Timeline: Bonhoeffer and Church-Based Attempts to Resist Hitler, 1933-39

This is the timeline we’ll be using in The Northminster Sunday School Class, Sunday, Feb. 20, when we’re discussing Bonhoeffer’s attempt at Church-Based Resistance.

1931

June: returns from the US after a trip to Mexico with his friend, the French pacifist Christian Jean Lasserre.

July: two weeks in Bonn with Karl Barth.

September 1-5: At the World Alliance Conference in Cambridge, he is elected International Youth Secretary.

1932

July-August, 1932: Takes part in ecumenical conferences in Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Switzerland.

1933

January 30: Hitler is installed as Chancellor.

Feb. 1: Bonhoeffer’s radio broadcast on “the leadership principle” cut off the air.

Feb. 27: Reichstag Fire—did the Nazis start it?

Feb. 28: Reichstag Fire Edict creates security state situation. 

March 4: The US Federal Council of Churches issues a statement condemning “the persecution of Jews in Germany.”

March 6-10: Ecumenical Meeting in Dassel

April 1: Hitler announces Day of Nazi national boycott of all Jewish Businesses. The same day, the “Aryan Clause” Civil Service legislation bans Jews from public employment.

April 3-4: German Christian Reich Church Conference promotes “synchronization” of Church and State, adoption of Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph against “alien” blood in the pulpit. This spurs a counter-movement, “The Young Reformation,” with former U-Boat Captain, now pastor Martin Niemoller involved as a leader, saying: “We confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, and therefore reject, as a matter of principle, the exclusion of non-Aryans from the Church, because it is based on confusion between State and Church. The State is supposed to judge, and the Church is supposed to save.”

Bonhoeffer’s article “The Church and the Jewish Question” undermines traditional “Two Kingdoms” theology, which doesn’t even allow for government to be wrong, and posits three church responses to state action: “question,” “service to victims,” and “direct political action” to “seize the wheel.”

April 25: Meeting to draft constitution of newly united German Evangelical Church. Hitler makes sure his man Ludwig Muller is there.

May 1: Hitler’s May Day speech reassures Protestant Church leaders. He sends ‘movement fighting troops’ in uniform to attend church services, thus making pastors feel that Hitler might be starting a “people’s mission” to make the nation Christian again.

May 25: Draft constitution is published.

May 27: The GEC attempts to elect Bodelschwingh to Reich Bishop. Muller claims that since the constitution isn’t in force, the election doesn’t count.

Then a procedural error allows the Nazi Minister of Culture and Religious Affairs, Bernhard Rust, to declare that the church had transgressed its legal limits and therefore lost its entitlement to conduct its own legal affairs. He orders August Jager to take over church affairs. Jager allows SA to take over church offices, but a strong backlash causes Hitler to call them off. Bonhoeffer and Hildebrant suggest direct action—since the state has interfered in the church, it is the State that has violated the “Two Kingdoms” ideal, so the Church can respond by refusing to perform any church funerals. The leaders balk at this idea.

July 14: Hitler personally orders elections to be held for the leadership of the new Protestant Church, to be held July 23. That same day Heckel offers Bonhoeffer a pastorate in London.

July 20: The Pope, Pius XI, signs the Concordat, an agreement with the Third Reich not to interfere, in exchange for assurances that Catholic church will not be attacked.

July 22: Hitler makes a radio address saying he expected a vote in the church election ‘in favor of the forces that are exemplified by the German Christians who stand so firmly upon the foundation of the National Socialist State.” He made it the duty of all good Christians who were not Catholics to cast their vote. 

July 23: The German Christians get 70% of the vote. Ludwig Müller is appointed Hitler’s representative for the Protestant churches and installed as Reich Bishop of the first-ever national church of Germany.

August 15-25: Bonhoeffer, Sasse, Vischer, et al., at work on Bethel Confession, intending to contradict the heresies of the German Christians. But Vischer’s strong clause against anti-semitism and the establishment of racial rules in the church is so watered down by the confession’s reviewers that Bonhoeffer withdraws his signature. 

September 5: “The Brown Synod”—Brown-shirted German Christians overwhelm General Synod of the Old Prussian Union Church. Throw out any confessional stand, put in new leaders, install Aryan Paragraph, demand “unconditional support for the National Socialist State and the German Protestant Church’ from all clergy and office holders.

September 15-20: At the World Alliance Conference in Sofia, Bulgaria, B confidentially informs prominent participants about what is happening in Germany.

September 21: Bonhoeffer, with Martin Niemöller, organizes Pastors’ Emergency League, which opposes the “Aryan Clause.” 2000 pastors quickly sign on.

September 27: Bonhoeffer and others protest against the Wittenberg ‘National Synod’ of the church, dominated by German Christians. Hitler outfoxes the PEL by not allowing the synod to adopt the Aryan Cause, thus stealing a way the PEL could have used to raise international ire. Once again B is frustrated because a golden opportunity for public protest is resisted by the PEL. 

October 4: Informs Heckel that he will not represent the “Reich Church” in London.

October 17: Begins ministering to two German churches in London.

Oct. 17: Bonhoeffer leaves for England to head a church for Germans. There he develops a strong relationship with Church of England Bishop Bell, one of the leaders of the Ecumenical Movement.

November 27-30: Attends conference of expat pastors in Bradford, England, where he tells his colleagues about the situation in Germany.

1934

February 8-9: Heckel, the Reich Church’s International rep, goes to London but fails to persuade the German pastors in England and Archbishop Bell to stay out of the Church struggle.

February 13: B in Hanover for meeting of PEL Council of Brethren.

March 6-7: Heckel, having been named “Bishop Abroad” summons B and demands he cut off his ecumenical contacts. B refuses.

May 10: Bishop Bell, after detailed consultation with Bonhoeffer, sends his “Ascensiontide Pastoral Letter” on the situation of the German Church to the member churches of the Universal Council for Life and Work.

May 29–31: The Confessing Church is organized at Barmen, Germany, and the Barmen Declaration is adopted, insisting that Christ, not the Fuhrer, is the head of the church.

August 2: German President Paul von Hindenburg dies. Hitler proclaimed as both Chancellor and President.

August 23–30: Bonhoeffer delivers speech on peace to ecumenical conference at Fano, Denmark.

October: At B’s urging, Bishop Bell an Archbishop Lang protest against aggravation of the German Church struggle by church ‘legal administrator’ Jager. Hitler has Jager dismissed.

November: Bonhoeffer leads the expatriate German congregations in England to secede from the Reich Church.

1935

April 29: Bonhoeffer returns from England to direct the seminary for the Confessing Church in Zingsthof on the Baltic Sea.

June 24: seminary relocates to Finkenwalde. Bonhoeffer publishes influential article on “The Confessing Church and the Ecumenical Movement.”

September: the Nuremberg Laws are passed, canceling citizenship for German Jews.

December: Himmler declares all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all participants liable to arrest. 

1936

Declared a “pacifist and enemy of the State,” Bonhoeffer has his authorization to teach at Berlin University terminated. He lectures at Confessing Church program near Olympic stadium.

July: Confessing Church leader and WWI hero Martin Niemöller is arrested.

August: Bonhoeffer’s authorization to teach at Berlin University is withdrawn. Olympic Games in Berlin begin. Hitler is quoted as saying of 4-time gold medal champion Jesse Owens, “The Americans should be ashamed of themselves, letting Negroes win their medals for them.” He refuses to shake Owens’ hand.

1937

February: At ecumenical meeting in London, Bonhoeffer resigns as youth secretary in protest of the World Alliance’s failure to speak out for the Jews.

September: The seminary at Finkenwalde is closed by the Gestapo.

November: 27 pastors and former Finkenwalde students are arrested. Also in November, Bonhoeffer publishes Discipleship.

Pope Pius XI issues “With Burning Anxiety,” protesting Hitler’s infractions of their earlier agreement, the Concordat of 1933.

December: Bonhoeffer leads “collective pastorates” for clandestine training of clergy.

1938

January 11: Bonhoeffer and other Confessing Church teachers are forbidden to live or work in Berlin.

February: Bonhoeffer makes his initial contact with members of the German Resistance, Oster and Sack.

March 12: Austria is annexed by Germany.

April: All German pastors are ordered to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler in recognition of his 50th birthday.

September: Bonhoeffer writes Life Together. Bonhoeffer’s sister Sabine, her Jewish husband Gerhard Leibholz and two daughters escape to England by way of Switzerland.

November 9: A nation-wide, organized riot called Kristallnacht takes place, bringing the destruction of nearly 300 synagogues across Germany, the looting of 7,500 Jewish-owned shops, and the arrest of 30,000 Jewish men.

1939

March: in London, meets with Bishop Bell, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dutch ecumenical leader Willem Visser’t Hooft.

June 2: travels to U.S. for lecture tour.

July 8: decides he must return to Germany and suffer with his people.

August: The War begins.Bonhoeffer applies without success to become a chaplain. Instead, he becomes civilian agent of the Abwehr, German military intelligence agency.

August 29: Hans von Dohnanyi appointed ‘Sonderfuhrer’ in the Military Intelligence department of the Abwehr. He is B’s brother-in-law, and for years has been collecting damning legal information against Hitler. It was he who arranged for B to meet Oster and Sack to discuss Resistance.

Sources:

Schlingensiepen, Ferdinand, tr. Isabel Best. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. London: T&T Clark International, 2010.

Christianity Today Library.com, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Christian History Timeline http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/1991/issue32/3226.html 

Bonhoeffer Timeline PBS, http://www.pbs.org/bonhoeffer/timeline.html


Fritz Ritsch is the pastor of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church. He grew up in Spartanburg, SC; graduated in 1981 from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia (where he received the Ropp Award for Literary Excellence); and graduated in 1985 from Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, VA. He has served churches in Virginia, Delaware, and Maryland.His wife Margaret is a Public Relations professional and teaches Strategic Communications at TCU. They have two children: Their daughter Sara Caitlin is a college student and jazz singer, and their son Bennie is a high school student and guitarist. Fritz has been pastor of St. Stephen since 2004. He enjoys writing about the intersection of culture, politics, and faith and is a regular contributor to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He has also been published in the Washington Post, The Roanoke Times & World News, and The Presbyterian Outlook.

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