Saturday, February 27, 2016

Against Foolishness and Evil: Why the Life and Words of Bonhoeffer are so Important for our Time

by Nomad

Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote

The life and words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer underscore a fundamental truth: silence in the face of evil is a form of complicity and foolishness is a greater species of evil.



The name Dietrich Bonhoeffer is probably not familiar to you. I confess I hadn't heard of him. To tell his story properly, let's begin at the ending. 

A Form of Liberation

When the Flossenbürg concentration camp was liberated by soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions in mid-April of 1945, they arrived too late to save the 39-year-old Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

 As the Allied troops advanced, the SS authority overseeing the camps attempted one last desperate and insane measure. They forced the evacuation of prisoners to other camps under German control. 

In its final hours, the Nazi machine was folding in on itself tighter and tighter, trying in vain to cover up the atrocities it had committed.

According to one prisoner, "one man was left for dead for every 10 yards along the 125-mile evacuation route from Flossenburg south to the village of Posing."

One source provides more details: 
At approximately 10:30 hours on April 23, 1945, the first U.S. troops of the 90th Infantry Division arrived at Flossenburg KZ,. They were horrified at the sight of some 2,000 weak and extremely ill prisoners remaining in the camp and of the SS still forcibly evacuating those fit to endure the trek south. Elements of the 90th Division spotted those ragged columns of prisoners and their SS guards. The guards panicked and opened fire on many of the prisoners, killing about 200, in a desperate attempt to effect a road block of human bodies. American tanks opened fire on the Germans as they fled into the woods, reportedly killing over 100 SS troops.
Only two weeks earlier, on 8 April 1945, SS judge Otto Thorbeck had condemned Pastor Bonhoeffer to death by hanging. Without any mercy or objection, the death sentence was carried out the following dawn.
The order for the execution of a man of God had come from the highest levels of the Nazi command.

Between April 1944 and April 1945, over 1500 death sentences were carried out at this particular installation. We are told that in the last months, the daily rates exceeded the capacity of the camp's crematorium to dispose of the hanged prisoners. The dead were literally piling up so quickly that new arrangements had to be made.

After its liberation, the camp would reveal its horrors and atrocities to the advancing Allied troops. In all, around 30,000 inmates died in the Flossenburg camp.

In the following weeks, Berlin would fall to the Soviet armies. And then Third Reich itself would collapse. The leader of the Nazis, the man who promised to make Germany great again, was dead and had reduced most of Europe into wreckage.
In some ways, only by Hilter's death could the German people be liberated from the madness that had taken over the country.

That was something Bonhoeffer had already come to understand.

Where Conscience is Born

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 to an upper-middle-class family of brilliant minds. The sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, Dietrich was raised, his biography states. with "an impressive mixture of freedom and discipline."

His father was a prominent professor of psychiatry while his mother, the granddaughter of the Protestant theologian, Karl von Hase, was a teacher and one of the few women of her generation to obtain a university degree.
One source provides this insight into his upbringing:
Paula Bonhoeffer chose to educate her children in their early years at home. She had observed that “Germans have their backbones broken twice in life: first in the schools, secondly in the military.” Her emphasis on a strong moral and intellectual character was shared throughout the Bonhoeffer family.
At a young age, Dietrich showed much promise as an outstanding academic theologian, earning a multitude of degrees from the various superb universities in Germany.
He traveled to the United States to continue his theological studies but was somewhat disappointed. He was not impressed by the spiritual levels of the churches in the US.

Bonhoeffer Portrait
However, while in America, he was fortunate enough to study under the famous Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian, and intellectual.
Through Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer was enlightened on themes that would come to shape his intellectual life. His mentor
Niebuhr once said:
There are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.
While in New York, Bonhoeffer also met and became friends with a black fellow seminarian Frank Fisher from Alabama. Fisher was a social worker at the progressive Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, at that time, the largest African-American church in New York City.
In fact, the German pastor would go on to teach Sunday school for boys and Wednesday evening women's Bible Study. One one occasion he delivered a sermon before the congregation.
One friend of recounted this exchange with Dietrich one Sunday afternoon. He had just returned from Harlem ready to burst with enthusiasm.
He was excited and talkative, and instead of going to his room, he described the the preaching with excitement and audience participation and especially the singing of black spirituals.
The vitalizing effect was apparent and came as a shock to those that knew him as a somewhat cold and clinical type.
He was very emotional and did not try to hide his feelings, which was extremely rare for him. He said it was the only time he had experienced true religion in the United States and was convinced that it was only among blacks who were oppressed that there could be any real religion in this country.
There's no question that his experiences in Harlem changed his previously straight-laced and otherworldly theological views. He began to develop a social conscience, becoming more sensitive to "not only social injustices experienced by minorities" but the failings of the Church to deal with them.
Bonhoeffer's deep sympathy would soon grow to include all oppressed people.

Bonhoeffer's Nemesis

He returned to his homeland in 1931, but the Germany he returned to had changed radically. The Nazis had, by this time, become the second largest political party in Germany.

Nazi
The leader of the party, Adolf Hitler, was also a bestselling author of the book Mein Kampf.  Munich was the center of operations. His rise to power had first amused, then bewildered and by 1931 had begun to frighten many Germans. Indifference was turning into panic. 

Bonhoeffer took a more or less instant dislike to Hitler, his gang of thugs and everything they stood for. It was still a time of relatively free speech for Hitler's opponents. 

Two days after Hitler became the Chancellor- the check before checkmate- Bonhoeffer took to the airwaves to warn his audience. It was a bold and dangerous step. By publically denouncing the Nazis in a radio address, he was putting himself on an enemies list.
In that message to the people, he warned that Germany was in grave danger of slipping into an idolatrous cult of personality and that Hitler might well be a false prophet.
That address was cut short in mid-sentence, a symbolic and literal silencing of opposition.

In April 1933, a critical time for the rise of the Nazi party, Bonhoeffer was one of the first voices for church resistance to Hitler's persecution of Jews. In July, Hitler took his revenge by rigging church elections for presbyters and synodals (church officials) of the German Landeskirche (Protestant established churches).

Despite the efforts of Bonhoeffer, the Nazis were able to fill an overwhelming majority of key church positions to Nazi-supported Deutsche Christen people clergy. The Nazification of the Lutheran Church was just another necessary step in Hitler's path to absolute control. Hitler had promised, “The rights of the churches will not be curtailed.”
Instead, German Lutheran Church, like the Catholic Church, had first been corrupted by the display of raw power and then compromised.

Hitler rally
At the end of August 1933, the Nazis staged a massive victory rally in Nuremberg, celebrating the supremacy of the party over all opposition.

As a propaganda event, it was certainly impressive.
And it left no remaining doubt in the minds of watchful intelligent Germans that dark days were ahead,
Naturally, Bonhoeffer, like so many others, saw the wisdom in leaving the homeland altogether. It is, of course, depressing to watch your country being dismantled with the help of the deluded and cheering majority. 

It was simply too depressing to watch.

In the autumn of 1933, he traveled to London and consulted with Lutheran leaders there, telling them he felt as though he needed time away - time in the desert. His mentors back in Germany called him out and saw this as a betrayal of his responsibilities.
A dereliction of his duties to the Church, they said.

Facing the Moral Choice

In the next two years, Bonhoeffer traveled quite a bit and eventually returned to a Germany even more in the throes of tyranny. During this time, he began attempting to form a kind of network of underground seminaries.

In 1937, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, declared his opposition church activities to be illegal and by November of that year, began arresting priests and their students. Around this time that Bonhoeffer published his best-known book, The Cost of Discipleship.

Clearly, the Gestapo were watching and in 1938, they declared Bonhoeffer banned from traveling to Berlin altogether. Bonhoeffer's activities were moving beyond the theological and into the dangerous world of the German Resistance.

In February 1938, his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi introduced him to a group that was planning the overthrow of the Fuhrer. This seemed to the last resort to preventing a war. How much Bonhoeffer knew of the group's activities and whether he gave his approval is not clear.

In June 1939, with a war in Europe seemingly inevitable, Bonhoeffer went to the United State by invitation of his old school Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Letters he wrote at the time show a person facing a moral dilemma and inner turmoil. It was a choice between the relative safety of the United States, where he might be able to recruit and educate Americans to the threat in Europe or to take a more active opposition role.

Before long he wrote that he had decided that coming to the United States had been a mistake.
I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people...

The choices for all Christians in Germany, he wrote, were stark. both alternatives terrible. They could lose their soul, following evil wherever it led them or stand and fight for the defeat of their own nation in order to save their faith and civilization.
I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security."
After reading a passage in the Book of Isaiah--"He who believes does not flee"--Bonhoeffer made up his mind. He boarded the last passenger ship to leave America for Europe before the war began.

He was putting his ethics to the test, his words into action, choosing defiance and danger over security and distance.
As he would write:
Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment
Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.
Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is freedom.
*   *   *
Upon his arrival, the secret police were ready and alert. The full force of the Gestapo harassment - without actual arrest- was implemented in Bonhoeffer's case. He was forbidden to speak in public and was required to regularly report his activities to the police.

By 1941, he was also forbidden to print or publish. In the face of evil, as Bonhoeffer said, silence- even imposed by the authorities, amounts to a form of consent and approval.
For a man of morals, it was not an acceptable choice. The solution fate presented him was remarkably daring and brilliant.

Ideas and Words Become Action

At this time, in what might seem to be a contradiction, Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence organization. Abwehr was part of the German Ministry of Defence and was involved in information collection and counterespionage.
This seemingly strange decision, however, was based on a hidden truth.
 CanarisHis brother, Klaus and his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, who were already members of the organization revealed to Dietrich that, in fact, the organization had become home to a high-level conspiracy against Hitler. And it operated through the organization's leader, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.


Canaris, like many early supporters of the Nazis, opposed to Hitler's aggressive foreign policy and had come to realize that Hitler's rule spelled the ultimate destruction of the German state.
His high position in military intelligence- along with his unquestionable reputation- provided him with a perfect cover to lead a conspiracy. Canaris and his small but powerful group, was now working essentially as agents against the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer presumably knew about various 1943 plots against Hitler through Dohnányi, who was actively involved in their planning.

In addition, information about Nazi atrocities which he learned from Abwehr files and first-hand accounts surely must have removed any moral ambivalence he might have once felt. It was no longer a question of one man's heroics but of the survival of victims and of the coming generation.

As a member of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer was protected to some degree from the Gestapo. Under the cover of legitimate intelligence activities, Bonhoeffer traveled to Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. In reality, he was acting as a courier for the German resistance movement.
Additionally, he and Dohnányi worked to help German Jews escape to Switzerland.

Bonhoeffer

The Beginning of the Fall

That work abruptly came to an end on 5 April 1943, when Bonhoeffer and Dohnányi were arrested and imprisoned.

Both men were actually incidental victims, caught up in a larger power struggle between the SS and the Abwehr rather than for their Resistance activities.
In the subsequent investigations the Gestapo uncovered Dohnanyi’s operation in which 14 Jews were sent to Switzerland ostensibly as Abwehr agents and large sums in foreign currency were paid to them as compensation for confiscated properties.
(Apparently, funds being transferred to the escaped Jews as the salaries of Abwehr agents. These funds were very likely the money from the sale of properties owned by the escapees.)
Attempting to gain supremacy over Abwehr, the Gestapo had searched Dohnanyi's offices and found a list of Bonhoeffer’s foreign contacts and other documents related to the anti-Hitler conspiracy.

Other evidence provided substantial proof of a high-level conspiracy aimed at the attempted suicide bombing assassination attempt on Hitler the month before.

Bonhoeffer was incarcerated at Tegel military prison near Berlin. Sermons, notes and letters he wrote to his friends and family- smuggled out by sympathetic guards- provide us with the image of a man who, despite the situation, never gave up hope. He offered religious consolation to his fellow prisoners and even to his guards.

When one of them offered to help him escape from the prison, Bonhoeffer rejected the chance for freedom. The Nazis, he feared, would take their revenge on his family and fellow conspirators.

While in prison, he was far from idle. From his notes, we can see that his mind was still searching for an explanation and some kind of rationale for the evil. He writes:
There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity. We know quite well that we have no right to do so, and that it would lead us into the most sterile relation to our fellow-men.
He made a list of thoughts to keep us strong against this form of despair. We cannot surrender to despair. To do would be to give up on humanity. 
We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do, or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others.. is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them.
Even though it might have seemed impossible at the time, things were about to go from bad to even worse. 

Collapse of the Regime

Another failed assassination attempt of the Führer in July 1944 resulted in the total collapse of the Abwehr network. This operation, known as Operation Valkyrie, was the most audacious attempts yet and very nearly succeeded.

By now, Hitler's mental decline was obvious. According to his closest subordinates, the dictator by this time could not function without both stimulants and tranquilizers. His physical appearance resembled a man much older than 55. Other reports mentioned his mental absence, disorientation and "complete indifference to his surroundings."
In reaction to the attempt on his life he took his survival to be a "divine moment in history."

That must have been a bitter irony for a man of faith like Bonhoeffer.

The consequences of the attempted assassination were nothing short of a palace coup involving the arrest not only of the head of military intelligence, Admiral Canaris but nearly everyone who had the remotest connection with the plot. This included members of families of suspects as well. The executions were carried with special attention at cruelty.
One source explains:
As the members of the coup were rounded up, Hitler ordered some of the conspirators shot and others killed by hanging with piano wire. The worst execution was reserved for the brother of one of the conspirators. Just before death, Berthold von Stauffenberg was resuscitated and then hung again, over and over. To top it all off, Hitler ordered the other hangings and the torture-execution to be filmed so he could watch at his convenience.
In all, more than 7,000 people were arrested and something around 5000 of those were executed. The Gestapo was merciless and used the revelations as an excuse to settle old scores. From the outside, it seemed obvious what was actually happening.
The Nazi regime had turned into a starved cannibal.

It was a sign- both to the Allies and to the German people- that the end of the regime would soon be coming.

Intolerable Alternatives

For Bonhoeffer, it must have been a crushing blow. He wrote from prison:
"One may ask whether there have ever before in human history been people with so little ground under their feet- people to whom every available alternative seemed equally intolerable, repugnant and futile, who look beyond all these existing alternatives for the source of their strength..."
Yet, he was not yet ready to surrender:
Or perhaps one should rather ask whether the responsible thinking people of any generation that stood at a turning point in history did not feel much as we do, simply because something new was emerging that could not be seen in the existing alternatives.
By September 1944, it was clear that the German regime could not survive long. The Allied liberation of France was finally complete and the troops were able to hold ground. 

Germany's POW
In that month, the last transport of 1,019 Dutch Jews left Holland bound for the camps in the East. Among them was a little girl named Anne Frank, who never gave up believing that "people are really good at heart," left for Auschwitz concentration camp
Of those, 549 were gassed on arrival.

This was the same month that Pastor Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel, to a prison cellar in the Reich Security Head Office, the Gestapo's high-security prison.
From there, in February 1945, he was secretly transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp.

Up until that point, the evidence against Bonhoeffer had been damning but inconclusive.
However, with the crushing of the Abwehr, the diaries of Canaris were presented to Hitler by the SS in April 1945, They revealed for the first time the full extent of Bonhoeffer's involvement in the conspiracy.    

After Hitler was shown the diaries, he was enraged by the betrayal and ordered the executions of all Abwehr conspirators. For Bonhoeffer, all hope of survival had now been exhausted.

In a fittingly symbolic tableau, SS guards broke into the Sunday services Bonhoeffer was conducting at Flossenbürg and led him away to face the judge. He was barely given time to impart a final farewell to his fellow prisoners. He told a fellow prisoner not to feel sadness: 
“This is the end, for me the beginning of life.”
Along with Admiral Canaris, and other conspirators, Bonhoeffer reportedly walked to the gallows early in the morning of 9 April. (A day later, Bonhoeffer's brother and his brother-in-law, Dohnanyi would also be hanged.)

According to one witness, Dietrich appeared resigned to his fate.
“devout . . . brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds . . . I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
For him, the moral battle was over and he faced death with no shame on his conscience.

German people Nazi

The Danger of Foolishness

"The ultimate test of a moral society," said Bonhoeffer, "is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”

By that measure, the German population that supported Hitler's rise failed that moral test miserably.
Germany was in ruins and morally bankrupt.
But it wasn't solely the fault of the people who actively supported Hitler. It also included the people who could have done something to stop it earlier on and did nothing.

In his last months, the Lutheran pastor was not satisfied with debates of moral success and failure. In his bleak time in prison, he struggled to understand why it should have happened.

In January 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote from his prison cell that the tragedy of Germany was not a question of good and evil but of foolishness.
The blame lay in the foolishness of the German public to accept such a man as their leader, foolishness not to listen to their consciences. And not to reject absolutely the temptation of power over compassion.

They had in their foolishness chosen to accept hate and intolerance over love.
Foolishness is a more dangerous enemy to the good than evil. One can protest against evil; it can be unmasked and if need be, prevented by force. Evil carries the seeds of its own destruction, as it make people at the least uncomfortable.
Against stupidity, however, we have no such defense.
Neither protests nor force can touch it, reasoning is no use, facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved- indeed the fool can counter by criticizing them and, if they undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions.
A fool -as a follower- is more dangerous too. He clings to his delusions and will defend them with violence.
So the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, he can easily become dangerous, as it doesn't take much to make him aggressive. A fool must therefore be treated more cautiously than a scoundrel. We shall never again try to convince a fool by reason, for it is both useless and dangerous.
Given that, can such stupidity ever be successfully defeated? Is it even possible?
Perhaps, but first, we have to understand the nature of this kind of stupidity. It is not, he said, an intellectual defeat but a moral one.
There are people who are mentally agile but foolish and people who mentally slow but very far from foolish....
It is a foolishness of the crowd and not of the solitary individual.

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He observed that, if we look closely we see that any violent display of power produces an outburst of foolishness in a large part of mankind.

He reckoned that
The power of some people requires the stupidity of many.
Indeed, this actually seems to be a kind of law of human social behavior.
An upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression on the minds of some people that they are deprived of their independent judgment and individual conscience.
So it seems that this kind of stupidity is a sociological problem rather than a psychological problem, he noted. The fact that the fool is often stubborn must not mislead us into thinking that he is independent. The fool is entirely dependent on the brute as his master.

When one is talking with a fool, Bonhoeffer observed, it is as though we are not talking with the man himself but with a collection of "slogans, catchwords, and the like, which have taken hold of him."
He is under a spell, he is blinded, his very nature is being misused and exploited. Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil.
Trump rally
Here lies the danger of a diabolical exploitation, he explained.

Knowing the problem was not enough. How, Bonhoeffer's asked, could this spell be broken?
He was not particularly hopeful.

He believed that this kind of stupidity cannot be overcome with education but by the act of liberation. In his opinion, we cannot expect inner liberation without a physical liberation from the source of power. Presumably, he means separating the power-hungry scoundrel from his foolish victims for while they are together, nothing can be done.They are united as one machine.

Until that physical liberation has taken place, he concluded, we might as well abandon all attempts to convince the fool.
*   *   *
If we do not wish to repeat history, foolishly watching fools following scoundrels, we must first recall Bonhoeffer and the statements he made. Especially this one:
“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
Now is the time for the unqualified rejection of public foolishness, Bonhoeffer would say. Waiting is not a moral alternative. 
Next year, it may be too late.


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