70 Years Later, Remembering Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian Theologian and Thinker Who Changed the World

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Today marks the 70th anniversary of the execution of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged at the age of 39 in Flossenbürg concentration camp only weeks before the defeat of Nazi Germany. There is arguably no other Christian thinker whose life and work has led so many people from such a wide range of contexts to claim him as their own. 

He has been quoted by leaders and thinkers from across the globe, including President George W. Bush, the late antitheist Christopher Hitchens, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Among Christians, Bonhoeffer’s appeal extends from evangelicals to the liberals, and he is a poster boy at both ends of the religious spectrum for any number of contradictory political and theological positions.

Yet enter into any serious conversation about Bonhoeffer and there is a striking divide between the faithful and the historians, particularly scholars of the Holocaust. Examining Bonhoeffer’s actual record, the historian Kenneth C. Barnes once described his words and actions as “small, tentative, restrained, and ambivalent.” Looking at his theological writings, the Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim found no sign that Bonhoeffer had addressed anti-Jewish stereotypes and charged that Bonhoeffer “wholly failed to grasp” the evil that was done to Europe’s Jews.

Tensions between history and hagiography are inevitable. The bones of the familiar Bonhoeffer narrative are correct: he was the promising young theologian, the cosmopolitan student with a deep sense for outrage wherever he encountered injustice, the early critic of the Nazi regime, the pastor actively opposed to the nazification of German Protestantism, the man who carried messages for the German resistance to his contacts abroad.

But popular hagiography has lifted him far beyond that historical record. Hagiography establishes the life story as monument, giving it the meaning we would like it to have. In Bonhoeffer’s case this has happened literally: a sculpture of him stands as one of 10 saints of the 20th century on the west front of Westminster Abbey.

Popular films, novels and nonfiction works portray Bonhoeffer as a brave voice on the front lines, driven by his concern for Germany’s Jews and ultimately giving his life for their sake, a leader in Germany’s Confessing Church and then in the German resistance that sought to overthrow the regime.

And yet. In life Bonhoeffer was a young man, just starting his career when the Nazis came to power, and throughout the 1930s he was finding his way. In the 1980s, I interviewed a number of Germans who had been in the Confessing Church and was struck by the number of people who told me they had never heard of him until after 1945.

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Source: Washington Post | Victoria J. Barnett

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