Essays on the Theme of Heroism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Arnav Gulati from San Diego, California in United States

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

"The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”  

“There is meaning in every journey that is unknown to the traveler.”

"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.”

“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are."

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The One Who Drove the Spoke in the Wheel

138278A picture of Bonhoeffer before he was caughtWikimedia CommonsAs Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” Bonhoeffer stated that instead of falling victim to injustice and inequality, we should try to stop it, no matter the cost in the end. With this mentality came an improbable World War II hero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a simple and young pastor who became one of the most influential people of the war. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906. He was the sixth out of the eight children that his parents, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer would have. As described by the authors David Gushee and Wendy Zoba in “Following Jesus to the gallows,” the “Bonhoeffer home [was] in the Grunewald section of Berlin. Spacious and light-filled, adorned by original oil paintings and fine rugs, the room exudes sophistication, charm, and class.” This was the extravagant household that Bonhoeffer lived in. It also was a loosely managed household where he and his brothers could get away with anything; for instance, they once asked to dig an underground passageway and their mother agreed (McCormick 3-4). As written in his biography by Patricia McCormick, at other times Bonhoeffer would sit by himself and watch the clouds and wonder about God and if God loved everyone, even bad people? In addition, he wondered how God created the world (6). This spark in religion at a young age only happened since he believed his sisters were too “girly” and his brothers were too “old” for him to be around. A few months after he turned eight, news spread that World War I had started. He was fascinated by the war, asking for fake guns and toy soldiers, while poring over newspaper reports of the front, and tracking every action of the German Army with colorful pins on a map, in his room (McCormick 9). This obsession was fueled by his older brothers who were fighting in the war at the time. His education started with being homeschooled by his mother, eventually getting a doctorate degree in theology, at the age of 21, at the University of Berlin in 1927. Soon after getting his degree he became a curate in a congregation, from 1928 to 1929, in Barcelona, Spain. Then from 1930 to 1931, he spent a year as a “Sloane Fellow” at Union Theological Seminary and later in the fall of 1931 he became a lecturer for theology at the University of Berlin. Later in his life, when World War II broke out he started to conspire to kill Hitler with a few friends and his brother-in-law. Although their attempt on Hitler’s life failed, only to injure him, they were one of the closest groups to ever do so. Subsequently, the Gestapo caught him for conspiring to kill the Fürher and he was hung, at the age of 39, on April 9, 1945, in the Flossenbürg concentration camp. With an ambiguous life, he was a relatively well-known pastor who opposed the authoritarian Nazi principles in his teachings, saved many Jews from the wrath of the Führer, and became an influential role model to Christians of his time and today. Inspiring many on how to act in a crisis or unfairness anywhere, his teachings and actions are still valid to this day.

138280Bonhoeffer at a family "meeting"Wikimedia Commons            Bonhoeffer, like many other heroes, faced many challenges personally and witnessed injustice against humanity, but with his strong morals was able to conspire against the Nazi regime and help people understand the world through the eyes of religion. From a young age, he faced the obstacle of family pressure as his parents indirectly were forcing him to become something he did not want to be. McCormick writes on Bonhoeffer’s family and says that they were all musicians. She further goes on to say, “His parents arranged for him to take lessons from a demanding teacher and began to think he would become a professional musician” (8). Thus, Bonhoeffer’s parents indirectly defined his career path for him; because he belonged to a family of musicians, he too was expected to start at an early age. He was inclined otherwise and wanted to be accepted for who he was and what his interests were. When he started, his parents believed he was a prodigy and presumed he was going to be a musician too, but the young Bonhoeffer found music to be more of a task. He stood up to his parents and overcame the family pressure of him becoming a musician. If he had he not stood up, he quite possibly would have remained unknown to the world and would not have done the great things he did as a theologian. Later in his life, after he became a theologian and World War II broke out, he and many other “Lutheran clerics [refused] to participate in the Nazi takeover of church doctrine, such as Pastor Martin Niemöller, who publicly challenged Gestapo agents sent to listen to his sermons, sometimes paid for their audacity with imprisonment. But foremost among the resisters in the Lutheran clergy was Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (“Leaders of the German Resistance to Hitler”). Many clerics faced these challenges in the early parts of the Nazi takeover, and those who resisted were imprisoned or hung for not obeying the Nazi policy. Likewise, Bonhoeffer was forced to start teaching the Nazi ways, on calling the Jews “pigs” and that Germany suffered from the “disease of Jews,” in the church, and finally realized - actually - how cruel and unjust the Nazi system was. From that point on he started to secretly teach the old ways and became an anti-Nazi, leading to the realization that something needed to be done. Someone was required to drive the spoke in the wheel. Postliminary, Bonhoeffer and his accomplices started to hatch the plan to kill Hitler. With the Gestapo knowing that he was preaching anti-Nazi ways, “[they] began to watch him closely, and he was eventually forbidden from preaching or writing” (“On this day in 1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, is executed.”). Spreading the truth of the Nazi ways was tough enough, and being under constant surveillance made the almost impossible task even harder. He eventually overcame this by setting up fake meetings with his family for a “birthday party” and while they “practiced” songs they managed to have a meeting on how to continue with their plans. Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer faced many obstacles, but the salient ones that shaped him to be who he is today included him confronting family pressures and evading the eyes of the Gestapo on innumerable occurrences.

            In Bonhoeffer’s shortened but profoundly impactful life, he managed to do the impossible on countless occasions. To begin with, he was a part of a small operation with a substantial outcome where he saved a group of seven Jews from leading a horrific life in a concentration camp. He was working with his co-conspirators and devised a plan to get these seven Jews, who were friends, out of the country and into Switzerland--dubbed Operation 7. After months of negotiations with his Swiss contacts, they finally came to an agreement. All Bonhoeffer had to do was put a considerable sum of money in a Swiss bank which would pay for the refugees’ expenses (McCormick 102-103). During these months of talking with these contacts, the group doubled in size from seven to fourteen. At this time it was a huge risk for Bonhoeffer because it was a “violation of wartime currencies”; Bonhoeffer bolstered the group as he knew what it meant to these Jews. A few weeks later, they got the news that they had made it safely to Switzerland, pronouncing it a successful mission and one of the many triumphs Bonhoeffer achieved in his accomplished life. Upon completion of this “side operation,” he reverted back to his plans on the assassination attempt. To get closer to the goal he needed to infiltrate the Wehrmacht - the German Army: “Bonhoeffer used family connections to gain a post in the military intelligence unit, where he operated as a double agent. There he helped arrange for a bomb to explode at the Fuhrer's headquarters on July 20, 1944. But Hitler was only wounded…” (MacDonald). Had he not penetrated the Wehrmacht, the attempt on the Führer's life may never have materialized and transpired in the first place, since they had to implant the bomb in the “Wolf’s Lair” - Hitler’s Bunker. Without the intelligence he gained from the army, Bonhoeffer’s group would have never known when and where to place the bomb. Although their attempt on Hitler’s life failed, they were the closest to killing Hitler, and Bonhoeffer was one of the few people to infiltrate the German Army. Despite being executed for treason in 1945, he is still one of the most prominent figures for people who are striving to consolidate the Christian Church. A few of his books have been published depicting his perspective on Christian beliefs, like Act and Being (1931), Creation and Fall (1937), and Ethics (1949). With these books, his beliefs line up with the movement to unify the Christian Church. In the article “Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ecumenical quest” by Keith Clements, “...the ecumenical movement as it has developed since his time will simply adopt Bonhoeffer as a kind of figurehead or mascot…” This is a tremendous achievement for Bonhoeffer. Although he has died, he is being adopted as a figure for a monumental movement in the church, his main passion. These few achievements give one a frame to comprehend how imperative and influential Bonhoeffer is, from how he saved some Jews from persecution to infiltrating the Nazi military, and to how he changed the way the modern world views Christianity.

Many heroes die and are glossed over in their time; Bonhoeffer is not one of them. Altogether, about 75 years since his death, Bonhoeffer’s life serves as an example for humanity to show one’s responsibility in the face of injustice. Merely a day before his death, Bonhoeffer was being transported with many other inmates from his concentration camp. They were stopped and being held in a small village. In one of the classrooms, Bonhoeffer held a humble church service for his fellow inmates that anyone could join, no matter their religion or race (Clements). Bonhoeffer left a lasting imprint on the hearts of the other prisoners of his group. He affected their lives by giving them one last shred of hope to get a glimpse of the sunlight and be free again. He wanted everyone to pray for their own well-being and aspire to survive through this rough time of their life. After his death, he continues to affect even more lives, to this day. The most prominent outcome of his work is how he galvanized a movement as extensive as ending South African Apartheid. As the author Martin Marty wrote, “Bonhoeffer's thought inspired much South African resistance to apartheid…” His thoughts and actions have been inspiring people the world over. He always wanted to be like his role model Mahatma Gandhi and realized it by helping spark the South African Apartheid movement. Further, he has been called a hero by many, and theologians of today look up to Bonhoeffer and try to mimic him in their own ways. He has changed many theologists’ views on Christian beliefs: “The heroism of his end served to call attention to his life and thought…” In addition, “He has been read eagerly for the substance of his thought, his example of resistance to oppression, and his provocative portrayal of the secular settings that provide the context for much theological inquiry” (Marty). This is significant because even today he is impacting the mindset of theologians following his train of thought. Despite being in a non-religious environment, he had an instrumental effect on how Christians view their beliefs, making him a noteworthy person in today’s form of Christianity. This delineates how paramount Bonhoeffer’s contributions have been to today’s society and people of any religion, not just Christians of his time.

138277A Memorial for BonhoefferWikimedia Commons         Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor, spy, and martyr, became the unlikely hero of World War II. He made vast contributions in his life, which was cut short--from saving Jews from persecution, to being the one to put a spoke in the wheel of Nazi injustice, to becoming the figurehead for many movements today. He always openly expressed his views against the Führer’s principles and was very confident that his actions against the Nazis were not wrong. He held to his beliefs and continued to teach the moral ways, unlike the Nazis. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an altruistic hero who stood up to the mighty fist of Hitler and ended up giving his life simply to make many other lives much better, the influence of which can be experienced even today.

Works Cited

Clements, Keith. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ecumenical quest." The Ecumenical Review, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, p. 295+. Gale In Context: Biography, . Accessed 4 Dec. 2019.

Gushee, David P., and Wendy Murray Zoba. "Following Jesus to the gallows" Christianity Today, 3 Apr. 1995, p. 26+. Gale In Context: Biography, . Accessed 4 Dec. 2019.

"Leaders of the German Resistance to Hitler." Historic World Leaders, edited by Anne Commire, Gale, 1994. Gale In Context: Biography, . Accessed 4 Dec. 2019

MacDonald, G. Jeffrey. "Courage vs. conscience." USA Today, 1 Feb. 2006, p. 06D. Gale In Context: Biography, . Accessed 4 Dec. 2019

Marty, Martin. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer." Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Macmillan, 2006. Gale In Context: Biography, . Accessed 4 Dec. 2019

McCormick, Patricia. The Plot To Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. BALZER   BRAY, 2018.

"On this day in 1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, is executed." Telegraph Online, 9 Apr. 2018. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 4 Dec. 2019

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Last edited 2/4/2020 9:14:56 AM

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How Christians view Bonhoeffer - This is an article on how Christians of today view Bonhoeffer's beliefs