I was recently asked on a college essay to identify a person from history with whom I would choose to have dinner. History is replete with hundreds of individuals that would make excellent choices. From Aristotle to Napoleon, there are many exciting potential conversations to be had. But if it came down to choosing I would end up inviting a man who lived an extraordinary life and ended up dying bravely for his faith–that man is Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a German pastor, author and theologian who lived from 1906-1945. He possessed great intellect, earning the equivalent of a bachelors and masters degree in addition to two doctorates; all before the age of twenty five. He is renowned for his writings and his opposition to Hitler’s Nazi regime; most notably the genocidal persecution of Jews. In 1933 Hitler unconstitutionally staged new church elections in Germany, effectively placing pro-Nazi supporters in key clerical positions within the German church. Bonhoeffer resisted this takeover and played an important role in founding the Confessing Church, which acted as a beacon of Christian resistance to the Nazi agenda throughout the war. Due to his vocalized opposition he was stripped of his teaching position at the University of Berlin and later banned entirely from the city itself. In 1939, just before the outbreak of war, he managed to escape Germany and find asylum in the United States. This is where Bonhoeffer’s extraordinary courage stands out. In his acclaimed book The Cost of Discipleship he wrote: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” He practiced what he taught and returned to Germany in 1940, willingly putting himself into danger in order that he might help undermine the evil that existed there. Here Bonhoeffer joined the German resistance within the Abwher, a secret Nazi intelligence agency. He used this position to smuggle Jews into the safety of Switzerland before he was finally caught and imprisoned in 1943. After spending over a year in prison Bonhoeffer was implicated in the July 20th attempt on Hitler’s life. He was hung in 1945 at the German concentration camp of Flossenburg, two weeks before allied troops liberated the area.
Table conversation with Bonhoeffer would be wide ranging. However, I would be particularly interested in his reasoning for leaving the United States and returning to Germany, given the knowledge he would be entering a lions den. It was alleged that Bonhoeffer was part of an assassination attempt on Hitler. Throughout his life Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, but toward the end of the war he began to question this ideal as he saw all the atrocities Hitler had committed. I would ask him if he really was a conspirator, and if so whether or not it would be morally justifiable to murder an evil man for the greater good. I would discuss WWII and the causes that led to Hitler’s ascension, garnering the opinion of one who lived in the heart of the events. Why were the German people so accepting of a madman? How can we prevent such things from happening in the future? I would inquire of his ideas on the topic of theology, and investigate his passion for ecumenism. At the end of the night, if all had gone well I would hope to have gained knowledge better than ten years worth of studying textbooks.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a scholar and a pastor, not a soldier. Yet in a time of desperation he acted with tremendous courage. Bonhoeffer was a hero and one of history’s most remarkable individuals.
By Daniel Richardson, Class of 2015