Association of Contemporary Church Historians

(Arbeitsgemeinschaft kirchlicher Zeitgeschichtler)

John S. Conway, Editor. University of British Columbia

Return to index.

Newsletter no 16 (Vol II, no 4) - April 1996

In memoriam: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Vancouver, B.C.

Dear Friends,

For April 9th 1996

Fifty one years ago this month Dietrich Bonhoeffer was brutally murdered by the SS-Gestapo at Flossenburg concentration camp in southern Germany. Recent historiography has been concerned less with his theological legacy than with his status as a resistance figure, as can be seen in the latest issue to hand of Evangelische Theologie, 1995/6: "Dietrich Bonhoeffer heute". The debates, however, about Bonhoeffer's role and influence in post-war Germany continue to have ambiguous overtones. Since 1990, the reunification of the country has raised new issues about the role of resistance movements in both of Germany's totalitarian dictatorships in this century.

After 1949, the newly-established Bundesrepublik in West Germany made enormous efforts to praise the courage and self- sacrifice of all those involved in the fatally-flawed July 20th 1944 plot. These men were depicted as seeking to overthrow Hitler's evil regime, inspired by their moral convictions and appalled by the Nazis' crimes against humanity. Bonhoeffer's evident Christian motivation for his participation, even if peripheral, in this plot made him an excellent role model in the attempt to forge a new ideology and identity for the new state, along non-Nazi and non-Communist lines. Yet for many years these endeavours met with considerable scepticism. To many churchmen, obedience to the state and its leaders seemed a paramount obligation, according to a very literal acceptance of Romans 13: 1. To others, participation in such highly scandalous political activities was regarded with suspicion, since the Church's prime duty was to worship God, not to become involved in the sinful area of day-to- day politics. When, for instance, the citizens of Flossenburg erected a plaque in Bonhoeffer's memory, the then Bishop of Munich refused to give this his blessing, stating that Bonhoeffer had been executed as a political opponent not as a religious martyr. Even today, despite representations from leading theologians and bishops, the German Parliament has yet to declare all convictions by SS courts to be annulled, thus opening the way for the legal rehabilitation of Bonhoeffer and others convicted by these courts, including army deserters, and clearing their names of the charge of alleged treachery.

To counter such views, much was made of the idealism of the resisters, and of the high proportion of army officers and elitist individuals with respectably conservative nationalist backgrounds. Yet those who sought to claim that the Resistance movement incorporated a "truer" German national tradition were made uncomfortable when reminded that far more Communists than churchmen had perished in Nazi concentration camps. In any case, the more praise given to the "heroes of conscience", the greater the accusation against all those who had failed to join them. But for West German politicians and historians, the exemplary Christian and western-oriented character of the Resistance was a necessary pillar of the state's self-justification. This left no room for others to be honoured, such as Communists. It also glossed over the highly diverse ideas amongst these plotters about what sort of a government should be established afterwards. Virtually none of them shared Bonhoeffer's view that, because of Hitler's crimes, Germany would have to accept a penetential peace. As more research has delved into the diversity of the Resisters' motives and aims, so the credibility of the "official" West German reception has been challenged. Consensus on the scope and significance of the Resistance Movement has yet to be achieved.

A very different picture was built up in the former East Germany. From the beginning its Marxist ideology stressed the contribution of all "anti-Fascists", and included in its praise such churchmen as Dietrich Bonhoeffer who had sacrificed his life to this cause. Even when, i the 1950s, the Communist rulers launched their campaign against the churches as being "agents of imperialist and reactionary forces", sponsored by similar groups in West Germany, some exceptions were made. Bonhoeffer could still be lauded since he had so clearly opposed the pro-Nazi policies of his own church. Indeed, in the analysis of his theology written by one of the regime's appointees to the Berlin theological faculty, Hanfried Muller, Bonhoeffer could be made to appear as an advocate for the kind of egalitarian, non-religious, socialist society which the Marxists wanted. Total emphasis was placed on his advice to the church to rid itself of the privileged status of the past, to rely solely upon its witness in a secularized world, and to renounce the well-bolstered financial support of earlier years. By such means, Muller sought to project Bonhoeffer as a model for Christians in the land of "actually existing Socialism".

But such a one-sided, and clearly politically-slanted, view was regarded as extreme, and was rejected by most East German Christians. Instead, they recalled Bonhoeffer the teacher from whom they had learnt much as they reflected upon the Church's successes and failures during the Nazi period. Some of his former pupils or associates, such as Albrecht Schonherr, who later became Bishop of East Berlin, clearly drew their inspiration from Bonhoeffer's ethical teachings, as they sought to live out their witness as an unprivileged and minority church under the repressive conditions of a Marxist state.

These churchmen accepted Bonhoeffer's insight that "Christendom" had come to an end. They recognised that in a Marxist-dominated society - at least for the foreseeable future - their position was marginal. They could no longer count on the support of the state, nor rely on the inherited traditions and property of the past - just as Bonhoeffer had predicted. Yet they bravely adopted Bonhoeffer's precept not to succumb to the temptation of retreating into becoming a pietistic sect, concerned only with its own personal salvation, or preaching only about the world to come. Instead they took up his more positive vision of Christian discipleship as a call to service to the marginalized, the poor, the weak and to be the voice of the voiceless. The sought to be "the church for others", not merely for their own members but for non-Christians as well. As Wolf Krotke has argued in several articles, this legacy from Bonhoeffer was formative in determining the stance of the church in East Germany.

This attempt to accept the changed social and political conditions of life in a Marxist state, while rejecting its pervasive ideology, obliged the church leaders to tread a thin dividing line between compromise and opposition, seeking to safeguard the church's institutional freedom while resisting the ever-present surveillance, harassment and often unpredictable onslaughts of the state, and especially of its secret police and its army of informers. Nonetheless, as Bishop Schonherr frequently reminded his congregations, the real question had been posed by Bonhoeffer in one of his enigmatic prison reflections:

"After 2000 years of church history, during which the church had often enough demanded that others should be there for her, rather than she for them, 'are we still of any use?'"

Bonhoeffer's positive answer, from his cheerless cell in Tegel jail, gave them courage to seek to forge new patterns of costly discipleship.

After 1961, when the Berlin Wall was built, East German Christians were even more isolated in the midst of an atheistically-controlled society. Bonhoeffer's call for the church to be a community of service to others, but also to maintain a prophetic witness to another and transcendent system of values, now became even more significant. But, in one respect, his advice was not followed. The East German church never did abandon its traditional pattern of parish structures and live purely on the efforts of lay leadership and voluntary giving. Instead, it kept its organizational establishment, in part at least financed by some rather secretive deals with government-supported funding from West German sources. The churches survived. In these circumstances, they never regarded themselves as a Resistance Movement, but rather as standing in "critical solidarity" with the regime. At the same time, they still sought to b a Confessing Church, proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and its call to relevant service to those whom the all-powerful Communist state chose to ignore. And in the 1980s they became the focus points where spontaneous protest groups gathered to criticize the regime's failings. Their debates about peace, ecology and international solidarity with the world's poor had many Bonhoeffian overtones. And the contribution of these church- based groups to the eventual collapse of the regime in October 1989 is undeniable.

With the reunification of the country and of the church in 1990 and 1991, the question may well be asked: what remains of Bonhoeffer's legacy today? The re-imposition of the well-funded west German church polity on the "new" eastern provinces seems to negate all the lessons of forty years' diaspora under Marxist- Leninist rule. In the present circumstances, as Wolf Krotke noted, to talk of "participation in the sufferings of God" sounds like hypocrisy coming from the mouths of well-paid church bureaucrats, and Bonhoeffer's vision of the church giving away all its wealth to those in need no more than a fanciful piece of wishful thinking.

Yet the questions Bonhoeffer left unanswered fifty years ago still remain. How to serve God in an ever increasingly secularized world? How to profess the Gospel's truth in a society overwhelmed by the allurements of consumer materialism? How to rekindle the flame of moral idealism for which so many of the German resisters to Nazism had sacrificed their lives? How to share in the sufferings of God at a time when wars, racism, injustice and poverty are still so evident and widespread? Above all, how to mobilize the Church to take effective measures to forestall the misuse of the ominous powers of the modern state?

In such a situation, Bonhoeffer's decisive calls for a repudiation of cheap grace, for identification with the outcasts and rejected in our midst, both nationally and internationally, for the vision to overcome the nationalistic and tradition-bound blinkers which have precluded the building of an ecumenical world-wide Christian community - all these are challenges which face Christians everywhere. And across the years we still hear the questions Bonhoeffer so pointedly posed: "Who stands fast?" and "Are we still of any use?"

Sincerely,
John Conway