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Christian History Home > 1986 > Issue 9 > Christians against Nazis: the German Confessing Church

Christians against Nazis: the German Confessing Church
Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz | posted 1/01/1986 12:00AM

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Bonhoeffer, however, continued his academic work; he kept up his links with the Confessing Church and also joined the political resistance movement. In 1942, through Bishop Bell, he unsuccessfully attempted to pass information to the British government about the German resistance movement. He was arrested in April 1943 for his involvement in smuggling Jews into Switzerland and was hanged by the Nazis in the last days of the war.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer collected his experiences as a Christian in Nazi Germany and reflected on them in the light of the Christian gospel. His thought and example continue to exert a wide influence in both Christian and secular circles through his writings. His prison letters, written during the last two years of his life, are perhaps the best-known of his works. He called for mature, credible Christian faith to be lived out in an increasingly secular, irreligious world. He struggled with the problem of how the biblical message of liberation and redemption can be announced to a world which has 'come of age'. The church does not live for itself- it is the church of Jesus Christ for others. He firmly believed that the good news of Jesus Christ breaks through denominational and national barriers.

Bonhoeffer himself was a pioneer of the ecumenical movement and experienced it at first hand. He deserves much of the credit for the fact that after 1945, in spite of all that the nations of Europe had suffered at the hands of the Germans, churches in other countries sought fellowship with the German churches and showed a renewed desire to co-operate with them.

The 'Jewish question'

Bonhoeffer was one of the first Christians in the Confessing Church to recognize clearly the significance of the 'Jewish question' in Nazi Germany. As early as spring 1933 he pointed out that the Jews were becoming victims of the state's policies - but his was a lone voice. He saw that the age-old policy of confrontation, which Christians had practised towards the Jews from the Church Fathers through to Luther and later, had made Christians in Germany passive, blind and indifferent to the fate of the Jews.

Bonhoeffer wanted to awaken the church to the fact that a monstrous injustice was being done to the Jews, and that the place of Christians was alongside their persecuted Jewish brothers. He challenged Christians to regard the Jews as the 'neighbour fallen among thieves', as in Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. He saw that the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament, is part of the Christian Bible too; that Christians and Jews believe in the same God; that the Bible concept of'the people of God' refers to both. But he could not persuade the Confessing Church to make a public statement on behalf of the Jews. As the Second World War progressed, the growing persecution of the Confessing Church by the Nazi authorities crippled the church's ability to help others.

Many church agencies engaged in vigorous protest against the so-called 'euthanasia measures' by which those considered 'unfit to live' were exterminated. In 1939-40, after the outbreak of war, hundreds of thousands of mentally ill, old, mentally and physically handicapped people were murdered by the Nazis. On this issue the church spoke out clearly. But on the 'Jewish question', only a few shared Bonhoeffer's insights and opinions. Only a few were able to put behind them the institutionalized anti-semitism of the Christian church. Only a few spoke up for the Jews who were deprived of their rights, humiliated, stripped of human dignity, driven out of Germany and eventually killed in their millions in the holocaust of the gas chambers.

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