Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (74 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that lead up to Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time five years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.

Guilty Deputyship: Bonhoeffer’s Justification for Trying to Kill Hitler

One of the abiding questions about the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is: How did a theologian with pacifist leanings choose to join a conspiratorial effort to kill Adolf Hitler? How could he justify his action, let alone feel compelled to seek the life of another human?

Larry L. Rasmussen explores the question in his amazing book Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance. (See my earlier book note here.)

In the section I’ve been reading recently, Rasmussen draws on two key concepts for Bonhoeffer: deputyship and guilt.

Deputyship is “the master mark of responsibility” (38). It is vicarious being and action. As Rasmussen puts it, “Man is not man [sic] in and by himself but only in responsibility to and for another” (38). And Jesus Christ is “the Responsible Man par excellence” (51), the ultimate “deputy” through his sacrifice-for-others on the cross.

Then there is guilt. Rasmussen writes:

If deputyship is the master mark of responsibility, acceptance of guilt (Schulduebernahme) is the heart of deputyship. …Jesus did not seek first of all to be good or to preserve his innocence. Rather, he freely took upon himself the guilt of others. (51)

Rasmussen concludes, “Responsible men should do the same.”

230113_1_ftcYou can see where this is going: the concepts of deputyship and guilt have a great deal of explanatory power when it comes to Bonhoeffer’s attempt to take Hitler’s life.

I love this idea of Bonhoeffer’s that Rasmussen describes, namely, that preservation of our sinlessness, innocence, or purity is not to be our primary motivation in acting in the world. Rather, our deputyship (responsibility for the other) should drive us. This means for Bonhoeffer that we may need to get our hands dirty if a tyrant is threatening the well-being of the “others” on whose behalf we act.

But this notion of guilt is difficult for me to fully grasp, and I wonder how we can still leave room for the fact that Jesus, even if not seeking to preserve his innocence, did preserve his innocence.

1 Peter 2:22 quotes Isaiah 53:9 when it says, “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” The verse before even says that Christ’s suffering for us in this way leaves us “an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Specifically in 1 Peter the example we are to follow is Jesus’s suffering for doing good and enduring it (1 Peter 2:20). But Jesus also suffered innocently and is lauded for so doing. 1 Peter 2:23 says:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.

Are we called to follow Jesus’s example in patient suffering on behalf of others (Bonhoeffer’s deputyship) and in emulating Jesus’s innocence when we suffer on behalf of others?

Yet we will never be like Jesus who “committed no sin.” Should we cut our losses and leave room for our guilt—as Rasmussen seems to read Bonhoeffer—when it comes to suffering for others?

(If so, it could be important to distinguish between the guilt Jesus took on through the crucifixion (not a direct consequence of his own impure action) and any guilt a co-conspirator has (presumably a direct consequence of the “impurity” of conspiratorial involvement)).

Bonhoeffer’s idea of deputyship, and acceptance of any guilt deputyship entails, leads Rasmussen to this utterly astounding summary of Bonhoeffer’s thought:

To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action. (51)

It’s as if Bonhoeffer thought one could not resist in Nazi Germany in a sinless, innocent, or pure way. This was no longer the non-violent resistance in The Cost of Discipleship. Again: “To maintain one’s innocence in a setting such as that of the Third Reich, even to the point of not plotting Hitler’s death, would be irresponsible action” (51).

If that’s not enough, here’s where Rasmussen, describing Bonhoeffer, gets really intense. (How’s this for a take on martyrdom?)

To refuse to stand with others trying desperately to topple the perpetrators of mass crimes, to refuse to engage oneself in the demands of necessità [where necessity transcends law], would be the selfish act of one who cared for his own innocence, who cared for his own guiltlessness, more than he cared for his guilty brothers. It would be a rejection of deputyship as the form of the responsible life and of acceptance of guilt as the heart of deputyship. If responsible men have no choice but to infiltrate Hitler’s war machinery, the Christian does not forsake them but joins them. And if in the process he becomes a martyr he will not be a saintly martyr but a guilty one. He may have to forfeit every taint of perfectionism in his pacifism. He may have to join the grotesque, evil enterprises of his very enemy. He may even have to consider and carry out tyrannicide, or actively support those who do. He will bear his colleagues’ burdens and share their sinfulness even when they are not related directly to his own actions. And he will do so as an extraordinary form of the imitatio Christ in a demonic society. (52)

Amazing. I’m still trying to work through all this. It at least helps shed light on how Bonhoeffer could actively join efforts to take Hitler’s life. And a step further: Rasmussen suggests Bonhoeffer saw his conspiracy to murder as not just permissible, but as a Christian duty of sorts: deputyship with guilt.

Wise Words from Bonhoeffer for These Troubled Times: “The Tyrannical Despiser of Humanity”

Read it carefully, read it well. From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

The message of God’s becoming human attacks the heart of an era when contempt for humanity or idolization of humanity is the height of all wisdom, among bad people as well as good.

The weaknesses of human nature appear more clearly in a storm than in the quiet flow of calmer times. Among the overwhelming majority of people, anxiety, greed, lack of independence, and brutality show themselves to be the mainspring of behavior in the face of unsuspected chance and threats. At such a time the tyrannical despiser of humanity easily makes use of the meanness of the human heart by nourishing it and giving it other names. Anxiety is called responsibility; greed is called industriousness; lack of independence becomes solidarity; brutality becomes masterfulness. By this ingratiating treatment of human weaknesses, what is base and mean is generated and increased ever anew. The basest contempt for humanity carries on its sinister business under the most holy assertions of love for humanity. The meaner the baseness becomes, the more willing and pliant a tool it is in the hand of the tyrant.

The small number of upright people will be smeared with mud. Their courage is called revolt, their discipline Pharisaism, their independence arbitrariness, and their masterfulness arrogance. For the tyrannical despiser of humanity, popularity is a sign of the greatest love for humanity. He hides his secret profound distrust of all people behind the stolen words of true community. While he declares himself before the masses to be one of them, he praises himself with repulsive vanity and despises the rights of every individual. He considers the people stupid, and they become stupid; he considers them weak, and they become weak; he considers them criminal, and they become criminal. His most holy seriousness is frivolous play; his conventional protestations of solicitude for people are bare–faced cynicism. In his deep contempt for humanity, the more he seeks the favor of those he despises, the more certainly he arouses the masses to declare him a god.

SOURCE: Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Ethics. Vol. 6 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009. [Paragraph divisions mine]

Available here (Fortress Press) and here (Accordance).

Bonhoeffer on How to Answer the “What Should We Do?” Question

I’m reading this book that I absolutely love so far (even if only 10 pages in):

 

 

It is dense but wonderful. I love Bonhoeffer’s idea of answering, “What am I to do?” by answering, “How is Christ taking form in the world?”

The author of this book, Larry L. Rasmussen, says:

With this methodology moral action is action that conforms to Christ’s form in the world (that accords with reality); immoral action is action that deviates from Christ’s form in the world (from reality).

Such a measuring stick is completely apropos even in a secular democracy, since, as Rasmussen says:

The striking advantage of this method consists in its potential applicability for both the Christian and the non-Christian….

Here’s a whole page, all of which looks to be laying important groundwork for the rest of the book:

 

 

More to come.

New Bonhoeffer Title: Engaging Bonhoeffer

Engaging Bonhoeffer

 

I learned today of a new Bonhoeffer studies title releasing (in days!) from Fortress Press. It’s called Engaging Bonhoeffer: The Impact and Influence of Bonhoeffer’s Life and Thought. Here’s the blurb:

Engaging Bonhoeffer documents the extraordinary impact of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and writing on later thought. Despite his lasting legacy, little substantial scholarship has been conducted in this area. In this magisterial collection, leading international scholars fill this striking gap and critically demonstrate the ways in which Bonhoeffer has been one of the most original, inspirational, and provocative writers of the twentieth century.

Bonhoeffer’s work has proved foundational for a wide variety of thinkers and movements across such areas as ecclesiology, Christology, spirituality, ethics, hermeneutics, phenomenology, epistemology, and systematic theology more generally. Whether one considers his writings to have been faithfully interpreted, critically adopted or justifiably rejected, Engaging Bonhoeffer describes those who have engaged with Bonhoeffer’s work, been inspired by his actions, and found a way to express and explain their own ideas through interacting with his life and thought. In addition to shedding light on the different theological trajectories that Bonhoeffer’s work may forge, this challenging volume offers a critical window through which to view and appreciate the ideas of many leading voices of modern theology.

There are 15 essays in all, the titles of which are all here. The ones I’m particularly interested in are:

1. A Tale of Two Bonhoeffers?—Keith W. Clements
2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Death of God Theologians—Eleanor McLaughlin
7. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Liberation Theologies—Geffrey B. Kelly and Matthew D. Kirkpatrick
14. On the Phenomenology of CreationJohn Panteleimon Manoussakis
15. “Let your light so shine”Medi Ann Volpe and Jennifer Moberly

Kudos to Fortress Press for keeping the Bonhoeffer goodness coming! Last fall they published reader’s editions of four classic Bonhoeffer titles. Kudos also to Fortress for publishing a Bonhoeffer book with a fresh photo of the man! Looks like a young Bonhoeffer, probably when he was a teenager getting ready to fire off a couple of dissertations.

If/as I learn more about Engaging Bonhoeffer, I’ll post again here. In the meantime, the publisher’s book page is here. It’s on Amazon here.

Bonhoeffer’s Last Words, Before He Was Hanged (71 Years Ago Today)

 

Source: German Federal Archive
Source: German Federal Archive

 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the U.S. military came to liberate it.

John W. de Gruchy describes the lead-up to that day in his Editor’s Introduction to Letters and Papers from Prison (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, volume 8):

On October 8 [of 1944], Bonhoeffer was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, where he stayed until February 7, 1945. From then on, all correspondence came to an end, and contact between Bonhoeffer and the family and [Eberhard] Bethge was broken. From there Bonhoeffer was taken first to Buchenwald and then, via the village of Schönberg in Bavaria, to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, where he arrived on April 8. That evening he was tried by a hastily rigged court and condemned to death. Early the next morning Bonhoeffer was executed along with several other coconspirators.

He was hanged April 9. His family would not learn about it for several months.

The July before he had written to his trusted friend (and later biographer) Eberhard Bethge, one day after the failed assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. He wrote:

How should one become arrogant over successes or shaken by one’s failures when one shares in God’s suffering in the life of this world? You understand what I mean even when I put it so briefly. I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things. …

May God lead us kindly through these times, but above all, may God lead us to himself.

His final recorded words before his hanging are especially appropriate in these days that follow Easter Sunday:

This is the end–for me the beginning of life.

 


 

This post is adapted from a post I wrote around this time two years ago, as part of the “Tuesdays in Lent with Bonhoeffer” I was doing. See other gathered posts here.