Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ecumenical Vision

by Victoria J. Barnett

Victoria J. Barnett is the author of For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Under Hitler.

This article appeared in the Christian Century magazine April 26, 1995, pp. 454 – 457. Copyright by The Century Foundation, used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by John Bushell.


Saints are people whose faith is so much a part of their being that it leaves visible traces, just as the work we do leaves lines on our faces and alters our posture.

On April 9, 1945, 55 officers in the Flossenburg concentration camp carried out Hitler's orders to execute some of the last remaining "enemies of the Reich." Among their victims was the 39-year-old theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who went to his death, according to a witness, "brave and composed. I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

It must have been clear that April morning to the guards in Flossenburg that their days in power were numbered. At several camps further to the east, the SS had already fled.. Yet the Nazis vindictively murdered their opponents until the end. Over 5,000 Germans were executed between the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Hitler and the end of the Third Reich in May 1945; among them were Bonhoeffer's brother Klaus and brother-in-law Riidiger Schleicher, shot in Berlin on April 23.

It was as though, with the end in sight, Nazi leaders had decided to eradicate the moral leadership of postwar Germany. They did not entirely succeed, but the absence of Bonhoeffer and other resistance leaders left an immeasurable void in the postwar political landscape. We will never know what the world would have been like had they survived to lead Europe out of the ruins.

Nonetheless, the initial impact of Bonhoeffer's death was felt less in his native Germany than in the international ecumenical community. During the final months of the war, ecumenical leaders such as Willem Vissert Hooft of the Netherlands and Bishop George Bell of England discussed the imminent re- establishment of ties with the German churches. Bonhoeffer's name was on every list of potential leaders. The sense of loss within the ecumenical world at the news of his death went beyond personal grief. Bell described Bonhoeffer's death as a tragedy not only for Germany but for all of Europe.

There was less unanimity among German Protestant leaders, many of whom saw Bonhoeffer as too overtly political and divisive a figure. Bonhoeffer himself realized this in the early months of the Kirchenkampf;it was one factor in his decision to leave Germany in October 1933 for a parish in London. As he wrote to Karl Barth, he found little support for his views, even among friends, and had decided "to go for a while into the desert."

After he returned to Germany in 1935, Bonhoeffer led a small illegal seminary in a remote region in the east. Periodically, he emerged with his students to serve as a thorn in the side of official Protestantism.. At the 1935 Confessing Synod at Steglitz, he and his students traveled to Berlin to lobby on behalf of the increasing number of racial victims of Nazism.. They won a small (though not insignificant) victory: the Synod, meeting only two weeks after the passage of the Nuremberg racial laws, tabled a statement that expressed tacit church support for those laws. Still, the Synod's support for non-Aryan Christians (it refused to even discuss the plight of non-Christian Jews) was, in the words of Martin Niemöller, "Even less than the minimum" of what should have been said. Bonhoeffer led futile protests against the Confessing Church's 1938 decision to allow pastors to swear an oath of loyalty to the Fürhrer and the wartime "legalization" of Confessing pastors (in which they made some concessions to the official church in return for financial and career security). These controversial stands prevented him from ever becoming a central figure in the Confessing Church. Although he was enormously loved and respected by his students, the rest of the church disregarded him. Many Confessing Christians never heard of Bonhoeffer until after 1945.

Given this history, Bonhoeffer's posthumous influence is all the more astonishing. His theological writings, letters and papers have a timeless and universal appeal, despite the fact that they were written in a very specific time and place. Bonhoeffer's thought has inspired several generations of German theology students, African-Americans, Latin American Catholics, South Korean activists and many others. Fifty years after his death, this German Lutheran apparently still has something to say to Christians.

There are many reasons for this, but one involves an aspect of Bonhoeffer's life that is not directly examined very often: the influence of his ecumenical contacts and worldview on his theology and praxis. Bonhoeffer combined a deep theological grounding in his own tradition with a very ecumenical understanding of the consequences of his belief and the role of the Christian church. He embodied the spirit of the early days of the ecumenical movement, and its leaders became some of his closest friends and allies in the fight against totalitarian ideology.

His ecumenical activities began with an internship at the German congregation in Barcelona in 1928. During his studies at Union Seminary in New York City during the academic year 1930-31 he made a number of contacts that later proved important. Upon his return to Europe he attended several major European ecumenical conferences in 1931 and 1932. In 1934, at the age of 28, Bonhoeffer became a member of the governing council of the ecumenical World Alliance for the Promotion of International Friendship Through the Churches. During his ministry to the German congregation in London from 1933 to 1935, he worked closely with British churches and the growing German immigrant community in England to spread awareness of what was happening in Nazi Germany.

Like many ecumenical spirits, Bonhoeffer bridged different worlds. He studied the African-American churches of Harlem and the thinking of Gandhi, as well as the standard texts of European Protestant theology. His broad interests equipped him theologically to grasp the ominous significance of Nazism not just for Germany, but for all of Europe and beyond.

Particularly striking is how soon Bonhoeffer's actions reflected this wider perspective. In early 1933 Bon hoeffer wrote a pointed analysis of the church's dilemma in Nazi society, "The Church and the Jewish Question." The essay was a reply to the measures already taken by the Nazis against Jews, particularly the introduction of an "Aryan paragraph" in the churches which barred non-Aryans from the ministry, religious teaching and theological faculties.

While Bonhoeffer was not the only German church member to oppose the Aryan paragraph, he was the only one who saw it as part of a greater challenge to the churches. Most German Protestants viewed it as an issue of church freedom that had nothing to do with the other issues being raised by Nazi rule.

Bonhoeffer, however, realized that the Aryan paragraph was only part of a broader campaign to exclude the Jewish people from German society. As such, he noted that the Nazi persecution of Jews demanded some response from the churches, and this response might eventually necessitate outright resistance. The church might be called upon, in his famous phrase, "to fall into the spokes of the wheel" to bring the machinery of Nazism to a stop.

In taking this stance, he was virtually alone in Germany. But his views in 1933 were shared by many ecumenical leaders, notably Visser t' Hooft and Pierre Maury in Geneva and Henry Smith Leiper at the Federal Council of Churches in New York. The international Christian and Jewish communities were at this point expressing concern about the significance of the Nazi regime's restrictions upon Jews. In particular, the Nazis' April 1, 1933, boycott of Jewish businesses sparked protests from around the world.

In the days following the boycott most of the major North American and European churches expected the official German church to issue a statement condemning the Nazi policies. But most German Protestant leaders followed the lead of Berlin church superintendent Otto Dibelius, who defended the boycott and asked sarcastically why foreign Christians had "come to be the protector of Judaism in Germany."

The concern of the international church bodies went beyond the status of civil liberties in Germany. These churches had ties to the German Evangelical Church and, as became clear in the early months of 1933, the church contained radically different factions. As the German church struggle intensified, the ecumenical world had to decide which faction genuinely represented German Protestantism and whose version of events in Nazi Germany was correct. Would foreign churches continue to recognize the official German Evangelical Church, represented ecumenically abroad at that time by Bishop Theodor Heckel, an outspoken apologist for the regime? Or would it support the group initially known as the Pastors' Emergency League, which later became the Confessing Church?

Had it not been for Bonhoeffer, this choice might well have gone differently. Even in 1933 Bonhoeffer was a respected interpreter of the German situation. And Bonhoeffer saw at once the importance of ensuring that the ecumenical world knew about events in Germany. Almost immediately after Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933, Bonhoeffer began to send messages abroad about the German situation.

His purpose was not just to convey information, but to encourage and in some cases orchestrate foreign protest against Nazi policies. At the September 1933 World YMCA conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, Bonhoeffer warned of the "growing persecution of minorities" in Nazi Germany and successfully influenced the delegates to pass a strongly worded resolution condemning the violence against Jews: "We especially deplore the fact that the State measures against the Jews in Germany have had such an effect on public opinion that in some circles the Jewish race is considered a race of inferior status."

Bonnhoeffer took a copy of the resolution to the German consul in Sofia, seeking to convince officials there that Nazi policies toward the Jews were damaging Germany's image abroad. His actions angered German church leaders and brought an official protest from the German foreign office.

This was only the beginning of a long-term ecumenical campaign against Nazi anti-Semitism and on behalf of the Jewish refugees in Europe. Ecumenical leaders issued .pointed condemnations of Nazi policies in response to the April 1933 boycott, the passage of the 1935 Nuremberg laws and the Kristallnacht in November 1938. In 1941 Bonhoeffer and lawyer F.J. Perels sent a detailed memo to Geneva about the deportations of German Jews; one year later, ecumenical leaders were among the first to respond to reports of the genocide of the European Jews.

Initially, the ecumenical response focused on sending material help to resistance groups. Money and packages were secretly sent via couriers to the detention camps in the south of France, and to the French Protestant group, the CIMADE, which assisted Jews in the camps. Occasionally couriers brought money into Germany to individuals there who were hiding Jews or helping them emigrate. They also carried reliable reports in and out of Germany.

Once Bonhoeffer joined the small resistance cell in the German Foreign Office, he became a crucial link in the ecumenical chain that was trying to foster resistance throughout Europe to Nazism. Within the German resistance was a small group that wanted not only to overthrow the Nazi regime but to create the philosophical, political and religious framework for whatever would follow. Here Bonhoeffer was a pivotal figure, not just in what he had to contribute, but in reporting on the thinking of these circles abroad.

It was in this role that Bonhoeffer, as Visser t' Hooft later recalled, was a convincing ambassador for the German resistance. In a July 1945 interview with Religious News Service, Visser t' Hooft characterized Bonhoeffer as "the one man who played an outstanding part in keeping up ecumenical contacts" between the German resistance and its supporters abroad. Bonhoeffer, Visser t' Hooft and Bell hoped that the Allied governments would support the internal plot to overthrow Hitler once they realized that there was a group of Germans seriously committed to democratic ideals.

But the engagement of Visser t' Hooft, Henry Smith Leiper, Bishop George Bell and other ecumenical leaders found little support among the grass roots of their own churches or the leaders of their governments. Before 1939 these men received many letters castigating them for being too hard on the Germans and too swayed by "Zionist propaganda"; once the war began, they were accused of undermining the war effort.

This lack of support was most marked where it was most needed: in the churches' efforts to rally support on behalf of the Jews desperately trying to escape Europe. In the United States the Federal Council of Churches' office to help non-Aryan Christians, established in the early 1930s, was more generously funded by the United Jewish Appeal than by member churches. Parallel Geneva organizations received considerably more help from the Swiss Jewish community than from Christian churches.

In 1942, convinced that the reports of the "final solution" were accurate, ecumenical organizations (including the Federal Council of Churches in New York) strongly condemned their governments for failing to take in more refugees. Although they lobbied at the highest levels of the Allied governments, they found little Allied support on behalf of either Jewish refugees or the German resistance.

Despite this tragic failure, ecumenical activism against the Nazi threat had another significance. issue. But theologically and ecclesiastically, on one level, of course, it was a humanitarian issue the one Bonhoeffer had raised in his 1933 essay on the church and the Jewish question: What was the mission of Christianity in an ideological society? In ecumenical circles this question had already been discussed with respect to the still-young communist experiment in the Soviet Union. Both communism and National Socialism claimed many of the prerogatives of religion and made many of the same promises -- from the creation of a "new man" to the fulfillment of many of the communitarian ideals found in religion.

Ecumenically, in the words of Visser t' Hooft, this "total challenge.., could be answered only by a total response. False ideology could be met only by sound doctrine combined with practical decisions in the social and political realm. Obviously the only remedy [to the emergence of the new totalitarianism] was a new affirmation and manifestation of universality as an essential characteristic of the Church."

This was the theological vision behind Bonhoeffer's activism, and it separated him from many within his own church. As long as German Protestants viewed the Kirchenkampf as an internal church battle about the proper direction and options for the church in a Nazi society, they ignored the deeper ideological challenge to the validity of religious faith. The reason that the "Jewish question" was enormously divisive in the Confessing Church was that it went to the heart of this issue. It was clear that if the church were to do anything on behalf of the Jews, it would be led into political opposition to the Nazi state. As a result, most Christian leaders cautiously focused on the plight of Jews who had converted to Christianity.

This is why the "Jewish question" became so pivotal for Bonhoeffer and why, throughout the 1930s, he returned to it. At the heart of Bonhoeffer's opposition was his theology. At the same time, the horrible reality taking place around him impelled him to ponder the relevance of his faith and his church. He clearly saw that the persecution of the Jews had consequences for his own Christian understanding, although he was never able to resolve his questions; in the' final years of his life, he wrote that the Jews "kept the question of Jesus Christ open." As he gradually' conducted his political witness of resistance to Nazism, he returned repeatedly to the foundations of his Protestant tradition to explore and elaborate upon what that tradition had to offer in this "world come of age."

This circular process is crucial to understanding the significance of the ecumenical world's efforts on behalf of the German resistance and Bonhoeffer's own role in it. Although their efforts failed, the issues they raised remain relevant. Perhaps this is why Bonhoeffer remains such a contemporary influence, and why some of his writings (for example, his 1942 letter to other resistance members, "After Ten Years") sound as though they could have been written today. To the very end of his life, his writings convey a sense of his constant engagement with the world amid a continual reshaping of what his faith and belief meant.

As this journey left its mark on him, it continues to hold meaning for us. Saints are people whose faith is so much a part of their being that it leaves visible traces, just as the work we do leaves lines on our faces and alters our posture. By this standard, Bonhoeffer was indeed an ecumenical saint, one who continues to offer us a vision of other possibilities.