Resistance in Nazi Germany

We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern write about "The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi" in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books. Like other individuals I have written about, I was attracted to their essay by the moral courage displayed by both men in Nazi Germany.

To resist the Nazis was to invite imprisonment, torture and more likely death to yourself and immediate members of your family. As a result, the number of Germans engaged in resistance activities was very small with nothing like the somewhat more coordinated French, Polish and Italian groups.

Both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were fully aware of the consequences of their activities. Yet they opposed the regime both overtly and covertly for several years. What can we learn about resisting injustice from their example?

Diestrich Bonhoeffer was a well-known pastor. Once the Nazis proclaimed that race, not religion, determined one’s identity, Bonhoeffer joined 2,000 other religious leaders in challenging the Nazi view. In 1935 he left Berlin to assume a teaching position in a remote “preachers’ seminary” where he made clear his opposition to the ideology of the Nazi party.

Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a virtually unknown lawyer. In 1934 he became aware of various Nazi illegal acts and began keeping a record of them in a secure safe to be used in any subsequent prosecution of Nazi criminals once the regime was overthrown. He also joined together with other German officers opposed to Hitler and his planned takeover of Czechoslovakia.

After Krisallnacht and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Nazis began watching both men closely. During a short sojourn in America to study with his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer realized he had to return to Germany. He wrote:

I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany…Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.

Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, separately and together, began more active forms of resistance once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union and escalated their program of exterminating Jewish men, women and children.

• Both men were able to arrange the “deportation” of Jewish individuals to Switzerland.

• Dohnanyi somehow managed to plant a British-made bomb in a plane carrying Hitler back from Russia, but the mechanism didn’t work.

• A few days later they participated in another failed attempt to assassinate Hitler because of last minute changes in his plans.

• Both men were arrested the following month and were taken to different prisons in Berlin. While there, they stayed in touch with coded or smuggled messages. In this way they were able to inform others of what they knew of the Nazi atrocities and encourage them to continue with whatever resistance work was possible.

Eventually the Nazis discovered some of the documents revealing their conspiracy against Hitler. In April, after sham trials, Dohnanyi and Bonheffer were executed by hanging.

Sifton and Stern conclude, “One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohanyi and Dietrich Boinhoeffer. …Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said they were “on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.” So few traveled that path—anywhere."