What Would I Have Done?

Few people who spend any significant length of time delving into the murky history of the Third Reich can avoid asking themselves this question: What would I have done as a German in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s? With 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy – not to say, comforting – to imagine ourselves resisting the rise of the Nazis. Unfortunately, however, this ignores the realities of the matter. The vast majority of the people who did indeed find themselves in that unenviable situation either actively supported or simply went along with the government of the day. Why should we be any different?

This makes it all the more remarkable that Bonhoeffer WAS different. He DID resist the rise of the Nazis. From the very beginning, he attempted to steer Germany AWAY from the rocks which Hitler was intent upon crashing the ship of state into. Sure, Bonhoeffer could have done more. However, the fact that he – to paraphrase Kipling – “kept his head when all about him were losing theirs” shows the true extent of his brilliant example.

While Bonhoeffer didn’t have to ask himself what he would have done as a German in Germany in the 1930s and ’40s – he was there! – he was not averse to the natural human predilection for dealing with hypothetical questions. When he learned that his aunt the Countess von der Goltz was suffering from cancer and had only a few months to live, he asked himself what he would do if he knew his life would be over in less than half a year. His answer – given in 1940 when the Second World War was already well underway and he was active in the resistance – was not only typical Bonhoeffer, but also shows us the place where his heart truly lay: “I think I would try to teach theology […] and preach often.” (Glenthøj, Kabitz & Krötke, 1996, p. 153)

This of course recalls the most magnificent of all statements in consideration of any hypothetical situation. Whether it was actually said by Martin Luther or merely attributed to him (see Schloemann, 1994) “in the difficult days after the Second World War when the situation veered between hope and despair” is neither here nor there. It’s nevertheless a saying which we may all do well to at least think about, if not heed:

“Even if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow, I’d still plant an apple tree today.”


Glenthøj, J., Kabitz U. and Krötke, W. (1996 ). DBW 16 – Konspiration und Haft 1940-1945 (blog author's translation)

Schloemann, M. (1994). Luthers Apfelbäumchen. Retrieved from:



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