The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi: Opposing Hitler From Within the Reich
October 9, 2012
In January 1933, German conservatives, facing a political deadlock, engineered a way for Adolf Hitler, leader of Germany’s largest political party, to become chancellor, with a predominantly conservative cabinet. They thought he would be their “captive”—the first of many fatal illusions that eased Hitler’s path to power. Soon it was clear that his regime would eliminate all opposition and establish total control over what had been a politically and culturally diverse, if polarized, society. Giving their actions a deceptive veneer of legality, the Nazis enticed most of Germany’s indispensable civil servants to collaborate with them—including teachers, professors, and judges—while relying on terror and murder to intimidate and silence any who resisted. The regime won great popular support, as ceaseless propaganda cunningly exploited the Nazis’ successes at home and abroad.
To oppose such a regime was rare, and to do so in order to protect the sanctity of law and faith was rarer still. We are concerned here with two exceptional men who from the start of the Third Reich opposed the Nazi outrages: the scarcely known lawyer Hans von Dohnanyi and his brother-in-law, the well-known pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dohnanyi recorded Nazi crimes, helped victims, did his best to sabotage Nazi policies, and eventually helped plot Hitler’s removal; Bonhoeffer fought the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches. For both men the regime’s treatment of Jews was of singular importance. Holocaust literature is vast and the literature on German resistance scant, yet the lives and deaths of the two men show us important links between them.
Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer became close friends, especially after Dohnanyi drew his brother-in-law into active resistance against the regime. And their remarkable family deserves recognition, too, since its principled support was indispensable to their efforts. But Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer ended in defeat: they were arrested in April 1943 and then murdered, on Hitler’s express orders, just weeks before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender.1
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, born in 1906, was the youngest son of Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer and his wife, Paula, who had come to Berlin from Breslau with their eight children in 1912 when he became chief of psychiatry at Berlin’s Charité Hospital. The parents raised their children with an impressive mixture of freedom and discipline, and the family stayed close as the second generation moved into vigorous adolescence and adulthood. Dietrich decided when he was fourteen that he would be a pastor, and his university studies served that end: he had his doctorate in theology by 1927. After working abroad—as vicar in a German church in Barcelona and then as a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York—he was ordained, but his passage to accredited church work ran up against the Nazis’ determined campaign to unify the many parts of the German Evangelical Church in a single Reich church purged of what they called its Jewish elements.
At the beginning of this Kirchenkampf, Bonhoeffer wrote a controversial essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”2 Good Lutheran that he was, he conceded that the church was “neither to praise nor to censure the laws of the state,” but it could and should ask whether a state action (e.g., vis-à-vis Jews) “can be justified as…legitimate.” Moreover the church had an “unconditional obligation towards the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community”; in any case a “baptized Jew is a member of our church.” Further, the church must “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel” of the state “but at times halt the wheel itself.” No one else in the church was advancing such potentially subversive ideas. But then, all the Bonhoeffers had distrusted the Nazi movement from its start.
Seeing that the Nazis intended to impose their dogma—that race, not religion, determined one’s civic identity—on the churches, Bonhoeffer joined other pastors in challenging the conservative-reactionary church leaders who acceded to this view. The dissidents organized themselves into what became known as the Confessing Church, which more than two thousand pastors joined, and Bonhoeffer alerted ecumenical organizations abroad to the Nazi threats. In 1935, he readily accepted a teaching position at a remote Pomeranian estate in a quasi-legitimate “preachers’ seminary.” He spent three years there, but went often to Berlin to see his parents—and to talk to his brother-in-law Hans, who was fighting the Nazis on different fronts.
Hans von Dohnanyi, born in 1902, a son of the Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi, had also grown up in Berlin and had known the Bonhoeffer family since childhood; in 1925, he received his doctorate in law and married Dietrich’s sister Christine. He was soon appointed to important posts in government and academic institutes, where he became known for his exceptional intellect and integrity. With his unconditional, patriotic support of the Weimar Republic, he was fervently outspoken in his democratic convictions.
In 1929 Dohnanyi entered the Reich Ministry of Justice as an aide to State Secretary Curt Jöel, a strict conservative of Jewish descent; in June 1933 he became assistant to Minister of Justice Franz Gürtner, a conservative non-Nazi lawyer whom Hitler kept on to reassure people that the “law” remained in non-Nazi hands. As Gürtner’s chief assistant Hans was privy to information about the Nazis’ crimes; by 1934 he was keeping a chronological record of them along with supporting documents; these were stored in an army safe at the Zossen military base near Berlin, Hans having been assured of its inviolability. He meant the documents to facilitate the prosecution of Nazi criminals after the end of the regime.
Hans knew that in November 1937 Hitler had presented to the army high command his secret plans to establish a new German-dominated order in Europe. After he got rid, by various vile means, of the top officers he found “unreliable” and presided over the Anschluss with Austria, his next target was Czechoslovakia, the one remaining democracy in Central Europe and militarily strong. Dohnanyi became close to the Wehrmacht officers who were appalled by the prospect of war over Czechoslovakia; they were determined to remove Hitler from power in order to avert his reckless adventure…