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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.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931 and took a post as a university lecturer. He became known for his quick wit and social conscience.
True to form, when Hitler came to power in January 1933, Bonhoeffer was on the radio within two days to condemn the new German Chancellor as a demagogue. He called Hitler “a seducer of the German people.”
The following April, Bonhoeffer’s was the first member of Germany’s religious community to openly oppose the Nazi regime. He wrote that it was the responsibility of all ministers not simply to "bandage the victims under the wheel” of Hitler, “but jam the spoke in the wheel itself."
That fall, he urged ministers to refuse to officiate baptisms or weddings until Hitler was removed from power. Most considered him too radical, however. So Bonhoeffer, frustrated, accepted a pastorate in London where he spoke out against Nazism to anyone who would listen.
In 1935, Bonhoeffer turned down an opportunity to study non-violence with Mohandas Gandhi in order to return to Germany to join the resistance. Through his “seminary on the run,” he preached opposition to Hitler. The Nazi secret police, or Gestapo, were hot on his trail, however. By 1938, at the pleading of his supporters, Bonhoeffer left for the US once more. But he returned the following year, when World War II broke out, and served as a secret liaison between German resistors and the powers allied against the Nazi threat. In January 1943, the Nazi Gestapo finally caught up with him.
Though arrested and thrown in prison in Berlin, Bonhoeffer continued his work, holding services for fellow prisoners. He wrote letter after letter, which sympathetic guards smuggled out for him.* But when an attempt was made on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, Bonhoeffer became yet another Nazi scapegoat, along with nearly six million others. In April 1945, Hitler's Germany executed Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They hung him by the neck until he dies at Flossberg Concentration Camp.
Two weeks later, Flossberg was liberated by American troops and the 2nd World War came to an end.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s resistance to Hitler and his choice to return to Germany and ultimately sacrifice his life made him a hero and symbol of the spirit of Christ all over the world. That is why we’re proud to name him a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero. Many thanks to Mark Davis of Idyllwild, CA, USA, for nominating him.
*Bonhoeffer’s prison letters were later published alongside his underground lectures. They remain in print today.
Who's your #HistoryHero?
Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.