Executed by the Flossenbürg concentration camp by hanging in April 1945 – just twenty-three days before the Nazis’ surrender – Dietrich Bonhoeffer was an exception to the rule of “bystander-ism” that paralyzed overall Church reaction to the rise of the Third Reich. According to many accounts, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned for his resistance, but ultimately executed for his involvement in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler.at
In her 2007 article, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Relevance for Post-Holocaust Christian Theology,” Holocaust scholar Victoria J. Barnett expresses the view that both mass media and academic interpretations of the pastor’s bold resistance to the Nazi menace make certain assumptions about his inner motivations:
“The Protestant theologian and resistance figure… is often portrayed as a hero of the Holocaust, particularly in popular films and literature. Much of the academic literature also assumes a clear relationship between his concern for the Jewish victims of Nazism, his theology, and his participation in the German resistance. A counter-narrative exists, however, which focuses on the anti-Judaism in his writings and contends that a heroic portrait of Bonhoeffer is simplistic and that Bonhoeffer’s significance for post-Holocaust thought is tenuous at best.” [http://escholarship.bc.edu/scjr/vol2/iss1/4/]
Writing in honor of his memory at the request of the Church Relations department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Barnett again directly addresses Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Church relationship to Judaism:
“In many respects… Bonhoeffer’s legacy is complex… This is particularly true with regard to Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the Christian-Jewish relationship. In his political insights and public opposition to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer certainly went beyond most of his colleagues and compatriots. Still, much of his theological work reflected traditional Christian attitudes toward Judaism…”
While giving him due credit for his heroic behavior, Barnett nonetheless separates Bonhoeffer’s behavior from the theological thought expressed in his writings:
“In an April 1933 essay, ‘The Church and the Jewish Question,’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the first to address the new problems the church faced under the Nazi dictatorship. Despite some astonishing insights, this early essay poses many problems for contemporary readers. Although he called upon the church to defend the victims of state persecution, his defense of the Jews was marked by Christian supersessionism — the Christian belief that Christianity had superseded Judaism, in history and in the eyes of God.”
Discussing Bonhoeffer’s writings, Stephen R. Hayes of Rhodes College in his article, “Bonhoeffer, the Jewish People and Post-Holocaust Theology: Eight Perspectives; Eight Theses,” acknowledges a notable change in the theologian’s demeanor in the wake of the violence of Kristallnacht in November of 1938, yet ultimately concludes that no deep, abiding shift in perspective seems to have occurred:
“Many scholars perceive a marked change in Bonhoeffer’s apprehension of Jews and Judaism in the wake of Kristallnacht… What is lacking… is evidence that Bonhoeffer’s response to widespread anti-Jewish violence was accompanied by qualitatively new perceptions of the Jewish people and their destiny.” http://escholarship.bc.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1045&context=scjr.
And so it appears that a simplistic view of Bonhoeffer as a Christian leader is not possible, given the realities presented by research into his extant writings. If we take the conclusions of Barnett and others seriously, and by all accounts it seems that we should, we must face the fact, perhaps with some immediate disappointment, that it was not his deep, abiding connections to the Jewish people, through any deep, abiding awareness of his Jewish roots, that motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s courageous efforts of resistance. As Hayes concludes:
“…the desire to portray Bonhoeffer as a guide for post-Holocaust theological reflection is based less in Bonhoeffer’s theological achievements than in the compelling nature of his witness and the dire need for Christian heroes from the Nazi era.”
At first, I found this disappointing, but then, after deeper consideration, realized that this result, too, has significant, positive ramifications for all who share a vision of Holocaust awareness and education in our time as one of the most potentially effective forms of salt and light available to us as Christians, not to mention, as thoughtful, caring human beings.
Part Three: finding meaning in disappointment…