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Last Updated: Friday, 14 April 2006, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
A Hitler dilemma
By Andrew Walker
BBC News profiles unit

Many people might have no doubts about being prepared to kill Hitler. But what if you were a prominent theologian? A noted pacifist? What then? That was exactly the dilemma that faced Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born 100 years ago, and one that led to his own death.

In the grey early morning of 9 April 1945, only weeks before the end of the war in Europe, a 39 year-old German Lutheran pastor was led naked to the gallows at Flossenbürg concentration camp in Bavaria.

As he walked to his death, he could hear the American artillery, the liberators who would arrive just 11 days later.

An SS prison doctor, who witnessed the scene, described the condemned man "kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God".

"At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer... In almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

The man hanged that day was the theologian, writer and poet, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: his crime, belonging to an organisation which helped a group of Jews to escape from Nazi Germany to Switzerland.

But beyond that, the real reason for Bonhoeffer's death was for planning, as he freely admitted, to kill Adolf Hitler, and his implication in the July 1944 plot to kill the Nazi leader.

Adolf Hitler
Bonhoeffer plotted to kill Hitler
And it was Hitler, by this time sheltering in his bunker in Berlin, who personally ordered Bonhoeffer's execution.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had been born in 1906 into a well-heeled family in Breslau, now Wroclaw in Poland. His father, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at Berlin University, was shocked when, aged just 13, Dietrich announced his intention to enter the church.

And, after studying at Tübingen and Berlin and in New York, this is just what he did. Bonhoeffer combined intellectual brilliance, researching the links between religion and sociology, with a commitment to providing pastoral care.

"Aryanised" church

Ordained a pastor in 1931, he served as a vicar in a German church in Barcelona. Having been deeply affected by a visit to Rome, Bonhoeffer became a champion of ecumenism, seeking to unify all the Christian churches.

More controversially, he sought to convert Jews to Christianity.

The coming to power of the Nazis in 1933 split the German Protestant community.

A large number welcomed Hitler as a stabilising force, bringing both social order and true German values to a country riven by political and social divisions.

Jewish children in a Nazi camp
Bonhoeffer worked to save Jews from the Holocaust
They effectively "Aryanised" the church, preventing anyone without "racially pure" blood from holding any position within it and, most perversely of all, removing any Jewish influences from its liturgies and hymns.

Others, including Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller, broke away. Creating the Confessing Church, a rival to the officially-sanctioned Reich Church, they regarded Nazism as a blasphemy.

So affected was Bonhoeffer by these events that his response was immediate. Two days after Hitler became Chancellor, the pastor gave a radio talk which focused on the difference between a leader ("Führer") and a mis-leader ("Verführer"). He was cut-off in mid-sentence.

Can Christians kill?

By 1935, he had become the leader of the Confessing Church, which was outlawed in 1937, and set to work training a new generation of theologians while continuing to speak out against the Nazis: "Only he who cries out for the Jews can sing Gregorian chants," he said.

With the coming of war, Bonhoeffer decided to remain in Germany and, surprisingly, became an officer in military intelligence, the Abwehr.

But, secretly, he also joined the ranks of those who wished to kill the Führer, many of whom were also Abwehr officers.

Bonhoeffer's role in the conspiracy was one of courier and diplomat to the British government on behalf of the resistance, since Allied support was essential to stopping the war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Influential thinker: Bonhoeffer's ideas continue to inspire
Between trips abroad for the resistance, Bonhoeffer stayed at Ettal, a Benedictine monastery outside Munich, where he worked on his book, Ethics, from 1940 until his arrest in 1943.

In Ethics, he wrestles with the essential problem: how can a Christian, essentially a pacifist, justify murder?

His argument can be summarised thus:

Responsible action is how Christians act in accordance with the will of God.

The demand for responsible action - that is, acting in accordance with God's will - is one that no Christian can ignore.

Christians are, therefore, faced with a dilemma: when assaulted by evil, they must oppose it through direct action. They have no other option. Any failure to act is simply to condone evil.

Martyrdom

In a note to his fellow conspirators on New Year's Eve 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote: "The ultimate question for a responsible person to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation is to live."

Bonhoeffer's statue on the West Front of Westminster Cathedral
Bonhoeffer's statue on the West Front of Westminster Abbey

Though rejected by pacifist Christians, Bonhoeffer's ideas have since been cited by activists of all shades of opinion.

In the 1990s, some American anti-abortion protesters cited his willingness to kill Hitler to justify violence as a means to abolish abortion.

And others, including Nelson Mandela, have cited Bonhoeffer as an inspiration.

But how does Bonhoeffer's intention to kill differ from that of militants who kill in the name of their faith?

Well, in a sermon at Westminster Abbey in 2002, the then Dean of Westminster, Dr Wesley Carr, said: "The word martyr literally means a witness, and for Christians a martyr is a witness to Jesus Christ.

"Martyrs are not seeking to attract attention to themselves or their own cause, but like John the Baptist they point to Jesus as the one who gives himself fully and freely for the redemption of the world."

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not the only member of his family to be killed by the Nazis. His brother Klaus and his brothers-in-law were also murdered.

Today Bonhoeffer is honoured at Westminster Abbey in London as one of 10 20th Century martyrs, including Martin Luther King Jr and the murdered Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, whose statues now grace the West Front of the famous abbey.

His final prison letter attests to the strength of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's faith: "This is the end, and, for me, the beginning of life."


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

I've heard of Jordan and Kate Moss and David Beckham, but I'd never heard of Herr Bonhoeffer. It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong in that, so well done for remedying it through this article.
Darren Ross, Sunderland

Explaining the German anti-Hitler movement to British readers is no easy matter. Mr. Walker has done it well.
Eberhard Bertsch, Bochum, Germany

Since I first heard of this man, he has been one of my heroes. What courage, grace and commitment to his beliefs! His books should be read by all.
Elizabeth MacKelvie, Appleton, WI/US

He is a constant source of inspiration since I read his book twenty years ago. He was indeed offered sanctuary by the then Bishop of Winchester, on a visit to this country, but refused as he wanted to be with his countrymen in their hour of need; A true Christian indeed.
Malcolm Petch, Brandon, Suffolk.

It's dangerous to use an event from the past to justify an action in the present. Pointing to what Bonhoeffer did as a reason to kill an abortionist doesn't hold water. At the time that B. and others were at the height of their plot, the war was already going badly for Germany. Hitler was really the only thing holding the war together. B. and others were simply trying to keep Germany from being totally destroyed. And while I absolutely see abortion as murder, I think invoking Bonhoeffer's name to justify such murder belittles his memory and his contribution to Christian thought.
David Colwell, Abilene, TX, U.S.A

Bonhoeffer was not only unafraid to live for what he believed, he was not afraid to die for it. It is appropriate that we think of him his Easter time, when Christians remember Jesus' sacrifice of himself for others. His courage and clear thinking will remain inspirational for as long as he is remembered.
Stephen Hance, London

A truly great man. It takes far more courage to act when the choices for action are repugnant, than to take no action and deny all responsibility for whatever happens. To make no decision at all is not to avoid responsibility, it is to endorse whatever decision is reached by others. It is meangingless to oppose a plan, however onerous the plan may be, if you offer no substitute course of action. Bonhoeffer could have taken a passive approach, but to what end? Sticking your head in the sand does not absolve you from responsibility for what happens around you - doing nothing is no solution to a moral dilemma but merely avoidance of a solution.
Chris, London

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