a member of the resistance, he knew that his refusal to join in the jubilation would attract unwanted attention to himself. As a result, he gave the Nazi salute. This display of apparent support for Hitler stunned Bonhoeffer’s companion, Eberhard Bethge. However, Bonhoeffer hissed at him, “Get your arm up! Are you mad?” Indeed, it would have been madness not to salute, as Bonhoeffer explained later, “We’ll have to endanger ourselves for many other things now, but not for this salute!” (Bethge, 1994, p. 765)
The word “now” in the last statement shows the extraordinary agility of Bonhoeffer’s mind perhaps better than anything else he ever said. Surrounded by a crowd erupting in patriotic fervor, he was nevertheless instantly able to discern the implications of Germany’s victory for the future. As he would later write, “The Successful One establishes facts which cannot be undone; what he destroys cannot be rebuilt; what he builds has the right to exist for at least a generation.” (Tödt, I., Tödt, H.E., Feil & Green, 1992, p. 75) However, Bonhoeffer knew that it takes more than a single individual to bring about the sort of situation he'd described. An integral part in the drama is played by those who succumb to “the idolization of success”. They become “blind to right and wrong, truth and lies, propriety and perfidy.” (Tödt, I., Tödt, H.E., Feil & Green, 1992, p. 76)
With France’s capitulation, not only had Hitler established a fact which couldn’t be undone, but, in their celebration of it, the German people had also crossed a line which essentially gave the Führer a blank check to turn success into excess. As a result of both of these factors, nothing would ever be the same again. For Bonhoeffer and the world, there was no way back after June 17, 1940.
Bethge, E. (1994). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eine Biographie (blog author's translation)
Tödt, I., Tödt, H.E., Feil,E. and Green, C. (1992). DBW 6 – Ethik (blog author's translation)
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