The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi

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…

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