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Bonhoeffer Was Rare Pastor to Resist Nazis

By Michael Fox

Difficult times can test one's faith in God. But that was never an issue for German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, even during the darkest days of the 1930s and 40s.

His grievances weren't with God, but with the Nazis, the Protestant Church and his fellow pastors.

The unusually thoughtful documentary Bonhoeffer depicts the pastor's courageous and principled opposition to the Third Reich's persecution of the Jews. Unsatisfied with simply speaking out, he participated in the German resistance and renounced pacifism to the degree needed to participate in plots to murder Hitler.

Bonhoeffer airs Monday, February 6 on PBS, in honor of the centenary of Bonhoefer's birth.

A Hollywood movie would hone in on the dramatic aspects of Bonhoeffer's covert wartime activities, but filmmaker Martin Doblmeier chooses to focus instead on the evolution of the minister's forward-thinking beliefs.

That's not to say that “Bonhoeffer” advances the thesis that philosophy is separate from, or superior to, action. Although Bonhoeffer was a serious thinker and an impassioned teacher, he believed that ethical positions were insufficient without appropriate deeds.

In 1933, after Goebbels instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses, the twenty-seven-year-old Bonhoeffer gave a speech to pastors entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question.” He argued that the Church needed to stand with the Jews, and he proposed three courses.

First, ask the state if its actions are legitimate. At the same time, aid the sufferers, including the non-Christians. “The third possibility is not just to bandage the victim on the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself,” Bonhoeffer declared. Even today, those are shocking words coming from a minister.

In the aftermath of the conclave, 7,000 of Germany's 20,000 Protestant pastors joined a group called the Pastors Emergency League. Nonetheless, civil disobedience was not much tolerated in Hitler's Germany, and Bonhoeffer's statement presages just how far he was willing to go.

If his lecture took uncommon courage, it also came from the heart. A few months earlier, he had been asked to preach at the funeral of his twin sister Sabine's father-in-law.

The deceased was of Jewish ancestry and Bonhoeffer declined to preside on the advice of his peers and mentors. But he was ashamed of his decision almost immediately, and that must have had some influence on “The Church and the Jewish Question.”

To be sure, Bonhoeffer's objections to the Nazis were not motivated solely by the plight of the Jews. He was also deeply concerned about the status of the Church under Hitler. Like other Protestant leaders, he fretted about the Church's freedom to preach the Gospels. Unlike most of them, he was also worried about the Church's concessions to the Third Reich, its role as a moral force in society and its long-term credibility.

During the war, Bonhoeffer joined his brother and two brothers-in-law in the German resistance. They managed to sneak a handful of Jews out of the country, and played a role in various plots to kill Hitler. The minister was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and, in a gesture of sheer spite with the war all but over, was hung on April 9, 1945.

Among its many virtues, Bonhoeffer is illustrated with an abundance of unfamiliar and fascinating archival footage, a great relief from the overused stock images of Jewish persecution and Hitler that no longer muster much of a punch.

For most viewers, the film will serve as a riveting portrait of a truly remarkable individual. But Bonhoeffer is especially recommended to spiritual leaders of all denominations, who will find a year's worth of sermons in his life and writings.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a San Francisco film critic and journalist.

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