It’s a deeply held and persistently repeated belief that Bonhoeffer could have – should have – done more to stop the Nazis. As persuasive as this criticism might be, it ignores two fundamental issues concerning Bonhoeffer’s ability to do anything whatsoever in this regard.
First, the Nazis were supremely efficient when it came to silencing the opposition. The last free elections during Adolf Hitler’s 12-year reign, for example, were held on March 5, 1933 – five weeks into his time in power. There were three more elections after this date. However, voters were handed a ballot paper with only Nazi Party candidates on it. Furthermore, voting wasn’t in secret – hardly an invitation to express your dissatisfaction at the meager choice of candidates by spoiling your ballot paper, for instance.
The second issue which the criticism of Bonhoeffer’s do-nothingness conveniently disregards is that his hands were effectively tied by the very God he worshiped. As has been discussed in the book review “Bonhoeffer on Resistance” by Michael P. DeJonge, Bonhoeffer believed that government was set up by God for the better running of the affairs on earth. As a member of the church (another means by which God has structured temporal reality), Bonhoeffer wasn’t authorized to meddle in politics. Nevertheless, from the very beginning of Hitler’s reign, Bonhoeffer was a constant and vocal critic of the Nazi regime, which he saw as undermining the very order God sought to establish.
It may be instructive to give a concrete example of Bonhoeffer’s “inactivity”, if not to allay discussion on the topic, then at least to provoke it.
On the night of November 9, 1938, violence against Jews erupted throughout the Third Reich. Hundreds of synagogues and thousands of businesses were destroyed. Such was the destruction that the streets were strewn with debris from the broken storefront windows. As a result, the terrible events went down in history by the infamous name of Kristallnacht – The Night of Broken Glass.
And where was Bonhoeffer? Was he on the streets of Berlin trying to hold back the Nazi mobs? Did he rush into a synagogue to try to save at least one of the sacred Torah scrolls?
No, to quote Bonhoeffer’s biographer and friend Eberhard Bethge, he was “behind the woods” – a direct translation of the German “hinter die Wälder”, which says as much as “in the back of beyond”. (Bethge,2004, p. 684)
In spite of how this looks, it isn’t to be supposed that Bonhoeffer was simply keeping his head down. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead of staying out of trouble, he was courting it by carrying out a perilous act of anti-Nazi subterfuge. He was paying a weekly visit to one of two illegal seminaries he was running – an attempt to train right-minded pastors to offset the influence of the Nazi-friendly State Church. Having already boarded up a semi-legal seminary Bonhoeffer had been running the previous year, this was something the Nazis would have punished with the utmost rigor.
As soon as Bonhoeffer returned to “civilization” from having been “behind the woods”, he learned of the terrible destruction wrought by the Nazi thugs on The Night of Broken Glass. As a result, he underscored a particular verse in his Bible – Psalms 74:8: “They have burned up all the synagogues of God in the land.” (KJV) In addition, so that there be no doubt as to what he was referring to, he also wrote the date in the margin: “9.11.38” (d.mm.yy). (Bethge, 2004, p. 684) Furthermore, he informed his seminarians of the logical consequence of the Nazis’ mindless violence: “When the synagogues are burning today, tomorrow the churches will be set on fire.” (Gottfried Maltusch in Zimmerman, 1964, p. 142)
However, not content with making prophetic utterances on the events of the night of November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer also prayed. To a secular person, this may not seem like much of a reaction. However, as one of his seminarians Hans-Werner Jensen put it, to Bonhoeffer, this was not merely a matter of “apathetic passivity”. Instead, “he saw in prayer the unfolding of the strongest activity.” (Zimmerman, 1964, p. 145)
Bethge, E. (2004). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologe-Christ-Zeitgenosse, eine Biographie (blog author's translation)
Zimmermann, W-D. (1964). Begegnungen mit Dietrich Bonhoeffer (blog author's translation)
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