Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Who Am I?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Who Am I?”


 (Bonhoeffer stands in the courtyard of the military interrogation prison at Tegel, 1944)

Throughout the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is celebrated as a German martyr (a victim of the Second World War.) That he opposed the pagan rule of Nazism and collaborated with others in its eventual downfall is a proven fact. No doubt about it but I have to suggest that if Bonhoeffer had not committed such a brave, and some might add foolish deed, he would have remained an unknown German theologian, hardly read today.

(Please click here to see our video diary, that we filmed in Dachau Concentration Camp, in 2007).

Now I do not question or condemn his courage in attempting to halt the Nazi war machine by joining the resistance. But as a Christian, he has to do it through prayer and not force. Indeed he is commanded to. How I would have survived in the damp cells of the Gestapo in Berlin I do not know. But as a Christian, I must pray for my enemy, known or unknown (Matt. 5:44).

But are not fighting wars the resolve of a trained army of brave professional soldiers and military planners. And not the prerogative of a theologian, who it is claimed quoted and admired Mahatma Gandhi, amongst others.

It seems to me after reading about Bonhoeffer, that the influence of the Catholic church first occurred when he visited Rome. He was then 17 years of age, an impressionable period to any young person’s life.

(Many students lose their faith on arrival at universities. The liberal abundance of cheap booze-pass around sex, and drugs encourages it!)

Bonhoeffer’s attitude to try and fuse churches together could well have begun here at this inoffensive period of his life.

Of his journey to Rome in 1924 and exposure to their liturgy and relics, his biographer would write:

“Liturgical richness and the devotion of the people to their church deeply impressed him and he began to feel his own Protestantism was provincial, nationalistic and narrow-minded.”

Rome and its prejudice were it seems becoming addictive even then to this non-catholic young man!

So it seems to me that he was questioning his Lutheran roots, but was unable to forsake its tradition for fear of failure to himself and his family.

Again after a visit to America and later Spain, N. Africa, Mexico and Cuba, “Bonhoeffer was always restless for travel,” one friend joked. It is claimed he would later admire the spiritual quest of the laity to satisfy their own religious emotional peaks. And perhaps his own experiences were starting to enter his mind and perhaps trouble him. But of his own Protestant credentials he now found “their theological bases shallow,” he would confess in a letter to a close friend. This to me sounds a dangerous admission for him to make.

His journeys to the new world had opened his innocent eyes to renovated ecumenical beliefs-and without discrimination it seems. I suspect it was something he had begun searching for without knowing it. And would continue to do so for the rest of his life.

Later in the mid-1930s, he was attracted to the works and teaching of Gandhi. Naturally, this becomes a desperate desire to journey to India and sit at the sandaled feet of the great man.

There he learnt the process of meditation, daily periods of silence and inner soul-searching. (Interestingly the Catholic theologian, Thomas Merton had himself fallen under many false faiths in his visits to the Far East.)

Back in England, Bonhoeffer was attracted to the religious office of the high Anglican church, when he attended services during his periodic visits. He would later incorporate some of their seminary formats into his own “confessing church.”

But it is of his enthusiastic role when he returned to Nazi Germany to sabotage the Nazi Government that I must question seriously.

His biographer offers us many details of this period of his life. It reads something like this:

After much agonising, it seems he was recruited or was coerced into joining the resistance movement and acted as a secret agent. He later conspired in the attempted assassination of Hitler. Later he travelled on a Nazi passport to neutral countries and others during the war and offered peace proposals to the enemies of his country and a promise of a new government to overthrow the Nazis.

Yet didn’t Gandhi call for passive resistance to remove British rule from India-never violence? And does not Paul call on Christians to submit to authority in Rom. 13:1-4; 1 Tim. 2:2.

If the pastor doesn’t know these Biblical commands then who does?

We are told even Gandhi had an “understanding” of the Bible but had never met any Christians!

John Macarthur tells a story of pastors from the old Soviet Union he once met who would never organize resistance-violent or not-to overthrow the communist regime. Instead, they submitted to authority-however unpleasant it was to them, their friends and family.

Even Macarthur, it seems, was taken in from reading some of Bonhoeffer’s numerous writings. And the liberal John Robinson almost made a career of emulating many of Bonhoeffer’s ideas. Much of this would drip down towards the controversial American Episcopalian bishop, Jim Pike who espoused the “God is dead.” He would later die in the desert in Israel.

Bonhoeffer had been recruited, it seems, by the sly charismatic head of the Abhwer, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.

Another complex man and a rumoured Knights Templar member. There could be a possible connection here with the Bonhoeffer family who also may have been members of this secret society. Another rumour has Canaris escaping death and dying in Oklahoma in 1973! But I can’t help suspecting that cunning Canaris was using this naive pastor to perhaps do his own dirty work and divert any Gestapo attention away from himself.

There has even been a suggestion that the Admiral was involved with the Vatican secret services before and during the war.

Whatever the reason Canaris’ intrigue was eventually doomed. And so to was the fate of Bonhoeffer. But perhaps not his lasting fame.

It’s interesting that both men were executed in Flossenburg prison for high treason in 1945, naked and by slow strangulation (hanging.) I suspect the act was filmed for Hitler to view and others as well. That film may still exist today.

And how ironic that Hitler too would be dead just two weeks later! It has been recorded that Canaris and Bonhoeffer “confronted with each other before they were executed.”

I wonder what their last words were to each other before death claimed them on that grey April morning: recrimination or repentance?

But we all take things as they come, and at his trial, when he presented his case to the Judge, Bonhoeffer would claim that he had volunteered to become an army Chaplin in the early days of the war. Sadly he would sign his letters to the court with “Heil Hitler.” What was going through his mind here? Did he not realize that he was simply stacking lie upon lie? Even he should have been aware that each one of us must give an account of all deeds words and actions at some time in the future to God. This must be a warning not only to him but each one of us today.

Of his theology, that too still remains controversial to many Bible scholars.

Some even openly credit him with the popular liberation Marxist theology that so many Christians admire and promote today.

Did he not question and doubt the virgin birth; that Christ was not sinless during His earthly ministry; that Christ is not the only way, and what were his views on Genesis? Were they more Darwinian than Divine?

Was all of this a crisis of faith that he could no longer hide or contain any longer?

After all, friends who knew him well when he pastored in Forest Hill London remembered his preference for crime films and detective stories. Maybe he was just a failed actor, who somehow relished the role of impersonating a secret agent during the long years of the war. If so how dangerous for himself and his family. Had he all along just been deluding himself and others?

In one of his last letters from his prison cell he could surmise:

“God as a working hypothesis in morals, politics and science has been surmounted and abolished, the same thing has happened in religion and philosophy.”

From this dirge of perhaps self-pity or abiding fear of what is to be inflicted on him in prison, was perhaps born this heretical and apostate conception of Almighty God.

In conclusion, I have to ask, in all sincerity, have Bonhoeffer’s radical theological influence permeated to the “modern church,” the communist WCC, NCC and her sister denominations?

Unfortunately, I have to say, YES!

I am very much aware that in piercing the reputation of Dietrich will win me no new friends. But all reputations need sometimes to be re-evaluated.

I feel I have just turned one page in trying to understand this complicated and contradictory Lutheran pastor/theologian and perhaps an actor.

The words “Who Am I?” are from a poem written 1943 when Bonhoeffer was in prison.


This article wouldn’t be complete without linking our video diary, taken when we visited Munich University in 2007, which allowed us to capture some interesting material on another famous German, Sophie Scholl and her White Rose movement, during World War II, which ended in this group being executed too.

And one final German that lived and escaped this period was Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI.


Dying We Live, Fontana Books, 1958

The Shame and the Sacrifice, by Edwin Roberson, 1987

Both have excellent background material on Bonhoeffer



November 2006

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