Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer a Righteous Gentile?

by Richard L. Rubenstein (April 2011)

Presented at the International Bonhoeffer Society meeting at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Nashville, TN November 19, 2000.

On May 26, 1996 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum held a ceremony honoring Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi who helped to save Jews during the Third Reich. The ceremony was not without controversy concerning Bonhoeffer’s role that continues to this day. One especially harsh Jewish critic has called Bonhoeffer “the best of a bad lot.”[i] Anticipating the controversy, the Museum staff felt compelled to include the following statement in the invitation:

Although repudiating Nazism, Bonhoeffer also expressed the anti-Jewish bias of centuries-old Christian teaching.

The controversy was not settled by the Holocaust Memorial Museum’s actions. On July 28, 2000, Dr. Mordecai Paldiel, Director of the Department for the Righteous of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Martyr’s and Heroes Remembrance Authority wrote to a very distinguished group of Jewish and Christian scholars and religious leaders giving a detailed explanation of the reasons why on July 2, 2000, Yad Vashem’s Commission for the Designation of the Righteous deferred action on their petition to have Dietrich Bonhoeffer named a “righteous gentile.” Judging from Dr. Paldiel’s letter, it is highly unlikely that Bonhoeffer will be so named.[ii]

According to Dr. Paldiel, the title of “Righteous Gentile” is awarded to “persons who risked their life in the attempt to save one or more Jews from the Nazis, where the rescuer was personally and directly involved in the rescue operation, and where no distinction was made between Jews faithful to their religion and community and baptized Jews.” In addition, a person in “high office or influential position” who unambiguously denounced the persecution of Jews faithful to their inherited tradition rather than baptized Jews alone may be awarded the title. Paldiel cites the examples of Jules-Gérard Cardinal Saliège, Archbishop of Toulouse, and Bishop Pierre-Marie Théas, Bishop of Montauban, who spoke out explicitly against the persecution and who may be eligible.[iii]

Perhaps the most extraordinary example of a person awarded the title is one not cited by Paldiel, Carl Lutz, Swiss Vice Consul in Budapest, Hungary when Nazi Germany occupied that country on March 19, 1944. According to the records of the Swiss Federal Archives, Lutz issued Schutzbriefe, letters of protection, that enabled approximately 10,000 emigrants, primarily Jews, to escape from Hungary in the two years before full German occupation. The Schutzbriefe also protected its holders before emigration from being drafted into abusive labor service and arbitrary arrest. Anticipating the worst, Lutz placed no less than 30,000 holders of Schutzbriefe in seventy-six Schutzhäuser, protected houses, for which he had obtained diplomatic immunity. Although often in danger of death for his personal acts of defiance in rescuing Schutzbriefe holders seized by the Hungarian Nazi gangs in the Arrow Cross, the Gendarmerie or the S.S. Lutz personally rescued an amazing 62,000 Jews by sheer courage, defiance and cunning.[iv]

According to Paldiel, Bonhoeffer neither expressed so clear a condemnation as Saliège and Thèas nor anything as remotely heroic as Lutz.. On the contrary, Paldiel concludes:

… on the Jewish issue, the record of Bonhoeffer is to publicly condone certain measures by the Nazi state against the Jews (save only baptized Jews), and to uphold the traditional Christian delegitimization of Judaism, coupled with a religious justification of the persecution of Jews. His words against the extreme form of the Nazi anti-Jewish measures were uttered in private and among trusted colleagues; his denunciation of Judaism and justification of the initial anti-Jewish measures were voiced in writing.

This writer has no criticism of Yad Vashem for deferring the issue of awarding the title of “Righteous Gentile” to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Like any other institution, Yad Vashem has the right to establish specific criteria for awarding honors and Yad Vashem’s criteria would appear to exclude Bonhoeffer from their award. Nevertheless, it is also my conviction that, although Bonhoeffer does not appear to meet Yad Vashem’s criteria, it is nevertheless possible to regard him as a righteous gentile.

The path taken by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his ultimate martyrdom was anything but simple. Bonhoeffer has been described as “an insider who became an outsider in his own land.”[v] He was born into a family that was part of Germany’s Bildungsbürgertum, the educated middle classes that considered themselves the custodians of the nation’s “true” values.[vi] His paternal grandfather, Friedrich E. P. T. Bonhoeffer (1828-1907) was President of the High Court at Tübingen at the time of his death. His father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer, was one of Germany’s most distinguished psychiatrists, serving as Professor of Psychiatry and Nervous Diseases at the University of Berlin and director of the psychiatric and neurological clinic at Berlin’s Charité Hospital Complex from 1912 until his retirement in 1938. Karl Bonhoeffer was “religiously unmusical,” to use the phrase applied by Max Weber to himself. On his mother’s side, religion had played a more significant role. His maternal great-grandfather Karl August von Hase (1800-1890) was a church historian and professor at Jena. His son, Dietrich’s grandfather, Karl Alfred von Hase (1842-1914) served as Court Preacher to Kaiser Wilhelm II and Professor of Practical Theology at Breslau.[vii] The insider tradition was continued in Dietrich’s generation. His brother Karl-Friedrich was appointed to the chair of physics in Frankfurt at age 31. His twin sister Sabine married Gerhard Liebhold, a constitutional lawyer, who was appointed professor at Götttingen in 1931 only to be compelled to “retire” in 1938 because, although Christian, he was of Jewish origin. His sister Christine married Hans von Dohnanyi, who was executed in 1945 for his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler as were his brother Klaus and another brother-in-law Dr. Rüdiger Schleicher, who served in the Ministry of Transport.

Unlike most of their contemporaries among the Bildungsbürgertum, from the outset the Bonhoeffer family had few illusions about Hitler and National Socialism. Fifteen years after the war’s end, Karl Bonhoeffer wrote:

 From the start, we regarded the victory of National Socialism in 1933 and Hitler’s appointment as chancellor as a misfortune—the entire family agreed on this.[viii]

As is well known, the first public expression of the family’s opposition was the action of Dietrich’s grandmother Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer who may have been the only German to ignore the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses on April, 1, 1933 and, at age 91, marched past a menacing group of stormtroopers posted in front of the Jewish-owned department store, Kaufhaus des Westens. The presence of Gerhard Liebholz in the family also gave the family an early understanding of the practical consequences of National Socialist racism. Had the Bonhoeffer family chosen the path elected by the overwhelming majority of members of their caste and religious background, they would have found a way to accommodate, if not embrace, National Socialism.

The issue of political legitimacy was crucial for the Bonhoeffer family, as it was for most other members of their caste. It was one thing to disapprove of Hitler’s tactics; it was quite another to regard the government as utterly unworthy of allegiance and obedience. Taking this step was especially difficult for Dietrich because it went counter to everything his Lutheran tradition had taught about the state and the individual’s obligation to it. The Lutheran teaching concerning the individual’s relationship to political authority ultimately derives from Romans 13.  In that classical passage, Paul expounds on the duty of obedience the Christian owes the state:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad..…For it is God's servant for your good.  But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain!  It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.[ix]

While in prison, probably at the end of June 1943, Bonhoeffer expressed his opinion concerning the duty of obedience he believed was incumbent upon him:

If people want to know my idea of the Christian’s duty of obedience toward authority, they should read my interpretations of Romans 13 in my book, Discipleship. The call and the will to submit to Christian conscience has probably seldom been expressed more strongly than here.[x]

Given his Lutheran background, it was exceedingly difficult for Bonhoeffer to challenge authority and it was an exceptional achievement that he could do so. On April 15, 1933 at a time when the new regime was initiating its sweeping laws effectively removing Jews and persons of Jewish descent from employment, Bonhoeffer completed his essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” The essay is difficult and controversial and exhibits the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s views of Jews were consistent with older, hostile, supersessionary Christian stereotypes. The essay begins with two quotations from Luther concerning the Jews. The first quote, dated 1546, reads as follows:

We should still show them the Christian doctrine and ask them to turn and accept the Lord whom by rights they should have honored before we did….Where they repent, leave their usury, and accept Christ, we would gladly accept them as our brothers.[xi]

When I first read this quotation in Bonhoeffer, my reaction was one of offense and anger. In effect, Bonhoeffer was repeating Luther’s demand that I personally “repent” of the sin of fidelity to my own tradition and leave off a customary “usury” that is beneath my dignity even to deny. Nevertheless, I believe something else was at work in Bonhoeffer’s use of this passage. “The Law for the Reestablishment of the Professional Civil Service” had been enacted eight days earlier on April 7, 1933. Article 3 of the so-called law called for the “retirement of officials of “non-Aryan descent” with certain minor exceptions.[xii] This became known as the Aryan clause. The pro-Nazi German Christians demanded that the Aryan clause be applied to Protestant Pastors of Jewish or part-Jewish descent. In addition, a more generalized movement was developing for the exclusion of all non-Aryan Christians from membership and religious fellowship in Protestant Churches.[xiii] As a well-known and respected, albeit still youthful, Church leader and teacher, Bonhoeffer’s first concern was with the application of Nazi legal enactments in the community where he had a voice and for which he had some degree of responsibility, the Church. He had few, if any, contacts with non-baptized Jews. The two people he knew who were affected by the Aryan Clause were his brother-in-law, Gerhard Liebhold, and one of his best friends, Hans Hildebrandt, a  Lutheran pastor of Jewish descent. 

Neither political nor humanitarian arguments could have convinced the majority of his fellow pastors of the inadmissibility of excluding pastors of Jewish origin. Luther’s advice to “gladly accept them” as brothers if they accepted Christ was another matter. It was arguably one of the strongest theological arguments available to Bonhoeffer at the time. Bonhoeffer was skillfully using the words of the founder of German Protestantism, a man well known for his antagonism to Jews, to argue that the Nazi attempt to exclude baptized Jews on racial grounds from Christian fellowship had no theological support.  Let us not forget where Bonhoeffer was coming from, the time in which he wrote, or the nature of his audience.

The second Luther quotation, dated 1523, an earlier time when Luther’s hostility was not fully developed, in some ways offers an even stronger argument against the application of the Aryan clause within the Church:

If the Apostles, who were also Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would have been no Christians among the Gentiles. But seeing that they acted in such a brotherly way towards us, we in turn should act in a brotherly way towards the Jews in case we might convert some. For we ourselves are not yet fully their equals, much less their superiors…But now we use force against them….what good will we do them with that? Similarly, how will we benefit them by forbidding them to live and work and have other human fellowship with us, thus driving them to practice usury? (italics added)[xiv]

Here Bonhoeffer reminds his fellow Christians of an earlier statement of Luther objecting to the mistreatment and exclusion of the Jews. There is also an implicit criticism of Nazi racism in Luther’s statement “For we are not yet fully their equals.” To repeat, in seeking to evaluate Bonhoeffer’s attitude towards the Jews of the Third Reich, we had best keep in mind the circumstances confronting Bonhoeffer when he wrote the essay.

Having quoted Luther, Bonhoeffer states the issues raised by the Aryan clause for the Church:

The fact… that Jews have been made subject to special laws by the state solely because of race…and quite apart from his religious beliefs raises two new problems for the theologian…What is the church’s attitude to this action by the state? And what should the church do as a result of it? The other [question] is, what attitude should the church take to its members who are baptized Jews?[xv]

Ever the theologian, Bonhoeffer proposes to answer the questions “in the light of a true concept of a church.” In the spirit of Martin Luther he began his theological response by stating categorically that

The Church of the Reformation has no right to address the state directly in its specifically political actions. It has neither the right to praise nor to censure the laws of the state, but must rather affirm the state to be God’s order of preservation in a godless world.[xvi]

Bonhoeffer is harshly explicit in separating the competency of the two realms:

It [the Church] has to recognize the state’s ordinances, good or bad as they appear from a humanitarian point of view, and to understand that they are based on the sustaining will of God amidst the chaotic godlessness of the world. This view of the state’s action on the part of the church is far removed from any form of moralism and is distinct from any humanitarianism of any shade through the radical nature of the gulf between the standpoint of the Gospel and the … Law. The action of the state remains free from the church’s intervention. [xvii]

The casual German reader encountering the above paragraph in the spring of 1933 would, in all likelihood, conclude that Bonhoeffer is asserting that the anti-Jewish legislation enacted by the state is none of the church’s business and that there are no relevant moral or humanitarian standards by which the Church might judge the state’s actions. This would appear to be confirmed by Bonhoeffer’s explicit assertion concerning the church and die Judenfrage:

Without doubt the Jewish question is one of the historical problems which our state must deal with, and without doubt the state is justified in adopting new methods here.

While allowing that private humanitarian groups and individual Christians may feel the need to “remind the state of the moral side of any of its measures,” Bonhoeffer insists that such moralizing is beyond the competence of “the true Church of Christ…which lives solely from the Gospel and… recognizes the absolute necessity of the use of force in this world and also the ‘moral’ injustice of certain concrete acts of the state which are necessarily bound up with the use of force.”[xviii]

Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer also maintains that there is a way in which the church can legitimately criticize the state, namely, when the state fails in its mission to be God’s order of preservation in a godless world. When the state’s actions foster lawlessness and disorder instead of order, the church can ask the state whether its actions are legitimate and in accordance with the legitimate state’s character.  The church can also aid the “victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.”[xix] There is a third more drastic possibility, one that Bonhoeffer himself was eventually driven to choose, “not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel.” According to Bonhoeffer, such an action would be direct political action that would only be justified if the state were to fail in its function of creating law and order. At this stage of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer saw political criticism of the state by the church as a step so serious that it could only be undertaken by an Evangelical Church Council. Several years were to pass before he would completely despair of the Church taking the step and would take it by himself.

Clearly, in April 1933 Bonhoeffer, like the overwhelming majority of Germans, did not see the new regime as wholly lacking legitimacy or failing in its function as a guarantor of law and order. This involved no approval of the Nazi state. He had already courageously voiced his opposition. On February 1, 1933, two days after Hitler’s coming to power, Bonhoeffer gave a radio address on “The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of the Führer” in which he warned of the danger of the Führer becoming a Verführer, a “misleader” or a “seducer.”  As is well known, his talk was cut off before he could utter the warning.

Since Bonhoeffer’s approach to the Jewish problem was primarily theological, he insisted that “the church cannot allow its actions towards its members to be prescribed by the state.”[xx] The church and it alone had the right to determine who belonged to its fellowship and who could serve as a pastor. Throughout his entire career he never wavered from this position.

By the same token, he was utterly incapable of seeing Jews in any way other than through the prism of Lutheran Christian interpretation. Thus, Bonhoeffer also offers what appears to be a theological legitimation of the Nazi state’s new anti-Jewish laws as long as they did not apply to baptized Jews:

Now the measures of the state towards Judaism in addition stand in a quite special context for the church. The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the ‘chosen people,’ who nailed the Redeemer of the world to the cross, must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering.[xxi]

He then quotes Luther’s Table Talk:

Jews are the poorest among all nations upon earth, they are tossed to and fro, they are scattered here and there in all lands, they have no certain place where they could remain safely and must always be afraid of being driven out…

And S. Mencken (1795):

When the time comes that this people humbles itself and penitently departs from the sins of its fathers to which it has clung with fearful stubbornness to this day, and calls down upon itself the blood of the Crucified one for reconciliation, then the world will wonder at the miracle that God works!

Bonhoeffer continues with his own comment:

But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, and under the sign of the final homecoming of the people of Israel to its God. And this home-coming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ….This conversion, that is to be the end of the people’s period of suffering.[xxii]

Passages like these are part of the reason that the Jewish critic cited above characterized Bonhoeffer as the best of a bad lot. Nevertheless, he does pull back from using his inherited theological antisemitism to accord legitimacy to the Nazi persecution of the Jews. “No nation,” Bonhoeffer declares, “can ever be commissioned to avenge on the Jews the murder of Golgotha.”[xxiii]

There are alternative ways to understand Bonhoeffer’s inability to see the Jews in any light other than the traditional Christian ascription of divine chastisement of the Jews for the crucifixion and for their “unbelief.” If one sees him in that light, he is part of the problem that leads inescapably to the Shoah. Alternatively, one can see Bonhoeffer as a man who transcended the time and culture that produced him to do what only a handful of his fellow Germans were prepared to do, risk and finally sacrifice his life in the struggle to bring to an end the terrible evil that had overtaken his people. Moreover, as objectionable as many today find his problematic readings of his theological inheritance, without them he would have had no Archimedean point with which to transcend his culture and oppose Hitler and National Socialism. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend nand most important biographer, cites the contrasting reception accorded the beginning of the National Socialist regime by Ernst Martin, the Dean of Magdeburg Cathedral, and Bonhoeffer. Martin spoke in a cathedral whose altar was surrounded by  “a forest of swastika flags.” Martin declared:

It has simply become the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol is reviling our Germany…The swastika flags around the altar radiate hope that the day is at last about to dawn.[xxiv]

By contrast in the first sermon Bonhoeffer preached in Trinity Church in Berlin after the Nazi seizure of power, he declared:

The church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty… before which all creatures must kneel. Whoever seeks something other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God…The church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit, faith and God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well intentioned.[xxv]

During the academic year 1930-31, Bonhoeffer had a post-doctoral fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. He made friends both among the students and faculty. New York had the largest Jewish population of any city in the entire world. The campus of the Jewish Theological Seminary had been completed at the corner of Broadway and 122nd Street diagonally across from the Union Theological Seminary. Yet, in spite of the rapid growth of the Nazi party and intensifying antisemitism at home, I find no evidence that Bonhoeffer manifested any curiosity concerning Jews or Judaism during his 1930-31 stay in America. Undoubtedly, this was not the result of personal hostility but of the fact that his understanding of Jews and Judaism had been fixed by his understanding of the place assigned to them in Lutheran theology. Similarly, when in 1930 the Federal Council of Churches published a report stating that the practice of contraception by married couples is “valid and moral” and Commonweal protested, Bonhoeffer noted that the conflict between Protestants and Catholics on the issue “turns out to be an ethical one, since the dogmatic is no longer understood by Protestants.”[xxvi]

Bonhoeffer came once again to America in June 1939. His friends had arranged a one-year program of scholarly and pastoral work for him. Had he remained in the United States, he would almost certainly have established himself as a theologian of note. He knew that the outbreak of war was imminent. He had no illusions about Hitler’s policies. Nevertheless, almost immediately after arriving in New York, he realized that he had made a mistake and that, whatever the risks to his person, he belonged in Germany sharing the ordeal that he knew awaited his people. As he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security.[xxvii]

That was an extraordinarily difficult choice for Bonhoeffer to make, to will the defeat of his own nation and to participate in bringing it about. And to repeat, without his traditional Lutheran faith with its tradition of anti-Jewish hostility, he would never have made it.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi was a member of the staff of the Ministry of Justice with routine access to all of the Ministry’s records detailing the crimes, scandals and policies of the Nazi regime. From the very beginning of Nazi rule Dohnanyi kept a “Chronicle of Shame,” a day-by-day account of Nazi actions and policies for later use. As a result, Bonhoeffer knew far more than most Germans about the deeds of the Hitler regime.[xxviii] By 1939 Dohnanyi had become an officer of the Abwehr, the counter-intelligence agency of Nazi Germany’s armed forces and one of the principal centers of the anti-Nazi resistance movement. In August 1939 Dohnanyi secured an appointment for Bonhoeffer as a civilian agent of the Abwehr. This kept him out of the Wehrmacht and gave him the cover to maintain communication with contacts in Britain, Switzerland and Sweden.

In April 1943, he and Dohnanyi were arrested by the Gestapo for their part in “Operation 7,” a successful attempt to smuggle fourteen Jews, some baptized others not, into Switzerland. They were operating under the instructions of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the anti-Nazi head of the Abwehr. In order to implement the project, Abwehr funds were used and, of necessity, their use was disguised. When the Gestapo discovered the irregularity in the Abwehr’s books, both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested. Although “Operation 7” has sometimes been cited as evidence that Bonhoeffer was intentionally involved in the rescue of unbaptized Jews, Paldiel finds no supporting evidence. According to Paldiel:

The material submitted for the Bonhoeffer nomination clearly establishes that he was instrumental in persuading his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi … to include Charlotte Friedenthal among a group of Jews (some of whom had converted to Christianity) which the Abwehr planned to move to Switzerland …. This rescue operation was planned and carried out by the Abwehr, with the full backing of Admiral Canaris, the Abwehr head, who himself added four Jewish persons to the group. In addition, Mrs. Friedenthal, a baptized Jewess, had until then occupied a responsible position in the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer's role was in referring her to Dohnanyi, but he was not personally involved in this rescue operation

Paldiel continues:

There is no other record of a direct involvement by Bonhoeffer in the rescue of Jews (baptized or not). In September 1943, five months after his arrest, the Gestapo drew up a large charge sheet against Bonhoeffer. The accusations relate to Bonhoeffer's evading the draft and his association with the Abwehr. The sole item with respect of the Jewish issue is Bonhoeffer's request to his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi, to assist a certain Jewish professor, the uncle of a Jewish Christian convert, who was incarcerated in the French camp of Gurs. It is not known whether such assistance was acted upon.

At the time of their arrest, the Gestapo did not know that both men were deeply implicated in the plot to overthrow Hitler. After the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, the Reich Central Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) began an investigation into the role of the leadership of the Abwehr in the anti-Hitler conspiracy.  In addition to Dohnanyi’s “Chronicle of Shame,” the Abwehr resistance group kept extensive secret files detailing their activities, including notes of plans for a coup d’état written in 1938, later incriminating excerpts from the diary of Admiral Canaris, and correspondence concerning Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy. Much, but not all, of this material was discovered in October 1944 at Zossen by agents of the Reich Central Security Office and came to be known as the “Zossen files.” Discovery of the files sealed Bonhoeffer’s fate.  On April 9, 1945, one month before the end of the war, both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were executed.

Professor Ruth Zerner has written extensively on Bonhoeffer and the Jewish question. She is of the opinion that had Bonhoeffer survived, he would have undertaken a radical rethinking of Christian thinking about the Jews as part of his program. We shall, of course, never know, but Zerner points to the fact that Bonhoeffer’s “students and theological heirs in post war Germany have taken the lead in the creative dismantling of the Christian legacy of anti-Judaism and its historical consequences.” According to Zerner, it is very likely that Bonhoeffer would have shared in this enterprise.[xxix]

Whatever Bonhoeffer’s post-war theological reconstruction might have been once the full horror of the Shoah had become known, Bonhoeffer was unable to extricate himself from the traditional Christian view of Jews and Judaism. Bonhoeffer did qualify the worst aspects of Christian anti-Judaism. He counseled the Church to reject “cheap moralizing” and when it looked at the allegedly “rejected people,” humbly to recognize itself as a church continually unfaithful to its Lord.”[xxx]  It is also clear that Bonhoeffer voiced no objections to Nazi restrictions on full Jewish participation in German cultural, business and professional life as long as baptized Jews were excluded from the disabilities.

In conclusion, let us recall a comment by Hegel in the Preface to The Philosophy of Right:

Whatever happens, every individual is a child of his time; so philosophy too is its own time apprehended in thoughts. It is just as absurd to fancy that a philosophy can transcend its contemporary world as it is to fancy that an individual can overleap his own age, jump over Rhodes.[xxxi]

Hegel’s observation on the historicity of thought and identity are assuredly applicable to Bonhoeffer. We must, however, recognize that it was Bonhoeffer’s faith that gave him the moral compass to “jump over Rhodes” and oppose Adolf Hitler and National Socialism. Regrettably, that faith was a seamless garment that included a harshly negative evaluation of Jews and Judaism. Still, we can hardly fault Bonhoeffer because he did not survive to participate in whatever rethinking on Judaism the Christian Church has undertaken. Under no circumstance can we judge Bonhoeffer by what we know today after the fact. To repeat, I have no criticism of Yad Vashem for their hesitation about according Bonhoeffer the accolade. Nevertheless, the fact that Yad Vashem has deferred taking a stand on the issue need not prevent others from bringing the issue to closure for themselves. In my opinion, given the circumstances that Bonhoeffer had to cope with and his remarkable ability to make of his faith a genuine source of self-transcendence, he fully merits the accolade righteous Gentile.

[i] Stanley M. Rosenbaum, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Jewish View,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 18 (Spring 1981) , pp. 301-7. I am indebted to Kenneth C. Barnes, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hitler’s Persecution of the Jews,” in Robert P. Ericken and Susannah Heschel, eds., Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), pp. 110-11, for calling my attention to this essay.

[ii] The petitioners include Prof. Konrad Bieber, Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Rev. Guy C. Carter, Father Robert F. Drinan, Prof Emil L. Fackenheirn, Rev. Richard E. Koening, Prof Franklin H. Littell, Dr. Gotthold Mueller, Rabbi Uri Regev, Mr. Seymour Rossel, Mr. Vidal Sassoon, Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, Prof. Nechama Tec, Mr. Stephen A. Wise, Mrs. Maya Zehden, Prof. Ruth Zerner.

[iii] On August 30, 1942 Théas’s pastoral letter was read in the churches of his diocese in which the bishop declared:

“I give voice to the outraged protest of Christian conscience, and I proclaim that all men, Aryan or non-Aryan, are brothers, because created by the same God, that all men, whatever their race or religion, have the right to be respected by individuals and by states. Cited by Michael R. Marrus and Robert O. Paxton, VichyFrance and the Jews (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 272.

[iv] Lutz’s story has been told by Theo Tschuy, a theologian and, for many years, a staff member of the World Council of Churches and the Conference of European Churches in Geneva. See Tschuy,  Dangerous Diplomacy: The Story of Carl Lutz, Rescuer of 62,000 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000).

[v] Ruth Zerner, “Church State and the Jewish Question,” in John W. de Gruchy, ed., A Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 191.

[vi] John A. Moses, “Bonhoeffer’s Germany: the political context” in  de Gruchy, op. cit., p. 3.

[vii] See Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, trans. Erich Mossbacher, et. al. (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), pp. 3-12 and 471. See also F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Bonhoeffer” in de Gruchy, op. cit., pp. 22-49.

[viii] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, rev. ed., Victoria Barnett, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 258.Bethge cites Karl Bonhoeffer’s, Lebenserinnerungen, his memoirs privately circulated for members of his family.

[ix] Romans 13:1-5.

[x] Cited by Eberhard Bethge, op. cit., p. 817.

[xi] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “The Church and the Jewish Question” in No Rusty Sword: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1928-1933, Edwin R. Robinson, ed., Edwin R. Robertson and John Bowden, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), p.221.

[xii] J. Noakes and G. Pridham, eds., Nazism: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts, 1919-1945 , Volume I, The Nazi Party, State and Society 1919-1945 (New York: Schocken Books, 1984), p. 224.

[xiii] See Doris L. Bergen, Twisted Cross: The German Christian Movement in the Third Reich (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996), pp. 88ff.

[xiv] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 222.

[xv] Bonhoeffer, loc. cit.

[xvi] Bonhoeffer, loc. cit.

[xvii] Bonhoeffer, loc. cit.

[xviii] Bonhoeffer, op. cit. , p. 223.

[xix] Bonhoeffer, op. cit. , p. 225.

[xx] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 227.

[xxi] Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Sword, p. 226.

[xxii] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 226.

[xxiii] Bonhoeffer, op. cit., p. 227.

[xxiv] Reformierte Kirchenzeitung, vol. 82, no. 49 (December 4, 1933), p. 386.; cited by Bethge, op. cit. , p. 257.

[xxv] Cited by Bethge, loc. cit.

[xxvi] Cited by Bethge, op. cit., p. 164

[xxvii] Eberhard Bethge, op. cit., p. 655.

[xxviii] F. Burton Nelson, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer” in de Gruchy, op. cit. , pp. 37-8.

[xxix] Ruth Zerner, “Church, State and the ‘Jewish Question,’” in de Gruchy, op. cit. , p. 195.

[xxx] Bonhoeffer, loc. cit. For an informed and thoughtful discussion of Bonhoeffer’s position on the “Jewish Question,” see James Patrick Kelley, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews” in Franklin Littell, et. al., eds., What Have We Learned? Telling the Story and Teaching the Lessons of the Holocaust (Lewiston,ME: Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), pp. 89-126.

[xxxi] T.M. Knox, ed. and. trans.,  Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942) p. 11. “Was das Individuum betrifft, so ist ohnehin jedes ein Sohn seiner Zeit; so ist auch die Philosophie, ihre Zeit in Gedanken erfaßt. Es ist ebenso töricht zu wähnen, irgendeine Philosophie gehe über ihre gegenwährtigwe Welt hinaus, als, ein Individuum überspringe seine Zeite, springe  über Rhodes hinaus.”  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1981), p. 27.


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