Today in History

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Today in (Theological) History: Dietrich Bonhoeffer is Murdered by Nazis

Bonhoeffer statue alongside other martyrs at Westminster Abbey.

When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship.

April 9th, 1945: Dietrich Bonhoeffer is Murdered by the Nazis

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who resisted the Nazi regime. Although he was offered the opportunity to accept a position teaching in the United States, he suffered mental anguish at leaving Germany’s struggle behind and decided to return despite the potential threat to his life. The Nazis banned him from publishing and from teaching in Berlin. He spoke against Nazism and was deeply involved in the Confessing Church–the church that opposed Nazification of the church.

Bonhoeffer is remembered in part for his resistance to the Nazi regime, and in part for his stunningly insightful theological writings.

He became involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler and was arrested by the Gestapo, but not for a specific conspiracy. When the conspiracy was finally discovered more fully, his execution was directly ordered from the highest levels of Nazi leadership.

On April 9th, 1945, guards at Flossenbürg concentration camp came to gather him for execution. He reportedly turned to another prisoner and said “This is the end… for me, the beginning of life.” He was killed by hanging from piano wire. His remains were either burned or buried in a mass grave by Allied soldiers when Flossenbürg was liberated.

Bonhoeffer’s theological legacy is difficult to overstate. His Lutheran theology is remarkable in how clearly he draws distinctions. He gained worldwide fame for his Letters and Papers from Prison, which outlines a religionless Christianity in which he pushed back against faith lives lived without action. His theology has been deeply influential on myself, as well. To read more, check out my posts on Dietrich Bonhoeffer (scroll down for more).

Today in (Theological) History: The Death of Martin Niemöller

Today in history, Martin Niemöller died in 1984. Niemöller was an early supporter of Adolf Hitler and anti-Semite. When the Nazis worked to take over the churches in Germany, he became a founder of the Confessing Church in Germany which opposed the Nazification of the churches. He was outspoken against the so-called Aryan Paragraph which was an explicitly anti-Semitic rule the Nazis implemented in the state church.

He was imprisoned by the Nazis, and during his imprisonment at two different concentration camps, he came to deeply regret his earlier beliefs. Some have tried to lionize him as a hero of the Jews in Germany, but this is false. He himself never denied his guilt for his early support of the Nazis and his anti-Semitism.

He penned the famous “first they came” statement, which is featured at the United States Holocaust Memorial: “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

After the War, he committed himself to pacifism, he helped develop the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt, in which the Evangelical Church in Germany confessed its guilt for not resisting the Nazis. One part of that Declaration reads:

“Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.”

The Declaration did not, however, explicate the specific wrongs the church had done, and was seen by some Germans as a gesture to capitulate the Allied powers after the War.

Niemöller’s life is a complex study in how Christians participate in horrible atrocities. It is also a study for how Christians can confess their guilt and come to throw themselves on grace. Niemöller remains an important figure for understanding the Church Struggle in Germany.

More on his life at the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

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