Tweaking a Moral Hero: Doblmeier vs. Bonhoeffer

Martin Doblmeier’s film sets a different polarity for Bonhoeffer than Bonhoeffer’s writing appears to suggest. Doblmeier clearly makes Bonhoeffer a pronounced enemy of the Hitler regime, but Bonhoeffer’s writings do not appear to make precisely that kind of an impact. I want to take a look here at Bonhoeffer’s statements and philosophical and theological theories to hold Doblmeier’s film up to the scrutiny of Bonhoeffer’s thoughts.

Doblmeier begins with a statement from Renate Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s niece, who claims,  “He [Dietrich Bonhoeffer] realized from the start how evil NAZIism was.” Bonhoeffer would challenge such a view. He insists that even in the “Judenfrage,”[1] the church may not tell the state what it has to do. Bonhoeffer writes, “Sie [die Kirche] kann also auch in der Judenfrage heute nicht dem Staat unmittelbar ins Wort fallen, und von ihm ein andersartiges Handeln fordern”[2] [Gremmels and Huber II-72]. The church merely monitors the state’s actions and keeps on offering criticism and challenges to decisions that the state may have made. That includes the Hitler state. In the posthumously published Ethik which was edited by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes, “Der Ungehorsam [toward the state] kann immer nur eine konkrete Entscheidung im Einzelfall sein. Verallgemeinerungen führen zu einer apokalyptischen Diabolisierung der Obrigkeit. Auch eine anti-christliche Obrigkeit bleibt in bestimmter Hinsicht immer noch Obrigkeit”[3] [Bethge Ethik 267]. But to call a regime evil requires the demonizing that Bonhoeffer warns against in this context. So, he is little likely to have considered the NAZIs categorically evil. The relationship was one of far greater subtlety, about which I want to say more below.

Another issue that Doblmeier ends up misrepresenting is Bonhoeffer’s pacifism.  While Bonhoeffer did indeed preach against the looming war when he was speaking at the Fanø Conference, he was not a complete pacifist either. Doblmeier does not point out that ambiguity.  Bonhoeffer points out that peace is a daring endeavor. Demanding security is the very opposite of peace. Security is motivated by distrust of others, and that distrust again will lead to war [Gremmels and Huber II-91]. That kind of outlook leans in a deterministic direction. War can happen as long as certain psychological forces are active. Thus, it is not altogether avoidable.  Keeping with the kind of single-issue morality that he advocates, Bonhoeffer’s Fanø address that culminates in the words “Worauf warten wir noch?”[4] and cites Mathias Claudius’ verse “Was nützt mir Kron und Land und Volk und Heer, die können mich nicht freun—‘s ist leider Krieg im Land und ich begehr, nicht schuld daran zu sein”[5] [Gremmels and Huber II-92], speaks to a specific war at a specific time. In that context, he also speculates what it might be like if an entire nation were to meet an attack not with weapons in hand but with prayers and defense­less­ness, but that kind of speculation is also mixed with a sense of reality that one can glean from many other passages.  So, he is opposed to that specific war that is looming large at the time of the Fanø Conference in 1934. But, although he does believe that war per se  is barbaric, he does not actually go to a consistent pacifism.  In the Ethik, Bonhoeffer points out that the killing of an enemy soldier is to be condoned since the enemy is about to bring chaos to one’s own country. To the pacifist, moral positions are obvious; to Bon­hoeffer, they are not. In a letter to Karl Barth from London in 1933, Bonhoeffer expresses doubt about whether he should return to Germany or whether he should remain in England, lamenting that “es ist so unendlich schwer zu wissen, was wir tun sollen”[6] [Gremmels and Huber II-21]. That does not sound like a statement from a person driven by clear-cut knowledge about an evil regime and clear-cut principles of pacifism. Uncertainty and doubt characterize much of Bonhoeffer’s moral stance. In a letter that he, then in New York , writes to Reinhold Niebuhr in 1939, Bonhoeffer expresses the difficult dilemma faced by Germans that they may have to wish their own defeat in order to wish the survival of Christian civilization in their country. Bonhoeffer claims to know his choice, but he feels a need to be in Germany to experience the difficulty firsthand [Gremmels and Huber III-28]. And elsewhere he says, “Ich kann mir nicht denken, daß es Gottes Wille ist, daß ich ohne besondere Aufgabe im Kriegsfall hier [in the US ] bleiben soll. Ich muß am erstmöglichen Termin reisen”[7] [Gremmels and Huber III-228]. 

So, moral decisions can be made only as one is in the situation where one faces such a decision. The basic view is one of pacifism indeed. “Der Krieg ist nichts als Morden, der Krieg ist ein Verbrechen, kein Christ kann in den Krieg gehen”[8] [Gremmels and Huber I-105]. And yet he continues, “Es wäre doch eine völlige Perversität des ethischen Gefühls, wollte ich meinen, es sei nun meine erste Pflicht, den Feind zu lieben und dafür meinen Nächsten im konkretesten Sinne preiszugeben. Es besteht eben nicht die Möglichkeit den Feind und mein Volk zu lieben”[9] [Gremmels and Huber I-105]. Bonhoeffer sees war as a genuine dilemma and resolves it in favor of the one who stands in a relationship of greater proximity. Decisions again are not at all clear and clean as Doblmeier paints his character in the film. “Ich werde an dem Krieg leiden ,” says Bonhoeffer, “aber ich werde die Waffe erheben,” for “das ist keine klare Wahl zwischen Gut und Böse”[10] [Gremmels and Huber I-107]. One might wonder whether these views characterize the young Bonhoeffer more than the mature person, but the thinking appears to be consistently in response to the challenges of reality. In his notes for the Ethik, Bonhoeffer speaks of war as a “Staatsnotwendigkeit.”[11] And by “Staatsnotwendigkeit,” Bonhoeffer means a necessity that cannot be subject to or overruled by law since it is a foundational characteristic of life itself. All such activity is irrational; but under some circumstances, this irrational activity is “letzte Notwendigkeit”[12] or ultimate necessity [Gremmels and Huber IV-152/3]. It is also no secret that several of the Finkenwalde brethren were engaged in the war effort as soldiers. Bonhoeffer writes about their service and about those who died in the war effort, but he does not offer criticism of their employment. In a letter to Oberkriegsgerichtsrat[13] Roeder, Bonhoeffer mentions the many volunteers of the Bekennende Kirche[14] who are engage in the war effort [Gremmels and Huber VI-68]. Even Niemöller was a volunteer, and Bethge’s military service [Gremmels and Huber V-155] has not caused any rifts between him and Bonhoeffer. So, being a soldier in Hitler’s Wehrmacht[15] did not appear wrong to Bonhoeffer in and of itself. This, too, was a situation of life with its attendant difficulties and problems and dilemmas.  Bonhoeffer writes of the relationship between obedience and responsibility, “Gehorsam und Verantwortung greifen ineinander, sodaß also nicht etwa erst dort, wo der Gehorsam aufhört Verantwortung anfängt, sondern in Verantwortung Gehorsam geleistet wird”[16] [Gremmels and Huber IV-166]. That statement appears to imply with reasonable clarity that the German soldier in the army of his country must have been able, from Bonhoeffer’s perspective, to have obedience with responsibility, something one cannot possibly do if one were to serve the forces of a thoroughly “evil” state. There are dilemmas, not clear-cut stances that Doblmeier appears to suggest were the case.  Indeed, Bonhoeffer has also stated that “Christian ethics” is a term that is untenable. So, Bonhoeffer would not have been one to advocate principles at all. One must deal with ethical problems in  responsiveness to God as one meets those problems. He does not suggest that readymade principles can provide guidance. Pacifism would be opposition in principle; he does not support either.

Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the regime is also much more narrowly concise than Doblmeier suggests. The “spokes” metaphor is simply misrepresented by Doblmeier. 

The film attempts to quote Bonhoeffer in the voice of the narrator as follows: “First, one can ask the state if its actions are legitimate. Then, one can aid the victims of the state’s action. Finally, one can jam a spoke in the wheel itself” [Doblmeier]. Here is the metaphor from “Der Kirche vor der Judenfrage”[17] in the original from 1933: “Der Staat, der die christliche Verkündigung gefährdet, verneint sich selbst. Das bedeutet eine dreifache Möglichkeit kirchlichen Handelns dem Staat gegenüber: erstens (wie gesagt) die an den Staat gerichtete Frage nach dem legitim staatlichen Charakter seines Handelns, d.h. die Verantwortlichmachung des Staates. Zweitens der Dienst an den Opfern des Staatshandelns. Die Kirche ist den Opfern jeder Gesellschaftsordnung in unbedingter Weise verpflichtet, auch wenn sie nicht der christlichen Gemeinde zugehören. . . . Die dritte Möglichkeit besteht darin, nicht nur die Opfer unter dem Rad zu verbinden, sondern dem Rad selbst in die Speichen zu fallen. Solches Handeln wäre nur dann möglich und gefordert, wenn die Kirche den Staat in seiner Recht und Ordnung schaffenden Funktion versagen sieht, d.h. wenn sie den Staat hemmungslos ein Zuviel oder ein Zuwenig an Ordnung und Recht verwirklichen sieht”[18] [Gremmels and Huber II-74]. The first step is not Doblmeier’s question for the state’s legitimacy; instead, one calls the state into a position of responsibility, the key to Bonhoeffer’s ethics in general.  Next, the church has the obligation of aiding all victims of the state, regardless of their circum­stances in relation to the Church.  The last stage is most at variance between Doblmeier’s and Bonhoeffer’s views.  Doblmeier’s translation about jamming a spoke into the wheel is clearly incorrect. Bonhoeffer suggests that one fall into the wheel. But what does that mean?

Having been around long enough to have experienced heavily laden farm-wagons being drawn by a team of broad Holsteins or Belgians of the type one still sees in Budweiser’s commer­cials, I know when one falls into the spokes of a wheel. When such a heavy load moves downhill, the horses cannot hold the wagon. At that point, one turns a spiral crank which presses two big blocks of wood against the rims of the back-wheels of the wagon. These blocks will help slow down the progress of the wagon enough to avoid having it run away, horses and all. Now, when the wooden blocks are too thin, too hot, or too worn or when the mechanism is faulty that presses the blocks against the back-wheels or when the blocks are too worn to do good, one must fall into the spokes. That is, farmer and teamster and anyone else nearby must grasp the spokes to slow down the progress of the vehicle. So, the metaphor suggests not as destructive an agency as Doblmeier would read into it. The aim is to slow down the vehicle of state; it is not to break this vehicle to make it unusable. And that slightly more restricted activity is also much more in keeping with Bonhoeffer’s moral stance in general. In fact, he admonishes against holding back taxes when one disagrees with aspects of the state since the state has other order-functions that one must continue to respect.

One should also not forget that Bonhoeffer’s opposition was directed against the church of that time in 1933. When the Hitler government had issued the so-called Arierpara­graphen, the Aryan bill, the government had exempted the church from compliance with that bill. In other words, while no ethnic or religious Jews were to hold any position in the bureaucracy of the state, the bill expressly excluded the churches from having to abide by that rule. The Prussian General Synod decides on September 6, 1933, to exclude and to dismiss all ministers and church officials who were married to a non-Aryan or were themselves of non-Aryan descend [Gremmels and Huber II-80]. That act on the part of the Lutheran church motivated Bonhoeffer’s leaving the church. “Darum gibt es einer Kirche gegenüber, die den Arierparagraphen in dieser radikalen Form durchführt, nur noch einen Dienst der Wahrheit, nämlich der Austritt”[19] [Gremmels and Huber II-84]. Bonhoeffer’s criticism is directed against the majority of so-called “Deutsche Christen”[20] who had the voting power to effect such an institution of an Arierparagraphen in the Prussian Synod of the time. In that specific case, the Synod was wrong; in a more general sense, any church practicing politics is wrong. Bonhoeffer sees a strict separation between what is Cesar’s and what is the church’s.

Bonhoeffer’s opposition to Hitler came most clearly from Bonhoeffer’s theory of the divine mandates.  These divine mandates are most clearly elaborated in the Ethik edited by Bethge, but it is also apparent either as a undercurrent in all writings or as clear though fragmentary statement in the “Ethik” notes in Gremmels and Huber. For Bonhoeffer, there are four divine mandates that must exist in isolation from each other. There is the church, the marriage and family, culture and work, and authority. For Bonhoeffer, these institutions are not an essentially an evolution of historical progression; they are not powers of the earth; instead, they are “göttliche Aufträge” or divine mandates [Gremmels and Huber IV-168]. That essence as divine mandate is maintained regardless of how the institution may have evolved historically. Historical evolution does not exclude the divine mandate for Bonhoeffer. The former is accidence; the latter is essence. The function of Church is to preach and to take confession. The function of marriage and family is procreation and pleasure. In fact, Bonhoeffer criticizes the Catholic church’s stance on birth control because, while that church endorses the function of family as procreation, it neglects and thus nullifies the other fifty percent of the family function, namely that of providing pleasure. And under the mandate of work, Bonhoeffer points out that under some conditions, one has the obligation of terminating one’s work. Such conditions come about where the nature of the work is clearly in contraindication of the basics of a Christian stance inspired by the Holy Spirit and a sense of responsibility before God, a locus where Christians decide in freedom what action is best suited to any particular issue. For Bonhoeffer, the guidance for that position of responsibility comes from the inspiration that one derives from the union of God and man in Jesus Christ. In other words, God’s becoming fully human in having human essence merge with divine essence in Jesus Christ assures humanity that the lapse in Eden has now been atoned. As God had full empathy with humanity, so humans must practice full empathy with even the least of their brothers because each such person is indeed the representation of Jesus’ body on earth. With full empathy for others, one does not draw from laws to decide; one draws on one’s own full empathy with the guidance principle of Jesus as merger of God and man, where God himself learned to be fully human and to accept humanness in its essence.  We can see here also how Bonhoeffer can be seen as a connection to the “death of God” theologians. For him, too, God merges into Jesus, and Jesus becomes the church community, which acts from the strength of responsibility in full freedom though guided by the Holy Spirit. And that configuration is not far removed from what J. J. Altizer’s will be later.

I have grouped here “culture and work” because in the Ethik of Bethge, the mandate is “Arbeit”[21] but in the notes [Gremmels and Huber IV-168], the mandate is “Kultur.”[22] In the Ethik, Bonhoeffer says, “Nicht in der Verneinung der Übertretung, nicht in der Qual des ethischen Konfliktes und der Entscheidung, sondern in frei bejahtem selbstverständlichen Leben in der Kirche, in der Ehe, in der Familie, in der Arbeit, und im Staat hat das Gebot sein Ziel”[23] [Ethik-Bethge 220]. The commandment Bonhoeffer refers to here is the com­mand­ment that one should love God and one’s neighbor. That is the only commandment one can demand of a Christian; all other laws are irrelevant. And one lives that commandment without ethical analysis; one lives it in joyous acceptance of one’s humanity within the parameters of the divine mandates. The conceptual framework is there, but the details of the divine mandates is by no means clearly worked out. What is essential and somewhat clear, however, is the interrelationship between authority and church.

Early on, Bonhoeffer addresses this separation between state and church. In an essay of 1933, Bonhoeffer writes, “Die Gestalt, in der das Reich Gottes sich als Wunder bezeugt, nennen wir—die Kirche; die Gestalt, in der das Reich Gottes sich als Ordnung bezeugt, nennen wir—den Staat. . . . Jeder Versuch des einen, sich des anderen zu bemächtigen, mißachtet diese Bezogenheit des Reiches Gottes auf Erden”[24] [Gremmels and Huber II-62]. So, when we want to look for evidence of criticism of the Hitler regime, we would want to look for transgressions of this type.  The Prussian General Synod’s expanding the Arierparagraphen into its own structures is one such transgression against the fundamental separation of the mandates. But Hitler’s transgression are more egregious. In documentary footage that Doblmeier uses but does not translate clearly, Hitler says, “Herr ich lasse nicht von Dir, es sei denn Du segnest das deutsche Volk und Vaterland.”[25] The reference is to Jacob’s battle with “a man” during the night until the wee hours of the morning.  “The man” is trying to make his exit, but Jacob insists on the blessing. As part of the blessing, Jacob’s name is being changed to Israel [Genesis 32, 24ff]. In naming the place of the battle, Jacob indicates that he assumed “the man” to have been God. By drawing on biblical sources, Hitler does what the minister is to do under the Church mandate, namely to preach the word of God, not in any scientifically accurate form of hermeneutic analysis, but in a form of speech inspired by the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is where Hitler transgresses against the order of the mandates.

The transgression is given clear expression in Bonhoeffer’s essay “Der Führer und der Einzelne in der jungen Generation.”[26] He demands there that the leader must be servant to the office [Gremmels and Huber II-50]. The leader cannot and should not demand the unconditional obedience from the follower: “Er [der Führer] muß die Geführten von der Autorität seiner Person weg zur Anerkennung der echten Autorität der Ordnungen und des Amtes führen”[27] [Gremmels and Huber II-50].  One can see this essay as an attempt to call the Hitler and his government into responsibility. In 1932, Bonhoeffer prepared for a world-wide youth conference. In an essay about that, he says, “Man braucht ein Daseiendes nur als Gottgewolltes, Gottgeschaffenes auszugeben, und jedes Daseiende ist für Ewigkeit gerechtfertigt, die Zerrissenheit der Menschheit in Völker, nationaler Kampf, der Krieg, die Klassengegensätze, die Ausbeutung der Schwachen durch die Starken, die wirtschaftliche Konkurrenz auf Leben und Tod”[28] [Gremmels and Huber I-123]. Bonhoeffer clearly criticizes any attempt on the part of governments of any sort to use metaphors of divine will as a justification for any political action. When the political leader invokes God or when the political leader alludes to categories of divinely instituted definitions of good and evil, or when the political leader invokes prayer or special divine mission, that political leader has overstepped the boundary of the mandates egregiously. And Bonhoeffer’s list here is interesting in that he sees as such wrongs that political leadership often attempts to institute by allusion to divine will all of the following: separation into ethnic groups—in other words, humanity is all one; battle of one nation against another—in other words, nation states are entities to be overcome; war in and of itself—in other words, war is a categorically undesirable event; contrasts of classes—in other words, the classless society is a positive ideal; exploitation of the weak by the strong—in other words, the capitalist system might not have Bonhoeffer’s stamp of approval and Bhopal, India, would also have had his criticism; radical economic competition—in other words, we are clear that unfettered capitalism does not fare well under Bonhoeffer’s view of responsible living. Any use of divine metaphor in the justification of any of these institutions constitutes an overstepping of boundaries on the part of political leadership. I am sure that “one nation under God” would have had Bonhoeffer’s criticism as a mixing of mandates.

But Doblmeier attempts to polarize Bonhoeffer and Hitler; I don’t think that such was the case, given Bonhoeffer’s idea of the separation of church and state.  His broadcast warning the apotheosis of the “Führer”[29] was interrupted but published a few days later; Doblmeier does not mention that fact.  There is also at least one letter to a governmental authority, which Bonhoeffer signs, “Heil Hitler”[30] [Gremmels and Huber IV-17]. So, the government is not categorically evil; it oversteps boundaries of the basic mandates and must be called back into responsibility from Bonhoeffer’s perspective. From this perspective, one must understand Bonhoeffer’s observation that National-Socialism has brought the end of the church. It has done so not with repressive means but by usurping the church’s role with the uncompromising belief in the moral authority of the leader replacing the uncompromising belief in the authority of the full empathy expressed in the merger of God and man in Jesus. The individual who yields to such a change of orientation has given up the autonomy required of Christian action in responsibility to God. But there is also hope for a state that has transgressed against the separation of the mandates. Bonhoeffer writes in 1940 that if violence has marred a governmental system, it is likely to heal itself since the divine mandate slowly will re-assert itself and will scar over any wounds that the violence may have brought about [Gremmels and Huber IV-109]. Any government—presumably including the Hitler regime—will eventually right itself; in other words, no regime is categorically evil and thus is not to be demonized.

The mandate can also be crossed from the side of the church. In the Ethik that Bethge edited, Bonhoeffer writes, “Ihr [der Kirche] Ziel ist es nicht, daß die Obrigkeit christliche Politik, christliche Gesetze etc. macht, sondern daß sie rechte Obrigkeit im Sinne ihres besonderen Auftrages sei”[31] [Bethge Ethik 271].  The divine mandate already rules authority unbeknownst to anyone in authority or in subservience to authority. In the Ethik, Bonhoeffer points out that Jesus will always be Lord of authority and Head of community [Bethge Ethik 264], so that is not a status that anyone needs to achieve by mending governmental authority in any way. An egregious wrong occurred where church did overstep its boundary in the US-American decision for Prohibition, according to Bonhoeffer [Gremmels and Huber III-68]. What appear to be good values of the church for sobriety and resistance to addiction turn out to be disastrous when made laws of state. Christian principles cannot become law without leading to catastrophe, as the example of Prohibition shows. He gives another example of tolerance of the authority of the state on the part of the church when he points out that Paul must have felt the institution of slavery during Roman times to be an acceptable form of exercise of authority. As citizens, Christians are under dual obligation: as citizen, they must abide by the rule of authority and as faithful, they under the responsibility before God as free moral agents [Bethge Ethik 260]. World is atoned with God in its godlessness [Gremmels and Huber IV-178]. That implies a mutual acceptance of church and state as separate entities. That also shows that the state should not be made subject to church rule. Bonhoeffer justifies this rule also from biblical studies. In reflections about the rebuilding of the temple in the account of Esra and Nehemia, Bonhoeffer sees evidence of such separation. When Cyrus offers his assistance in the building of the temple, the community under guidance of Serubabel rejects the offer. Bonhoeffer sees in that act a confirmation of the separation of state agency and church agency [Gremmels and Huber III-82 ff.]. The stance is repeated even in relation to the “Judenfrage,” the Jewish question. Bonhoeffer writes, “Zweifellos ist die reformatorische Kirche nicht dazu angehalten, dem Staat in sein spezifisch politisches Handeln direkt hineinzureden. Sie hat staatliche Gesetze weder zu loben noch zu tadeln, sie hat vielmehr den Staat als Erhaltungsordnung Gottes in der gottlosen Welt zu bejahen”[32] [Gremmels and Huber II-20]. While the church may not remain silent when the state’s victims suffer, it also has no business shaping or changing the state’s laws. Acceptance of the authority of the state and full empathy and support for its victims are both the obligation of the church in its relationship to the state. Where the state either offers too little law and order or where the state offers too much or invasive law and order, the church has an obligation to speak out. Too little law and order is always the case where a group of people lose rights [Gremmels and Huber II-73]. In the Ethik, Bonhoeffer is clearer yet about the limitations of the church, “Die Welt bleibt Welt, weil sie in Christus geliebte, gerichtete, und versöhnte Welt ist. Kein Mensch hat den Auftrag, die Welt zu überspringen und aus ihr das Reich Gottes zu machen.”[33] [Bethge Ethik 180/181]. One must also recall here that Hitler’s Third Reich was to be the “thousand-year empire”; in other words, Hitler was a millennialist. Church should be a place of preaching the word of god; it should not be a place of legislation.

Bonhoeffer is also anti-Jewish in a very special sense in that he considers the traditional churches to be rule-bound. True Christianity is rule-liberated; thus, the rule-bound church is a Jewish church. A church that creates legislation would be Jewish in orientation; it would live with laws. A Christian orientation requires freedom in responsibility before God and in full empathy with others. The elements of Bonhoeffer’s ethical stance consist of moral action in freedom with full empathy before God who has shown such full empathy in Jesus Christ. Using such a thinking creatively today, one would have to criticize many a politician for prayerful statements and confusing the lines between church and state. At the same time, one would have to criticize many Christians attempting to live by rules from the Old Testament as simply being divorced from the liberating message of Jesus. Bonhoeffer criticizes the American churches for not getting it. He writes, “daß Gott seine Kirche jenseits von Religion und Ethik begründet hat, das bleibt zuletzt unverstanden [in der amerikanischen Theologie].  . . . Christentum ist in der amerikanischen Theologie noch wesentlich Religion und Ethik”[34] [Gremmels and Huber III-73]. And that’s a trend that seems to have lasted. I can see Bonhoeffer’s observation even now in US culture where ministers seem to be expected to have a special knowledge of ethics that others might not have. Again, this phenomenon transgresses against the borders between the mandates.  But the real enemy of goodness is stupidity, not the bulging of borders now and then. Bonhoeffer writes, “Dummheit ist ein gefährlicherer Feind des Guten als Bosheit. Gegen das Böse läßt sich protestieren . . . Gegen die Dummheit sind wir wehrlos. Die Macht der einen braucht die Dummheit der anderen . . . Daß der Dumme oft bockig ist, darf nicht darüber hinwegtäuschen, daß er nicht selbständig ist. (Dumme arbeiten mit Schlagwörtern und Parolen—nicht mit Gedanken.)”[35] [Gremmels and Huber IV-218]. Ethics by slogan, in other words, is worth criticizing then and now. The undercurrent of general stupidity in the German people then must have worried Bonhoeffer. I suspect that one can know what some of his observations would be today. Even the church must subscribe to full knowledge of any matter that it seeks to advocate. “Die Wirklichkeit ist das Sakrament des Gebotes”[36] [Gremmels and Huber I-122]. Reality must be known. The Christian acting in ethical responsibility must also understand the nature of reality. Such understanding is subject to change and new insights. From that vantage point, the Christian acts freely, in full empathy, and in responsibility before God. A stance that would find a complex ideology in full governmental control of a complex culture is unlikely to have been called categorically evil by someone with such an ethical view as Bonhoeffer held. And so, Doblmeier’s depiction is fundamentally wrong. Even the assertion that Bonhoeffer served as the conscience of the conspiracy is likely to be wrong. Bonhoeffer’s indictment does not mention any suspected affiliation with the conspiracy nor does it cite his helping Jews escape from Germany ; instead, it accuses Bonhoeffer of influence peddling for members of the Confessing Church . Such writing had been found in the desk of Hans von Dohnanyi when Dohnanyi was found to have been a member of the conspiracy.

Being the conscience of a group is also not consistent with Bonhoeffer’s commitment to moral decision-making in full freedom. Finally, I have found no evidence in any of the letters or any other writings that Bonhoeffer might have advocated assassination. He himself expresses hope for eventual liberation from jail. In other words, he seems to feel that factual circumstances will eventually clear him of any major wrongdoing. I suspect that he was swept up in the general overreaction to dissenters and critics when the end was obvious to the Hitler regime; certainly, I found no allusion to Claus Graf Schenk von Stauffenberg—after whose attempt at Hitler’s life Bonhoeffer was executed––in any of Bonhoeffer’s writing. Bonhoeffer states very clearly more than once that Christian ethics is a nonsense concept since Christ’s act of atonement and empathy of God and man has overruled any orientation to laws, including any moral law. His justification of killing in war relies on the enemy soldier’s becoming a threat to the order of the own country. Thus, it is conceivable that also the politician who oversteps his mandate might be a threat to the order of the nation and thus might also be target of assassination. So this concept is consistent with Bonhoeffer’s views, but he does not mention it anywhere. Finally, while Bonhoeffer is quite public in his account of the deported Jews, he indicates nowhere that the extermination of such people. I think it is reasonable to conclude that the death camps were unknown to him as they were unknown—probably—to most of the German population.

Works Cited

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich and Eberhard Bethge. Ethik. Ethik. München: Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1949.

 Doblmeier, Martin. Bonhoeffer. Journey Films, 2003.

 Gremmels, Christian and Wolfgang Huber. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Auswahl. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2006.


[1] Jewish Question

[2] It [the Church] may not speak disruptively to the state even about the Jewish Question and require the state to act differently from what it does do.

[3] Disobedience [toward the state] may only be individual cases with concrete decisions. Generalizations lead to an apocalyptic demonization (diabolization) of authority.  Even an anti-Christian authority remains in some certain respects still authority.

[4] What are we waiting for?

[5] Of what use is for me crown and land and ethnos and army; they cannot give me joy—it’s unfortunately war in the country and I desire not to be guilty of it.

[6] It is so incredibly difficult to know what to do.

[7] I cannot imagine that it might be God’s will that I remain here [in the US ] without any particular task in the case of war. I must leave at the first possible time.

[8] War is nothing but murdering, war is a crime, no Christian can possibly go to war.

[9] It would be a complete perversion of the moral sentiment if I should think that I should love the enemy and to that end to sacrifice my nearest neighbor in the most concrete sense of that concept. One does not have the possibility of to love the enemy and one’s people.

[10] I shall suffer of the war, but I will raise the weapon. [War permits] no clear choice between Good and Evil.

[11] Necessary act of state.

[12] Last [ultimate] necessity

[13] Top Courtly Counsel of War

[14] Confessing Church

[15] Defense Force

[16] Obedience and responsibility grasp one into the other, so that responsibility does not begin where obedience stops but that in responsibility one practices obedience.

[17] The Church in relation to the Jewish question

[18] The state, which endangers Christian professing, negates itself. That demands a threefold possibility of the Church’s acting toward the state: First (as I have said already) the question directed toward the state asking for the legitimately state-related character of this action, that is: the demanding of the state an acknowledgement of responsibility. Second, the service to the victims of the state’s action. The church has an immediate obligation to the victims of any social order, even if these victims are not members of the Christian church. The third possibility consists of not only aiding the victims under the wheel but also in falling into the spokes of the wheel oneself.  Such action is only possible and demanded, where the Church sees the state fail its function to maintain justice and order, that is when the Church sees the state enact either an excess of order and justice or a deficiency of order and justice without any impediments.

[19] Thus, one has only one obligation to the truth in relation to a church that enacts the Aryan-bill in this radical form, namely to excommunicate oneself.

[20] German Christians

[21] work

[22] culture

[23] The commandment [love your neighbor and love God] has its goal not in negation and not in the torture of ethical conflict and deciding but in the freely affirmed matter-of-factly life in Church, in Marriage, in Family, in Work, and in the State.

[24] The shape in which we find the Kingdom of God manifest itself as miracle, we call the Church; the shape in which the Kingdom of God manifests itself as [social] order, we call the State . . . Every effort of one to gain control over the other ignores these relationships of the Kingdom of God on earth.

[25] Lord I shall not release you unless you bless the German people and [the German] fatherland.

[26] The leader and the individual of the young generation

[27] He [the leader] must lead the followers away from his authority as person to a realization of the authentic authority of institutions and his office.

[28] One need merely suggest that something that is is as something desired by God to justify whatever might be into all eternity: the fragmentation of humanity into ethnic groups, battle of nations, war, class conflicts, the exploitation of the weak by the strong, relentless economic competition with dire consequences.

[29] leader

[30] May Hitler be saved.

[31] The Church does not have the goal to get authority to make Christian politics, Christian laws, etc., but that authority remain authority in the sense of its special [divine] mandate.

[32] Without doubt, the reformed Church is not under obligation to talk disruptively and directly to the state about any specific political action. It [the church] has no obligation to praise the laws of the state nor to chide them; instead, it [the church] has the obligation to confirm the state as divinely instituted force of order in the world, which is essentially godless.

[33] World remains world because it has been loved, judged, and atoned in Christ. No human being at all has the task to leap over the [real] world and to turn it into the Kingdom of God.

[34] that God has instituted his Church beyond religion and ethics, that is, in the final analysis, not understood [in US-American theology] . . . Christianity is in [ US- ]American theology still essentially religion and ethics.

[35] Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of Goodness than Evil. One can protest against Evil . . . Against stupidity, we are defenseless. The power of one [group of people] relies on the stupidity of the other . . . That stupid people are often bull-headed may not confuse us about the fact that s/he is not independent. (Stupid people work with slogans and one-liners—not with thoughts.)

[36] Reality is the sacrament underlying legislation.