Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the Archives
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resident application, 1931 / I-House Archives
This Holocaust Remembrance Day, the International House Archives is proud to honor Alum Dietrich Bonhoeffer ’31 (1906-1945), who was a member of International House while pursuing a teaching fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. The lessons he gained from I-House, and his time in Harlem, would prove foundational in his development of ethics rooted in social justice. Bonhoeffer rooted himself in the realities of racism in the United States. He attended a Baptist church, took courses on social issues, read African American authors, and visited the American South. These early experiences helped shape his views towards German antisemitism after the Nazi party came to power in the early 1930s.
While a member of I-House, Bonhoeffer met Albert Franklin Fisher, a Black fellow seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and the African American church experience. At the Abyssinian Church, Bonhoeffer heard Adam Clayton Powell preach the Gospel of Social Justice and formed a life-long love for Black Gospel music. At the Church, he began to lead a women’s Bible study and assisted in weekly church school. During this time, Bonhoeffer was a part of a vibrant community and he became deeply affected by the racism and injustice prevalent in America. Later Bonhoeffer wrote, “This personal acquaintance with Negroes was one of the most important and gratifying events of my stay in America.” In Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus, Reggie Williams, Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary, argues that Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood Nazism because he viewed German reality through the lens of black American oppression.
Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, NY
Bonhoeffer was an immediate opponent of National Socialism when Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He vehemently opposed the Third Reich’s political ideology, which turned Jesus into a divine representation of the ideal, racially pure Aryan and allowed race-hate to become part of Germany’s religious life. After graduating from UTS, Bonhoeffer wrote “The Church and the Jewish Question.” In this essay, Bonhoeffer confronted the challenges facing his church under Nazism. He argued that Christians had an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they were Christian or not. He began to preach on the virtues of action and decried the “cheap grace” of the German church and heralded a “costly grace” — grace that might cost a Christian his or her very life.
German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) / Photo by Bunk/ullstein bild via Getty Images
In October 1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began work as an agent for Military Intelligence, using his contacts to spread information about the resistance movement. In trips to Italy, Switzerland, and Scandinavia in 1941 and 1942, he informed them of resistance activities and tried to gain foreign support for the German resistance.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works series/ Fortress Press
Deportation of Berlin Jews to the East began on October 15, 1941. A few days later, Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Perels, a Confessing Church lawyer, wrote a message to foreign contacts and trusted German military officials, hoping that it might move them to action. Following, Bonhoeffer became involved in “Operation Seven,” a plan to get Jews out of Germany by smuggling them into Switzerland using foreign papers. The Gestapo eventually uncovered the “Operation Seven” funds, and Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, were arrested in April 1943.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Cell 92
Bonhoeffer was charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using his foreign travels for non-intelligence matters, and misusing his intelligence position to help Confessing Church pastors evade military service. His connections to the broader resistance circles were uncovered after Hitler’s failed July 20, 1944 coup attempt, and he was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was taken to Buchenwald and in April moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. The German pastor was executed by the Nazi regime on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the United States liberated the camp. When Bonhoeffer died, he famously remarked to another prisoner, “This is the end — but for me, the beginning.”
- Bean, Alan. “The African-American Roots of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity,” Baptist News Global, 30 Oct. 2015.
- “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” The Holocaust Encyclopedia.
- Myers, Ben. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer in New York,” Faith and Theology, 18 Oct. 2009.
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