Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church
by Wendy McElroy

A destructive myth haunts World War II. It is that a flaw within the German character allowed the rise of Hitler and Nazism. How else can you explain the Holocaust coming from one of the world’s most cultured nations? Oddly, no one seems to consider Mussolini to indicate a flaw within Italians or view Stalin as proof of a Russian defect.

The ‘German character flaw’ is a destructive myth because it deflects attention from the crucial task of analyzing the dynamics that allowed Nazism to rise. It permits other nations to believe “it could never happen here.” But totalitarianism can happen anywhere, to any nationality. Understanding the evolution of totalitarianism involves institutional analysis, especially of the interrelation between institutions that were active or complicit in creating tyranny.

Two institutions are commonplace and powerful around the globe: the state and the church. In Hitler’s Germany, most churches went along with the Nazis. Some did so reluctantly, many were enthusiastic. But there was also dramatic resistance by churches and religious leaders who opposed Hitler at great personal risk. For example, the German Protestant Church became a battleground between the majority who supported the Nazis, either explicitly or implicitly, and a minority who resisted them. At the core of the conflict was the question of how the church should respond to the “Jewish question.”

No man spoke more eloquently on behalf of the civil liberties of Jews than the Protestant pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He became a prominent voice in ‘the Confessing Church’ that was founded when approximately 3,000 Protestant pastors broke off from the main religious body in protest.(Konfession is German for denomination.) Bonhoeffer reminds us that there are people of conscience and moral courage in every nation. He is also a window into the institutional dynamics of church and state that both facilitated and hindered Hitler.

The German Protestant Church and Nazism

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Two months later he publicly assured both Catholics and Protestants that he would respect their rights and work “for genuine harmony between Church and State.” In reality, the harmony he sought was to politically emasculate the Catholic Church and to racially purify and unite the Protestant one. He sought Nazi control of religion.

Hitler immediately offered a deal to German Catholic archbishops who then met with the Pope to discuss its terms. By June 1933, an agreement had been signed through which the church maintained and acquired considerable privileges, including new Catholic schools. In return, the powerful Roman Catholic Center Party voted for the Enabling Act, which granted dictatorial power to Hitler. Then the Party disbanded.

The Protestants required a different strategy.

According to a 1933 census, the total population of Germany was about 65 or 66 million. Approximately 45 million people, or about 69 percent, were registered Protestants. (Figures cited vary with some as low as 41 million.) Protestantism embraced a variety of different denominations from Lutheran to Methodists and Baptists, with the largest being the Evangelical Church. Doctrines varied widely. Moreover, the Protestant Church was organized into 28 regional churches or federations that voted together in an assembly through leaders. The assembly had little power to enforce policy, however, and there was no one leader with whom Hitler could negotiate. Nevertheless, most Protestants supported the Nazis, especially the Lutherans with their deep tradition of supporting state authority. But other Protestants were not enthusiastic and the decentralized Church might be difficult for Hitler to rein in.

In 1931, a subgroup known as the Deutsche Christen or German Christians arose within Protestantism. The group was fanatically pro-Nazi. For example, some members wished to abandon the Old Testament; Jesus Christ was recast as an Aryan, not a Jew. The German Christians also emphasized the need to respect the secular authority of the State. The German Christian leader Ludwig Müller was Hitler’s personal adviser on religious matters.

The German Christians amassed with the explicit goal of dominating an important 1932 election within the hierarchy of the dominant Protestant church. The group won approximately a third of the votes, establishing a powerful foothold. Then it pushed for a new Protestant constitution to create a centralized national church to replace the federation system. Centralization would facilitate the co-joining of Protestantism with Nazism, the enforcement of conformity, and give Hitler someone in charge to whom he could give orders.

In April 1933, the federation leaders agreed to draft a new constitution to establish a national church called Deutsche Evangelische Kirche (DEK). With Hitler’s endorsement, Müller campaigned to become the bishop of the new church. He lost to a more seasoned man who publicly objected to the Nazi plans to sterilize and euthanize ‘undesireables’. Although many Protestants were anti-Semitic, it was church policy to ‘eliminate’ the Jews by converting and baptizing them.

Hitler was incensed. Under political seige, the freshly elected bishop resigned after one month. Müller was elected as bishop in September 1933. The vote was pro forma, however, as Hitler had already appointed him to the position. With aggressive Nazi support, the German Christians easily won the majority of leadership positions in the national church. Indeed, the group won all subsequent church elections during the Nazi reign.

By the time of Müller’s election, however, the Protestant church was in turmoil. The proximate causes included opposition to the Church’s nazification and the so-called Aryan Paragraph that had been adopted a few months before. The Paragraph introduced a new church policy modeled on the laws being enacted throughout Germany to prohibit Jews from being civil servants and other aspects of society. The Protestant’s Aryan Paragraph defrocked any pastor or church official who was of Jewish descent or married to a non-Aryan. German Christians flatly rejected the key Protestant belief that a person became Christian by accepting the divinity of Jesus and being baptized.

In his contemporary essay “The Church Struggle and the Confessing Church: An Introduction to Bonhoeffer’s Context,” Professor Matthew D. Hockenos of Skidmore College offered a sense of the Church’s response. He wrote,

“[T]he Protestants split into essentially three groups – the ultra-nationalist, antisemitic, and pro-Nazi German Christian movement; the somewhat oppositional Confessing Church; and the uncommitted neutrals. Of the eighteen thousand Protestant pastors in Germany, less than one-third were adherents of the German Christian movement. Although the number of pastors who joined the Confessing Church reached just over seven thousand in January 1934, for most of the period of the church struggle from 1933 to 1945 the number was less than five thousand.“

Hockenos further sketched the scope of the inner Church conflict, “The church struggle involved three interwoven dimensions: first, the struggle between the Confessing Church and the German Christian movement for control of the Protestant Church; second, the struggle between the Confessing Church and the Nazi state over spheres of influence; and third, the conflict within the Confessing Church between the conservative and radical wings over the nature of the church’s opposition to the German Christians and the Nazi state.“

Hockenos called the Confessing Church “somewhat oppositional“ because of the ideological struggle between the church’s conservatives and radicals. The conservatives opposed the political take-over of the Protestant Church but did not assume a wider stance against the Nazis. The radicals condemned the state whenever its laws harmed or interfered with Church practice. And, then, there were the truly radical voices, such as Bonhoeffer, who came to condemn Nazi violations of civil liberties whether or not they involved the church.

The Remarkable Evolution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was born into a highly educated family. His father was a professor of psychiatry and neurology while his mother earned a university degree – a rarity for women of her time. Paula Bonhoeffer homeschooled her children because, as she stated, “Germans have their backbones broken twice in life: first in the schools, secondly in the military.” Dietrich’s independent streak led him to travel far beyond German borders, completing his final theology degree in 1930 at Union Seminary in New York. The next year, he began teaching theology in Berlin.

Almost as a unit, the Bonhoeffer family disliked and distrusted the Nazis. Moreover, they strongly believed in acting upon conscience rather than upon the law when the two conflicted. In his article “Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Righteous Gentile?“, Richard L. Rubenstein observed, “[T]he first public expression of the family’s opposition was the action of Dietrich’s grandmother Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer who may have been the only German to ignore the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses on April, 1, 1933 and, at age 91, marched past a menacing group of stormtroopers posted in front of the Jewish-owned department store, Kaufhaus des Westens.“

When the German Christians first proposed the Aryan Paragraph, Bonhoeffer became active in a counter-group called the Young Reformation Movement. (His sister’s marriage to a converted Jew undoubtedly provided personal motivation.) The Young Reformers advocated an outright rejection of excluding non-Aryans from pulpits or pews.

In a 1933 essay and sermon to Church leaders entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question,” a twenty-seven-year-old Bonhoeffer became the first pastor to declare the Church had an obligation, “to question the state repeatedly whether its actions could be justified…as actions in which law and order are created, not lawlessness and disorder.” The essay has been criticized for using the anti-Semitic language that was endemic within German Protestantism of the day. Bonhoeffer clearly embraced what is called “Christian supersessionism” — the belief that Judaism has been superseded by Christianity and a covenant between God and the Jews no longer exists. (His views evolved thereafter.)

Nevertheless, he also argued the radical position that the Church should assist all victims of injustice, not merely non-Aryans who had converted. “The Church and the Jewish Question” presented the oppression of Jews as a civil rights violation that the Church was honor-bound to address even if it necessitated falling “into the spokes of the wheel [of the machinery of injustice] itself”.

When the Aryan Paragraph was adopted, Bonhoeffer immediately appealed to fellow-members of the international ecumenical movement in which he was extremely active. (The ecumenical movement called for greater Christian unity and a single church.) In a telegram, he informed an ecumenical contact in Switzerland, “Aryan paragraph now in effect, please work out memorandum against this and inform press at once.” Through constant communication with international organizations, Bonhoeffer countered ‘official’ church accounts from the German Christians and exerted counter-pressure against anti-Semitic policies.

For example, at an ecumenical World Alliance gathering in Bulgaria, he was instrumental in the passage of a resolution that deplored “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.” He provided a copy of the resolution to the German consul in Bulgaria and received a response from the German Foreign Office:
“Provocation against Germany because of the Jewish question has been taken into circles that were previously genuinely favorable to us, and has been expressed loudly and publicly at the very moment when Germany, because of the upcoming meeting of the League of Nations, will probably be viciously attacked because of the Jewish question.”

Bonhoeffer refused an official demand to cease his activism in the ecumenical movement. He also refused a parish post within Germany on the grounds that non-Aryans were barred from the same position. Instead, in late 1933, a discouraged and weary Bonhoeffer accepted a parish in London where remained in exile until returning home in 1935.

The schism had deepened between conservatives and radicals in the Confessing Church. When the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 stripped the last civil liberties from Jews, some Church radicals began to actively but covertly assist them. One such radical was a Berlin social worker and deaconess named Margaret (Marga) Meusel. In May 1935, Meusel had addressed a formal “memorandum on the duties of the Confessing Church to the Protestant non-Aryans” to Church leaders in an attempt to mobilize support for converted Jews. In September, after the Nuremberg Laws, she rewrote the address to explicitly include all Jews. She was pointedly rebuked; instead, the elders passed a weak resolution favoring the baptism of Jews.

Bonhoeffer set up an underground seminary for anti-Nazi Church members to whom he taught theology even though the aspiring clergy were routinely denied positions by the more conservative elders. In 1937, the education and certification of pastors within the Confessing Church was declared illegal and 17 of Bonhoeffer’s former students were arrested. And, so, Bonhoeffer went from village to village in secret in order to continue supervising pastors who were caring for their parishes illegally. The Nazis were not deceived. In 1938, Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin; in 1940, he was forbidden from speaking in public.

Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer’s stand against the oppression of Jews was hardening and he no longer spoke of them as inferior to Christians. At a 1938 Confessing Church meeting, he stated that the church and synagogue were equal in the eyes of God. Kristallnacht solidified his opposition to Nazi racial policies. Also known as the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht consisted of a coordinated pogrom against Jews throughout Germany that erupted on the evening of August 9, 1938 and continued through the next day. It was the first official expression of nationwide and unveiled violence against the person and property of every Jew.

By 1939, Bonhoeffer’s attention turned from the Confessing Church establishment to the international ecumenical community which unequivocally condemned Hitler’s attack on Jews. Radicals within the Church worked with ecumenical leaders to assist those in danger to flee from Germany. Soon Bonhoeffer would play an even more perilous role in opposing Hitler. Although his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi detested Nazism, Dohnanyi held an important position in the Armed Forces High Command office of Military Intelligence. He urged Bonhoeffer to sabotage the Nazis by working within the regime. In 1940, Bonhoeffer joined Military Intelligence and began to openly contact his ecumenical network, traveling throughout Europe. The Nazis believed he was conducting propaganda on their behalf; in reality, he was spreading information and coordinating foreign support for a German resistance effort. Under the auspices of high ranking military men who objected to some of Hitler’s policies, Military Intelligence itself became a nexus of anti-Nazi conspiracy.

For example, when the first deportations of Jews from Berlin began in October 1942, Dohnanyi arranged false papers to rescue those he could. Bonhoeffer arranged the transfer of money to sustain the refuges abroad. Unfortunately, the Nazis tracked the money; both Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested in April 1943. An investigation eventually revealed the extent to which the men had worked to sabotage Nazi interests.

In July 1944, military leaders who knew the war was no longer winnable attempted to assassinate Hitler. They were unsuccessful. In the furious witch hunt that ensued, Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were implicated due to their earlier association with Military Intelligence. In February 1945, Bonhoeffer was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp where, at the age of 39, he was hanged on April 9. Four members of the Bonhoeffer family similarly died that day: Dietrich, his brother and two brothers-in-law.


The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum honored Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi in a ceremony on May 26, 1996. Some voices spoke out against the honor because of Bonhoeffer’s belief that God intended the Jews to ultimately accept the divinity of Jesus. In his essay, Richard L. Rubenstein observed,“Professor Ruth Zerner has written extensively on Bonhoeffer and the Jewish question. She is of the opinion that had Bonhoeffer survived, he would have undertaken a radical rethinking of Christian thinking about the Jews as part of his program…. Zerner points to the fact that Bonhoeffer’s students and theological heirs in post war Germany have taken the lead in the creative dismantling of the Christian legacy of anti-Judaism and its historical consequences.
According to Zerner, it is very likely that Bonhoeffer would have shared in this enterprise.“

His moral courage left a legacy through his students and theological heirs.

Bonhoeffer and his family definitely disprove the theory of a German character flaw. They should make us pause before blaming a nationality or a race for the triumph of totalitarianism and make us consider, instead, the dynamics of how that tyranny came to be. As long as we blame only the character of individuals or defined groups, we will learn little about the character of totalitarianism itself.

Note: This article was first published in print by Freedom Daily, a publication of the Future of Freedom Foundation