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CCADD Meeting, 8th April 2003: at 39 Eccleston Sq.


Dr. Stephen Plant, of Wesley House, Cambridge on

German Churches and ideas of martyrdom


Dr. Plant began with an outline of the personal and political background to Bonhoeffer’s life before Hitler’s assumption of power, drawing on a chapter of his forthcoming book on Bonhoeffer, A Silence on the Cross. (Continuum, 2004) He then went on to raise various points relevant to the theme of martyrdom.


Political events exposed fundamental questions of political life: in a setting where democracy appeared to have failed, where was political authority to derive from? What is the proper nature of power and of authority? Events also exposed theological questions: What is the role of the Church in politics? Is political conflict an inevitable consequence of corrupt human nature?


As a privatdozent in Berlin Bonhoeffer had a free hand in choosing what he taught. In the summer of 1932 he lectured on ‘The nature of the church’ and led a seminar on the topic ‘Is there a Christian ethic?’ During the winter Bonhoeffer lectured on ‘Recent Theology’, and led a seminar on ‘Dogmatics: Problems of a theological anthropology’. He also gave a series of lectures on Genesis 1-3. Bonhoeffer was pressed by students to publish the text of his lectures and did so under the title Creation and Fall. These lectures effected in Bonhoeffer a new note of theological engagement with the political. It was not the loss of democracy that troubled Bonhoeffer in the collapse of the Weimar constitution, but the loss of the law, the loss of the limits that constrain office holders in the exercise of their authority. Bonhoeffer’s anxiety was that the Fuehrer would become for the younger generation a verfuehrer, the leader a misleader.


Bonhoeffer spent two years lecturing in Berlin during which he became increasingly involved both in the ecumenical movement and in opposition to state interference in church life. He became interested in the non-violent politics of Gandhi and through George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who Bonhoeffer had met in the context of the ecumenical movement, he explored the possibility of living at Gandhi’s Ashram ~ an unfulfilled ambition he did not give up until 1935. In October 1933 he took a job as Pastor to two German-speaking congregations in London, living in Forrest Gate in south London. Bonhoeffer thrived on preaching and pastoral care but the German church needed him at home and he returned in April 1935. In 1936 his authorization to teach at University was withdrawn, and in 1938 he was expelled from Berlin. In Austria the Anschluss was greeted with widespread enthusiasm.


Dr. Plant quoted from a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr, written in July 1939,hortly before returning to Europe from a year in America:

‘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 in the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will 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; but I cannot make that choice in security’ (EB DB p.655).

Diary entries exhibit the same wrestling with the question of his place in events:

June 22: ‘To be here during a catastrophe is simply unthinkable, unless things are so ordained. But to be guilty of it myself, and to have to reproach myself that I left unnecessarily, is certainly devastating’. June 28: ‘I cannot imagine that it is God’s will for me to remain here without anything particular to do in case of war. I must travel at the first possible opportunity’


In 1940 collective pastorates were closed by Gestapo. In January 1943 Bonhoeffer became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. On April 5th 1943 he was arrested and charged with ‘subversion of the armed forces’. In July 1944 the assassination of Hitler was attempted, and in October Bonhoeffer was taken to Prinz Albrecht Strasse. He was executed at Flossenburg in April 1945.

The conspiracy to assassinate Hitler:

‘There is some danger in talking of the "German Oppisition" of giving altogether too sharp a picture of what was essentially a number of small, loosely connected groups, fluctuating in membership, with no common organisation and no common purpose other than their hostility to the existing regime’ (Alan Bullock). The high level of risk to oneself, to one’s friends and family and the consequent need for secrecy contributed to insular and individualistic character of the resistance.


Even taking into account differences of political opinion amongst the conspirators it is fair to say that most of them were essentially anti-democratic in outlook. They wanted an authoritarian government run by elites, and not a return to the sort of constitution embodied in the Weimar Republic. They disliked the idea of mass participation in government, and had little conception for the need for popular legitimation of a new government.


Joachim Fest raises the question of what, had it succeeded, the bomb plot would have achieved, and draws the ‘sobering’ conclusion that ‘nothing would have changed. The Allies would not have altered their aims, abandoning their demand for unconditional surrender, nor would they have modified the decision made later at Yalta to occupy and divide Germany’. Yet, as Fest also notes, the stakes proved tragically high as a ceasefire in July 1944 had the potential to save a great many German lives.


The day after the assassination attempt had failed Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus, Emmi his wife and her brother Justus Delbrück were clearing bomb wreckage from a friend’s house when Emmi asked the men what lesson they drew from the failure of the plot. Fest suggests Delbrück’s reply captures the pathos and paradox of the resistance: ‘I think it was good that it happened, and good too, perhaps, that it did not succeed’.

The Church struggle

Dr. Plant made the following points:


Germany had a patchwork of 28 different churches. The small number of Free Churches, Methodists and Baptists were happy to fall in line in exchange with maintaining nominal independence. In July 1933 there was a Concordat between Vatican and Third Reich.

‘The German Christians are Jesus Christ’s S.A. (Sturmabteilung, [i.e., Brownshirts])… They march with this watchword: Germany, through Christ, a people of God… Even as the National-Socialistic movement for freedom is the plant-cell of a new nation and marches towards the goal "There must become one German nation", so the German Christians are called to be the plant-cell of the new German Evangelical Church, and they march towards the goal "There must become one church" (quoted in Anders Nygren, ‘The Social Message of the German Christians’)


But this is only one small part of the picture and a social historical interpretation of the "Church Struggle" is scarcely possible without a reconstruction of the conflict on the parish level. Out of 131 of Berlin’s 148 parishes: thirty-four were basically nazified; twenty-one were prepared to conform to the German Christian plans; sixty-eight were split between the two poles of the conflict and at most eight parishes were ‘resistant’, i.e., clearly aligned with the nascent Confessing Church.

Manfred Gailus gives a detailed picture of the extent of the Church opposition in Berlin:

Of 565 pastors with a congregation in Berlin during the Nazi period, a church-political orientation could be determined for 509. Of these, 44% belonged to the DC camp either throughout or for part of the period. A good 36% belonged to the opposite BK camp. The remainder oscillated between the two sides or deliberately kept out of ‘church politics’.

The very high proportion of clergy aligned to one or other side in the conflict should, however, be set alongside the very low proportion of church members for whom an affiliation can be discerned. At the height of the conflict from 1936-9 Confessing Church groups in Berlin’s 147 parishes probably involved around 36,000 people (compared with 50,000 members aligned to the German Christians). The whole church struggle was waged, at least in Berlin, by minorities within the church’s membership.


Goebbels recorded in a diary entry in 1939 the Nazi’s secret policy towards the churches in war-time and their intentions for it after victory was complete: ‘The best way to deal with the churches is to claim to be a positive Christian… the technique must be to hold back for the present and coolly strangle any attempts at impudence or interference in the affairs of the state’. The policy, in other words, was to permit a certain freedom to the churches during wartime with the intention to crush it in the fullness of the thousand year Reich. The outbreak of war opened up a kind of rapprochement between the churches and the Nazi state, as many who had previously doubted the regime patriotically put themselves behind the war effort.


Bonhoeffer post-mortem

A Political or Christian martyr?

At a 1953 memorial service to Oster, Canaris and Bonhoeffer at Flossenberg. Bavarian Lutheran Bishop refused to attend: reason given that Bonhoeffer was a political not a Christian martyr. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote (June, 1945):

Bonhoeffer, less known than Martin Niemoeller, will become better known. Not only his martyr’s death, but also his actions and precepts contain within them the hope of a revitalised Protestant faith in Germany. It will be a faith, religiously more profound than that of many of his critics; but it will have learned to overcome the one fateful error of German Protestantism, the complete dichotomy between faith and political life.

The line among most Bonhoeffer scholars is that Bonhoeffer’s reputation is a kind of axiom of commentary and interpretation. His martyrdom justifies not only his theology, but his life and actions. But Bonhoeffer was not himself as clear about this as his acolytes and fan club. My own view is that in order to learn from Bonhoeffer, we have to be prepared to set aside the presumption that he was right.

It is also helpful to consider Helmut Count von Moltke’s attitude. At his trial, Moltke, who knew what the outcome of his trial would be, was pleased to be convicted not of actions against the State but of thinking against it. Bonhoeffer wrote in 1943:

Although it is certainly not true that success justifies an evil deed and shady means, it is impossible to regard success as something that is ethically quite neutral. The fact is that historical success creates a basis for the continuance of life, and it is still a moot point whether it is ethically more responsible to take the field like a Don Quixote against a new age, or to admit one’s defeat, accept the new age, and agree to serve it. In the last resort success makes history; and the ruler of history repeatedly brings good out of evil over the heads pf the history-makers. Simply to ignore the ethical significance of success is a short circuit created by dogmatists who think unhistorically and irresponsibly; and it is good for us sometimes to be compelled to grapple seriously with the ethical problem of success. As long as goodness is successful, we can afford the luxury of regarding it has having no ethical significance; it is when success is achieved by evil means that the problem arises’.


In the end two things emerge. One is that there may well be different kinds of martyrs: not, as above, political and religious, which as we have seen is generally a specious and a spurious distinction, but between successful and unsuccessful martyrdoms, i.e., those which signify simply the purity of the martyr’s conscience, and those that have a bearing, or have an effect. Secondly, there is the moral murkiness of the conspiracy:

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men and women. (in ‘After Ten Years’, Letters and Papers From Prison pp. 6-7)

It is impossible to get quite to the bottom of Bonhoeffer’s thinking. It seems that Bonhoeffer intended to resign his Orders after the war because he knew that his actions, literally treacherous, had the potential to embarrass the Church. Assassination incurred guilt. Like a madman careering down a road at the wheel of a car, the role of Christian Pastor is not simply to bind up the wounded and dying, but to put a spoke in the wheel, i.e., to stop the madman from doing more harm. Bonhoeffer knew that to do this meant becoming personally guilty, and he knew this was hazardous. Ultimately, you have to cast yourself upon the mercy of God, who alone is able to forgive. Martyrdom, of course, involves death. But for Bonhoeffer, there seems to have been, in his views on taking responsibility, a sense in which he was prepared to undergo a far more serious and costly martyrdom than simply being prepared to die: and this was to give up his moral purity, to become guilty for a cause.



Questions and Discussion

There was some discussion of the distinction between ‘successful’ and merely ‘moral’ martyrdom. One success of the Confessing church had been the stopping of Hitler’s euthanasia programme. But the distinction led to the question of what martyrdom really means. Why should anyone feel guilty at all about assassinating Hitler? After all, Aquinas justifies tryannicide, and Bonhoeffer had a good deal of sympathy for Catholic teaching on this subject. Unlike many other German Protestants, he was not anti-Catholic. Yet for Bonhoeffer assassination remained a matter of treachery. Luther’s attitude to tyrannicide was also mentioned, because he did not adopt a ‘two kingdoms’ theology. The question was also raised, what would have happened if the assassination had succeeded? Would von Stauffenberg and the others have formed a shadow government? The answer seems to be that they had in mind negotiating a ceasefire with the allies, and restoration of boundaries. But the allies would never have accepted this: it was unconditional surrender or nothing.