Logo

No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State

March 26, 2014

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: Good afternoon. I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council, I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Today we are honored by the presence of two very distinguished guests, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, husband and wife, who together have written a fascinating book entitled No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnányi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State.

No Ordinary Men is the story of two of the most courageous, honorable, and admirable opponents of the Nazi regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian. He opposed Nazi racial theories and fought the Nazis' efforts to control the German Protestant churches. His close friend and brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, was a lawyer, working within the Wehrmacht's counterintelligence section. He kept meticulous records of Nazi crimes in order to use as evidence once the regime fell. He not only helped victims, he tried to sabotage Nazi policies and also conspired to assassinate Hitler.

From the earliest days of this morally depraved regime, both men and their families perceived the threats, documented them, and plotted to overthrow Hitler. And they paid with their lives.

With the rise of Hitler, most of Germany's civil servants and professional elites remained unpolitical or collaborated with the Nazis. To oppose the regime was rare and dangerous. To do so to protect the sanctity of law and faith was rarer still. But as the title of Elisabeth and Fritz's book suggests, there were those who, when faced with ethical challenges, took neither the easy nor straightforward path, but the one that they believed to be morally correct. For Bonhoeffer and von Dohnányi, the sense of right overwhelmed the tendency to go along with the process and policy.

What makes this book so special is that the authors have an unusual connection to their subjects. Elisabeth is the daughter of the theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, who influenced Bonhoeffer when he studied in America, and Fritz is an acclaimed German historian, a scholar of the past, who has made it his mission to understand historical events as they were perceived by those who experienced them directly. He himself escaped Nazi Germany at the age of 12.

For a German in the 1930s, to become a true resister was neither easy nor straightforward. Thus, in so elegantly writing about these two, Elisabeth and Fritz honor both Bonhoeffer's human decency and his theological legacy, as well as von Dohnányi's preservation of the highest standard of civic virtue in an utterly corrupted state. As duly noted by these authors, each one deserves the utmost understanding and respect, as they were the bright lights in a very dark period of German history.

I have a hunch that at this point in the introduction you must be wondering why these two men made the choices they did. You may also be wondering whether you too would have the courage to do the same. For lessons we can learn, please join me in welcoming no ordinary guests, the very esteemed couple, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern.

Thank you so much for joining us.

Remarks

ELIZABETH SIFTON: I'm going to begin, because the story of this book begins with a phone call I received. Then Fritz will take over from me and then we'll bat it back and forth.

I had known about Bonhoeffer all my life and had not really studied him or known much about him in detail. But he was a figure in my parents' past. So when Robert Silvers of The New York Review of Books telephoned and asked me if Fritz and I would find it plausible to write a long book review together of two new books about Bonhoeffer, I said, "Why, sure. We'll take a look at that."

So he sent us the books. We duly began to read them, and the more we read them, the more we felt, there's something not right here. It's yet again about Bonhoeffer. There is a slew of books about Bonhoeffer out there already. These were perhaps livelier or shorter or longer or different from the other ones, but they didn't much change the tone of the way he had been written about ever since the 1950s, when he first became known in the West.

One of the important things that wasn't clear in these books was his relationship to resisters in Germany, a subject that had not even been known to exist when people first began writing about Bonhoeffer in 1951 or 1952. Nobody knew there was a German resistance, or scarcely knew that there was a German resistance, except for those famous generals who tried to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. But nobody knew about anything else.

That, of course, particularly bothered Fritz, good historian that he was, to wonder why was it that there was not more known about the German resistance. After all, books had been pouring out—not quite pouring; more than dribbling, but not pouring out—about resistance in Italy, in France, in the Low Countries, but not in Germany.

We thought that writing book reviews of these inadequate books was not going to do what we thought needed to be done. What we thought needed to be done was to somehow set the Bonhoeffer story in its true context, which did include resistance—eventually, resistance against the state, but first, as was already known, very strong oppositional work within the German Evangelical Church.

So that's how we started. We told Silvers that we weren't going to write the book review; we would write something else.

Isn't that what we did?

FRITZ STERN: If you say so. [Laughter]

ELIZABETH SIFTON: Over to you.

FRITZ STERN: Thank you. As was mentioned by the gallant introduction—for which I want to thank you—I spent six years, I think, under the Nazi regime. With anything to do with resistance, both at that time and then throughout my professional life and my life generally, I have been immensely interested in the whole question of how people behave and register their dissent, especially in difficult times. And perhaps no time was more difficult than the Nazi time, which I can bear witness to, and the Soviet time, which I can't bear witness to. But we all know about them.

So the notion of writing about two men—and it should be mentioned immediately that they weren't alone. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a sister. She was married to Hans von Dohnányi. The sister, Christina, was immensely important as a link between the two and as a person who gave immense courage to her brother and her husband.

I also felt very strongly that the role of Hans von Dohnányi had simply not been fully honored. By this time, the name Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well known, and with all due respect. But you can't understand his final resistance to the state without knowing about his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, who came to resistance in a different way, as it were.

I can go on endlessly. The reason I was also interested was personal connections to the Bonhoeffer family, which applied to Elisabeth as well. In my case, my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents knew the Bonhoeffer family quite well. In the book I was very pleased that they had an insert of two letters from the old man. The old Bonhoeffer was Germany's preeminent psychiatrist, and a terrific person.

It was a fairly privileged group of immensely decent human beings with, incidentally, a sense of humor and humility. It's easy to idealize them. I don't think we have done that. But they are a remarkable family. Von Dohnányi married into that family, and from the beginning, long before Hitler became chancellor, they saw in him and in his movement a huge danger to everything that decent people stood for, regardless, in a certain sense, of political loyalty or whatever.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: Fritz has put his finger on one important truth, and I am here thinking about the question you posed, Joanne: How can we learn from this about where the opposition comes from?

The most important thing to know about it is that it began in 1918, perhaps one could even say, or in the 1920s, when the behavior of loutish, thuggish, bigoted, anti-Semitic Nazi activists in Berlin came to their notice. You couldn't not notice them.

Klaus Bonhoeffer, another brother of Dietrich's, who was also a lawyer, like Hans von Dohnányi, wrote to him then describing the unbelievably bad behavior of some of the fellow law students who were Nazis. He said, "Oh, Hans, think of the trouble we are going to have with these people." That was in 1921, I think.

So the moral tone of the family or the ethical ethos of the family long preceded the rise of Nazism. And that's important to underline, because it was not true of so many German families and institutions.

The German Evangelical Church, which was the federation of all the different Calvinist, Lutheran, and United Protestant churches of the old regime of Germany, had, long before 1914 even, lost its moral fiber and were hardly respectable, interesting places for true faith to flourish.

Dietrich's older brothers made fun of him when he decided as a teenager that he wanted to become a pastor. "Why do you want to do that? It's an awful thing, the church." They had no respect for it. The more you read about it, the less respect you can have for it.

Just one more thing I'll say. We thought that, actually, the excessive reverence paid to Bonhoeffer since the war had something to do with the abysmal record of German Protestantism before the war and during the Nazi period. Even the famous Confessing Church, of which Dietrich was one of the founders and activists within, kind of crumped out after only a season or two. So out of, I don't know how many—40,000, 50,000 pastors in Germany—none of them were opposing Hitler in any way whatsoever.

FRITZ STERN: No. I grew up, as I said before—and I can name the names of Breslau—that's the city where I come from—Protestant ministers, members of the Confessional Church, who behaved admirably and who would know perfectly well that their sermons were listened to by the Gestapo and knew that they would disappear for a while, come back and say, "I was interrupted in the last sermon," because he was arrested right afterwards. "Let me rephrase what I was going to say."

The courage that these people had. I was a kid, myself. When I was told how they communicated with each other from one cell to another, with Morse code and so on, it made a deep impression on me. I think one should not—they were a tiny minority, but all the greater the honor that they existed. As I say, the names would spring to my mind immediately—Bunsell, Schroeder, and others, just in one town, so to speak. They were beset, obviously, by these terrible other people, who accommodated themselves to the regime, who believed in the regime.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: And who capitulated to the regime's administrative plans for unifying all the Protestant churches in one. That's what I meant when I said the Confessing Church kind of crumped out.

It started with the hope that they could persuade all Germany's pastors to somehow retain, sustain, and contain their independence and face the Nazi threat with some fortitude. And they couldn't.

A lot of the description of Bonhoeffer's work in the church is actually rather boring to read, because it's all about committee meetings. It's all about committee meetings where Dietrich wants to get something done or tries to persuade somebody that they must keep a certain position clear and not vote in favor of so-and-so, who is there because the Reich and Hitler want him there. Then—you know, we've all been in committee meetings like this—it all crumbled apart, and there would be no sustaining opposition.

So the endless work of trying to keep up the spirits and keep the spine stiff of German clerics was very, very hard. As Fritz rightly says, they also had their parishes to look after and their sermons to write. It was all tremendously fraught and difficult.

It was just as bad in the legal profession, which was Hans's profession.

Interestingly, there is not quite as much literature—isn't that right, Fritz?—about opposition within the legal community to the Nazis. But we learned a lot about how Hans proceeded and with whom he spoke and worked. Three of his brothers-in-law were lawyers like himself.

The Bonhoeffers had four girls and four boys. One of the boys was killed in the First World War. Out of seven children, that was the beginning of this large extended family of people, all of whom were in opposition. Three of the daughters married lawyers.

So Hans had the company of old friends when he himself entered the Justice Department, which is where he was working in 1933 when Hitler came to power.

We had material about how things progressed. For example, in 1939, when Gürtner sent him to the High Court, the Gestapo was watching the Justice Department very, very carefully. Everything they did had a searchlight focused on them.

Franz Gürtner, who was the minister of justice—not a Nazi; a deeply conservative, but very decent person—thought, for his own sake, frankly, but also for Hans's sake, that he would be safer if not in the Justice Department, given how much attention the Gestapo was paying to it. So he made it happen that Hans became a member of the High Court, the supreme court of Germany, which sits in Leipzig, or did then. So Hans and his family left Berlin to go to the now largely Nazified supreme court. We learned a lot about how the Nazi judges and Hans managed to deal with each other.

But everywhere you looked in this horrible story, there was defeat and threat and danger and bodily harm and tragedy all around, and especially once the war began, but even before the war.

FRITZ STERN: I want to lighten the atmosphere for a second. Since we're talking about the Ministry of Justice, the German Ministry of Justice, I'm suddenly reminded of a childhood story that I heard, a joke. That's how we survived in those days, as, indeed, in Poland after the communist period. You need political jokes to keep going.

A deputy of the Nazi regime in the Foreign Office visits Bern, the capital of Switzerland. His ministerial colleague showed him the city and said, "And there is our Ministry of Naval Affairs."

The German says, "But that's kind of odd. Forgive me for asking, but Switzerland I didn't think needed or had a major navy."

The Swiss said, "But don't you have a Ministry of Justice?" [Laughter]

But it wasn't a joking time. The jokes were entirely to try to keep one's spirits up.

Let me just say a couple of other things that Elisabeth in part has already hinted at. The degree of surveillance—I use the term deliberately—the degree of surveillance in Nazi Germany lacked the sophistication that we have, but its methods and its pervasiveness and the phones that were tapped and the mail that was opened—and you knew that. I remember distinctly that one gave one's friends and one's parents a kind of nickname or something so that you wouldn't use their full name. The surveillance was immense, and the persecution accordingly. And it was well known.

You have to keep all that in mind in assessing people's behavior, the role of fear that pervaded the whole society.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: When you're talking about surveillance, can I interrupt and tell you that another quality that Dohnányi had especially and that Dietrich had, too, was immense sort of resourcefulness and skill in figuring out solutions to awkward and difficult communications problems, for example. That became, of course, wildly important once they were arrested and in jail. How were they then going to communicate with their families or each other? They were in two separate jails.

They had practiced, of course. They had expected that they might well be arrested, and so they had practiced for years writing in code. They had joking reference—Mrs. Bonhoeffer, Frau Bonhoeffer, the psychiatrist's fantastic wife, had a very reactionary uncle or cousin, Rudy Gufhundergoltz [phonetic], an army officer and proud anti-Semite. They used his name to talk about war plans. When Dietrich was in New York, which he was briefly in 1939, and writing back to his family, he said, "Do let me know about Uncle Rudy's birthday plans," which meant, "What do you know about Germany's war plans?"

The resourcefulness that Hans brought to this business of being completely able to live a double life was truly astonishing. Dietrich never had—and Hans decided Dietrich shouldn't have to go through this so much himself. So the burden of the planning and the talking about the various conspiracies to remove Hitler—it was at first, not necessarily to kill  him—Hans took mostly on his shoulders. Indeed, after they were arrested, the interrogations were largely again directed at Hans, not his brother-in-law.

Some of the letters that Hans wrote to Christina and to Dietrich are just astonishing in their courage and their resourcefulness. In February 1945, when he was incredibly ill and he had been in jail for two years, he wrote a long letter to his wife, which he wrote on pieces of cardboard no bigger than that, which were, in fact, the bottoms of paper cups. He wrote in little tiny handwriting. The letter is very long. It took him 10 or 12 cups to write this letter.

The letter is, first, a fantastically, extravagantly moving love letter to his wife. It is, secondly, a very detailed account of what they must now think of. In other words, he was still thinking, "How are we going to get out of this? If they do this, we must do this. If they do that, we must do this. We must always remember to do the other thing." The clarity and bravery of his continuing to understand that they must just go on fighting to the very end—astonishing.

Of course, the physical cleverness of writing it all on these little tiny pieces of paper and burying them in the bottom of a vase of flowers or something—incredible. That was after he had been in jail for two years already.

So they had practiced this from years before.

FRITZ STERN: Let me add something. You rightly reminded us that they had been in prison for two years. Hanging over both these men was, after all, the threat of torture. They weren't actually physically tortured, we now know. But they didn't know that. They didn't know that the tomorrow the interrogation that took place, which was swinish enough—they were being humiliated, they were being denounced, and so on and so forth, but they were not physically tortured. Yet they heard the cries of the people who were being tortured.

So the right element of fear, the element of very understandable fear, was there from the very beginning. But the courage of these men, and particularly, in one instance—I want to say something about Dietrich in a second. But about Hans von Dohnányi, he understood that if he could just live long enough, the regime would somehow collapse and he could play a role in the reconstruction of Germany. He asked his wife to have something brought to him that infected him with diphtheria and so on so that he could get out of the prison and into a prison hospital. The father-in-law, obviously, being an MD and having MD friends, could help in that respect.

But the courage it took—in a very different way, I want to say one more thing about Dietrich, which I think is particularly significant for the entire Carnegie family. The German edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's works I think is now at Volume 16 or something like that. I'm not pretending that I read all of it, but a fair amount. Dietrich's account, written in the late 1920s, sometimes even earlier, his understanding of what the First World War had meant to the Germans and how much had been destroyed is simply extraordinary. There were very few other people who understood that as clearly as Dietrich did, which, in turn, I think, determined his attitude toward Nazi Germany.

Let me say just one other thing. The temptation for Germans after the defeat of 1918 and the First World War, which was, as you would expect—for a country that believed in its power and reveled in its power to be defeated and then humiliated by the treaty and so on and so forth was a tremendous psychic shock. But to understand the psychic effect, to understand the turmoil inside Germans, what the defeat meant and what the war had meant, was really quite extraordinary.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: I can add to that, only to say that another way of describing our effort, to answer Joanne's question, is that what we learned in reading and thinking about and exploring the details, consecutive details, of these men's lives from, let us say, 1925 to 1945 made us realize something else about the courage it took. Courage feeds on what it grows on. The more you are courageous, the more you become courageous. At least that's the way I felt with Dietrich and Hans both.

They grew in their courage and greatness as the pressure of events required them to respond. They didn't change course and they didn't falter. They felt that they would often falter, but then the wonderful society of the family and their friends and their like-minded colleagues made all the difference. And they understood that, too—that to be really courageous, you have to have some anchors to leeward and colleagues whom you can lean on when you yourself may fail. They were very good at that.

One of Hans's sons is the celebrated conductor, formerly of the Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi. He was interviewed last September when he was conducting, as he often does, the Boston Symphony and he was in Boston. The music critic of The Boston Globe has for years asked him to talk about his upbringing in Germany, and he has always refused. But then he was so pleased to see that there was going to be a book about his father that he told the music critic, "Okay, you can interview me," and he interviewed him.

For me, the most touching thing in the interview—it's about growing up in Berlin—at some point he said something about how strange it is that nobody knows anything about his father. Christophe was Dietrich's godson. He said, "I know about the fame of my godfather. But it's very odd that nobody knows anything about my father."

The interviewer said, "But your name, Dohnányi, is now famous in America because of you."

Christophe, in what I think is just classic tone of this family, said, "Yes, and isn't that ridiculous?"

Even now, he recognizes that what his father did was a great deal harder than even conducting an orchestra.

FRITZ STERN: We have not talked about one other thing in the case of Hans, which actually then catapulted them with one of the ways in which the Nazis could somehow get hold of them and put them in jail. Hans, as did the family generally, had non-Aryan friends. This was something that the Nazis had invented, so to speak. Racially, there was the Aryan and the non-Aryan. Non-Aryans were to be treated like Jews.

But in Germany in particular, I think more so than any other European country, Jews from the beginning of the 19th century, beginning with people like Mendelssohn Neiner, had converted to Christianity and thought of themselves as Christians. Some of them were actually were pastors and were active in the church. From one day to the next, they were treated as Jews, that they themselves, so to speak, or their ancestors had left.

It was left to Hans von Dohnányi, who was particularly close to a non-Aryan lawyer whom he had known for a long time—"I'm going to take care of you." When it became clear that this man was going to be deported to death, Hans invented in 1940, I think—but I can't be certain; it was obviously during the war—invented a scheme whereby some of these non-Aryans, a few lawyers and friends—he couldn't do it for more—with the permission of the Gestapo, they would be allowed to leave Germany, go to Switzerland, and be sent to Latin America and become spies for the Germans.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: That was the cover story.

FRITZ STERN: That was the cover story. But the courage it took to conceive of that and to carry it through, with the Gestapo that was watching you, in any case, very, very closely—and that is what, as I say, was one decency too far.

Questions

QUESTION: Allen Young.

These people are people of great integrity and courage. But one has to ask, why were so few people, people of integrity and courage? Why were 70 million Germans lacking that integrity and courage that allowed the Nazi regime to do what it did?

FRITZ STERN: I have spent a fair amount of my life trying to understand that. I know I haven't succeeded. I don't think I can do very much with the question here.

It is a key question. It does have to do with German history, with the whole question of civic behavior, civic courage, and so on.

It's too much. I can't—it really is so complicated—plus the enormous cunning of the regime, on the one hand, saying, "We're making Germany strong again, economically strong. We are a power again," and on the other hand, the intimidation. All of it came together.

Germans then, if they had elements of decency but lacked the courage to do anything about it, would go into what was called inner emigration. I remember well a wonderful physician in Berlin, a noble man, who decided he would give up all his public offices under the Nazis. He didn't want to have anything to do with the state, but he would continue to be a doctor. In that sense, he went to inner emigration.

There were steps by which people could try to preserve a certain amount, or a great deal, of self-respect.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: There's another way of thinking about this question, which is painful and difficult. But maybe I will try to say this. Most people are not very courageous. In the 1930s in America, the lure of fascism as a big, strong kind of government that would give us backbone was tremendously popular. It wasn't just the Germans who kowtowed to the Nazis. A great deal of Europe was—most people are not very courageous.

This is something Dietrich understood, and Hans, in his own way, did, too. He didn't speak of it in the way of sort of spiritual practice, which Dietrich did. Dietrich knew that to be courageous, to keep going in what you think is the right thing to do, requires daily practice. That's what the Buddhists call it. It's what St. Ignatius of Loyola called it. It requires you to think constantly—every day you have to think about how you are going to conduct yourself.

There are plenty of little points in our book where we point out that Dr. Bonhoeffer himself had this experience and all the children had it: That they allowed something awful to happen in their presence. Then they were disgusted with themselves, and they thought, "I can't let that happen again."

FRITZ STERN: For one moment, they exercised a degree of acquiescence and then recoiled from what they themselves had done. A great many other people—most other people—did not recoil. That's the whole point.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: But as the Nazi regime continued in its successful degradation of the German people, it became more and more shocking. Dietrich was out in the middle of nowhere in Pomerania, ministering the only way he could in only half-licit parishes, way, way up in the north, on the night of Kristallnacht. He could not believe that in all of Germany the churches were not dealing with this. In his own parishes, he found people saying, "Oh, it's a good thing we cleaned that mess up." He was just astounded.

FRITZ STERN: We don't have much of a record of that.

I can't answer the question that you rightly pose. But I can refer you, at least—in the book, we have a short citation from the old man, from the psychiatrist himself, after the war, saying, "That is something that needs to be explained, and I can't do it either"—why the Germans folded in the fashion that they did.

I think we begin our book by saying it was the most popular dictatorship that existed in the 1930s. It's an incredibly complicated story.

I think my good wife, uncharacteristically, slightly exaggerated the extent of fascism in this country. It certainly was strong, but it had its very powerful opponents.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: We contrast what Hitler said and what FDR said to their respective populaces in March 1933. The contrast is stupendous.

FRITZ STERN: Thank God.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: Thank God.

We're all in favor of political leadership that keeps you going in the right direction.

QUESTION: John Hirsch.

Just as a parenthesis, all of us who lived through the McCarthy era in the United States and remember how many people kept their heads down—we kind of have the answer to your question. When The Crucible opened in New York, there was no response, a frozen audience. Nobody welcomed Arthur Miller's play.

I wanted to ask you to say a little bit more about the relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnányi before they were put in prison. If I understand this right, they were not in the same cities, at least some of the time. And, of course, one was a minister and one was a lawyer.

Did they work together on certain projects or was this, rather, that each one, wherever he was, had his own stance and they somehow communicated that? I wonder if you could clarify more what actually was the interconnection before they went into prison.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: It evolved. At the beginning, yes, you're right, they were in different cities. Dietrich was in Pomerania and Hans was either in Berlin or Leipzig. But they stayed in touch with their parents or parents-in-law. The telephone wires were used frequently by Dietrich and by Hans. They made a point of going back to Berlin and meeting at the Bonhoeffers' house in Berlin. That became a kind of place where they could hang out together.

It was in that house that Hans introduced his brother-in-law to a very important colleague, who was Hans Oster, a colonel in the German army who was vehemently anti-Nazi and was part of the group of officers who worked clandestinely in opposition to Hitler's leadership.

Actually, Oster's fearlessness about being willing to be called disloyal and considering that he had a higher duty to a better Germany than mere fealty to the corrupt leaders of today—that greatly impressed Dietrich, who was struggling in his own way to try to come to terms with how he could manage a completely oppositional stance.

But then he would go back out and try to do things to rescue the churches and so on. Hans would go back to the court or wherever. But they always met at the Bonhoeffer house. That became more and more important. Eventually, the resistance took over their lives, in a way. By 1941-42 and into 1943, that's what they are spending all their time thinking about.

FRITZ STERN: One other point. The extraordinary thing about Dohnányi, Bonhoeffer, and some of them was the absolute rejection at the very beginning. I think it's fair to say that many of the others, whom you have movies about, and rightly so—men like Stauffenberg were wonderful and admirable—they came to it fairly late, and the element there was they understood that Hitler was driving Germany into perdition and they wanted to stop Hitler for that reason, not necessarily altogether for moral reasons, though I think we made clear in our book that the Holocaust, actually, the treatment of Jews in Eastern Europe, shocked not just Dohnányi and Bonhoeffer, but others.

Here I just want to add one other thing, speaking about courage and decency. Decency, incidentally, to my mind, is one of the key things in our book, one of the key characteristics. As something like the resistance grew up, as the sense that Hitler was madly driving into a situation from which Germany would not recover, quite aside from all the guilt that was accumulating, the officers went around to generals and so on and asked them if they would participate in an effort to put Hitler aside—at first, literally move him somewhere else and then, finally, it was decided that there was only one thing to do, which was to kill him.

The generals would listen, individually, and in most cases would say, "No, not really. Actually, no." But there wasn't one of them that betrayed them. There was not one general who, for example, went to the Gestapo, which would have only been too happy to hear about it, and reported that so-and-so had come to call and asked this treacherous question.

So an infinitely complicated story all over the place.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: I would like to answer your question in a different way, too. You could say, what actually did Hans do for the resistance? The answer is, he knew right away, in 1933-34, that you couldn't get any successful opposition to Hitler without the help of the army, because they were the people who were around him all the time. Hitler was never not with Wehrmacht generals. So he understood that he had to be in touch with army resisters.

But he himself also did a great deal to link the army resisters to the lay people and to labor union leaders and, of course, eventually to the church.

The value of Dietrich joining him in this work, which developed around 1941 or 1942, was—we haven't mentioned this, but it's an important part of the story—that Dietrich was an enthusiastic ecumenical activist. He knew forward-looking pastors and clerics in Scandinavia, England, and the United States who wanted to work across national lines to keep war from breaking out again. He had become very interested in these people during the 1930s.

So Hans immediately understood, when the war broke out and when the pressure to develop a successful operation against Hitler became more urgent—because first it was Austria, then it was Poland—Hans realized that they could use his international connections for the work of the resistance. It was very important for the resistance to be in touch with decent people in belligerent countries elsewhere, to reassure them that there was a decent Germany that could survive this war and join the circle of nations again after it.

So the importance of the international connections of the resisters through the Vatican, through the saintly bishop George Bell of Chichester and some very important Scandinavian Lutheran bishops, was very important for the resistance against the state, as well as within the church.

FRITZ STERN: I have often quoted a remark by Nietzsche in the 1870s: "A great victory is a great danger," which I've had reason to apply in many different political historical situations.

But since Elisabeth rightly mentioned Austria and so on, Hitler's successes, especially in peacetime, were obviously immensely tempting and satisfying. To be able to understand that victory can also be, in that sense, a great danger of corrupting you—I repeat what I tried to say earlier. Some of the major army resisters had gone along with Hitler with immense approval and hope, which, from their point of view, was understandable. The army was rehabilitated. The army was re-created, so to speak, into the most extraordinary fighting force that the Germans ever had, or that any European nation probably ever had. For a general and so on, this was very persuasive. This was very tempting.

I'll just cite something that I wrote years and years ago, national socialism as temptation. I think it has to be understood that national socialism, much as we have come, rightly, to abhor it, much as we honor Bonhoeffer and Dohnányi and a few others—and let me just say, about the few others, and then I'll shut up.

In the last so-called free election in Germany, in March 1933, the Nazis, I think, got 44 percent of the vote. That meant that 56 percent were unaccounted for. Of those, there were Social Democrats, there were Catholics who were politically organized—

ELIZABETH SIFTON: And the Communist Party.

FRITZ STERN: And the communists, but they were not—

ELIZABETH SIFTON: They were disallowed, as it were.

FRITZ STERN: It was these people, socialists particularly, and labor union leaders, whom Dietrich and Hans brought into the resistance.

The reason that the 20th of July, the failed plot against Hitler, then led to this massacre that Hitler indulged in, that Hitler ordered, which included socialists, communists, and so on and so forth, came from, as I say, the realization that this regime, which had started so well, so to speak, was now heading for disaster, for a national disaster.

QUESTION: Michael Schmerin. I have two questions.

One, you commented at length on the Protestant clergy and how they lost their moral bearing throughout this period, except for, obviously, a few. In the immediate postwar period, what happened to the Protestant clergy, and what role did the church have after that immediate postwar period?

Secondly, you didn't comment on the Catholic clergy. Could you briefly discuss their lack of moral compass and, possibly, the role of the pope at that time in dealing with Germany?

ELIZABETH SIFTON: I'm very glad you asked that question. I was thinking, we haven't talked about what happened after 1945. So I'm glad you bring it up.

The sad story about our guys and their families and the families of other resisters and heroic oppositionists was that they were treated very badly in the postwar years in West Germany. We don't know so much about what happened in East Germany, but in West Germany, it was very, very sad.

FRITZ STERN: They were considered traitors.

ELIZABETH SIFTON: They were considered traitors. That was true also, of course, in army circles. The army didn't get around to acknowledging that the conspirators of the 20th of July were not traitors, but heroes, representing the best, not the worst of the Germany officer ethos—that took more than a decade after the war.

Hans had two sons. I mentioned the musician. The other is a lawyer and politician, Klaus. It took Klaus decades to have the legal records of clearing his father and reversing decisions that had been made in favor of his slanderers. He took him years to have this fixed.

So the postwar years are not happy ones.

As for the church, the same is true there. They all slunk back into their parishes and went on as before.

You might not believe that I have the right to have that view. But we asked Bishop Wolfgang Huber, a very fine ethicist and a former bishop of the Berlin Brandenburg—we hadn't finished the book yet. I said, "Professor Huber, would it be fair to say that some of the enthusiasm for sanctifying Dietrich Bonhoeffer and putting him on such a high pedestal would have something to do with—maybe that would help obscure the failings of the church before the war?"

Looking at me in that wonderful, fierce, clear German way, he said, "Oh, it's much worse than that."

I said, "What's worse about it?"

And he said, "They went on being awful about him after the war, too."

They weren't pro-Bonhoeffer. We mentioned this. They are sort of schizoid about his being a tyrannicidal person. Do they think that's a good thing or a bad thing? The church people were very uncertain about how to judge him on this.

QUESTIONER: The church after the war, not just their reaction to Bonhoeffer, but what happened to the 99 percent of the clergy who are now post-Nazism, post-World War II? How did they tend to their flocks? Did people re-embrace the church, continue to embrace the church? Did they regain the moral compass that they clearly lost over the previous 15, 20 years?

FRITZ STERN: If I may just give one very brief example of my own experience. I was in Berlin. I was teaching at the Free University in 1954, which happened to be the 10th anniversary—therefore, I had all sorts of experiences, which I won't go into now. There was a key person named Otto Dibelius, who had been a major figure in the Protestant church—

ELIZABETH SIFTON: Oh, yes, a big one.

FRITZ STERN: And very proud of having been anti-Semitic earlier. That didn't mean that he necessarily supported everything that Hitler had done, but he felt that his record as an anti-Semite was important.

He gave a major speech in that week, on the 18th or 19th of July, in which he talked a great deal about the horrible fate that had befallen the Germans, particularly the expellees from the east, who were sent into Germany at the end of the war, expelled under sometimes awful conditions and so on and so forth, and carried on, as I say, weeping for what had happened to the Germans.

I wrote him a short letter. I didn't know him, but I wrote him a short letter. I said, "I was taken aback that you didn't mention the suffering on the other side," meaning the suffering of the Allies, of the Poles, and so on and so forth, the Jews or whatever. He wrote back—and I have the letter—"Naturally I thought of them."

ELIZABETH SIFTON: As for the Catholics—just to quickly sweep those crumbs into our pile here—that was, of course, completely different. The man who became the pope, Pacelli, who had been the papal nuncio (ambassador) in Munich and then Berlin, worked hard to get a concordat between the Vatican and Hitler that would allow them some space to be themselves and not be harassed by the Hitler regime.

The record of how the Catholic priests dealt with the Nazi regime is a very mixed one, like all human things. Some of them were awful and some of them were very brave and kept their heads high.

After the war, you have, of course, East Germany taken over by a regime that hates the church. The largely Protestant parts of Germany were then under the heel of the Soviet-based regime in East Berlin. So they didn't have any room to maneuver, although you could say to yourself that perhaps Chancellor Merkel is a descendant of the still sturdy Protestant anti-fascist tone. Her father was a pastor.

FRITZ STERN: But you invited us to talk about the much-discussed pope, which we will postpone for another time, because that's an immense subject. But let me simply say that in 1937, thousands of Catholic priests were imprisoned by the Nazis, which makes the behavior of the Vatican all the more complicated to understand.

Finally, let me simply say, speaking about the Nazis and both churches, the Nazis perfectly well understood that ultimately the churches had to go, since the Nazis had their own entire ideological system, and there's nothing in the Sermon on the Mount or in any Christian ethic or Christian thought that is amenable to Nazi thought. Therefore, for example, had the Nazis won the war, which we now know was not a total impossibility, the churches would have been eliminated, I would suspect, formally. The distrust was immense.

But the clergy, as I tried to suggest by the fact that thousands were arrested—some of them had acted, at the very least, incautiously, if you know what I mean.

JOANNE MYERS: You were so generous with all of your answers that our time has run out.

I just want to say, we may never know completely why Bonhoeffer and von Dohnányi did what they did, but we are very grateful to you for bringing their lives to our attention. Thank you both very much. It was just a wonderful, wonderful program.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less