“What use to me are crown, land, folk and fame?
They cannot cheer my breast.
War’s in the land, alas, and on my name
I pray no guilt may rest.”
M. Claudius [adapted by Dietrich Bonhoeffer]
Imagine yourself addressing, not only fellow countrymen, all with total contempt for one another’s politics and theology, but also international clergymen, each in total possession of opposing judgments (and perhaps misjudgments). Some perspectives in the crowd regarding the situation in Europe are based on first-hand observations, while others are based on speculation from outsiders. There is no singular audience to keep in mind as you speak.
Imagine the anxiety rising in your chest cavity as you climb atop a platform before a large crowd. Up until this point, you had advocated for peace through the lens of biblical idealism, without fear of war in Europe. Now, you are faced with rumors of war, led by your own country—will the Bible still do? The situation is fraught. You clear your throat before you open your mouth to speak.
A conflict between Bonhoeffer’s conscience and the populist will of the nation confronted him. His reputation, livelihood, and personal safety were at stake. Remember, Bonhoeffer had not yet considered the famous assassination plot he would later conspire in 1944. At this stage, the Bonhoeffer we meet at Fanø was faced between the choices of speaking up or remaining silent. This was Bonhoeffer’s choice: it was time to speak up for peace in Europe.
The crowd assembled at Fanø was larger than any Bonhoeffer had ever addressed before (and Bonhoeffer much preferred to preach to small, defined crowds). He must have been nervous. The audience consisted of Nazis, English politicians, and clergyman from many nations and denominations. These groups did not share similar political or theological views; the room was tense.
“From the first moment the assembly was breathless with tension,” recalls one eyewitness, and one of Bonhoeffer’s students at Finkenwalde, Otto Dudzus. “Many may have felt that they would never forget what they had just heard. An English politician who was present is said to have been annoyed about the defective sense of reality in the theologians. Was he still of that opinion a few years later? Bonhoeffer had charted so far ahead that the conference could not follow him.”
In 1934 when Bonhoeffer addressed the Fanø Conference, the situation in Germany had deteriorated significantly. Paul von Hindenburg, supreme commander of the armed forces, had died, removing the final obstacle in Hitler’s way, on his quest toward absolute power. The German people, humiliated in World War I, felt powerless and overlooked by the rest of Europe. They desired a strong man to lead them to restore their former national glory. Hitler obliged.
It was after Hindenburg’s death that Hitler combined the offices of Reich Chancellor and Führer, giving him absolute power. The summer of 1934, German pastors were swearing allegiance to Hitler from the pulpits of local churches during worship. The Confessing Church was thereby drawn into open conflict with the German Christians, because they would refuse to swear allegiance to the Führer. The Barmen Declaration was drafted the same year.
So, Bonhoeffer’s country was deeply polarized between the nationalist, populist, patriotic German Volk—those loyal to Germany and longed to regain international respect (those who would follow anyone who promised geopolitical salvation)—and those who could read the proverbial writing on the wall. Though we may now judge Hitler’s trajectory clearly in hindsight, the minority of Germans who resisted Hitler could only speculate about the direction of the country. They feared global warfare, and bloodshed similar to that of the First World War.
As Bonhoeffer rose to the speaking platform in Fanø, this was the situation he faced.
“Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God,” Bonhoeffer declared. “They are won where the way leads to the cross.”
Why do we fear the fury of the world powers? Why don’t we take the power from them and give it back to Christ? We can still do it today. The Ecumenical Council is in session; it can send out to all believers this radical call to peace . . . The hour is late. The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust which looks out of all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting? Do we want to become involved in this guilt as never before?
With these public statements, Bonhoeffer defied government authorities, colleagues from Berlin University, fellow German pastors, and Hitler himself (and any international attendees who extended loyalty to Hitler’s government). At least half the audience left deeply offended.
While we, in our chronologically privileged position, may view Bonhoeffer’s ultimate disobedience to Hitler through violent means, Bonhoeffer’s choice to speak at Fanø was one of civil disobedience. The Valkyrie Plot was a last resort, a decade after the Fanø address. The speech at Fanø was one of both defiance and one of peace.
Relevance for today
Bonhoeffer’s case is both helpful and unhelpful for us today, as Christians seek to bear righteous witness in tumultuous times. His case is helpful because he exhibited tenderness of heart, diligence in thought, and heroic courage—these are values that can be expressed in any situation. His case is unhelpful because he lived in an unparalleled time—there has not been a time like Bonhoeffer’s, before, or after, the Second World War.
Nevertheless, there still are a few conclusions that can be drawn in regards to disobedience to government authority from Bonhoeffer's speech in Fanø. Not everyone who condemns injustice today performs civil disobedience. If social media is any indication, modern-day political advocacy is seldom civil. Public discourse is often vitriolic, seldom issue-based, and almost always pulled in opposite directions by political polarization in American society.
- Bonhoeffer’s speech at the Fanø conference was not ad hominem. Yet, how quickly does dialogue descend to personal attacks, rather than issue-based problem solving today?
- Bonhoeffer did not draw attention to himself, but to Christ and the cross. Yet, how often does advocacy become a theater of egos today?
- Bonhoeffer’s call was not to escalate the conflict, but a call bear witness to de-escalation. Yet, how often have we seen hyperbolic rhetoric become literal violence against political opponents today?
This should not be the case. We can learn from Bonhoeffer at these points.
What about the Valkyrie Plot? The civility of Bonhoeffer’s disobedience in Fanø would be contrasted a decade later when he conspired with others to assassinate the Führer.
For Bonhoeffer, violence was a last resort, and cannot be considered civil disobedience (Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience do not have a similar point of contrast, for example—they never took up this extreme measure). Nevertheless, Bonhoeffer’s is an interesting case, because he embodied a wide range of methods of resistance throughout his life, as the situation in Germany escalated. His resorting to violence was only after Hitler had exhibited the most heinous forms of evil; he had to be stopped.
Bonhoeffer’s actions leave some wondering—when is it okay for a Christian to take up arms in revolution, and when should he/she civilly disobey?
Throughout his life, Bonhoeffer’s advocacy for peace was always measured against the prospect of more dire circumstances. Adolf Hitler’s legacy speaks for itself; Bonhoeffer never overestimated the threat. However, we may overestimate or underestimate our own circumstances using our own political calculus. Society can afford neither forms of miscalculation.
In deciding when to disobey, the question we are really asking is, “What time is it?” Accurately diagnosing the situation we are in is the linchpin issue for bearing righteous witness. If we miscalculate, it might be too soon to act (thus taking history into our own hands); if we miscalculate, it might be too late to act (thus failing to bear witness at all). Both undermine the Christian’s credibility.
Bonhoeffer was not perfect—far from it. But his life does serve as one model for how Christians may begin to imagine navigating a perilous future. I’ll close with how Bonhoeffer understood his own actions, at the end of his life; the following scene is now widely known:
During one of their daily walks around the prison yard in Tegel [prison] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked by a fellow-prisoner how as a Christian and a theologian he could take it upon himself to participate in the active resistance against Hitler. In the brief time given him under the eyes of the warders, he answered with a story: If he, as a pastor, saw a drunken driver racing at high speed down the Kurfürstendamm, he did not consider it his only duty to bury the victims of the madman, or to comfort his relatives; it was more important to wrench the wheel out of the hands of the drunkard.