Dietrich Bonhoeffer on a weekend getaway with confirmands of Zion's Church congregation in 1932. Photo courtesy of German Federal Archives/Creative Commons

A grim anniversary for Dietrich Bonhoeffer marks what might have been

(RNS) — The four saddest words in the English language are “what might have been.…”

Eighty years ago, as war clouds gathered over Europe, the 33-year-old Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, then a faculty member at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, returned to his native Germany after a short stay in the United States.

At the time, Bonhoeffer believed his church's response to Hitler and Nazism was marked by weakness and cowardice. He saw his country consumed by a monstrous cancer that had devoured nations and had already murdered many hundreds of people on its way to murdering millions.

Frustrated and angered, Bonhoeffer went home to join the political underground movement in Germany. He wrote: “Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is freedom. Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.”

It was a fateful and ultimately lethal decision. Six years later, on April 9, 1945, a month before the end of World War II in Europe, the Nazis executed Bonhoeffer for his opposition to the regime.

Before coming to New York, Bonhoeffer had already been banned by the Gestapo, and in the six years after his final return to Germany, he became the dominant figure of the Protestant resistance. Although more than seven decades have passed since he was hanged for his anti-Nazi “crimes,” there are today numerous articles, books, dramas, poems, operas, songs and films about the young Lutheran pastor who has been called a Protestant saint.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived from 1906 to 1945. Photo courtesy Joshua Zajdman/Random House

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Earlier, Bonhoeffer had battled the infamous “Deutsche Christen” or “German Christian” movement, which critics derisively called the “Brown Church,” because many of its leaders dressed in brown storm troopers’ uniforms. Its bishops proudly wore swastikas on their ecclesiastical robes and publicly offered the infamous stiff-armed Nazi salute.

The anti-Semitic “Brown Church” completely capitulated to Hitler's authoritarianism and, as part of its twisted ideology, demanded the elimination of all “Jewish influences” from teaching, liturgy and preaching. Above all, the “Deutsche Christen” movement believed in an Aryan, non-Jewish Jesus.

Bonhoeffer considered the movement a heresy because it abandoned the deep Jewish historical taproots of Christianity and totally surrendered its independence to the anti-Semitic Nazi belief system.

Following the brutal November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany and Austria, he made his famous statement: “Only the person who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.” Not surprisingly, in the same year, Bonhoeffer told Lutheran seminarians that “Secular freedom, too, is worth dying for."

As a secret agent and spy of the anti-Nazi underground, Bonhoeffer placed himself in great danger. And as early as 1933, he provided firsthand knowledge of the violent anti-Semitism of the Nazis to Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, then America’s foremost Jewish leader.

After the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer in 1943 and until his execution two years later, Bonhoeffer wrote letters from prison that reveal an emerging sense of “Christian realism,” an emphasis on “this world,” an increased appreciation of the Hebrew Scriptures and an original, intriguing concept of “religionless Christianity.”

Bonhoeffer’s letters reveal significant spiritual and personal growth. We can only speculate where his brilliant mind would have led him if his life had not ended so early.

He did what very few of his fellow German clergy did: abandon purely spiritual resistance to Nazism from within the church (sermons, declarations, articles and lectures). Instead, he courageously moved into direct political actions against Hitler and his criminal regime.

But (and it is a very large “but”) there is another side to the Bonhoeffer legacy that needs to be examined: his attitude toward Jews and Judaism.

City University of New York Professor Ruth Zerner, a Roman Catholic, has described that “other” side of Bonhoeffer’s belief system:

“Bonhoeffer’s … observations about Jews and Jewish experiences do include problematic passages, ambiguities, and contradictions. [They] may be only explained by the practical cautions and pernicious exigencies of life in Nazi Germany. I do not intend to suggest that Bonhoeffer was an anti-Semite.

"Rather, like all of us, he was to some extent a victim of his background … Bonhoeffer’s … diagnosis … and prognosis of Jewish historical development are … most disturbing … typical of pre-Holocaust, pre-Vatican II Christian thinking.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in an undated image. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Zerner is correct. Bonhoeffer was filled with many “ambiguities” about Jews. He believed they were both a “people loved and punished by God.” Only through baptism could Jews gain salvation, he believed, and he strongly defended the status of converted Jews in the church, even though the baptismal rite meant nothing to Nazis who murdered both faithful Jews and those who had converted to Christianity.

During the early years of Hitler’s rule, Bonhoeffer was more concerned about Nazi efforts to destroy the theological underpinnings and legitimacy of German Protestantism than the vicious physical attacks on Jews that ultimately led to mass murder.

But he did understand that, in his words, “An expulsion of the Jews from the West must necessarily bring with it the expulsion of Christ. For Jesus Christ was a Jew.”

During the 1930s, Bonhoeffer’s theological views on Jews and Judaism evolved as he sought the most effective way to combat Nazism. At a church conference a month before Kristallnacht, he declared, “…instead of talking of the same old questions again and again, we can finally speak of that which truly is pressing on us: what … to say to the question of church and synagogue?”

With that query Bonhoeffer linked Judaism and Christianity as equal partners in relationship with God. Jews are “brothers of Christians” and “children of the covenant.” This was a radical position at a time when so many German Christian leaders attempted to destroy all links between Christianity and Judaism. By 1942 he accurately perceived “a Christendom enmeshed in guilt beyond all measure.”

Victoria Barnett, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s director of Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust and an acknowledged expert on Bonhoeffer, reminds us that in 1939, while still teaching at Union in New York City, he wrote American Protestant leader Reinhold Niebuhr: “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America ... I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”

The Gallery of 20th-Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey includes Mother Elizabeth of Russia, from left, Martin Luther King Jr., Óscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Photo by Zyllan/Creative Commons

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

I view Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an interreligious pilgrim, a transitional figure.

He expressed many of the negative views of Jews and Judaism that existed in Germany in general and within his church in particular. But as a prisoner of the Nazis and nearing the end of his brief life, Bonhoeffer appeared to transcend many of those hostile teachings and recognize that God wanted him to extend his understanding and compassion toward the Jewish people far beyond the narrow, traditional teachings of his German Protestant Church. However, Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to fully develop his new positive understanding of Jews and Judaism.

As he faced his death on the gallows, less than two weeks after Easter and Passover, he clearly understood that his church had witnessed the mass murders of Jews “…without raising her voice on behalf of the victims and without having found means of hastening to their aid.”

Had he lived, I believe a spiritually transformed Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have become an extraordinary global leader in fostering mutual respect, understanding and knowledge between Christians and Jews.

Ah, “what might have been.…”

(Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser and the author of “Pillar of Fire: A Biography of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise,” published by Texas Tech University Press. He can be reached at The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.


  1. “Rather, like all of us, he was to some extent a victim of his background.”

    A “product” of his background, a victim of the Nazi state because of his character.

    Ruth Zerner’s quote has an apology ring to it when she describes Bonhoeffer as a victim of his background. The second statement reflects what I feel like Rabbi Rudin is saying about Bonhoeffer.

    Easy to teach slow to learn make us quick to justify and give us plenty to apologize for. Teach to see instead. Thank you Rabbi Rudin for looking at Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  2. As heroic as Bonhoeffer was in his day, I recommend that we learn about a Roman Catholic contemporary of his who survived WWII but then spent the rest of his life trying to expose one of the greatest villains of the early twentieth century, whom the Roman Catholic Church is now attempting to canonize.
    Karlheinz Deschner is a well-known scholar and author of many works in Germany and other parts of Europe, but will hopefully have more of his scholarship translated into English and added to his “God and the Fascists” book, published in America in 2013. What Deschner shows in this book is that Pope Pius XII, the man who claimed to be God’s representative (“the Vicar of Christ”), was actually somewhat of a puppet-master for the whole collection of detestable Fascist dictators of that period: Mussolini, Franco, Pavelic and Hitler (all Roman Catholics of one sort or another).

  3. I’m obviously no fan of the Catholic Church, but the idea that it was the ‘puppet-master’ of Hitler and Mussolini seems to me to be a wacko conspiracy theory.

  4. The “Rat lines” which the Vatican set up to funnel Nazi war criminals out of Europe is well documented.

  5. Yes, however;

    (a) they were never official Vatican policy
    (b) even if they were, they are still a far cry from proving that the Vatican was Hitler or Mussolini’s “puppet master” as originally argued.

  6. Of course it wasn’t official Vatican policy, it was a criminal conspiracy. One done practically in plain sight in the Vatican. Plenty of things are not official Vatican policy but still systematic and criminal. Like covering up rampant child abuse for instance.

    Helping the architects and technicians of Hitler’s regime escape international justice is outright collaboration. If not the puppet of fascists, then a confederate of them.

    The Vatican was the first government to recognize both fascist governments. Franco’s Spain, with its own more domestic atrocities, was bought and paid for in a joint effort of both the Vatican and Fascist nations.

    The Vatican did not even renounce anti-semitism as dogma until 20 years after the Holocaust.

  7. I’m not trying to defend the Vatican here, which has a long and ignominious record of anti-semitism (as you rightly point out) and was at best ambivalent about what happened to the Jews, but the original allegation was that Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist regimes were its puppets. The fact that certain corrupt elements of the Vatican helped Nazi war criminals escape justice after the war does not prove that. Any more than the fact that the allied powers after the war allowed a large number of Nazi war criminals to avoid justice or gave them light sentences as part of Cold War calculation proves that they were its ‘puppet masters’ after all.

    “The Vatican was the first government to recognize both fascist governments.”

    No, it wasn’t.

    “Franco’s Spain…”

    I deliberately omitted Franco’s Spain because I was aware that the connections here were much closer. Even then, while it was obvious that the Vatican’s sympathies were with Franco, the initial military rebellion was not a “joint effort” with the Vatican.

  8. Wow, another sucker that thought “Hitler’s Pope” was history.

    Anti-semitism was never Catholic “dogma”, so there was nothing to renounce.

    Of course as a card-carrying anti-Catholic you know that.

  9. I think “puppets” is a misleading a term. But collaborator is far closer in nature.

    The Vatican’s agenda dovetailed well with the reactionary social agenda of fascists and they were early supporters. Nazi collaborators in Belgium and Croatia used appeals to Catholicism and Church support in their recruitment.

    The war was an opportunity to roll back secular political obstacles for the Church. They ran amok in Croatia working closely with the brutal Ustasha militias. The last forced conversions in Europe were under the auspices of the Catholic Church in Croatia.

    As for Spain, you are wildly understating the facts here. The Catholic Church openly supported, funded and recruited for one of the Nationalist factions as part of Franco’s coalition, The Carlists. They also exerted a heavy influence and entanglement with Franco’s government, post revolution. Either supporting or showing utter indifference over the half million Spaniards Franco “disappeared” during his reign. A prelude to similar acts all over Latin America.

  10. Indeed, Even when they did not agree with some of the more out there aspects of Nazism, many of the Nazis ideas were closely aligned with those of the churches. The extreme social conservatism and anti Marxism in particular was something that the churches basically agreed with. The author of the ‘first they came for the___’ poem, Pastor Martin Niemöller, who is hailed as a great dissident from Nazism, had written as late as the 1930s about the supposedly disproportionate influence that the Jews had had in the Weimar Republic and their supposedly poisonous role in world history.

    Although the Catholic hierarchy did often criticise the Nazis, and was in turn viewed by the Nazis with great suspicion, this was primarily as a result of the regime’s violation of the Concordat and attacks on non-Aryan Catholics. About the German jews, it was conspiciously silent. Evans sums up the issue well:

    The Jehovah’s Witnesses were, however, alone amongst religious groups in their uncompromising hostility to the Nazi state. For all the courage of many leading figures in the mainstream Churches, and many ordinary members of their congregations, none of them opposed the Third Reich on more than a narrowly religious front. The Gestapo might allege that Catholic priests and Confessing pastors hid out-and-out opposition to National Socialism under the cloak of pious rhetoric, but the truth was that, on a whole range of issues, the Churches remained silent. Both the Evangelical and Catholic Churches were politically conservative, and had been for a long time before the Nazis came to power. Their fear of Bolshevism and revolution, forces that showed their teeth once more in reports of the widespread massacre of priests by the Republicans at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, strengthened them in their view that if Nazism went, something worse might well take its place. The deep and often bitter confessional divide in Germany meant that there was no question of Catholics and Protestants joining forces against the regime. The Catholics had been anxious to prove their loyalty to the German state since the days when it had been doubted by Bismarck during the 1870s. The Protestants had been an ideological arm of the state under the Bismarckian Empire and strongly identified with German nationalism for many years. Both broadly welcomed the suppression of Marxist, Communist and liberal political parties, the combating of ‘immorality’ in art, literature and film, and many other aspects of the regime’s policies. The long tradition of antisemitism amongst both Catholics and Protestants ensured that there were no formal protests from the Churches against the regime’s antisemitic acts. The most they were prepared to do was to try and protect converted Jews within their own ranks, and even here their attitude was at times extremely equivocal.

    The Carlists were never the main Nationalist faction, and were quickly absorbed into Franco’s wider nationalist movement. Though the Vatican’s relationship with Franco was disgraceful.

    If you want to condemn Vatican policy in this period, one should focus more on the Ustasha regime and Franco, as here the facts are far more damning than the stuff with Hitler or Mussolini.

  11. The most honest redemptive reading of the Vatican’s actions here is at best feckless and self interested when courage was necessary. At worst they were active participants and allies to Hitler and Mussolini.

    The Carlists were the largest faction of Nationalists. Larger than the outright fascist Phalangists. They are why Juan Carlos was Franco’s planned successor from the outset. The relationship with Franco was a test run for how they would entangle themselves with right wing dictators all over Latin America.

    The Ustasha and Belgian Rexists we’re both severely Catholic and agents of Hitler. There is no degree of separation there.

  12. The largest faction of the Nationalists by far was CEDA. The Carlists’ relationship with Franco was often strained. “Feckless and self-interested” is I think a fair description, but the claim that it was an active participant is, I think, stretching it.

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