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Anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged

Anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged



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On April 9, 1945, Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged at Flossenburg, only days before the American liberation of the POW camp. The last words of the brilliant and courageous 39-year-old opponent of Nazism were “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”

Two days after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, lecturer at Berlin University, took to the radio and denounced the Nazi Fuhrerprinzip, the leadership principle that was merely a synonym for dictatorship. Bonhoeffer’s broadcast was cut off before he could finish. Shortly thereafter, he moved to London to pastor a German congregation, while also giving support to the Confessing Church movement in Germany, a declaration by Lutheran and evangelical pastors and theologians that they would not have their churches co-opted by the Nazi government for propagandistic purposes. Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1935 to run a seminary for the Confessing Church; the government closed it in 1937.

Bonhoeffer’s continued vocal objections to Nazi policies resulted in his losing his freedom to lecture or publish. He soon joined the German resistance movement, even the plot to assassinate Hitler. In April 1943, shortly after becoming engaged to be married, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo. Evidence implicating him in the plot to overthrow the government came to light and he was court-martialed and sentenced to die. While in prison, he acted as a counselor and pastor to prisoners of all denominations. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison was published posthumously. Among his celebrated works of theology are The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Did You Know?

Dietrich’s father, Karl, was Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist from 1912 until his death in 1948.

Dietrich was so skilled at playing the piano that for a time he and his parents thought he might become a professional musician.

At 14, Bonhoeffer announced matter-of-factly that he was going to become a theologian.

Bonhoeffer earned his doctorate in theology when he was only 21.

Though later he was an outspoken advocate of pacifism, Bonhoeffer was an enthusiastic fan of bullfighting. He developed the passion while serving as assistant pastor of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain.

By the end of 1930, the year before Bonhoeffer was ordained, church seminaries were complaining that over half the candidates for ordination were followers of Hitler.

In 1933, when the government instigated a one-day boycott of Jewish-owned businesses, Bonhoeffer’s grandmother broke through a cordon of SS officers to buy strawberries from a Jewish store.

In his short lifetime, Bonhoeffer traveled widely. He visited Cuba, Mexico, Italy, Libya, Denmark, and Sweden, among other countries, and he lived for a time in Spain, in England, and in the United States.

Bonhoeffer taught a confirmation class in what he described as “about the worst area of Berlin,” yet he moved into that neighborhood so he could spend more time with the boys.

Bonhoeffer was fascinated by Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. He asked for—and received—permission to visit Gandhi and live at his ashram. The two never met, however, because the crisis in Germany demanded Bonhoeffer’s attention.

Bonhoeffer served as a member of the Abwehr, the military-intelligence organization under Hitler. (He was actually a double agent. While ostensibly working for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer helped to smuggle Jews into Switzerland—and do other underground tasks.)

Bonhoeffer studied for a year in New York City. He was uniformly disappointed with the preaching he heard there: “One may hear sermons in New York upon almost any subject one only is never handled, . . . namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, of the cross, of sin and forgiveness. . . . ”

While a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Bonhoeffer regularly attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He taught one youth Sunday school class and one women’s Bible study he also helped weekly in Sunday school.

Bonhoeffer learned to drive a car while in the United States—yet he failed his American driver’s-license examination three times.

Bonhoeffer directed an illegal seminary for two and a half years until it was closed by the Gestapo. The seminary trained pastors for the “Confessing Church,” a group Bonhoeffer and others had formed as an alternative to the Nazi-influenced German Reich Church. It was at this seminary that he developed his classic work The Cost of Discipleship.

Just before World War II, Bonhoeffer was invited to lecture in the United States. This allowed him to escape increasing persecution and the impending draft. But Bonhoeffer decided he must share the fate of those suffering in Germany. In less than a month, he returned home.

In 1936, because of his anti-Nazi views, Bonhoeffer was no longer permitted to teach at the University of Berlin. Two years later, he was forbidden to live in Berlin. In 1940, the German authorities forbade him to speak in public, and he had to report regularly to the police.

Bonhoeffer was engaged to be married, but he was arrested and eventually killed before he and his fiancee could be married.

During Allied bombing raids over Berlin, Bonhoeffer’s calm deeply impressed his fellow prisoners at Tegel Prison. Prisoners and even guards used all kinds of tricks to get near him and find the comfort of exchanging a few words with him.

The majority of Bonhoeffer’s classic Letters and Papers from Prison was smuggled out by guards who chose to assist Bonhoeffer.

Bonhoeffer could have escaped from prison but chose not to for the sake of others. He had prepared to escape with one of the guards when he learned that his brother Klaus had been arrested. Fearing reprisals against his brother and his family if he escaped, Bonhoeffer stayed in prison.

The German underground failed on numerous occasions to assassinate Hitler. Had they succeeded, Bonhoeffer probably would not have been executed.

Adolf Hitler was directly involved in the decision to execute Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators.

Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and two of his brothers-in-law were also executed for their roles in the resistance movement against Hitler.

Some of Bonhoeffer’s best-known works, such as Ethics and Letters and Papers from Prison were not published until after his death.

Bonhoeffer’s parents did not learn of his death until three and a half months afterward, when they tuned into a radio broadcast of a London memorial service for their son.

By Mark and Barbara Galli

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #32 in 1991]

Mark and Barbara Galli live in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. This is their first joint contribution to Christian History.

Next articles

Anti-Nazi Movements within the Wehrmacht during World War II

Biddiscombe, Perry. “”Freies Deutschland” Guerilla Warfare in East Prussia 1944-45: A Contribution to the History of German Resistance.” German Studies Review. 27. no. 1 (2004): 45-62.

Biddiscombe’s article challenges the traditional view that anti-Hitler resistance was an elite phenomenon and did not take grassroots form such as partisan warfare. This article takes a broad scope, in that it does not focus on one particular event, like the assassination attempts on Hitler, but rather looks at a larger movement that occurred over a longer period of time. His article talks about guerilla fighters along the fringes of the Third Reich in places like Cologne and the Austrian Alps. A large number of these guerilla fighters were members of the Wehrmacht that had deserted and were now fighting the Nazis. This article focuses on groups of guerilla fighters made up of Soviet nationalists, former POWs, and former Wehrmacht members parachuting into East Prussia to fight the Nazis. These guerillas were known for sabotage, hit and run attacks, raids, and infiltrating the Wehrmacht command. They also attempted to generate support among the German public. However, they were unable to raise enough support to pose a large threat to the Nazis. Biddiscombe’s article shows that anti-Nazi movements involving members of the Wehrmacht were widespread and lasting, and not limited to one-shot assassination attempts.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1967.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who was very anti-Nazi. He worked with the German Military Intelligence Office and was involved in Operation Spark and other attempts to assassinate Hitler, including the famous July 20 1944 attempt. He was against Hitler’s persecution of Jews and other groups, and often tried to help them using his status as a military intelligence agent as cover. He was arrested in April 1943 and hanged in April 1945. While he was in prison, he wrote a series of letters and papers. He wrote letters to his friends and parents about what was happening to him and his treatment. He wrote about theology and even provided a wedding sermon. He also wrote a series of poems to his fellow prisoners. He discusses some of his thoughts about the Nazis and his stance against them. The scope of this source is very limited, in that it is the writings and thoughts of just one person. However, it is unique in that it brings religion into the equation. Most other anti-Nazi movements within the German armed forces discussed are not as strongly based in religion as Bonhoeffer was. Bonhoeffer’s writings show the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a devout Christian who worked against the Nazis from within.

Carsten, F.L.. “A Bolshevik Conspiracy in the Wehrmacht.” The Slavonic and East European Review. 47. no. 109 (1969): 483-509.

This article discusses a group of soldiers within the Wehrmacht trying to undermine it. It also includes an original German transcript from the trial of this group. This group of sixteen men was of Georgian decent, and their objective was to cause as many problems for the Wehrmacht as they could. These men were all communists, and were eventually discovered and arrested. At their trial they were referred to as Soviet prisoners of war. Twelve of the sixteen were sentenced to death for treason, mutiny, and undermining Germany’s military power, while the other four were acquitted. This particular anti-Nazi movement in the Wehrmacht is unique in that these men joined the German army with the intent to commit treason. This group was relatively small, but it shows that the anti-Nazi movements in the Wehrmacht were not uncommon. The scope of this article is small, as this is a very specific incident, but it shows the diversity of the anti-Nazi movements in the Wehrmacht.

Heideking, Jurgen, and Christof Mauch. American Intelligence and the German Resistance to Hitler: A Documentary History. Cumnor Hill, Oxford: Westview Press, Inc., 1996.

This book is a compilation of numerous documents between United States Intelligence and various German resistance figures. This source is mostly from the perspective of the United States, which makes it unique from the other sources that are focused entirely on the German anti-Nazi movements. This source shows American involvement with the anti-Nazi groups in the German armed forces and their joint attempts to overthrow the Nazis. The source discusses the U.S. relationship with various factions of resistance within the Wehrmacht and in the rest of Germany. It discusses the American use of psychological warfare to both dishearten the Nazis and encourage a stronger German resistance to the Third Reich. It is still related to the overall topic, as U.S. Intelligence did have some dealings with anti-Nazi movements in the Wehrmacht. This source offers a pretty broad scope of resistance movements and American Intelligence action, as it contains documents from 1942 to 1945, almost the entire duration of U.S. involvement in the war.

Hoffmann, Peter. Behind Valkyrie: German Resistance to Hitler [Documents]. Quebec: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

This book includes a large number of documents about the German resistance to Hitler from his rise to power in the 1930s to the end of the war, and it includes a great deal on Operation Valkyrie, the plot by numerous members of the Wehrmacht to assassinate Hitler. It includes documents by people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Erwin Rommel, Ludwig Beck, who were all notable opponents of the Nazi regime. This source has a very broad scope, and its use of primary source documents serve as solid evidence for the anti-Nazi sentiment in the Wehrmacht and in Germany as a whole. This book contains documents condemning the Nazi persecution of the Jews, Hitler’s foreign and domestic policy, and those concerning taking military action against the Nazis. This source has a great deal of information on Operation Valkyrie, which is the most famous Wehrmacht conspiracy against Hitler, so it is very important to the topic of Wehrmacht resistance. It includes detailed notes and messages between the conspirators about the plot against Hitler. This source shows how anti-Nazi sentiment and action within the German armed forces was not all that uncommon, nor was it short lived.

Mazower, Mark. “Military Violence and National Socialist Values: The Wehrmacht in Greece 1941-1944.” Past & Present. no. 132 (1994): 129-158.

Mazower’s article offers a counterargument to the notion that the Wehrmacht was full of anti-Nazi sentiment. He acknowledges that this occurred, but points to evidence that more often than not, the Wehrmacht willingly worked with the SS. He points out the actions of the German army in Greece, and gives an example of 100 Wehrmacht troops razing a Greek village, wiping out over half of its population. He presents testimony from some troops after the war, and shows that while some vehemently opposed this action almost to the point of mutiny, they went along with it, and a smaller number of them believed it was necessary and justified. The soldiers were told that it was an act of reprisal, and some soldiers testified that they considered deserting, although none did. The scope of this source is the Wehrmacht in Greece from 1941-1944, so it is rather broad, and it does offer a counterclaim to some of those made in other sources. However, Mazower does not dispute the fact that there were some anti-Nazi sentiment and actions in the Wehrmacht. He does believe that the argument that most of the Wehrmacht was anti-Nazi is flawed and untrue.

Rommel, Erwin. Rommel: In His Own Words. Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Brown Packaging Ltd., 1994.

This source is a biography of Wehrmacht Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, also known as the “Desert Fox”, and also has many of Rommel’s writings. It describes his exploits in the Africa campaign during WWII, and his later involvement in the July 20 1944 plot against Hitler. It also describes Rommel’s early life and military career. Rommel was never a Nazi party member, but was sympathetic to their cause for most of his military career this would change over time, as he became less and less fond of them. His military career began to go south when the Germans were beaten back in North Africa, and he eventually lost his command and was transferred all over Europe. He was involved with the defense of Normandy. He was involved with some of the individuals within the Wehrmacht, who attempted to assassinate Hitler, and was eventually found out and arrested. He was allowed to take poison to save his family and his military career. The scope of this source is somewhat limited, as it only focuses on one man, but it provides evidence of anti-Nazi sentiment and action even among high-ranking officers in the Wehrmacht.

Rothfels, Hans. The German Opposition to Hitler. London: Oswald Wolff Publishers Ltd, 1961.

This source discusses German anti-Nazi sentiment in a very broad scope. It not only discusses anti-Nazi movements in the Wehrmacht, but also talks about political opposition and opposition by ordinary citizens to the Third Reich. It discusses Nazi attempts to make the German people submissive, different attitudes towards the Jews, and multiple military and peaceful actions against the Nazis. This source definitely presents the German anti-Nazi movement as being significant, in contrast to Mazower’s view that the resistance was mostly isolated instances and the German army and people mostly complied with the Reich. The author states that the Wehrmacht was largely “Nazi-proof” during the party’s early years in power, and there were often clashes between Wehrmacht officials and Nazi party members. He describes Hitler’s actions to break down army resistance and make them submit to Nazi rule. He gives examples of Wehrmacht officer like von Tresckow and von Kleist who vehemently opposed Hitler’s regime and were involved in anti-Nazi actions. This source gives a large overview of German resistance to Hitler, and describes numerous examples of resistance within the Wehrmacht.

Snyder, Louis. Hitler’s German Enemies: The Stories of the Heroes who Fought the Nazis. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1990.

This source discusses numerous resistors of the Third Reich, including Bonhoeffer, General Ludwig Beck, and Rommel. It also discusses others who were important figures in the German resistance, such as journalists, students, and diplomats. This source offers another broad scope of resistance movements in Germany, and is not limited to those within the Wehrmacht. It discusses Bonhoeffer, Beck, and Rommel’s involvement in plots to kill Hitler, and other actions they took against the Third Reich. It discusses Bonheoffer’s actions as an intelligence agent for the Reich, Beck’s hatred of Hitler and Nazi ideology and his attempts to overthrow them, and Rommel’s change of heart about the Nazis and eventual involvement in the July 20 plot to kill Hitler. This source offers a great deal of evidence about the German resistance and anti-Nazi conspiracies within the Wehrmacht. The author tries to show that the Wehrmacht had a sizeable group of conspirators against Hitler, which goes against the argument by Mazower and others that the Wehrmacht was mostly compliant with the Third Reich.

Wette, Wolfram. The Wehrmacht: History, Myth, Reality. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006.

This source focuses on the Wehrmacht throughout the interwar period and World War II. The Wehrmacht is not portrayed as being overly anti-Nazi, as it is in some other sources, and its argument is more similar to Mazower’s, that the Wehrmacht was mostly a willing partner of the Nazis. It discusses the Wehrmacht’s attitude towards Soviets and Bolsheviks as enemies before and during World War II. It talks about their prejudice towards the Jews, although the author points out that it is impossible to know how many members of the Wehrmacht believed in eliminating all of the Jews compared to those who just harbored slight prejudices or those who had none at all. The source also discusses the Wehrmacht’s participation in killing Jews and seeks to debunk the theory that the Wehrmacht was not a willing follower of the Nazis. This source takes the view that the Wehrmacht often willingly complied with the Nazi’s atrocities, and the anti-Nazi movements were miniscule. It offers a broad source, as it discusses the Wehrmacht’s actions and attitudes over a few decades. It also offers evidence supporting its claims in the participation of the Wehrmacht in the killing of Jews all over Europe, and downplays the significance of resistance to Hitler.


“The Church and the Jewish Question”

One of Bonhoeffer's most famous texts was his April 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.” Addressing the challenges facing his church under Nazism, Bonhoeffer in this essay argued that National Socialism was an illegitimate form of government and hence had to be opposed on Christian grounds. He outlined three stages of this opposition. First, the church was called to question state injustice. Secondly, it had an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they were Christian or not. Finally, church might be called to “put a spoke in the wheel” to bring the machinery of injustice to a halt.

The essay reveals the complexity of Bonhoeffer's thought and action. It was one of the earliest and clearest repudiations of National Socialism, revealing his early opposition to the regime. On the other hand, the theological section of the essay also contains the traditional antisemitic teachings that for centuries had characterized Christian understandings of Judaism, and Bonhoeffer argued that the “Jewish question” would ultimately be resolved through the conversion of the Jews. He never explicitly abandoned this view.


New Effort to Clear an Anti-Nazi Martyr Still Branded a Traitor

In the eyes of many Germans, few 20th-century heroes seem braver or more inspirational than the martyred anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Yet in the eyes of the law, he is a traitor.

Hoping to remedy this contradiction, a group of politicians, human rights advocates and Lutheran clergy announced plans today to seek posthumous rehabilitation for Bonhoeffer. They are also asking Parliament to declare that all convictions by SS courts are illegal.

A decade ago, Parliament condemned Nazi "people's courts" and voided their convictions. But that declaration did not cover SS courts.

"Germany has not succeeded in cleansing its justice system of the influence of Nazi judges," Stephan Hilsberg, a member of Parliament, said in announcing the campaign. "This legacy is a heavy burden on the current judicial system."

In choosing to focus on Bonhoeffer, who was born 90 years ago today, organizers have seized on a figure who has become a symbol of Christian resistance to injustice.

Although Bonhoeffer was not famous during his lifetime, the publication in recent decades of his poems, essays, letters and diaries has made him a subject of growing interest. His insistence on the need for personal courage in confronting evil, as well as on the brotherhood of Christians and Jews, has struck resonant chords in postwar Germany.

As late as 1939, Bonhoeffer was safely in New York, where he had studied at the Union Theological Seminary. But he refused entreaties to stay.

"In this difficult time in our national history, I must be with the Christians of Germany," he wrote in a letter to his friend Reinhold Niebuhr. "German Christians are being given the awful alternative of consciously wishing for the destruction of their nation so that Christian civilization can survive or wishing for the victory of their nation and thereby the destruction of civilization. I know which alternative I must choose."

Upon his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer helped organize a church-based resistance group and called on clergymen to oppose Hitler, whom he denounced as "the Antichrist." He made contact with dissident officers, and in 1942 traveled to Sweden to meet with a British bishop and discuss plans for a coup.

"He sacrificed his career and his safety, pledging himself to life as a man of honor and conscience," the Rev. Jurgen Henkys said in a sermon today at the Berlin Cathedral.

In 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. After the failed assassination attempt against Hitler the following year, investigators discovered his ties to the plotters. He was transferred to the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria, brought before an SS tribunal, sentenced to death and hanged on April 9, 1945. He was 39.

Earlier efforts to win legal rehabilitation for Bonhoeffer failed. In 1956, a West German court ruled that the SS officer who had presided at his trial could not be punished because he had merely upheld "the right of the state to maintain itself."

Two of the five judges who signed the 1956 ruling served as judges during the Nazi era.

A theology professor involved in the Bonhoeffer campaign, Karl-Heniz Lehmann, sent a letter last week to the Berlin prosecutor asking that he reopen the case.

"We are aware that the execution of resistance figures is a terrible act that cannot be taken back," he wrote. "By submitting our request that this case be reopened and that Bonhoeffer be rehabilitated, we consciously seek to have the resistance against Nazism declared right rather than wrong."


Facts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer 9: banned seminary

Bonhoeffer was banned by the Gestapo in 1938. Due to the Second World War, the seminary of Bonhoeffer was shut down by the Gestapo in March 1940.

Facts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer 10: the sister of Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer had a sister named Sabine. Her husband was Gerhard Leibholz classified as Jewish. Both had two daughters. In September 1940, the family of his sister reached England via Switzerland. Look at facts about Desiderius Erasmus here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Pictures

Are you interested reading facts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?


On this day in 1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, is executed

Dietrich Bonhoeffer photographed in 1939 Credit: Eberhard Bethge

D ietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, Prussia. He was the sixth of eight children. His father was a professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Berlin, and his mother was a teacher.

Bonhoeffer studied theology at Tübingen and Berlin, before becoming assistant pastor to a German protestant community in Barcelona. He spent some time on an exchange at a seminary in New York, then took up a position as a lecturer of systematic theology at the University of Berlin.

Bonhoeffer was international and ecumenical in outlook, with connections to England. In 1931 he attended an ecumenical conference in Cambridge, and from 1933–5 worked as a pastor to German protestant communities in Sydenham and Whitechapel.

Back in Germany, he took a stance against Nazism, and in particular its racial dogmas. He staunchly rejected the view that Judaism was racially defined, and became a leading member of the Confessing Church, which mounted resistance to Nazi ideology and countered the Nazification of the German Evangelical Church.

I n 1938 Bonhoeffer became involved with a group seeking to bring Hitler down. The Gestapo began to watch him closely, and he was eventually forbidden from preaching or writing. Given his known political views, he was quietly recruited into a division of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) that acted as a front for German military resistance to Hitler. In this role he travelled abroad, met with representatives of the Allies, and helped smuggle persecuted persons out of Germany.

In 1942 he met with the bishop of Chichester, George Bell, to discuss German resistance proposals for a negotiated peace with Hitler’s regime, but the project came to nothing in the face of the Allies’ requirement that Hitler surrender unconditionally.

Bonhoeffer became engaged to be married in January 1943, but was arrested on 5 April the same year. He was imprisoned in Berlin, and wrote prolifically on theology while incarcerated, as he had done throughout his adult life. Many of his writings are today considered theological classics.

In the wake of the failure of “Operation Valkyrie” — the Abwehr’s 20 July bomb plot to assassinate Hitler — the regime’s crackdown on the Abwehr found papers linking Bonhoeffer to the conspirators.

Bonhoeffer was moved to Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria, where he was hanged on 9 April 1945, two weeks before the camp was liberated. Alongside him on the gallows were Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, and General Hans Oster, a senior Abwehr officer.

General Alfred Jodl signed Germany’s unconditional surrender one month later.


Contents

Saints and Villains recreates the life and martyrdom of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who participated in a plot to kill Hitler and was executed at Buchenwald in the waning days of World War II.

Raised in a privileged, upper-middle-class German family at the beginning of the 20th century, Bonhoeffer is a sheltered and dreamy loner, indulged and protected by his family. After failing to develop as a musician, he turns to theology, initially as an academic pursuit, not a spiritual calling. His studies lead him to Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he meets Reinhold Niebuhr and social activist Myles Horton. He befriends an African American student, Fred Bishop, who introduces him to the endemic racism in the United States, and takes him to visit both Harlem and Appalachia, where he witnesses racism and poverty first hand. The most impactful of these experiences is the Hawks Nest Tunnel Disaster of 1927, in which hundreds of mostly Black men mysteriously die after being pulled off bread lines to help dig a tunnel. Bonhoeffer disguises himself as a worker, actually and symbolically stripping himself of all articles of selfhood: He must hide his glasses, pretend to be mute because he has an accent, and don ragged clothes to fit in. This sense of being depersonalized foreshadows what happens to Jews in Germany upon his return.

Bonhoeffer returns to Germany, and soon after, Hitler and the Nazis come to power. When attacks on Jews became open public policy after the Reichstag fire of 1933, Bonhoeffer's writings and sermons take on an increasingly anti-Nazi tone. When the Nazis set up a state church, he helps found another pastoral movement in opposition, and speaks as a representative of that movement at the 1936 Olympics.

As the Nazis become increasingly violent, anti-Semitic and anti-intellectual, Bonhoeffer feels compelled to act. He takes a job as a low-level military intelligence agent in the Abwehr, working with a group of upper-echelon Nazi officials who plot to kill Hitler. He uses his position to gather counterintelligence and to help Jews flee Germany. Bonhoeffer struggles with the moral dilemma of justifying taking one life to save others. In April 1943, Bonhoeffer is arrested and imprisoned. There, he faces the interrogator Bauer, who mocks his faith, and is a foil for all Bonhoeffer's doubts and moral quandaries.

Bonhoeffer spends the rest of the war in jail, and as the war nears its end, his fate hangs in the balance—will he be saved by the approaching Allies? However, he is hanged in April 1945, only a month before Germany's surrender.

Giardina had ruminated on Bonhoeffer and his work for some 20 years, ever since her mentor in the Episcopal church first gave her a book of his writings. The novel dwells upon moral decisions, most notably the acceptability of sin if the sin will prevent a greater evil. [3] Giardina immersed herself in Bonhoeffer's life, attracted to the story because of the ambiguities of the situation. Grappling with the moral and theological struggles in the book also brought Giardina back to her church, in a journey to "live in God" that culminated with her being re-ordained in 2007, having left the church year earlier due to conflicts over miners' rights. The novel is her first narrated in the third-person. In a mirror image of her experience with her earlier novel, Storming Heaven, she began it in the first-person, and junked the first 50 pages in order to start over. She also decided to shift from past to present tense for the book's final scenes, adding suspense to the question of whether the imprisoned Bonhoeffer would be freed by the advancing Allies.

The title was suggested to her by a friend who saw the following quote from Bonhoeffer on Giardina's refrigerator:

Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearance they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.

Giardina also used lines from Mozart's Mass in C Minor to frame Bonhoeffer's saga and Germany's slide into Nazism and war. The music's liner notes helped her focus on the character of SS officer Alois Bauer, a music lover who serves as Dietrich's doppelgänger and is a composite of Bonhoeffer's real interrogators. Acknowledging a touch of authorly revenge, Giardina bestowed on Bauer the same surname as the New York Times reviewer who gave her book Storming Heaven its only prominent negative review. Another character invented by Giardina is Fred Bishop, a black minister studying with Bonhoeffer at New York's Union Theological Seminary. Bonhoeffer visits him in Charleston, Giardina's home town. Giardina has written in the past of the Appalachian mining wars, and used this catastrophic event to foreshadow the even more catastrophic Holocaust. [4]

Reviews of Saints and Sinners were mostly positive.

According to Kirkus Reviews, "Giardina . . . surpasses herself with this powerful re-creation of the life and martyrdom of German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer . . . A big novel in every sense of the word, and a triumphant portrayal of one of the century’s authentic heroes." [5] Newsday states: "The story—compelling in and of itself—is engrossingly narrated, with an eye for significant detail, a strong sense of life’s bitter ironies, and a powerful feeling of immediacy. The characters, especially Bonhoeffer himself, are lifelike and complex. Giardina also does a fine job of evoking the temper of the times she portrays."

Publishers Weekly's positive review observes: "In a series of telling scenes brought to life with unerring choice of detail . . . Giardina exerts an admirable grip on her panoramic story." However, writing for the New York Times, Paul Baumann is less impressed. Though he recognizes Giardina's thorough knowledge of the historical and theological record, he concludes: "Despite its ambitious intentions, Saints and Villains is more a predictable dramatization of the facts than an original reimagining of a life. The pathos of Bonhoeffer's story is still best captured in his own elusive writings." [6] The Tennessean: "The story is an important one. The Bonhoeffer drawn by Giardina is a complex character." [7]

Susan Osborn, in her Washington Post review, recognizes that "Giardina’s strength lies in her ability to show how historical particulars craft individuality." However, the review is less laudatory about her recreation of Bonhoeffer's life from biographical sources, claiming that such work "is an act of imagination that requires an adept ability to theatricalize the person being represented and his world. Unfortunately, that ability is not well apparent here. The book consists primarily of static doctrinal and moral conversations between Bonhoeffer and others as a result, characters sound, at best, like puppets reading from political pamphlets or philosophical treatises, at worst like characters in a grade-B war flick." She concludes, "what might otherwise have been a provocative and multifaceted psychological portrait of a Christian pacifist turned conspirator is finally a disappointingly uninspired account." [8]

Others disagree the Lexington Herald-Leader review claims that "Giardina creates a fictional account of Bonhoeffer that transcends the usual ‘historical novel’ as it becomes a dramatic meditation on the meaning of his life. Giardina breathes new life into Bonhoeffer. He is no longer the pristine icon of his worshipful admirers. Giardina makes him again a credible, though exceptional, person." The Philadelphia Inquirer writes, "Giardina . . . succeeds in fleshing out Bonhoeffer’s factual biographies with fine and detailed human touches–the more ‘believable’ because they are based on diligent research." The Chattanooga Times: "Saints and Villains depicts a mental and physical adventure of one man. It is a treatise on man’s inhumanity to man and one person’s courage in rising above such horrors to find his own faith strengthened in the process."


Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Political Activist 26:50

Among the most powerful and enigmatic figures of the past century was German pastor, theologian and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. In the late 1930s, he became one of Germany's most prominent resistance activists. Arrested in 1943, he was moved from prison to prison for two years before being hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp less than a month before Germany surrendered. His anti-Nazi theological and political resistance, together with his condemnation of anti-Semitism, cost him his life, and moved his contemporaries to call him a modern Christian martyr.

His work and life were celebrated at a remarkable symposium held at Boston University recently. Entitled "Faith and Resistance: The Struggle of a German Theologian Against the Nazi Terror," the symposium featured two major panels. The first panel discussed Bonhoeffer's historical and political relevance. The second panel focused on the theological and educational Bonhoeffer.

This week's show featured excerpts from the first panel. Professor of Literature and Religion Geoffrey Hill, Professor of History Dietrich Orlow, and former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania Charles R. Stith were among the panel's speakers. We also presented brief remarks from Boston University Professor of Worship Horace T. Allen Jr, who was close to several of Bonhoeffer's lifelong friends.

This program aired on April 29, 2001.

Videographer, Photographer
Robin Lubbock is a videographer and photographer for WBUR.


Anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged - HISTORY

Vol. IV No. 31 · 20 April 2001

B.U. Bridge is published by the Boston University Office of University Relations.

Symposium to explore anti-Nazi theologian's life and work

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis in April 1945 for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler, his legacy as a Christian martyr and a theologian who bravely cut against the grain of traditional religious thinking was sealed. But what exactly is the relevance of Bonhoeffer's writings and actions, both in his own time and today?

Scholars of theology, history, philosophy, and literature will address that question and others during a symposium dedicated to the Lutheran theologian's life and works at the School of Management on Monday, April 23.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while in Nazi custody, summer 1944. Photo courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Web site, www.ushmm.org/index.html.

A panel discussing Bonhoeffer's historical and political relevance will be moderated by radio journalist and former WBUR Connection host Christopher Lydon. Panelists will include BU Chancellor John Silber, Geoffrey Hill, a UNI professor of literature and religion, Dietrich Orlow, ad interim chairman of the CAS history department, and Charles R. Stith, the former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania, a special assistant to BU President Jon Westling, and author of the 1995 book Political Religion.

Robert C. Neville, dean of BU's School of Theology, will moderate a second panel, which will explore the importance of Bonhoeffer's writings for modern theology. The panel will feature Clifford Green, a professor emeritus at the Hartford Seminary, Wayne Witson Floyd, a visiting professor of theology and director of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Center at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pa., Victoria Barnett, author of the 1992 book For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, Horace T. Allen, Jr., an STH professor of worship, and Robert Daly, S. J., a Boston College theology professor.

"Anyone interested in the critical study of theology and the validity of religious ideas or in the history of modern Europe and the Nazis will find this conference extremely helpful," says Neville. "Christian opposition to the Nazis was epitomized by Bonhoeffer, so he is very important for understanding how religion relates to secular public events."

Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. He taught theology at the University of Berlin and at a number of Lutheran seminaries in Germany while in his 20s, and in the late 1930s became one of the nation's most prominent resistance activists. He was a leader in the anti-Nazi Confessing Church, publicly denounced Hitler as the "Antichrist," and garnered support for a coup both within Germany and in other countries.

He was arrested by the Nazis and sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943, in part for helping a group of Jews escape to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer's connections to perpetrators of the failed 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler were discovered while he was at Buchenwald, and an SS tribunal subsequently sentenced him to death. He was hung at age 39 in a Flossenburg, Bavaria, concentration camp. While awaiting execution, he penned what would become one of his most widely read works, Letters and Papers from Prison.

According to Orlow, Bonhoeffer's strongly ecumenical teachings, which stress the need for individuals and for churches as institutions to speak out against evil in the public realm, were crucial during his lifetime because "there was a trend toward secularization in Europe that long preceded the Nazis and that placed the church in a seemingly irrelevant position. His attempt to give religious answers to dilemmas faced by society was also important because the Nazis considered their ideology a substitute religion."

Bonhoeffer remains an important figure, Orlow says, because his life demonstrates the need for a separation between church and state. "His legacy is really about what one is morally obligated to do to combat evil, which in his case culminated in his affirmation of the righteousness of tyrannicide. There is an old Lutheran notion that says that because the prince was put in power by God, you should obey the prince, but Bonhoeffer completely changed the attitude of the German Protestant church toward its own institutional life in society."

In 1996, a Berlin court exonerated Bonhoeffer and four other resistance figures executed by the Nazis in the last days of World War II. The court proclaimed that in plotting against Hitler, Bonhoeffer and the others were motivated "not by destruction, but by love of the fatherland and involvement on the side of humanity."

The Bonhoeffer Symposium is free and open to the public. For more information, see calendar listing or call 353-3052.

23 April 2001
Boston University
Office of University Relations