What makes a nickel from 1939 so valuable
Bonhoeffer's work was shaped by contacts abroad, especially in England. Often referred to as the "camouflaged courier of resistance", he repeatedly emphasized the responsibility for his fellow men and the importance of "realistic action", reports Bonhoeffer's niece, Renate Bethge.
Walter Huppenkothen, special commissioner in the Reich Main Security Office, drives with his wife, suitcases, files and petrol from Sachsenhausen to Bavaria on April 7, 1945. The traffic and supply situation in Germany is catastrophic these days and gasoline is a valuable commodity that should not be wasted.
But this assignment is extremely important, as it comes from Adolf Hitler personally: the conspirators are not supposed to survive the fall of the Third Reich. Huppenkothen leads the investigation against Hitler's conspirators who were involved in the failed bomb attack on July 20, 1944.
It has long been clear that the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of them. Huppenkothen's indictment is state treason and high treason, and on April 8, 1945, on White Sunday, SS judge Otto Thorbeck sealed the verdict in Flossenbürg, Bavaria: Death by hanging. The end of the war came a month too late for Bonhoeffer; he died on April 9, 1945.
School and study
Born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up as the sixth of eight children in an upper-class family that always had at least five house servants. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, is one of the leading psychiatrists and neurologists of his time. The mother is a teacher and teaches her children until they graduate from high school.
In 1911 his father was offered a chair at the University of Berlin that had been set up for him. Berlin is to become the new home of the Bonhoeffer family, and Berlin and his family are also to whom Bonhoeffer is connected to the end. In 1923 the 17-year-old graduated from high school. Then he started studying theology in Tübingen. At the age of 21 he was doing his doctorate in Berlin summa cum laude - with outstanding performance.
In 1928 Bonhoeffer became vicar in the German Protestant parish of Barcelona, in 1929 assistant at the Berlin University, where he completed his habilitation at the age of 24 with the text "Nude and Being". This was followed by a year of practical pastoral work in New York, which was followed by a teaching position at Berlin University in 1931. Bonhoeffer also takes on the training of prospective pastors again and again - first officially, later, after the last seminary was closed by the SS (Schutzstaffel), illegally and in camouflage.
From pacifism to resistance
Bonhoeffer expressed criticism of the National Socialist leader principle early on. In 1933 he published the essay "The Church before the Jewish Question" and in it asked the Church not only to help the victims of state violence, but also to offer active resistance - "to fall into the spokes of the wheel itself". In 1935 Bonhoeffer joined the Confessing Church (BK).
This group within the Protestant Church turned against the National Socialist synchronization and formed in 1934 in Wuppertal-Barmen around Abwehr chief Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster, Army Judge Karl Sack, Colonel General Ludwig Beck and Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. Bonhoeffer maintains his diverse international contacts not least to report on the internal German church conflicts abroad and to warn against the National Socialist church policy.
In 1936 the National Socialists revoke Bonhoeffer's permission to teach at universities, in 1940 he was banned from speaking and writing and was no longer allowed to stay in Berlin. Although the Nazis watched him every step of the way, Bonhoeffer allowed Oster and Dohnanyi to smuggle him into their circles in 1940 - albeit in Munich, because the Nazis still considered him to be innocent there.
Bonhoeffer becomes a shop steward in the central department of the Foreign and Defense Office. In this position, on the one hand, he is not drafted into military service; on the other hand, he can travel abroad under cover. Bonhoeffer is supposed to watch the concentration of troops in the Red Army. But his real, hidden plan is to boycott ongoing war preparations with the help of the Christian churches worldwide.
Arrest and imprisonment
In the resistance group of the Confessing Church there is always a point of contention: Should all files be destroyed so that the evidence disappears from the SS? Or do the files have to be kept in order to prove the long resistance movement to the Allies at the end of the war? Bonhoeffer is of the opinion that for the safety of the resistance fighters no documents should be kept.
But the resistance group did not agree on this point and on April 5, 1943, the SS found incriminating files from Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. Bonhoeffer is imprisoned for degrading military strength - first in the Wehrmacht prison in Berlin-Tegel, then in the Gestapo bunker on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse.
In prison, Bonhoeffer befriends guards who want to help him escape - planned for October 5th. But shortly before that, on September 22, 1944, the SS found further incriminating files that prove Bonhoeffer's involvement in the failed Hitler assassination attempt of July 20, 1944: On May 31, 1942, Bonhoeffer had met the British Bishop George Bell in Sweden and over him informs the secret resistance group and its aim: "Complete annihilation of the whole Hitler regime", as later in Bell's notes of this meeting one can read.
The files on the meeting mean Bonhoeffer's death. It is now clear to him that there will be no escape to protect his family, because the SS would take revenge on his relatives.
Detention was tightened and Bonhoeffer was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp in February 1945. In April 1945 he was executed in Flossenbürg for treason and high treason.
According to the Bavarian Law of May 1946 on the reparation of National Socialist injustices, "political acts by which National Socialism or militarism were resisted" are not punishable. With this provision, Bavarian courts are repealing all unjust judgments across the board one year after the end of the war.
Bonhoeffer's death sentence is one of them, but the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) reopened the Flossenbürg trials in 1956. The BGH acquitted Thorbeck, chairman of the court martial, "for lack of evidence". Huppenkothen is sentenced to a six-year prison term - but only because of a formal error in breach of duty, because he had not obtained a confirmation of the judgment in the trial against Bonhoeffer and his companions.
Bonhoeffer's judgment of 1945 is also reconsidered and declared legally valid. Huppenkothen and Thorbeck "implemented the characteristics of treason (...) according to the then applicable (...) laws", the judge said.
It was not until many decades later that the death sentence against Bonhoeffer and other resistance fighters was finally declared unlawful: the Berlin district court rehabilitated them in 1996. Students and lecturers at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Hanover had applied for the sentence to be reversed on Bonhoeffer's 90th birthday.
(First published: 2006. Last update: 03.12.2019)
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