Bonhoeffer’s courage, 90 years later
The young Lutheran’s stand against Nazi idolatry and an oncoming catastrophe
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On the 30th of January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Many Germans embraced the rise to power of the Nazi party as an answer to the decadence, failure, and humiliation of the years since the end of the Great War. Among the few who observed the dangerous significance of this ideology stood the young Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
On Feb. 1, just days before his 27th birthday and days after Hitler’s accession, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address on the concept of the leader (Führer) among the younger generation. The radio transmission was cut short, presumably because the authorities anticipated the nature of Bonhoeffer’s criticism of the rising cult of the Führer. A month later, Bonhoeffer lectured on the same topic and removed all doubt about his courage and wisdom.
In the radio address and subsequent lecture, Bonhoeffer displayed a remarkable ability to distill key features of recent history, sociology, politics, and theology into a complex but understandable survey. The key dynamic Bonhoeffer observed was the relationship between the individual person and the community or the collective. Faith in received traditions and institutions had been deeply shaken. Moreover, the youth of Bonhoeffer’s day—among which he certainly counted himself—had matured in a post-war era that filled them with doubt, anxiety, and a pervasive feeling of loss. “A sense of the individual and the sense of true community seemed to have been completely destroyed,” said Bonhoeffer.
Into the vacuum stepped a new party, a new leader, and a new ideology. By 1933 Adolf Hitler was the undisputed head of the nationalist party, poised to seize the levers of power and further consolidate Nazi control over Germany. Bonhoeffer saw where this movement was headed, even as many Germans looked with hope for deliverance from an era of national disgrace. Bonhoeffer’s warning about the dangers of placing loyalty to person over principle presaged the increasing corruption of morals and politics through the rest of the decade, culminating finally in the slaughter of millions in Germany and Hitler’s military aggression toward the rest of Europe and the world.
Leadership and authority, argued Bonhoeffer, are important and legitimate callings. Far from being an idealistic pacifist or fanatic anarchist, Bonhoeffer’s Lutheranism formed his understanding of the legitimate role of political authority. And in extreme cases, such as that faced by Germany in 1933, it is understandable how a powerful personality might exercise influence over a nation’s citizens. But, warned Bonhoeffer, “the leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol, that is, the ultimate authority of the led.” This was, in fact, the critical feature of Hitler’s leadership: his personality shaped politics, and his will became the law.
The consequences of such an inversion of the office of leadership were catastrophic. Individual people, created in the image of God, must stand before God in their callings. They could not place anyone else in the ultimate seat of judgment and authority. “Only before God,” said Bonhoeffer with characteristic Lutheran emphasis, “does the human being become what he is, an individual, free, and at the same time bound in responsibility.” To allow anyone else to come between the individual and God was to commit idolatry. To do this was essentially to replace God with another creaturely authority.
Sin has corrupted all aspects of human relationship: God, one another, and the world. Only Christ’s mediating and redeeming work can restore those relationships. But where the Christian faith sees God as the ultimate authority and Christ as the mediator, the emerging Nazi ideology set the Leader in place of God and Christ.
“Leader and office that turn themselves into gods mock God and the solitary individual before him who is becoming the individual, and must collapse,” concluded Bonhoeffer. “Only the leader who is in the service of the penultimate and ultimate authority merits loyalty.” Without naming Hitler directly, Bonhoeffer challenged the pledge of ultimate and personal allegiance that the Nazi leader demanded. And he rightly predicted the disaster that awaited, albeit only after much suffering and loss.
Bonhoeffer’s prophetic warning about the dangers of political idolatry and ideology anticipated his own ongoing and consistent opposition to the Nazi regime. He would ultimately pay for that faithfulness and loyalty to God above loyalty to nation or party with his life. But his sacrifice, as well as his warnings, stand nearly a century later as a clarion call to all Christians everywhere to remain faithful to Christ amid a world of uncertainty, revolution, and outright idolatry.
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