Solidarity is word from my youth–a word that conjures up names like Lech Walesa, places like Gdansk, Poland and thoughts of freedom. Images of large crowds chanting with raised fists; people climbing over walls and being pushed back with tear gas, clubs and other “crowd control” tactics invade my mind.
The day that marked the victory of the Solidarity union effort against Communist oppression was a great day for Poland. It is a moment in history which lives on; the memory of it is recorded in words which impact the world today and forever.
But in another day, nearly a generation before the uprising in the shipyards at Gdansk, another such movement was spawned. Nearly imperceptible in the wake of Panzer tanks devouring the verdant landscapes of Poland, a quiet resolve would sow the seeds of solidarity in the life of a young man.
To the young German theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there was no other choice than to stand in solidarity with the cause of the people of Germany. Ignoring the pleas of friends and fellow students he had come to know at Harvard University, he decided upon hearing the news of war back home to rejoin his people and embrace his destiny. And so the stuff of legends—the life and death of a modern-day martyr, patriot, resistance fighter and hero—was born.
But while there may be other stories like this, it is a rare thing for a well-educated man from an upper-class family to take a stand which eventually put him at odds with the politics, religion, and culture of his own country and ultimately cost him his life. Many factions of the times have tried to adopt him as their spokesman and inspiration: revolutionaries, pacifists, anarchists and religious fundamentalists. It may be appropriate to raise the question about the legacy of Bonhoeffer, “Who is Dietrich Bonhoeffer?” His story leads to the crux of this series on freedom and the question, “How does the message of freedom resound from the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer?”
To answer these questions from the context of Bonhoeffer’s life and thought, it is truly necessary to understand what was going on in Germany as he grew up in the early 20th century. The impact of the death, destruction and violence imposed on their country during World War One was magnified by the death of the oldest Bonhoeffer son, Karl Friedrich.
Developments after the war set many of the family members on a crash course with destiny. Every day brought new dangers in the unstable Weimar Republic (Germany). As the currency lost value and became worthless, fear gave way to the sacrifice of freedom on the altar of compliance and security. The rise of the Reich ensued and eventually the transfer of power from the people to Hitler’s regime was complete. When World War Two was over, the Bonhoeffers had lost two more sons and two sons-in-law who had participated in the resistance.
Acts of public terror such as that of the infamous “Kristellnacht” (German for “the night of broken glass) in November of 1938 set the stage for the Nuremburg laws restricting the freedom and privileges of the German citizens of Jewish ancestry. Many were forced from their businesses and homes and were ostracized by their communities.
The press was in the hands of the Reich, and Hitler’s chief propagandist, Josef Goebbels, became the voice of “truth” to the German people. Bonhoeffer preached until he was barred from the pulpit as a result of a conscientious objection to the teachings and guidelines of the Reich appointed Bishop Mueller.
In a bold demonstration of solidarity to one another and the truth of the Christian faith, Bonhoeffer and a handful of pastors went underground. The Confessing church (as opposed to the official Lutheran Church) was conceived. A seminary was started with a group of students at Finkenwalde and it was here that Bonhoeffer taught and lived out the truths of solidarity and commitment to his beliefs. The text which was written during the years at Finkenwalde, “Life Together”, is a treatise of sorts on his idea of solidarity and the importance of community in the proliferation of freedom.
To him there was a higher calling and a higher purpose in life than his own self-preservation. To study and interact with Bonhoeffer’s thought is a window into the importance of duty and responsibility as they relate to the concept of personal freedom. John Adams once wrote, “Duty is the handmaiden of freedom. Duty is necessary,” Adams argued, “in order that personal freedom does not dissolve into selfishness, license and anarchy.”
For Bonhoeffer, the ideal of freedom was a gift given to all humankind. It came with being human and was not relegated to any select group by virtue of race, gender or nationality. As such, it flew in the face of National Socialism and set him at odds with anyone who was sympathetic with the Nazi party and Hitler in any way. He held fast to the preservation of freedom and human rights in the face of gross inequality and prejudice as perpetrated by the Reich against Jews, gypsies, the handicapped and those who were resistors.
Once imprisoned in 1943 and after a series of moves between concentration camps, he reached his final destination at the death camp at Flossenburg. In the space of two long years, while uncertainty and constant fear of torture and death were his companions, he continued to study, write and develop his thoughts about religion and faith and their influence in the public square. Although he had little firsthand knowledge of the fate of relatives and friends, he developed a code encrypted in the library books exchanged with his parents. These efforts enabled communication and preserved some of his work.
In his work in the underground Church and as a spy for the resistance, he kept his focus firmly fixed on his goal—to be true to what he believed. Intended as a magnum opus of his life’s work, the unfinished manuscript entitled “Ethics” was retrieved and edited by Eberhard Bethge for publication posthumously. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had counted the cost of discipleship and showed the full extent of his willingness to pay it in full. His commitment to his fellow prisoners never waned and he continued his ministry to these brothers in Christ, preaching his last sermon at a communion service the day before he died.
Like others before him, he endured harsh criticism from his peers and the sacrifice of personal happiness and posterity. As a faithful disciple of Christ who had sowed the seeds of solidarity with the truth, he reaped the consequences of that commitment. Echoing through the ages from the pages of his life and death, this voice of freedom asks the core questions on the final test of life. Is freedom precious enough to pay the ultimate price to obtain? Is it worth dying for?
The final chapter in his story did not come from his hand and his last spoken words recorded by his cellmate read as follows:
“This is the end; for me it is the beginning of life…”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, epitaph is imprinted on a simple plaque which hangs on the tree where he was hanged on April 9, 1945
“Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a witness of Jesus Christ among his brethren, born February 4, 1906, Breslau; died April 9, 1945, Flossenburg.”
I would say his answer is “Yes”.