Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his Legacy

DIETRICH BONHOEFFER AND HIS LEGACY

Below (see the dashed line below) is a response to a Facebook post I read on a friend’s page.

Dietrich Boenhoeffer’s birthday was today February 4, 1906. Bonhoeffer is a renowned Christian theologian and ethicist who was executed by the Nazis in 1944 for his role in Operation Valkyrie that attempted to overthrow the Nazi government and assassinate Hitler. Among Protestant Christians, he is viewed as a hero who saved the lives of Jews and gave up his life, helping in Operation Valkyrie. Among scholars of Jewish history and the holocaust, he is viewed more complexly and critically.

One of the comments claimed that Bonhoeffer had always stood in solidarity with Jews. That’s simply not true. Further, Bonhoeffer wrote little about Jews. What he did write more or less reflected the elitist Christian perspective on Judaism that predominated among European Christians prior to WWII in the 20th century.

I admire Boenhoeffer. I really do. But he is someone whose views of Jews were deeply problematic, though they evolved over time. More important and beyond that, it is hard to understand why so much adulation prevails around Bonhoeffer, but not around the many Christians who did a lot more than Bonhoeffer, and with little fanfare, to help save Jewish lives. The reality is that very few non-Jews helped Jews in that time of crisis and horror. Why do some Christians fixate on Bonhoeffer, but ignore the others who gave so much for the Jewish community (and for other victims) in that period? I don’t have all the answers to that question, but I suspect that understanding the Bonhoeffer issue would uncover many issues in Jewish-Christian relations that we have yet to resolve.

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Bonhoeffer was not always in solidarity with Jews; he evolved. Within the Jewish community and among shoah (holocaust) scholars, Bonhoeffer is a controversial figure. Earlier on he believed that Jews should convert to convert to Christianity, essentially subscribing to a supersessionist theology. His focus in his rescue efforts was on on Jews who had converted to Christianity or were offspring of converted families. Later on he changed and supported rescue efforts for other Jews as well.

He showed courage, but he was imprisoned and executed under relatively comfortable circumstances compared to what Jews and other inmates had to endure in lagers and in ditches on the eastern front. He was not starved in a ghetto or in a concentration camp. He did not endure forced labor. He was not mocked, humiliated, and tormented in ways that many Jews in concentration camps and in forsaken fields in eastern Europe (including members of my family) were. He got to write letters and papers in prison which most victims of Hitler’s horrors most certainly did not.

He was a relatively minor figure in the plot to assassinate Hitler. The real hero of the attempted coup (Operation Valkyrie) against the Nazis was General Henning von Treskow whom I admire as one of the truly great resisters of the Nazis (like the White Rose). Here are some quotes from von Tresckow:

1) “The whole world will vilify us now, but I am still totally convinced that we did the right thing. Hitler is the archenemy not only of Germany but of the world. When, in few hours’ time, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if only ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope for our sake God will not destroy Germany. No one among us can complain about dying, for whoever joined our ranks put on the shirt of Nessus. A man’s moral worth is established only at the point where he is ready to give his life in defense of his convictions.” (July, 1944 right before he committed suicide at Bialystock)

2) “The assassination must be attempted at all costs. Even if it should not succeed, an attempt to seize power in Berlin must be made. What matters now is no longer the practical purpose of the coup, but to prove to the world and for the records of history that the men of the resistance dared to take the decisive step. Compared to this objective, nothing else is of consequence.” (1944)

3) “I cannot understand how people can still call themselves Christians and not be furious adversaries of Hitler’s regime.” (April 1943)

Why do so many remember Bonhoeffer and Claus von Stauffenberg (one of the Valkyrie leaders) who talked hardly at all about Jews or any other victims, but about Prussian pride and the boorishness of Hitler? Why isn’t Henning von Tresckow a household name like Bonhoeffer?

There are many great Christians who rescued Jews, like the residents of Le Chambon sur Lignon, Corrie ten Boom, Geno Bartali, Lorenzo Perrone, Aristide de Sousa Mendes, and countless others. Bonhoeffer is not memorialized on the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem for a reason. Many righteous rescuers (most of whom were Christians) were murdered, imprisoned, tortured, their professional lives ruined, forced to flee their homelands into exile, lived with depression and severe anxiety, committed suicide, lived (and still live) in poverty, and/or fell into anonymity, forgotten by the media and prominent spokespeople and those who focus on brand names and coolness.

I respect Bonhoeffer, but I am troubled by the adulation he still receives compared to what so many others who did so much more and risked so much have not received. For me it’s not about Bonhoeffer as a person or what he did, but about the fixation on him at the expense of so many others whose names have fallen into a dustbin (except at Yad Vashem and scattered memorials).

Why Bonhoeffer? I think I know part of the answer. But it hurts profoundly as it makes me realize that we have not made nearly as much progress in Jewish-Christian healing as we like to think we have.

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DR. LAURENCE H. KANT (LARRY KANT), MYSTIC SCHOLAR: Engaged Mysticism and Scholarship in the Pursuit of Wisdom; Discovering meaning in every issue and facet of life; Integrating scholarship, spirituality, mysticism, poetry, community, economics, and politics seamlessly. Historian of Religion: Ph.D., Yale University, 1993 (Department of Religious Studies); Exchange Scholar, Harvard University, Rabbinics, 1983-84; M.A., 1982, Yale, 1982 (Department of Religious Studies); M.T.S., Harvard Divinity School, 1981; B.A., Classics (Greek and Latin), Tufts University, 1978; Wayland High School (Wayland, MA), 1974. Served on the faculty of Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), York University (Toronto), and Lexington Theological Seminary (Lexington, KY). Works in many languages: Ancient Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, English, French, Italian, German, Modern Greek (some Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish). Holder of numerous honors and awards, including The Rome Prize in Classics (Prix de Rome) and Fellow of the American Academy of Rome.
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