The following article is from our February 2006 issue.

A Christian Who Opposed Hitler. A century ago, German theologian Bonhoeffer was born. By Uwe Siemon-Netto

The martyrdom of Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was murdered by the Nazis, is still misunderstood. He died for his religion, but in the first place, as a citizen resisting tyranny.

Seldom has an author been so misrepresented by his commentators and translators," wrote U.S. theologian Paul Lehmann about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was born exactly a century ago. Bonhoeffer, perhaps the most quoted Protestant thinker of the 20th century, was hanged at age 39 not because of the way he proclaimed the Gospel in Nazi Germany, although he was persecuted for that as well. He was executed because he fought as a conscientious citizen against a criminal regime. He was a worldly martyr, albeit one whose actions were deeply rooted in his Lutheran faith.

 Strangely, even some of his fellow Lutherans did not realize at first how consistently Bonhoeffer lived out his creed. Immediately after World War II, pastors in Bielefeld opposed plans to have a street named after him. Bavaria's Lutheran bishop Hans Meiser, himself a prominent anti-Nazi cleric, protested vigorously against a proposal to install a plaque commemorating Bonhoeffer as a "witness to Jesus Christ among his brethren" at Flossenbürg concentration camp where he was put to death only days before it was liberated by U.S. forces.

In Meiser's opinion, Bonhoeffer's resistance was "political, not religious." In a sense he was right. The Church of England showed more generosity. It adorned the western entrance to Westminster Abbey in London with a Bonhoeffer statue thus giving him the status of a 20th-century martyr. But then Anglicans do not draw as sharp a line as Lutherans between the secular and spiritual realities of life.

To add to the perplexity, some misinterpreted Bonhoeffer because of his jailhouse musings about "religionless Christianity." They portrayed him - falsely - as the apostle of Christian atheism, as the father of the "God is dead" movement. Never mind that he interpreted the term "religion" - in contrast to faith - as a form of self-actualization and self-justification. Never mind that "whatever he meant by 'religionless Christianity,' he certainly did not think it eclipsed the need for prayer, worship and sacrament," wrote Stephen R. Haynes in his recent book "The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon."

Left-wingers such as Father Daniel Berrigan (of Vietnam-era fame) and Beatriz Melano, a Latin American sage, distorted Bonhoeffer into a progenitor of liberation theology. At least Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian-born founder of liberation theology, did not give Bonhoeffer his imprimatur as a leftwing radical. To Gutierrez, Bonhoeffer was just a courageous bourgeois.

Well, that was true. Like most of the men and women who suffered and died resisting Hitler, Bonhoeffer hailed from Germany's upper classes, whose very ethos the Nazi thugs violated. Bonhoeffer was born Feb. 4, 1906, in Breslau, now part of Poland, as the son of a celebrated psychiatrist and a noblewoman, and the grandson of a powerful old woman who aggressively broke through a picket line of storm troopers trying to prevent Germans from entering a Jewish-owned shop.

When Bonhoeffer was born, Europe was at peace; it was still a superbly cultured continent where Jews felt safe and wholly integrated. Europe had no idea its refinement would soon be shattered by the slaughter of 16 million in the fratricidal First World War and then perhaps 50 million more in World War II, the handiwork of Adolf Hitler - whom Bonhoeffer quickly recognized as "a tool of the Antichrist," according to his biographer and friend Eberhard Bethge.

Martin Luther nicknamed the Antichrist "Beowulf." When the Beowulf enters a village, he said, the peasants have the obligation to slay him; should they fail to do so, they will incur guilt. This is why Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to kill Hitler. Bethge once related that when his friend became involved in this conspiracy he said, "Of course, Christ's words that those who draw the sword will die by the sword also apply to us (co-conspirators). But right now, reason dictates that we must do this, and then of course we still have to turn to God for forgiveness in Christ." Bonhoeffer added, "For the first time I understand what Luther meant when he wrote (to his associate Philipp Melanchthon in 1521), 'Sin boldly but even more boldly believe and rejoice in Christ.'"

This statement has often been misinterpreted. It can only be understood within the context of the Lutheran Doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, which guided all of Bonhoeffer's thinking. According to this doctrine, every Christian is a citizen of two distinct realms, in which God reigns in different ways. There is the spiritual "right-hand kingdom," the realm of the Gospel, of grace, faith, forgiveness, and the Church; this is the realm of God revealed in Christ.

But then there still exists the unredeemed "left-hand kingdom," where God performs a masquerade, reigning in a hidden way. This is the kingdom of the Law; here natural reason is the governing principle - a gift from God enabling man to find his way around this world. In this kingdom, humans can't help but sin in the sense that their actions are always imperfect in God's eyes. But this must not prevent them from following the dictates of reason, and then turning to the "right-hand kingdom" for forgiveness in Christ.

In this Lutheran sense of the term, Bonhoeffer was indeed a "strong sinner." Bonhoeffer, who at age 21 had earned his Ph.D. in theology, did not operate in his role as a clergyman and therefore citizen of Christ's spiritual realm when he became involved in plans to assassinate a tyrant. Rather he did so as resident of the secular "kingdom," where he was not a pastor but conspired with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Maj. Gen. Hans Oster of the Abwehr, Germany's military intelligence service, to fight the Nazis from within.

It was in this secular vocation that he smuggled Jews out of Germany and traveled to Norway to shore up the invaded country against the pro-Nazi regime of Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling. Indeed, so adamantly was he in making this distinction that he insisted on having his name removed from congregational prayer lists for pastors persecuted for proclaiming the Gospel. As his friend Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann reported, Bonhoeffer did not want to endanger these clergymen by giving the Nazis a pretext to associate them with his conspiratorial goals.

True, already in the early Hitler years Bonhoeffer also opposed the so-called "German Christian" movement within the Protestant Church on spiritual grounds; for this faction was heretical in the sense that it tried to separate the Christian faith from its Jewish roots, and to purge Jewish-born pastors from the ministry. This theological opposition cost him his license to preach, teach and be published.

But imprisonment and finally death were his ultimate fate because he had literally betrayed the sitting German government. As he freely admitted, he threw himself "into the spokes of a carriage to stop its evil journey." Later, Bonhoeffer coined the phrase that "suffering with God in a godless world" was a Christian's proper response to "God's show of solidarity with suffering humanity." He was prepared to accept the most extreme suffering as a consequence of what he perceived to be a Christian's civic duty in the secular "left-hand" realm.

He had a chance to dodge this fate. In June 1939, he was in New York, trying to avoid conscription into the German military. A stellar career as a professor at Union Theological Seminary awaited him. But he returned to Germany just before the outbreak of World War II.

"I have made a mistake in coming to America," he explained in a letter to U.S. theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. "I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. Christians in Germany have the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that the Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make that choice in security."

Bonhoeffer was hanged April 9, 1945, in Flossenbürg. He died nobly, the camp's physician claimed later: "I saw pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed."

This sounds like a peaceful ending. But apparently the doctor made up this tale in order to avoid punishment later in a war crimes trial. Joergen L.F. Mogensen, a Danish diplomat imprisoned in Flossenbürg, denied the existence of a scaffold or gallows in that camp. Mogensen is certain that Bonhoeffer's life ended in the same ghastly way as his two Abwehr superiors, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris and Maj. Gen. Hans Oster.

They were slowly strangled to death by a rope snapping up and down from a flexible iron hook that had been sunk into a wall. When they lost consciousness, they were revived so that the procedure could be repeated over and over again. The man who revived them was evidently none other than the camp doctor, Mogensen believes.

To be theologically precise, Bonhoeffer did not accept this gruesome martyrdom so that his blood might become "the seed of the church," as the second-century church father Tertullian defined this term. He was martyred because he dealt with the world in a Christian manner - not by taking up its ways but by actively engaging in it, knowing well that the cross was waiting for him.

- Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran foreign correspondent and lay theologian, is scholar in residence at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.