Bonhoeffer 5: Political Resistance 1939-1943

By 1937, the National Socialist government of Germany had come close to completely neutralizing the Confessing Church movement, which was divided and in disarray. The means by which this result was achieved was a combination of a “divide and conquer strategy” and the use of financial and bureaucratic restrictions in such a way as to make it almost impossible for the Confessing Church to operate without violating the law. Nevertheless, the fault at least partially lay in the nature of the Confessing Church movement and divisions between its Lutheran and Reformed members, as well as between those who tried to cooperate as much as possible with the regime and those who, like Bonhoeffer, saw such a course of action as unfaithful to the gospel and doomed to failure and disgrace.

The change was precipitated by the minister for church affairs, who came out in public declaring that the German evangelical church had failed and that the true church in Germany was embodied in the national socialist movement led by Adolf Hitler. Even Superintendent’s Zoellner, chairman of the National Church Committee, saw that there was an irrevocable break between the church and the Nazi party that could not be healed. He resigned. Bonhoeffer, with his adamant resistance to Hitler and the national socialist propaganda has turned out to be correct: any attempt to conciliate with the regime was a foolish attempt to placate evil. Zoellner and those who tried to implement a policy of cooperation as a bid for independence were proven foolish.

These events precipitated the appointment of Dr. Frederick Werner and Dr. Muhs, who adopted a policy of suppressing the evangelical church in Germany. Of course, the Confessing Church was the first target of their opposition. The policy adapted involved both bureaucratic and financial oppression and the arrest and detention of pastors and other church leaders who refused to support and follow the dictates of the Nazi regime.

End of Finkenwalde

In July 1937, Martin Niemöller was arrested by the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer was at the house just a short time later when the Gestapo showed up to make an investigation. He, his companions, and Mrs. Niemöller were held for several hours. This was most distressing to the Bonhoeffer family, knowing as they did that Dietrich was already on the list of persons hostile to the Nazi regime. This event further intensified the oppression of the Confessing Church by the regime.

At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer attempted to carry on as usual, but the end of the seminary was at hand. Several members of the community were arrested and detained. In September 1937, the seminary was closed by the Gestapo and its doors sealed. By Christmas of that year, more than twenty-five of the members of the community had been arrested, some spending Christmas in prison. [1]

The closure of Finkenwalde and the other Confessing Church seminaries did not suddenly end the role of Bonhoeffer as head of theological education for the Confessing Church. Faced with the inability to have formal institutions, the Confessing Church resorted to another strategy. Instead of a formal seminary, the confessing church movement began a series of collectives which were designed to provide informal theological education to their members. In Germany, they had a longer practice of sending a theological student as an apprentice curate to a minister in a parish. This was normal. In order to circumvent the band, the Confessing Church used this device to continue training students for the ministry and supporting those students which had given so much in order to remain faithful to the gospel.

Bonhoeffer did not change his strategy when implementing this new form of theological education. The students still lived by a kind of rule of life which involved daily times of worship, prayer, meditation, and theological training. There were also abundant opportunities for fellowship among the members of the collective. Nevertheless, this stage could not continue for long, for the government was now in full control of the situation and determined to destroy all opposition.

Entrance into Political Resistance

This interlude resulted in Bonhoeffer becoming more familiar with the political resistance to Hitler. Crucial to this development was his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and his unique position in the German government. Dohnanyi worked for the Abwehr in direct contact with Admiral Canaras, head of the Abwehr, the government counterespionage department and his second and some command Major General Hans Oster. In this position he was intimately familiar both with the plans of the regime, which he discussed with Bonhoeffer and with the opposition to Hitler within the military and intelligence apparatus, which was partially led by Admiral Canaris. Dohnanyi was himself a Christian, married to Bonhoeffer’s sister, and a critic of the regime, as were all members of the Bonhoeffer household.

Bonhoeffer was forced to consider his calling to resist the evil of the Nazi regime, even if it meant stepping away from his traditional commitment to pacifism and non-violence. When challenged by a student in one of his final lectures, Bonhoeffer let the student know that he understood the moral demands that were becoming daily more evident in Nazi Germany. [2] He was also aware that the admonition, “He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword applied to himself and others who opposed Hitler just as much as did Hitler and his Nazi cohorts. [3] This comment is important to understanding Bonhoeffer’s theological and moral rationale for his activities. He understood that, in some deep way, his decisions and activities were morally and theologically ambiguous, though he felt he was acting properly. He was aware that any involvement with the Abwehr and the resistance to the regime was fraught with moral problems and conflict.

American Interlude and Return to Germany

In March 1939, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia after a complex series of negotiations involving British Prime Minister Chamberlain, whose attempts to appease Hitler and avoid war led to the rise of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister. Bonhoeffer recognized that war was now inevitable, and that he would face a serious moral quandary concerning whether he should serve in the German army or otherwise support the regime. At the same time, his opposition to Hitler had placed him in a dangerous situation. His implicit pacifism and reluctance to serve in the German army, which required an oath of loyalty to Hitler, would certainly result in his prosecution if he failed to serve when called up, a situation then in process.

Eventually, his friends in Germany, the United States, and Great Britain, including Reinhold Niebuhr, were concerned for his life. Everyone thought it would be a shame if such a talented person where to end up dying in a German concentration camp. As a result, it was arranged for Bonhoeffer to come to the United States, where he might teach theology, and give lectures, and work with German refugees during any war in Europe. [4]

In June 1939, Bonhoeffer left Germany for a lecture tour in the United States. Both on the trip over and once he arrived, Bonhoeffer could not attain peace about his situation. He missed Germany, his family, and his colleagues in ministry in the Confessing Church. The arrangements made by his friends were either temporary or of a kind that would definitely prevent him from returning to Germany under the current regime.

After a period of vacillation and discernment, Bonhoeffer decided to return home and share the suffering of the German people during the war he now foresaw. His friends in the United States, which felt that they had “gone out on a limb” in seeking positions and safety for him in the United States were understandably disturbed by the decision. He attempted to explain his decision to Reinhold Niebuhr as follows:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [5]

Several things about the note to Niebuhr and his other explanations of his decision to return are important.

  1. First, he took personal responsibility for the decision. He had made a mistake in coming. His friends had not made any mistake in seeking his safety from Hitler and the war that was coming. Bonhoeffer consistently took personal responsibility for what he had done.
  2. Second, his mistake had been in attempting to avoid the suffering of the German people instead of accepting the cross of war and living responsibly through it.
  3. Finally, he had a goal: In order to help in reconstructing Christian life in Germany after the war (and what I believe he understood was the inevitable defeat of Germany), he needed to share the trials of the German people.

He was thinking both of his family and his colleagues in the Confessing Church movement, people like Martin Niemöller, who was in a Nazi prison. He returned not to escape America but to share the suffering of the German people, which meant carrying a cross for the German people, a cross of the very kind he had described to his students at Finkenwalde.

An Embodied Faith

Bonhoeffer was now in a situation where he would not be serving the German Confessing Church but instead engaged in a secular occupation of some kind. Bonhoeffer was a reader of Kierkegaard, and knew of his commentary on the life of Abraham in Fear and Trembling. [6] I think that, in the end, the “movement of faith” that Kierkegaard explicates in Fear and Trembling sits behind Bonhoeffer’s decision that his Christian faith and love for his fellow human beings required an action that would be morally dubious in ordinary times, but necessary under the conditions of Germany under Hitler.

Bonhoeffer understood what was needed was an “embodied faith” freed of “religiosity” but a faith that was still faith in the Christ who he served until his untimely death. He never attempted to defend what he did but rather did what he thought necessary and lived with the consequences. In any case, from his return to Germany to his death, he was no longer only a theologian and teacher serving the Confessing Church; he was primarily an actor in the destruction of the Nazi state and political prisoner.

Service with Military Intelligence

As mentioned earlier, Bonhoeffer was of an age that it was almost certainly that he would be called up for military service, and in so doing would be required to swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler, something he did not want to do. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was able to secure for him an appointment with the Abwehr as a liaison with ecumenical groups. His cover was that he was building relationships for German Military Intelligence as well as acting as a courier for Military Intelligence. In fact, Bonhoeffer’s key role was contacting the Western allies through his friends concerning the reaction of the Allies to an attempt to overthrow the Nazi regime. He made trips to Switzerland and Sweden conveying information to those who were in a position to see that the British government was aware of the plot and solicit their aid, which was never forthcoming.

In his capacity as a courier and agent for the Abwehr, he was aware of the various plots against Hitler’s life and participated in meetings in which the conspiracy was discussed. He conveyed information to the Abwehr after his meetings abroad. He also participated in attempts to secure freedom for Jews, by assisting in transporting them to Switzerland.

Dohnanyi in particular relied upon Bonhoeffer’s  listening ear and good counsel, which he valued. By this time, Dohnanyi was at the very center of the opposition to the regime within the Abwehr and the primary actor in coordinating the plots against Hitler on behalf of his superiors.

Conclusion: The Emergence of the Martyr

Next week, I will continue this series on Bonhoeffer looking at this imprisonment and death, as well as his final musing on theology as they pertain to his evolving political theology. It is fair to say that, up to his return from America and employment with the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer was involved theologically in opposing Nazi ideology and Hitler’s attempts to control the German Evangelical Church. His activities were primarily theological and were based upon his confessional Lutheran Faith, especially as it was expressed and clarified by the Barmen Declaration and his theological work with the Ecumenical Movement.

After his return, his activities were less involved with the Ecumenical Movement and the Confessing Church and more directly concerned with his role with Military Intelligence. This aspect of his activities required that he live a double life and distance himself from his former associations, which would have been seriously threatened by the regime if his activities for the Abwehr were discovered, which eventually they were. From his return to Germany until his death, he was set on the course of action that would ultimately result in his imprisonment and death.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 582. I am reliant upon Bethge for the narrative of the last days of Finkenwalde, as well as the narrative of events contained herein.

[2] Mary Bosaquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968), 199-200.

[3] Id, at 205.

[4] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), hereinafter “Bethge.” The story of this American interlude is told in Bethge’s biography pp.648-662.

[5] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr” at (downloaded August 25, 2022). Bethge gives a much more complete look at Bonhoeffer’s correspondence and conversations leading to his return to Germany.

[6] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling tr. Alister Hanny (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 19850.