Why Bonhoeffer Isn’t One of My Theological Heroes

Simply put, it’s because he involved himself in a plot to murder.  It doesn’t matter who.  It only matters that.  Further, he apparently spied for the United States.  Theologians have no business either spying or murdering.  When Bonhoeffer did those two things he abandoned his office of theologian.  And no one who does that can be a real hero or model or mentor for anyone engaged in the theological task.

UPDATE: Be sure to check out Gavin’s thoughts on the topic. To him I would say, true- every Christian should be held to the same standard. I would just point out that theologians, of all people, are responsible, by their own actions, to be examples of ethics. That’s why Bonhoeffer comes in for special scrutiny, like it or not.

55 thoughts on “Why Bonhoeffer Isn’t One of My Theological Heroes

  1. tony siew 11 Apr 2010 at 9:56 am

    Jim, I was thinking about the same thing. No matter how evil a tyrant may be, I see no evidence in the NT that Christians could retaliate with violence or murder.


  2. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 10:05 am

    Dr. West, judging by the name of your blog, I understand that one of your heroes is Zwingli. Is that right? In this case, I wonder whether a person who dies in a war fighting as a soldier for a cause which is essentially political qualifies for the status of hero more than Bonhoeffer does. This double standard strikes me as very odd indeed.
    I confess that Bonhoeffer is one of my heroes, but obviously not because he has been about “murdering” (which he did not do anyway). Bonhoeffer knew that his involvement in the plot would disqualify him from being a pastor or a theologian, so in no case did he try to have it both ways, as Zwingli (I think) did. If I am wrong, I submit myself to correction.
    Emanuel Contac, Romania


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 12:35 pm

      zwingli did NOT die as a soldier. he was at Kappel as chaplain to the troops. the sometimes repeated claim that he was out there flailing away at the catholic troops is one of those ridiculous historical myths concocted by his opponents. it simply is not true.

      ergo no, i see no reason to compare zwingli, murdered by catholic troops while acting as chaplain, to bonhoeffer, who plotted and spied.


  3. missivesfrommarx 11 Apr 2010 at 10:31 am

    Isn’t that sort of what Bonhoeffer himself said?


  4. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 12:13 pm

    I don’t believe in heros or models or mentors anyway. But didn’t everyone want to kill Hitler? War is an evil thing – he didn’t torture and he saw the Nazis as evil. He believed he was called by God. He believed he was helping the ‘right’ side. Was he really as bad as you paint him? And weren’t a few other now dead theologians involved in murder?


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 12:35 pm

      you do too. casey is your mentor.


  5. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 12:43 pm

    I disagree, Bonhoeffer was.. as he chose, a German Christian, and sought to be faithful to both his people and his country. So theology for him was within the perimeters of a full humanity. And sometimes, often really, one must choose between a lesser evil. He was quite involved in the German resistance towards the Nazis.

    Perhaps a day will come again, and this time in the so-called Free World, when Christian’s will have to choose between the State, and real Christianity?


  6. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 12:52 pm

    no not my mentor or even James’. And Casey agrees – it’s an american idea. I specifically chose Casey to supervise my thesis and travelled twelve thousand miles to work with him. We work together on alot of other things. He is no more my mentor we agree, than I am his.


  7. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 12:54 pm

    I was referring more to Calvin. But this was wartime Jim. Most people of God saw Hitler as evil didn’t they and Bohnhoeffer was aware of his slaughter of Jews which had to be stopped.


  8. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 1:11 pm

    “mentor” is a technical term here applied when a university dom is assigned to oversee a probationary dom for three years. Nobody describes Maurice as my ‘mentor’ and certainly neither Maurice nor me.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 1:34 pm

      not here in the states it doesn’t.


  9. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 1:36 pm

    exactly, and your term doesn’t fit me as Maurice and I agree.


  10. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 1:42 pm

    as Maurice has just said, if he was your model of my mentor, I’d be moving out, leaving the country and finding someone else to supervise me – and that would have applied to James and Richard Burridge too. The whole point of our working together is that we disagree frequently and we’re allowed to – we do not have ‘mentors’ at all. 🙂


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 1:58 pm

      you cant possibly disagree. he disagreed with me and cut off all communication.


  11. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 2:04 pm

    that’s absolutely untrue and you know it. We do disagree frequently about major academic things – but not about morals. You never acknowledged what he said in his email. He has been very busy and will get in touch when he has time.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 2:42 pm

      how is it untrue?


  12. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Well, the story of his death seems to be more complex. I quote from Jaques Courvoisier, Zwingli: A Reformed Theologian, Richmond, VA, John Knox Press, 1963, p. 25:
    “Information concerning his death is to be found in the writings of Myconius, Bucer, and Bullinger. They state that Zwingli, seeing some of his people overwhelmed by a great number of enemies, threw himself actively into the battle to either save them or die with them. Hit several times, he fell and, in the evening after the battle, was found by the victorious soldiers, lying on the ground, dying, unable to speak, hands joined as for prayer, eyes raised to heaven. Identified as a “heretic” he was reviled and finally killed by a captain from Unterwald. His body was then burned and his ashes scattered.”

    Truth is Bonhoeffer served as a spiritual mentor (you might say “chaplain”) to the military conspirators. What is really the diffrence between serving as a chaplain to people who are at war with other people whom they are going to murder in battle (in direct combat) and serving as a spiritual guide to people who are planning to overthrow a tyrant?

    Bonhoeffer was not a spy in the traditional sense. He served as a connection to bishop Bell of Chichester. He did not do spying in the way a typical spy would do. So I really think the term “spy” is an overstatement. He did not spy on anyone. His position in the Abwehr and the reports he gave were practically of no value in themselves. Judged by the standards applied to the typical spy, Bonhoeffer’s value was nil.
    Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot was not because he believed that this is what everybody must do in similar circumstances. He once asked his students if they gave absolution to a person murdering a tyrant. And they all thought that he was simply discussing the matter for the sake of debating. But Bonhoeffer was really asking with an eye to the conspiracy he was involved in. I don’t see here any fervour or zeal, but rather the gradual coming to the resolution that doing nothing is not an option for him and that his ecumenical connections might be put to good use for the cause of the conspirators. He perceived his involvement as incurring equal blame (although he would not have put the bombs himself) and guilt and realized he was to be judged by God accordingly.
    So I don’t think that it is fair that Bonhoeffer spied and murdered any more that it is fair to say that Zwingli fought in battle! Both were more like chaplains to the combatants. 🙂


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 2:48 pm

      none of them were there. myconius has the most accurate telling because he was able to speak with eyewitnesses. bucer never bothered and bullinger used myconius. if i had to guess (since ive never seen any account of zwingli’s death by bucer) i would suspect that bucer was influenced by his lutheran friends (since he was very keen to appeal to both them and the reformed- being something of a chameleon)

      bonhoeffer was as much a chaplain to hitler’s assassination scheme as anyone could be a chaplain to such a plot. which is to say, not at all. no christian can in good conscience advise others to kill. regardless of the circumstances. such a plot is at its very heart a denial of God.


  13. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 3:06 pm

    To say that Zwingli was the chaplain of the troops does not convey the full image of his involvement. He was on the battlefield, on horseback, bearing the banner. That’s more than just being a chaplain. It betrays “the willingness that ultimately the sword should defend the preaching of the word.”

    Let me quote from W. P. Stephens, Zwingli: An Introduction to His Thought, Oxford, Oxford University, 1992, p 29.
    “Battle began before the next contingent of 1,500 arrived. According to Swiss custom, Zwingli, as the chief pastor, bore the banner on horseback. He urged the 1,500 into battle to support the 1,200 already there. But tired, ill-prepared, and outnumbered three to one, they could not prevail–and in the battle Zwingli was wounded and killed. His death was seen by Luther as the judgement of God. Bucer was shocked by it, but a few days later he wrote to Melanchthon: ‘He was a truly religious man, who believed in the Lord and also one who greatly loved good letters and furthered them among his own people. . . . In truth he looked to nothing other than the glory of Christ and the salvation of his native land.'”


  14. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 3:12 pm

    But precisely that is the difference: Bonhoeffer did not advise his companions to kill, in the first place. The plot was not concieved by him. It was his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi who introduced him to a group seeking Hitler’s overthrow at Abwehr, German military intelligence. To be sure, Bonhoeffer did not have a serene conscience about this. He told them: “Who ever draws the sword shall perish by the sword”. Which happened as predicted.

    So Bonhoeffer being part of a conspirator’s group is bad, I agree. It is not to be our model. But carrying the banner in battle against other people is equally indefensible on NT grounds. But that is what Zwingli did, no matter how we might see his death.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 4:34 pm

      do you believe carrying a banner is the same thing as plotting to kill someone? again, carrying the banner of the contingent does not one a combatant make.


  15. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 3:21 pm

    Well said Vaisamar, as to the history of Bonheoffer.

    Jim, are a pacifist? Sounds very close?


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 4:35 pm

      bonhoeffer was the ‘pacifist’- only when it suited him. that is, when he was sitting in a drawing room with his wealthy family members or his students. but true pacifists don’t plan to kill people.


  16. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 4:50 pm

    it is untrue because we disagree about things every day. We make each other change our minds, rethink things, see things in different ways. it is untrue because he sent you an email about a serious matter and expressing concern over a growing pattern leading up to it, the main content of which you ignored. it would be respectful or decent of you to acknowledge the content. we were concerned to get the manuscript off to press and he has been busy to the present date.


  17. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 4:58 pm

    perhaps he believed killing Hitler would prevent the murder of many more innocent Jews. Not to mention the many more other deaths in WWII. If Hitler were dead the war would be over.

    As for banners: If the doctor performing an abortion is a murderer, is the mother who lets it happen a murderer too? Is the nurse who hands him the knife also complicit in the murder? And is the man driving the murderer to the victim and then helps the murderer escape, not guilty too?


  18. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 5:08 pm

    I beg to differ. If I were a Catholic fighting in the troops and I saw Zwingli riding on horseback with a banner, I would know for sure that what I have before me is anything but a pacifist (I presume that the banner was not a white flag asking for peace). A pacifist has no place on a battlefield with a banner of war. Well, Zwingli was not there to plot murder. He was there to bless/encourage/acquiesce to murderous war for the sake of the Gospel. If he was not doing that, then please tell us what was precisely his role there. I for one don’t think he meant to offer Protestant soldiers counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder. If he was preaching as a chaplain, before the war broke, I would be very curious what his message was.
    Bonhoeffer did not plot to kill Hilter. The plot was already designed by the military man. Do you think the Admiral Canaris needed Bonhoeffer to give him instructions on how to place the explosives more effectively? If there is guilt on Bonhoeffer, it is not because he plotted to kill anyone, but because he was part of a conspiracy designed to kill Hitler. And that is bad enough. Being part of a conspiracy and plotting to kill somone is not the same thing. Just like fighting in a battle and carrying the banner on horseback is not the same thing.

    When you say that Bonhoeffer plotted to murder, you sound like me saying that Zwingli died in battle. As general statements, they seem justified. When you look more closely into the matters, it appears they are not adequate descriptions of what happened really.

    Bonhoeffer was a pacifist when being one would have sent one before the execution squad. His students asked him about this matter, when war was about to happen, and Bonhoeffer replied that he hoped God would give him the strength to refuse taking arms no matter what. So I am not sure he was an armchair pacifist, as you suggest. In 1939 he came from America knowing that he faced conscription in the army and possibly the court martial.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 5:21 pm

      you sound convincing, but alas, you fail to persuade. i still have no use for bonhoeffer because, as a theologian, he had a duty to preserve life, not take it. even if only peripherally.


  19. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 5:10 pm


    I agree about the many inconsistent aspects to both Bonhoeffer’s life and theology. His death pressed him into a place that he would perhaps would never have achieved in life, if he had lived? I personally don’t see him as that independent thinker-theologian, as Barth and Brunner. But, he was a great Christian pastor, and I like both his book, ‘Ethics’ and ‘Cost of Discipleship’ best. And his ‘Letters And Papers From Prison’ least. I used to belong to the Bonhoeffer Society myself. But no longer, it has gone in the wrong direction in my opinion.


  20. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 5:19 pm

    PS..Perhaps some of the more unknown or lesser works of Bonhoeffer, are in reality his best? Like ‘Life Together’, ‘Act And Being’, ‘The Communion Of Saints’, and ‘Christ The Center’, etc.


  21. steph 11 Apr 2010 at 5:38 pm

    I have read cost of discipleship, letters and papers from prison and ethics and found them all – particularly the first two – very approachable. Incredibly moving and absolutely sincere.


  22. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Well, I am afraid I must return the courtesy. If Zwingli’s banner had been proven to be a white flag, I would most certainly have put it to good use, together with its bearer. Since there is no evidence whatsoever about the colour, I will have to desist.
    We do agree on something, namely that strengthening the hands of people at war is forbidden of theologians, regardless of the Protestant tradition from which they come.


  23. Rev Tony Buglass 11 Apr 2010 at 5:53 pm

    Jim, you have the luxury of freedom to make such statements. Bonhoeffer chose to go back to Germany in 1939 because he felt he couldn’t be a pastor to his people when they were in danger and he was safe. He didn’t initially advocate murder, he was drawn into the plot as events unfolded, and was convinced that working against Hitler was the right thing to do under the circumstances of total war.

    If you’re going to argue for pacifism at any cost and in all circumstances, that’s your prerogative. I’m sure there are points (like, pre-1939) where Bonhoeffer would have agreed with you. Once war had broken out things changed. I remember reading the work of a Quaker who was called up in 1940 and joined the Quaker ambulance brigade – after a year or two in the Western Desert he remustered for the artillery, because he had worked out that pacifism was not going to stop Hitler. Circumstances pushed him into a position appropriate to the nature of the crisis. That I suggest is what Bonhoeffer did in 1944.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 8:09 pm

      we dont have the right to delete what we dislike from the principles of christian theology.


  24. Vaisamar 11 Apr 2010 at 5:54 pm

    Dear Irishanglican, what do you mean when you refer to the wrong direction of the Bonhoeffer Society? I am very curious. Please, explain!


  25. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 6:05 pm

    For myself, of course Bonhoeffer is central, as he shows us the Christian life and choices in the very worst of modern life, i.e. the Nazis, etc. And he jumped in, and made “his” tough choices. I have already made some of mine…I was a Royal Marine commando, and I took it to the enemy many times. But God alone will be my judge, as He was for Bonhoeffer. No man, or human can sit on the side lines of life, if they do, they also really loose something of real life! But where is Christ? And how do I obey Him? These are questions that Bonhoeffer asked in grave times. It is here that I for myself find his (Bonhoeffer’s) help. And as much as I like theology, no man will stand before the Lord as a mere theologian, but as a human and sinful man! What think ye of Christ? Yes, for both!


  26. Emerson 11 Apr 2010 at 7:44 pm

    What about Peter?

    Did he not draw a sword and slice off Malchus’ right ear as if in battle? Did not Thomas say about Christ,” Let us go, that we may die with him!” If Bonhoeffer is guilty, then so is Peter.

    The mentalities of the apostles do not forbid us from following their kerygma with deep respect and sincere reverance for God, however.

    But you raise a good point, Jim. A line must be drawn somewhere. I have (potentially) done the same thing for other well-known theologians due to sexual scandal.


    • Jim 11 Apr 2010 at 8:08 pm

      peter did indeed- and then he was roundly rebuked by jesus who told him quite directly ‘those who live by the sword, die by it. put your sword away!’


  27. Emerson 11 Apr 2010 at 8:56 pm


    But wouldn’t this provide us with some sort of precedent for being nurtured by Bonhoeffer?Peter was indeed soundly rebuked, but Christ went on to appoint Peter as a missionary to the Jews according to Acts and Galatians.

    Anyways, I am more troubled on theological grounds as I read Bonhoeffer than I am on historical ones. The passage on “costly grace” which has practically become a mantra for evangelicals really, really, really bothers me. I know the point he is trying to make, but the language he uses almost purposefully sounds like talk of “works-righteousness”, which is completely at odds with grace.

    In the words of John Robbins (who I disagree with for all other purposes): “Grace is not cheap. It’s free.”


  28. Emerson 11 Apr 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Of course, it could be that Bonhoeffer wasn’t meaning that passage to come off in that tone. The way he speaks about grace in portions of his Spiritual Care is profound, dead-on and quite encouraging. I also love his discussions of God’s grace in “Meditations on the Psalms”. But I see no reason why the “costly grace” passage should be so beatified. The only inspiration it gave me was to go out and start earning God’s favor.


  29. irishanglican 11 Apr 2010 at 9:48 pm


    As to Bonhoeffer and “costly grace”, I think he was reacting to the flip side if we can say it, of “cheap grace”. But I too understand your concern. Grace simply cannot ever be earned!


    I would not want to overly influence you if you are in the society. But if you note however, ‘Letters And Papers From Prison’ seems to dominate and control the intellectual life and thought in the society.


    None of us has a “theology” fully. Even Barth’s CD is way too long. But we do have the Holy Scripture, and the Church Catholic. This in the end is all that God gives us, but also thankfully, the “spirit and truth”. “God is Spirit, those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4: 24)


  30. Rev Tony Buglass 12 Apr 2010 at 4:32 am

    “we dont have the right to delete what we dislike from the principles of christian theology.”

    Agreed. As Irishanglican says, it’s about obedience to Christ. But when you’re in a war situation, and there is a possibility that great evil may be avoided by something which is itself evil, might it not be a Christian act to accept the need to do the lesser evil? I suggest that becoming involved in a plot to kill Hitler was that sort of decision, just as the decision by many Christians to take up arms against tyranny was right. Yes, that means blood on their hands, and some of it was innocent blood (I’m thinking of those who bombed German and Japanese cities), but I cannot condemn them. I can grieve over the necessity for those deeds, but in the face of that tyranny, I think they were necessary. And I will stand before my Maker with that conviction, alongside the RAF servicemen I served as an officiating chaplain, and the many ex-servicemen of WW2 vintage whom I’ve had in my pastoral care.


  31. irishanglican 12 Apr 2010 at 11:05 am

    Yes Amen Rev Tony, my father RIP (died in his 80’s), was an old RAF WW2 fighter pilot, and squadron leader. He was in the famous Battle of Britain. Thank God for such men! In some sense, we stand on their shoulders!


  32. Vaisamar 13 Apr 2010 at 4:55 am

    Irishanglican, I don’t really mind you trying to influence me (covertly or overtly). I am no member of the Bonhoeffer Society. I just want to know what is the problem with it lately. I expect that the few letters about the nonreligious interpretation of Christianity seem to dominate the thought in the society. To reduce Bonhoeffer’s thought to those particular letters means to do some injustice to him, don’t you think?


  33. Vaisamar 13 Apr 2010 at 5:01 am

    Dr. West, since you still keep the reference to the Foxnews report, let me state that taking information from a second-hand source about the so-called “spying activities by Bonhoeffer” does not do you credit and really creates confusion in the mind of the Chicken Littles which may happen to come across your post. In the indictment against Bonhoeffer there was no such accusation. Please read volume 16 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English. Whom was he spying, may I ask? I find it incredible that a theologian who should otherwise interpret information in a cautious manner, simply falls for the hype in the media this time. If you make such clear-cut assertions, you most definitely must be ready to give reasonable defence for them.


    • Jim 13 Apr 2010 at 6:20 am

      i’m pretty skeptical of fox myself. but they didn’t come up with the idea. and frankly, i don’t recall who did (though i do recall reading it in several respectable sources years ago). and i’d look up bonhoeffer but i gave my entire collection of his writings to a church library in north carolina while i lived there.


  34. irishanglican 13 Apr 2010 at 11:22 am

    The final word on Bonhoeffer, must come from different levels. As a Christian pastor, as a Christian theologian. As a German and man of his time, in the most terrible War known to man or humanity.

    On theological levels, we must see his liberalism, even within the neo-orthodox thought and movement. Perhaps his most damaging work, that shows how unorthodox and liberal he really was, is ‘Christ the Center’.

    But, on a personal level he did grapple with living with Christ in a fallen and broken world. Perhaps he is the father of the ‘Death of God’ movement? There is so much material on his life and theology, almost ‘cult’ like?


  35. Vaisamar 13 Apr 2010 at 11:30 am

    I have been reading the official transcripts from the trial of Bonhoeffer (as published in vol. 16 of DBW) and I did not find yet anything about him spying. He merely made some reports about what they (he and other pastors) were planning in order to bring churches together in a common declaration for peace, when the war would end. If that is spying, anything is spying.
    I wonder if Eric Metaxas substantiates this claim in his book (the title of which names Bonhoeffer a spy). For the time being, I am not convinced that the the term is adequate.


  36. irishanglican 13 Apr 2010 at 1:42 pm

    Sadly some have even called Bonoeffer a “double agent” in the anti-Nazi resistance and in the German Abwehr (German mililtary office). I am not sure myself what to call this?


  37. Colin 17 Apr 2010 at 1:45 pm

    Interesting dsicussion. We are currently in a 5 week pacifism vs. just war debate in our church and I take Bonhoeffer as my example of when being an accessory to violence is unavoidable. Rarely but it sometimes happens.

    Bonhoeffer was not a spy even though he worked for the Abwehr. He was loyal to his country but not to his government, which was unelected and illegitimate. Note that treason in Germany is two dimensional. The definition allows for a charge of teason against the country or treason against the government – Bonhoeffer committed the latter.

    While not personaly indulging in viloence, Bonhoeffer was clearly aware of the plot through Canaris, Oster and Dohnanyi. So he was an accessory under the law and morally.

    Was he justified? In my view clearly. You refer to him sitting comfortably in his rich parents’ living room practising his theology. To me its the arm chair analysts sitting in comfort in North America today who judge unfairly. Its easy to cast stones at historical characters in WWII when your neighbours are not currently being rounded up and kiiled on an industrial scale ….in your name! If you have the power to stop that and save millions, as the German resistance did, it would have been immoral not to have done so. More people died after July 20, 1944 in WWII than before. A successful coup would have stopped that.

    I think that God would forgive me if I was in such a situation and killed a monster like Hitler. If not, I would still do it. If theology can’t defend that, then its entirely focused on the next world and negligent of this one in my view.

    Claus Stauffenberg determined to kill Hitler fully expecting to lose his soul as a result. He was willing to pay the price to save his fellow man. He also jeopardized his family, friends and other innocents to do what was morally necessary.

    Pacifism when your own life is at risk is easy. It gets messy when you are responsible for someone else’s.

    Just my view. Thanks for the opportunity to weigh in.



  38. Vaisamar 17 Apr 2010 at 2:36 pm

    Colin, the government of Germany was elected. In 1933 it was the election which brought Hitler to power. The political mechanism which kept him in power is not entirely clear to me, but one thing is certain: democracy can go bad! Look at Iran. Iran is a big democracy gone bad! So Hitler did come to power in a legitimate way. Whether the means he used to stay in power were also legitimate is another matter.


  39. irishanglican 17 Apr 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Democracy without real Theocracy always fails. Only Christ!


  40. Colin 17 Apr 2010 at 3:34 pm

    Hitler never won a majority and the it is my belief that even those people who did vote NSDAP, did not vote for the end of democracy. The Nazis hijacked the government, and in most scholars’ views, they were to some degree illegitimate from day 1.



  41. Vaisamar 18 Apr 2010 at 7:11 am


    Hitler won enough to become chancellor and then use legislative means to gain more and more power. Please read the following fragment from a good book on Hitler.

    Fritz Redlich, Hitler: Diagnosis of a Destructive Prophet, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, page 91ff.

    At noon on 30 January 1933, Hitler became Chancellor according to the constitution and laws of the Weimar Republic. Until the very last days, Hitler and his cohorts were not certain that this would happen. Finally, the day of triumph had come. The appointment was the result of a complex power play in which Hitler, through laying in wait, sudden aggressive forays, and tremendous determination and belief in his cause, achieved his goal. In the evening, Goebbels arranged a huge torch parade, which Hitler and his men watched with enormous satisfaction. Hitler talked until the early hours of the next morning about the Party’s past and the future of the Reich of a Thousand Years. No record of the discussion was kept, but the world soon learned about Hitler’s plans.

    ON 30 JANUARY 1933, Goebbels wrote in his diary, “It is almost like a dream.” He described the enthusiasm the Germans showed as they marched by the old President and the young Chancellor in an endless torch parade. He concluded on a more sober note: “To work. Prepare the election. It will be the last, and it will be won by a sky-high majority.” Indeed, for Hitler it was like a dream. He was elated and stunned. Yet in spite of the public applause, he realized that he was not yet Germany’s Führer but rather the head of a conservative cabinet with a minority of two National Socialist ministers–a cabinet in which von Papen and Hugenberg, possibly with the help of President von Hindenburg and his camarilla, would try to do him in to pursue their own aims of reestablishing the monarchy. One of his first tasks was to get rid of this cabinet. Hitler believed that the coming election would give him the power and means to pursue his own far-reaching plans. It would be only a short waiting period.

    The Election
    The election campaign was short and intense. It used the powers and means of the state and relied to an unprecedented degree on radio broadcasts. The campaign was interrupted by an alarming event. On 27 February 1933 the Reichstag was set on fire by an anarchist, Marinus van der Lübbe, also a member of the Dutch Communist Party. Hitler, Goebbels, and Göring rushed to the spot and concluded that the arson was the work of Communists, the signal for a general strike and Communist takeover. With the consent of von Hindenburg, Hitler issued the Law for the Protection of State and People, which drastically reduced the civil rights of individuals and parties. It abolished the right of assembly, freedom of the press, privacy of communication, and habeas corpus, and opened the way for arrest and incarceration without warrant or trial. This was the law that made Germany a police state and also eliminated the power of Hitler’s conservative cabinet members, who voted for it.
    The Reichstag Fire
    The Reichstag fire dominated the rest of the electoral campaign. All Communist deputies were arrested. Van der Lübbe was convicted as the lone arsonist, and, after a special law was enacted — the Lex van der Lübbe — the German Supreme Court sentenced him to death. To Hitler’s dismay, the others accused, the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitroff and the German Communist Deputy Leader Ernst Torgler, were acquitted. According to Hans Mommsen, the events have not been completely clarified. It is possible that the Nazis “used” the crazed van der Lübbe to commit the act. What is clear is that Hider used the Reichstag fire to the utmost to introduce and reinforce repressive measures. Certainly the Communist Party had no reason to commit such an act. Ten days before the election, the Nazis pursued Communists and Social Democrats with unchecked fury. The relentless persecution was accepted without major protest by the majority of the German people. Hitler knew that the Communists were unpopular with many Germans, and both the Communists and the Social Democrats were weak. Yet the result of the election was a disappointment to Hitler and the Party. The Nazis increased their number of deputies but obtained only 43.9 percent of the vote. However, a mere plurality did not deter Hitler from pursuing his radical policy of building the new Germany. Elections or plebiscites were significant only in that they suited the aim of the dictator. Actually, Hitler had a “majority,” because all of the Communist and twenty-eight Social Democratic deputies were in jails or concentration camps.

    Political Gleichschaltung
    The time for political Gleichschaltung — an electrician’s term designating the reduction to one current — had arrived. On 21 March 1933, the day of the opening of the new Reichstag, the Day of Awakening, a solemn celebration took place in Potsdam. In the presence of the government’s high brass, Party officials, and the diplomatic corps, von Hindenburg and Hitler resolved to work together to build a new Germany. It was not easy for Hitler to appear in a top hat on this solemn occasion, because he did not like his appearance in such garb and it alienated the radical elements within the Party, but the act of playing along with von Hindenburg and the conservative forces paid off. With the cooperation of the German Nationalist Party during the first session of the new Reichstag, Hitler was able to push through the Reichstag one of his most important pieces of legislation, the Enabling Act. It eliminated most legislative functions of the Reichstag and gave Hitler and his cabinet far-reaching power of legislation and unrestricted power to conduct foreign policy. Although it stipulated the end of all parties but the NSDAP, only the Social Democrats voted against it. When Otto Wels, chairman of the Social Democratic Party, stated that his party would oppose the law, Hitler haughtily told him, “I don’t want you to vote for it; Germany shall be free, but not through you.” It took only three months further to abolish all of the other parties. By midsummer 1933 the National Socialist German Workers Party was the only party. The Reichstag became, as opponents whispered, a glee club in which members could vote for Hitler’s laws and intone the national anthem and the NS battle song, the Horst Wessel Lied. The second step of political Gleichschaltung was busting the powerful social democratic and Christian unions and, after confiscating their assets, establishing the German Workers Front (Deutsche Arbeitsfront) under Robert Ley. Hitler was eager to win over the workers from the Communist, Social Democratic, and Zentrum parties, who joined in droves. Bringing workers into his camp was important to Hitler, who saw himself as “a worker of the fist and head,” and fit his ideology to overcome class struggle and have the workers unite behind him, giving up their allegiance to international communism and socialism. The third aspect of political Gleichschaltung was a transfer of the power of government from the state to the central government.


  42. Vaisamar 18 Apr 2010 at 7:16 am

    Irishanglican, what do you mean by “real theocracy”? You remind me of people in Romania claiming that we should attempt the communist experiment again, only this time instituting REAL communism. You see, they think that communism as we had it between 1947-1989 was not THE REAL THING!
    You can’t possibly establish a real theocracy with flawed people. Real theocracy we’ll have when God’s kingdom will be fully realized on earth as it is in heaven. But not through revolutions or politics.
    Was Calvin’s Geneva the real theocracy? Was Israel under the reign of David a real theocracy?


  43. irishanglican 18 Apr 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Perhaps only in a Judeo-Christian monarchy has there been a form of lasting democracy. The USA like the Roman, will end in failure. Only “In Christ” eternal will there be any lasting theocracy; but not here!


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