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The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi

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Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin/bpk/Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource
Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his twin sister Sabine in London, just after his return from America and before his final return to Germany, July 1939

In January 1933, German conservatives, facing a political deadlock, engineered a way for Adolf Hitler, leader of Germany’s largest political party, to become chancellor, with a predominantly conservative cabinet. They thought he would be their “captive”—the first of many fatal illusions that eased Hitler’s path to power. Soon it was clear that his regime would eliminate all opposition and establish total control over what had been a politically and culturally diverse, if polarized, society. Giving their actions a deceptive veneer of legality, the Nazis enticed most of Germany’s indispensable civil servants to collaborate with them—including teachers, professors, and judges—while relying on terror and murder to intimidate and silence any who resisted. The regime won great popular support, as ceaseless propaganda cunningly exploited the Nazis’ successes at home and abroad.

To oppose such a regime was rare, and to do so in order to protect the sanctity of law and faith was rarer still. We are concerned here with two exceptional men who from the start of the Third Reich opposed the Nazi outrages: the scarcely known lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi and his brother-in-law, the well-known pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dohnanyi recorded Nazi crimes, helped victims, did his best to sabotage Nazi policies, and eventually helped plot Hitler’s removal; Bonhoeffer fought the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches. For both men the regime’s treatment of Jews was of singular importance. Holocaust literature is vast and the literature on German resistance scant, yet the lives and deaths of the two men show us important links between them.

Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer became close friends, especially after Dohnanyi drew his brother-in-law into active resistance against the regime. And their remarkable family deserves recognition, too, since its principled support was indispensable to their efforts. But Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer ended in defeat: they were arrested in April 1943 and then murdered, on Hitler’s express orders, just weeks before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender.1

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in 1906, was the youngest son of Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer and his wife, Paula, who had come to Berlin from Breslau with their eight children in 1912 when he became chief of psychiatry at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. The parents raised their children with an impressive mixture of freedom and discipline, and the family stayed close as the second generation moved into vigorous adolescence and adulthood. Dietrich decided when he was fourteen that he would be a pastor, and his university studies served that end: he had his doctorate in theology by 1927. After working abroad—as vicar in a German church in Barcelona and then as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York—he was ordained, but his passage to accredited church work ran up against the Nazis’ determined campaign to unify the many parts of the German Evangelical Church in a single Reich church purged of what they called its Jewish elements.

At the beginning of this Kirchenkampf, Bonhoeffer wrote a controversial essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”2 Good Lutheran that he was, he conceded that the church was “neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state,” but it could and should ask whether a state action (e.g., vis-à-vis Jews) “can be justified as…legitimate.” Moreover the church had an “unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community”; in any case a “baptized Jew is a member of our church.” Further, the church must “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel” of the state “but at times halt the wheel itself.” No one else in the church was advancing such potentially subversive ideas. But then, all the Bonhoeffers had distrusted the Nazi movement from its start.

Seeing that the Nazis intended to impose their dogma—that race, not religion, determined one’s civic identity—on the churches, Bonhoeffer joined other pastors in challenging the conservative-reactionary church leaders who acceded to this view. The dissidents organized themselves into what became known as the Confessing Church, which more than two thousand pastors joined, and Bonhoeffer alerted ecumenical organizations abroad to the Nazi threats. In 1935, he readily accepted a teaching position at a remote Pomeranian estate in a quasi-legitimate “preachers’ seminary.” He spent three years there, but went often to Berlin to see his parents—and to talk to his brother-in-law Hans, who was fighting the Nazis on different fronts.

Hans von Dohnanyi, born in 1902, a son of the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi, had also grown up in Berlin and had known the Bonhoeffer family since childhood; in 1925, he received his doctorate in law and married Dietrich’s sister Christine. He was soon appointed to important posts in government and academic institutes, where he became known for his exceptional intellect and integrity. With his unconditional, patriotic support of the Weimar Republic, he was fervently outspoken in his democratic convictions.

In 1929 Dohnanyi entered the Reich Ministry of Justice as an aide to State Secretary Curt Jöel, a strict conservative of Jewish descent; in June 1933 he became assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a conservative non-Nazi lawyer whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the “law” remained in non-Nazi hands. As Gürtner’s chief assistant Hans was privy to information about the Nazis’ crimes; by 1934 he was keeping a chronological record of them along with supporting documents; these were stored in an army safe at the Zossen military base near Berlin, Hans having been assured of its inviolability. He meant the documents to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime.

Hans knew that in November 1937 Hitler had presented to the army high command his secret plans to establish a new German-dominated order in Europe. After he got rid, by various vile means, of the top officers he found “unreliable” and presided over the Anschluss with Austria, his next target was Czechoslovakia, the one remaining democracy in Central Europe and militarily strong. Dohnanyi became close to the Wehrmacht officers who were appalled by the prospect of war over Czechoslovakia; they were determined to remove Hitler from power in order to avert his reckless adventure.

The leading figure in this effort was Chief of Staff Ludwig Beck, a patriot of high intelligence and great integrity; Hans also drew close to Colonel Hans Oster, who worked in the Abwehr—military counterintelligence—with its head, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. These conspirators wanted to obtain assurances from Britain that a post-Hitler Germany would be treated generously. But the Anglo-French policy to appease Hitler went into high gear, and at Munich in September 1938 the Western powers virtually compelled the Czechs to surrender to Germany’s demands. This triumph emboldened Hitler, and the regime became more and more violent: Would the Nazis have dared to give the orders for Kristallnacht in November 1938 if they had feared the Western powers? Hans and Dietrich were shaken that autumn night when synagogues burned, the churches remained silent, and 30,000 Jews were herded into concentration camps.

The Gestapo was now watching both men closely, if separately. (Gürtner had Dohnanyi appointed to Germany’s highest court, thinking it safer for him than the justice ministry.) As the Confessing Church came under vigorous attack—more than eight hundred pastors had been arrested and jailed in 1937—Dietrich’s sermons and his international contacts aroused Nazi suspicions. In January 1938 he was banned from public meetings in Berlin, but he continued to teach and guide his students in Pomerania.

When in March 1939 the Wehrmacht moved into Prague and Czechoslovakia was effectively destroyed, even the appeasers woke up. Resistance in the West stiffened, and it was resuscitated within Germany. Hitler’s next target was Poland; everyone knew that attacking it would lead to European war.

Dietrich, embattled and frustrated, thought of going abroad, as he had in 1934 and 1935; perhaps some work in America might serve as a temporary alternative to military service—a dreaded, morally unacceptable prospect. His mentor Reinhold Niebuhr arranged a job for him in New York, where he arrived in late June 1939. But at once he was in spiritual turmoil: How could he contemplate living in a foreign country, at peace, when his own country was on the brink of war and desolation? He decided he must go back to Europe, explaining to Niebuhr:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…. Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.3

Few Germans even understood these alternatives, let alone risked making Dietrich’s choice.

In August 1939, after the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which surely doomed Poland, Canaris summoned Dohnanyi to be Oster’s deputy in the Abwehr, a position that exempted him from conscription. Hans did his official intelligence work but mostly helped Oster to organize a coup to remove—in fact to murder—Hitler. Part of Hans’s task was also to bring ex-Socialist leaders into the circle, veterans of Nazi vengeance who were ready to accept positions in a post- Hitler regime.

With Canaris’s help, Hans managed to claim Dietrich as an Abwehr liaison officer whose extensive ecumenical contacts could be useful for Germany. Thus Dietrich too became “indispensable in his present assignment” and saved from conscription. While he continued with pastoral and theological work, he now also joined Hans’s band of conspirators in their oppositional strategies, and the friendship with Hans deepened as they faced common dangers, both of them relying on Hans’s wife and Dietrich’s sister Christine, who was a model of courage and ingenious decency. In a country awash with informers, where everything was under surveillance, the risks were clear. Any hint of treason or subversion brought instant punishment: jail, threats to their families, torture, death.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was the beginning of organized barbarism such as Europe had never seen. The systematic murder of Jewish men, women, and children defied imagination, but Hans knew the reports were true, knew the Wehrmacht was shielding the atrocities from public knowledge while millions of Poles and Russians were also being killed or starved to death.

The men around Beck intensified their efforts. Hans was at the core of their plans, while Dietrich went to various neutral countries to meet with sympathetic churchmen who would take messages to the British government. They all realized that the crimes committed in Germany’s name would burden that nation with inextinguishable guilt—and meanwhile millions of Germans were dying or wounded in war while their families suffered from ever greater bombing at home.

As German Jews began to be deported to the East and almost certain extinction there, Dohnanyi embarked on an extraordinary project to use his offices to save at least a few of them, including some to whom he had earlier promised protection. The complicated, desperate plan—it became known as Operation 7—involved having seven people whose names appeared on the deportation lists (the number grew to fourteen) designated as Abwehr agents and sent with the Gestapo’s consent to Switzerland. By September 1942 fourteen Jews had found safe haven, and were further helped by Hans’s insistence that they receive funds to sustain themselves.

  1. 1

    This account is based on dozens of published sources and some interviews. Three books deserve special attention: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, first English translation, 1953; revised and expanded in 1972; republished, with still more material and new editing provided principally by Christian Gremmels, John de Gruchy, and Victoria Barnett in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Collected Works, Vol. 8 (Fortress, 2010) . Eberhardt Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, first English translation, 1967; now available in a second revised edition, edited by Victoria Barnett, based on the seventh German edition (Fortress, 2000). Marikje Smid, Hans von Dohnanyi, Christine Bonhoeffer: Eine Ehe im Widerstand gegen Hitler [A Marriage in the Resistance to Hitler] (Munich: Gütersloher, 2002); this has not been translated into English. 

  2. 2

    This extraordinary essay has often been dismissed as “anti-Semitic,” given its recognition of Luther’s well-known view that Jewish suffering was punishment for the Crucifixion (a doctrine to which Roman Catholics also adhered). 

  3. 3

    Most works on Bonhoeffer cite this letter as Bonhoeffer’s own words; in fact, the text is that of Niebuhr’s effort, six years later, to set down his recollection of Bonhoeffer’s 1939 letter, which was lost. See “The Death of a Martyr,” Christianity and Crisis, June 25, 1945. 

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