The German who Opposed Hitler
Remembrance Day. It is a day of profound emotions as we reflect over the men and women who fought and died in the wars of this century. Particularly, World War II stands out for most people because of the horrendous atrocities committed by Adolph Hitler. Millions died. Even little children were executed. How was it possible that National Socialism in Germany and its idol, Adolph Hitler, could turn much of the world upside down with its destruction and death? How was it possible that the German people themselves went along with this and did not try to prevent the egotistical tyranny of Hitler’s killing machine? In fact, they did not all go along with Hitler and National Socialism. There were many who tried to oppose Hitler. There were also those who tried to defeat Hitler by means of the Word of God. One such man was a German theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906. At a very young age he started to study theology and demonstrated not only a keen intellect but also a devout character. He came under the influence of Karl Barth which is something to keep in mind when reading or studying Bonhoeffer’s writings. At the age of twenty-four, in the year 1930, Bonhoeffer became a lecturer in Systematic Theology at Berlin University. At this very young age, he quickly recognized that National Socialism stood totally opposed to God and his Word. National Socialism was the worship and promotion of man’s own glory and power. In 1933 he publicly denounced both National Socialism and Adolph Hitler. He made clear that the German people were accepting Hitler as their idol and their god. Understandably this did not endear Bonhoeffer to the authorities. As World War II was about to erupt, Bonhoeffer’s American friends got him out of Germany. They feared for his life.
However, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not content with securing his personal safety. As he made clear in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, to believe in God’s remarkable grace in Jesus Christ means a calling to practise one’s faith, no matter what the sacrifice might be. A Christian must be prepared even to die for the surpassing worth of proclaiming and standing up for the gospel. Bonhoeffer could not let Hitler go unchecked in his murderous and tyrannical quest for power and dominion. He believed that he not only had to oppose Hitler, but Hitler and his plans had to be defeated. He would do that with the Word of God. Therefore Bonhoeffer returned to Germany.
Challenging with the Word of God
We should recognize the implications of a German theologian standing up against his political leader. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was originally a traditional Lutheran who saw a sharp distinction between politics and religion. He gradually changed from this idea of the separation between church and state. He saw Adolph Hitler as the antichrist and that it was, therefore, Bonhoeffer’s duty to oppose this tyranny. He saw it as his Christian duty to put faith into practice and to stop the man who opposed God and the teachings of Scripture. Bonhoeffer also bemoaned the fact that the Lutheran Church in Germany had not done its duty in warning the German people against National Socialism and Hitler. He wrote about the dangerous preaching of “cheap grace.”
This style of preaching called people simply to believe in Jesus Christ without adding that faith leads to obedience and the complete surrender of one’s life to God. He wrote the following in The Cost of Discipleship:
Where were those truths which impelled the early Church to institute the catechumenate, which enabled a strict watch to be kept over the frontier between the Church and the world, and afforded adequate protection for costly grace? What had happened to all those warnings of Luther against preaching the gospel in such a manner as to make men rest secure in their ungodly living?
Was there ever a more terrible or disastrous instance of the Christianizing of the world than this? What are those three thousands Saxons put to death by Charlemagne compared with the millions of spiritual corpses in our country today? With us it has been abundantly proved that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. Cheap grace has turned out to be utterly merciless to our Evangelical Church.
The church had not done its duty in training its members with both the promises and demands of the Scriptures.
Bonhoeffer believed that nothing but a return to faithful preaching and putting faith into practice could save Germany. He saw it as his duty, a duty which had not been met by the established church, to oppose Hitler with the Word of God and to bring him down.
On April 5, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo. During his time in prisons and concentration camps, Bonhoeffer not only was a tremendous spiritual support to other prisoners, but he also wrote movingly about his trust and hope in the Lord. Bonhoeffer spent his final days at the concentration camp at Flossenberg. Just a few days before the liberation of this camp, on April 9, 1945, on the special orders of Himmler, the S.S. Black Guards executed Bonhoeffer by hanging. He was only thirty-nine years old. To the very end, Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw it as his duty and his privilege to offer his own life in order to proclaim the supremacy of God and His Word, thus pointing out Hitler as an egotistical tyrant opposed to God.
You are the Salt of the Earth
We thank God that there were men, women and children who risked their lives to oppose tyranny. We also thank God that in Germany itself there were people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer who clearly taught that only through submission to the Word of God can a people stand up to and bring down a man like Adolph Hitler. We are reminded here of the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in Matthew 5: You are the salt of the earth ... You are the light of the world. There is no greater power or control over the lawlessness of men than proclamation of the gospel. When the Word of God is proclaimed throughout our society and to the ends of the earth with its message of the sovereign grace of God and the call of a total surrender to the will of God, then people will be shown how to set aside their greed, their hostility and self- serving ways. This is not to suggest that as Christians we can bring an end to all war and hostility. All we can do is humbly and gratefully be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We trust that God will use our work in the pursuit of his goals for the coming of the kingdom.
All of this has some very real and practical application for our lives today. We live in a time of terrible spiritual warfare. As we reflect on the wars of this century, we also need to realize that there is a war going on very close to home. In our society, unborn babies are being slaughtered for very self-serving reasons, without fear of reprisal. Euthanasia, while still outlawed, is being practised in our society. It appears that it may become even more common and might eventually be practised with impunity. What is the hope for our society and country except that the church speaks up loud and clear, and that Christians speak up loud and clear, showing from the Word of God that this is murder and therefore forbidden? Let us learn our lessons from history. Let us learn our duty as the salt and light of God in this dark and broken world. Only through faithfulness to the Word of God will people be led away from their self-seeking ways and brought to the true liberty and joy of living in obedience and gratitude to the Lord.