Nazi resister

Misrepresenting the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Photo via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's writings, his prophetic Christian witness amid criminal abuses of power, racial persecution, terror, and genocide by his own government, and his martyrdom for participating in the coup to overthrow Hitler continue to inspire and provoke important questions and actions. The global following for this German pastor and theologian includes agnostics and atheists, evangelicals and liberal Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and people of many political persuasions, young and old alike.

By the same token, Bonhoeffer has been claimed by quite different, indeed opposite, religious groups, individuals, and political leaders to support their purposes. George W. Bush invoked his name before the German parliament in 2002 to justify the invasion of Iraq. Nelson Mandela read him in prison on Robben Island before his release in 1990. East German youth sang verses of his prison poem "By Powers of Good" before the fall of communism, without necessarily knowing he was a Christian.

The very titles of two biographies of Bonhoeffer that appeared within a few weeks of each other in 2010 suggest the diversity of those who may be drawn to him. While Eric Metaxas' book title, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich (Thomas Nelson), and his engaging style give his book the accessibility and appeal of a novel, it is stunningly flawed as a biography. Metaxas misleads readers both by his title and by his presentation of Bonhoeffer as a lone heroic figure. Yes, Bonhoeffer's covert position with a military intelligence office gave him the cover needed to travel abroad on behalf of the resistance, but a James-Bond-like "spy" he was not. Nor does Metaxas ever explain in the book the use of the term "righteous gentile" in the title. This designation is bestowed by Yad Veshem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, to those who aided Jews in the Holocaust. Does Metaxas know that Bonhoeffer has not been given this honor?

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Sojourners Magazine February 2011
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A Solitary Witness

On Aug. 9, 1943, a young Austrian farmer named Franz Jägerstätter was beheaded in a Gestapo prison in Berlin. To older readers, he may be familiar as the subject of Gordon Zahn’s 1964 book, In Solitary Witness, an account that became a classic of the anti-war movement. To younger readers, he is probably just another unpronounceable German name. But that may change with Erna Putz’s new book, Franz Jägerstätter: Letters and Writings from Prison.

Born in 1907, Jägerstätter was a rebellious youth known for his rowdiness and for fathering a child out of wedlock. Marriage changed him, however, as did the political changes of the late 1930s that swept his once-isolated village into the stream of the Second World War. Austria became part of the German Vaterland, and like every other young man, Jägerstätter, now a father of three, knew he would be required to defend it. When the call came, he reported for duty. (After a few days, he was dismissed: The country needed farmers as badly as soldiers.) Later he was called up again, this time for training as an army driver.

Older than many of his fellow trainees, Jägerstätter felt out of place. On one occasion, he secretly jumped the barracks walls to attend Mass. In December 1940, he joined the Third Order of St. Francis.

In April 1941, Jägerstätter was again dismissed. Back home, he plunged into his work as a farmer—and as a sexton. His devotion was remarkable, and soon villagers who had clucked at his youthful excesses were wagging their tongues about his habit of attending weekday Mass, going to confession, and even leaving his work to pray.

There were other reasons for the gossip. When a plebiscite was called to ratify Germany’s takeover of Austria, Jägerstätter had dared to vote “no.” Even more boldly, he would often return the greeting “Heil Hitler!” with “Pfui Hitler!”

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Sojourners Magazine December 2009
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On Becoming a Christian

He’s not an official Catholic saint yet, but in October the Church beatified Nazi resister Franz Jagerstatter at the cathedral in Linz, Austria—thus taking the second of three steps toward official canonization or sainthood.

As writer and activist Jeanie Wylie said, “We smile to think of the saints of God in all times who have listened in the night and done whatever they could to show us the love of God.” In this liturgical season where we are steeped in images of Christ putting on our humanness and as we prepare for the slow cavalcade of Lent, I’m drawn to Jager­statter’s story, to what happened when he “listened in the night.”

Franz Jagerstatter, born in 1907, lived in St. Radegund, Austria, only a few miles from Hitler’s birthplace in Braunau. Jagerstatter’s parents were too poor for a marriage ceremony. At age 27 Franz considered entering a Catholic monastery as a lay brother, but was advised against it by his parish priest who thought Franz should take over the family farm and care for his mother.

In 1936, Franz married Franziska Schwaninger and, by all accounts, his life changed dramatically for the better. In reflecting on their marriage, Franziska recalled, “We helped one another go forward in faith.” Franz himself said, “I could never have imagined that being married could be so wonderful.”

In 1938, Nazi Germany “unified” Austria. The German-controlled Austrian Nazi Party held a rigged plebiscite to approve the unification. It passed with 99.73 percent support. The public humiliation and arrest of Jews began almost immediately. Hitler commented on the annexation of Austria, “Not as tyrants have we come, but as liberators.”

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Sojourners Magazine February 2008
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