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A Front Row Seat for the Nightmare Years (Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Part Two)

A Front Row Seat for the Nightmare Years

Bonhoeffer’s Germany, Part Two

Michael Jinkins


“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.” (Edmund Burke, 1729-1797)


From 1934 till 1940, American journalist William Shirer had a front row seat to witness the era in Germany that he would later describe as “the Nightmare Years,” a decade that resulted in our world being plunged into terror, bloodshed, brutality and genocide.


Many commentators have observed, with amazement, Hitler’s rise to power. They have wondered how a man regarded by so many as a clown and a buffoon was elected, as one historian has said, “for his self-assertion and not because of his arguments.” While Hitler and his followers were dismissed as a joke by many intellectuals, like the University of Berlin student who said, “it’s a comedy,” nonetheless, Hitler was supported by some sane and calculating, but desperate, politicians hungry for power. He was lavishly funded by some of Germany’s leading industrialists, all of whom believed that, ultimately, they could control Hitler and use his popular appeal to their own ends.


Hitler’s popular appeal was considerable. And many who did not rally to his cause did relatively little to oppose him. (for example, several years ago, I came across a copy of Time magazine from the era of Hitler’s rise which spoke of the magnetism of his “blue eyes” with the same gushing prose more often seen in Hollywood fan magazines.)


Shirer confesses his surprise that the “vast majority” of German people simply were not terribly concerned with what happened to a few “Socialists, pacifists, defiant priests and pastors, and the Jews.” Indeed, Shirer writes, a “newly arrived observer (to Germany) was forced, however reluctantly, as in my case, to conclude that on the whole the people did not seem to feel that they were being cowed and held down by an unscrupulous tyranny. On the contrary, and much to my surprise, they appeared to support it with genuine enthusiasm.”*


“How was this possible?” One might well ask.


The reason lies, at least in part, in the history of Germany.


At the end of World War I, the defeated German people had felt humiliated by the forced terms of the Versailles Treaty. But that’s not all. Having only recently emerged from one of the worst economic crises they had ever known, in which staggering inflation had reduced the country to penury and starvation, Germany suddenly found itself plunged into a worldwide Great Depression led by the catastrophic failure of America’s Wall Street.


The impulse to place the blame for all their humiliations, woes and insecurities on aliens, immigrants, Jews, and what many considered “unGerman outsiders” was irresistible to many. A belief had become commonplace among many that the democratic institutions and politicians that had been put in place in Germany since the end of the First World War did not represent the interests of the German people and enthralled the German people to “foreign powers” that took advantage of them. A yearning emerged among many Germans for a sort of savior, a strong leader, who could restore Germany’s national pride.**


“What seemed to matter to them the most,” Shirer wrote, “was that the Führer was setting out to liquidate the past, with all its frustrations and bitter disappointments. He was promising to free Germany from the consequences of its defeat in 1918: the shackles of the peace treaty imposed on a beaten nation. He was assuring the people that he would make Germany strong again.”***


When we ask the question “How could a nation like Germany allow itself to be seduced by Nazism?” we have to reckon with the fact, as uncomfortable as it may be, that Hitler used the mechanisms of a democratic process to rise to power.  Ironically, he utilized the institutions of liberal democracy in order to dismantle these very institutions.


As Ian Kershaw observes in the second volume of his magisterial study of Hitler: “By the time he was levered into power, the ‘redemptive’ politics which Hitler preached – the overturning of the defeat and revolution of 1918 at their heart – had won the support of over 13 million Germans, among them an activist base of well over a million members of the various branches of the Nazi Movement.”****


Of course, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge documents in considerable detail, Bonhoeffer’s family would never have been numbered among the thirteen million Germans charmed by the so-called “redemptive” politics that Hitler preached. The family into which Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born represented the qualities that every potential Hitler most dreads: well-educated, cultured, appreciative of democratic institutions, and devoted to their country, to the common good, and to mankind as a whole.


Bonhoeffer’s maternal grandfather, Karl August von Hase, had been a respected church leader and a professor of practical theology. Von Hase baptized Dietrich and his twin sister, Sabine, as well as Dietrich’s younger sister, Susanne. Bonhoeffer’s great-grandfather, Karl August the elder, had been invited to teach church history and historical theology at the University in Jena by none other than Goethe. His progressive thinking led first to a brush with prison and, subsequently, to national honors and bestowal of a peerage.


Dietrich’s paternal grandmother exemplified her family’s humanity, courage and grit. On April 1, 1933, at the age of ninety-one, this elderly matriarch defied the Nazi boycott of Jewish shops, marching right past an armed cordon enforced by Nazi Storm Troopers to shop at a Jewish-owned business in Berlin. It was simply where she always shopped, she said firmly, and no Nazis would dare to stop her.


Dietrich’s father, Karl, was a well-respected psychiatrist and neurologist; his mother, Paula, cultured and well-educated in her own right, presided over and provided the early education for her large family and managed her household staff. Dietrich and his seven siblings were reared in a home of considerable privilege, where musical, artistic and intellectual interests were encouraged, and critical thinking and service to society and nation were expected.


The First World War touched the Bonhoeffer family deeply. Dietrich’s elder brother, Walter, was killed in action in 1918, a loss that, according to Bethge, seemed to break his mother’s spirit and left an indelible mark on Dietrich, perhaps influencing his later pacifism.*****


Bonhoeffer’s family passed through the same crucible of history that their fellow Germans had experienced. However, his family met the challenges of the crises facing Germany in a very different manner from those who supported the Nazis in the streets or in the offices and salons of the country.


The attitude of the Bonhoeffers and their cultured circle is captured in the horror and revulsion communicated by a family friend, a man whose life and death would be bound up with Dietrich’s own, Hans von Dohnányi. He reflected on the manner in which a respected university professor, lecturing in 1922 on “The Student in the New Age,” found himself violently prevented from speaking by a group of radical young people and war veterans stamping their feet and shouting personal insults at him. Von Dohnányi is particularly prescient when he writes about this incident: “It is depressing to see the people on whom one relies for the future. … Only think of the trouble we shall have later with these people.”******


The smoldering anger, the growing anxiety, and wounded national pride that would break out in violence even in a university lecture provided exactly the right combination of factors for a master manipulator and demagogue like Adolf Hitler bent on grasping power. His message was a torch thrown among barrels of gasoline, a public ready to believe that all their prejudices and suspicions were confirmed and their greatest cruelties justified.


The difference between the response to Hitler on the part of Bonhoeffer’s family circle and that of some other highly educated, morally reflective Germans is striking.


From the beginning, Bonhoeffer and his family circle saw the dangers that others blithely dismissed. They took seriously the threat to Germany and the world which Hitler and his followers represented. And they aligned themselves strategically with those who would oppose the Nazis.


Adolf Hitler once said that it was very lucky for him that people simply do not think. Bad luck for him and his ilk in every age that some people do.



*William L. Shirer, The Nightmare Years: 1930-1940 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), p. 147.

** Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity (London: Fontana edition, 1991), pp. 245-246. See also John Moses’ excellent brief introduction to the period leading up to Hitler’s ascendency, “Bonhoeffer’s Germany: The Political Context,” in John W. de Gruchy, editor, The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge University Press, 1999), in which the author notes the factors that conspired against the republic.

***Shirer, p. 148.

****Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1936-45 Nemesis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), p. xlii.

*****This very brief overview of the Bonhoeffer family is drawn from Eberhard Bethge’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, revised edition, 2000), pp. 3-28.

******Bethge, p. 34, and Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnányi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York: New York Review Books, 2013).

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