In defiance of the gods

KARL BARTH and Dietrich Bonhoeffer: well-known theologians, true, but perhaps just as famous for seeing through Nazism as a false religion and Hitler as a false god. Barth’s Church Dogmatics (1932–1967) and Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1937) both came from a desire to resist Hitler and the Nazi state.  

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fighting evil with books

Barth (1886–1968) was about two decades older than Bonhoeffer. Having been educated in Switzerland and Germany, by the early 1910s, he was a young father of two and pastor of a small Reformed country church in Safenwil, Switzerland. 

There he reacted strongly against many of his liberal teachers who supported the “Manifesto of the Ninety-three German Intellectuals to the Civilized World” (1914), signed by Barth’s former teacher Adolf von Harnack. The manifesto championed Germany’s aims in WWI and represented a theology that, Barth felt, identified God too closely with culture rather than the Word of God. Barth’s response: a book. His groundbreaking commentary on the book of Romans spelled out his theology in defiance of such cultural Christianity. This led to a teaching job in Germany in 1921 and his rise to prominence as a theologian. 

Barth served as a lecturer at the Universities of Göttingen (1921–1925), Münster (1925–1930), and Bonn (1930–1935). At Bonn he was pressured to swear allegiance to Hitler through the “Hitler salute” at the beginning of class sessions. He refused, lost his teaching position, and went back to Switzerland. His books were banned and burned, and he was forbidden to speak publicly. Barth argued that Christianity and Christian authority are found in the Word of God alone and not in the Nazi attempt to combine Christianity, God’s Word, and German culture.

Hitler became chancellor of Germany in January 1933 and gained full dictatorial powers as president in 1934. He sought to unify all areas of German life (including the Christian church) under Nazi control and ideology. Barth strongly resisted the church becoming an organ of the state and a tool to promote the Nazi cause. Part of the German agenda was found in what was called the “Aryan paragraph,” a law that promoted the so-called “Aryan,” or pure German race, as superior to all other races. All non-Aryans, especially Jews, were to be removed from leadership, including in the church. Ironically Barth had preached a sermon on Romans 15:5–13 called “The Church of Jesus Christ” on December 10, 1933, shortly before Hitler became president, emphasizing that Jesus himself was a Jew! 

Meanwhile Martin Niemöller, a leading German pastor, had founded the Pastors’ Emergency League in 1933 to resist the Nazi-directed “German Christians.” In May 1934 a group of pastors met at the Synod of Barmen—including both Barth and Bonhoeffer, friends since 1931—and formed the “Confessing Church.” The Confessing Church produced the Barmen Confession, largely written by Barth, arguing that Christ is Lord of all of life and there is no other ultimate authority in faith and conduct. 

Barth’s response to the failure of liberal theology and the challenges of Nazi ideology became the basis for his massive systematic theology, Church Dogmatics. Begun in 1932 but left unfinished at his death, it is one of the most important theological publications of the twentieth century. 

Forced to leave Germany in 1935, Barth became a professor at the University of Basel, where he taught until 1962. The day before his 1968 death in Switzerland at age 82 he remarked to a friend, “Things are ruled, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but things are ruled—even here on earth—entirely from above, from heaven above.” 

“This is the beginning of life”

Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), born in Breslau, Germany (now Wrocław, Poland), was a Lutheran pastor and noted young theologian who obtained two doctorates from Berlin University before the age of 25. He read widely in Barth’s writings and cited him as a major influence on his theology. Like Barth, Bonhoeffer held a strong doctrine of the lordship of Christ over the world, resisted Hitler’s desire to take over the German church, and was particularly opposed to the Aryan paragraph.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer gave a famous radio speech on leadership, possibly (though no one is sure) aimed specifically at Hitler. The talk was cut off before Bonhoeffer could finish it. It was an insightful speech and could not have been more timely. 

Average Germans were desperate for a leader to help restore the dignity of the nation—a person, many argued, who would not be accountable to anyone but the group that put him in power. They thought all individuals would become instruments in the hands of the Führer (the German word for “leader”) in unconditional obedience. The concept tapped into the German mythology of race, blood, and soil. 

Bonhoeffer, on the contrary, personified moral leadership. His famed book The Cost of Discipleship (1937) spells out what it means to be a true disciple of Christ. In his struggle with Nazism, Bonhoeffer was banned from public speaking and from entering Berlin, his home; the theological school he ran was deemed illegal and shut down. Yet he continued to teach through a series of underground churches. 

In 1939 he went to the United States, but soon returned to his homeland, saying: “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” In 1942 he was imprisoned for his work in the German resistance movement. 

Like Barth, Bonhoeffer stood nose-to-nose with the most evil ideological system of his day and defied it, not out of arrogance or personal charisma but as a loyal servant of Christ. After his connection with a plot to kill Hitler was discovered, Bonhoeffer paid the cost of discipleship with his life. He was executed by the Nazis in Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, at just 39 years old—saying as he was taken to his execution, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” CH

This article is from Christian History magazine #116 Twenty-Five Writings that Changed the Church and the World. Read it in context here!

By Roy Stults

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Roy Stults is online workshop coordinator and educational services coordinator for the Voice of the Martyrs.
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