The study of History often focuses on the rise and fall of demagogues and dictators. But you can be sure that behind each one there are stories – some little known, others perhaps never told – of the brave individuals who made it their life's work to stop them. Even at their own peril.
This is one such story.
In the early 1930s in Germany, there arose to national prominence a man with very peculiar views. His name was Adolf Hitler and he blamed Germany’s post-WWI humiliation and economic failure on the Jews and the communists.
The country's economic distress was more realistically due to the harsh punishment Germany received for being on the losing side of “the war to end all wars” – as WWI was then called. But paybacks imposed by the victors were so excessive they bankrupted the country and plunged its people into abject, crushing poverty. This created a witch’s brew of bitterness and pain: the perfect environment for a demagogue – someone who leads by playing to people's prejudices rather than by rational thinking – to exploit.
As head of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi, for short), Hitler promised to return glory and national pride to the German people. So they supported him. He also created jobs, mostly building infrastructure. So they began to feel confident again. Trouble was, he did it at the expense of those he hated. He channeled the German peoples’ fear, misery, and anger by scapegoating the Jews, while simultaneously making them believe they had descended from a biologically superior race of human beings: the Aryan Race (i.e., white-skinned northern Europeans, most of whom were Christian).
Among Hitler's earliest supporters was a group of Protestant ministers. They organized a movement known as the “German Christians,” which manifested Hitler’s rhetoric in their official church practices. They ignored the “Jewish” Old Testament and they declared that Jesus Christ was an ancient Aryan from Galilee. They viewed Hitler as the second coming of Christ. “Hitler is the way of the Spirit and the will of God,” avowed German Christian Pastor Hermann Gruner.
Few church leaders and theologians dared to speak out against Hitler and his racist Aryan ideology. But one risked – and eventually lost – his life to do just that. His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Born in 1906, Dietrich was from a conservative aristocratic family. His grandfather had been the court preacher to the last German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose empire fell at the end of WWI. Dietrich decided to follow in his granddad's footsteps. As part of his training to be a minister, he went to New York, in 1930, to study under the famous theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. He was then 24 years old.
While in New York, Dietrich was befriended by a fellow theology student, a black man named Frank Fisher. Frank introduced Dietrich to the black churches of Harlem, specifically the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where the young German became a Sunday school teacher.
Dietrich marveled at the profound faith of African-American Christians, despite the discrimination they'd faced for centuries at the hands of the majority white population. He faulted the US's white Christian community for not speaking out against racial injustice. It just wasn't Christian. By ignoring it, he argued, white Christians tacitly supported racial segregation. When Dietrich heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. preach the gospel of social justice, a doctrine that implored Christians to stand up for the rights of society’s most oppressed, he decided that the only faith that mattered was backed up by activism in support of the poor, scapegoated, maligned, and mistreated. Even if that came at great personal sacrifice.