Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Kids

We all need heroes. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my all-time heroes. This was underscored during my recent reading of Eric Metaxas’s masterful and often heart-wrenching biography of Bonhoeffer’s life [1].   I came to the conclusion that Bonhoeffer was indeed my hero, but for reasons that were not immediately apparent. Yes, it is true, he almost singularly stood up to Adolf Hitler. Yes, at the risk of life, limb, and liberty, he fearlessly led the resistance of Germany's “confessing church” against Hitler’s attempts to undermine the church’s mandate to embrace the “other” – including Jews and other “non-Aryans.” Yes, he defiantly stared down intimidating pressure from the Third Reich to concede to their strange hybrid doctrine of Nazi ideology and theology based on race; that is, the so-called, “German Christian Movement.” Yes, he continued to stand firm as the pressure increased, leading to his arrest and imprisonment which included Buchenwald Concentration Camp. But, tragically, only days before Hitler surrendered to the allies, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his perceived role in the failed Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler, leaving his fiancée bereft of a life partner. Bonhoeffer had come to the conclusion, along with others, that eliminating Hitler was the only course of action left after every other means had been exhausted. Millions of Jews, elderly, and disabled, continued to be exterminated in the concentration camps and Bonhoeffer believed, that as reprehensible as violence was, it had become immoral not to act. Yet, even though his life was cut short, he packed multiple “lifetimes” into his brief 39 years.

Academic Genius Who Didn't Fit Our Categories 

Bonhoeffer was a genius, but that is also not the primary reason that I regard him as a hero. Yes, he was schooled in the world renowned Berlin University’s theological faculty, and he had obtained a Ph.D. by the time he was 21 years of age. He was a curious mix of theological liberalism and conservatism and to this day, it is still hard to pin him down into a theological or political category. He was supervised by the famous liberal theologian, Adolf von Harnack, who was a direct spiritual descendent of Friederich Schleiermacher, regarded by many as the father of modern day liberal theology. Even though Bonhoeffer rarely came to the same theological conclusions as von Harnack, they still mutually shared a deeply respectful and honoring friendship their whole lives. Bonhoeffer greatly respected Harnack’s theological methodology while Harnack greatly respected Bonhoeffer’s razor sharp mind even though their viewpoints often led them to respectful differences. Bonhoeffer was also personally mentored by the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. In addition, he was profoundly impacted by the passion and vitality of the African American church while attending Union Seminary in New York City. Bonhoeffer's keen theological mind, combined with a deep relationship with Christ which was immersed in the Scriptures, prayer, and community, provided the resources to confront one of the greatest evils in history. 

Bonhoeffer and Children

But no, it was not just Bonhoeffer’s remarkable courage in opposing Hitler that impressed me, nor his willingness to go to the gallows for his convictions. Nor was it because of his remarkable mind, gaining him a Ph.D. by the time he was 21. Neither was it his remarkable contributions to our Christian journey through his weighty classics such as, Life Together, and The Cost of Discipleship.

What impressed me the most in my recent reading of Bonhoeffer’s life was his heart for children, and his willingness, with all the acute demands on his schedule, to take on a significant role in children’s lives. Bonhoeffer loved kids so much that he seriously considered becoming a pastor instead of a theologian. His highly aristocratic and educated father and brothers thought this would be a waste of his great mind, but he strongly believed that if he couldn’t communicate the most profound thoughts about God and the Bible to children, something was wrong. In other words, his Ph.D. was useless. For Bonhoeffer, there was much more to life than academia! 

This conviction drove Bonhoeffer to constantly be involved in the lives of children and youth. As a theological student, he was required to do volunteer hours in church work. When he could have done otherwise, he purposely chose to work with youth and children. Somehow, with all the demands of his academic work, he found time to prepare each week for a Sunday school class. He creatively used stories, even fairy tales, to convey truth. Not content to just teach children once-a-week on Sundays, he, along with his youngest sister, Susanne, began having kids into their home to play games, as well as take them on outings throughout Berlin. He was deeply taken with children and they with him! He became so popular that children from other classes left their classes to join his!  

A Rowdy Inner-City Confirmation Class

One of Bonhoeffer’s assignments was to take on a confirmation class of 50 boys, aged 14 and 15, in a very rough inner-city district of Berlin, where people lived in extreme squalor and poverty. The boys had been so unruly that they had literally driven Bonhoeffer’s predecessor to his grave! In Bonhoeffer’s first class with them, the boys were rioting, chanting and even throwing various items as missiles! Bonhoeffer refused to react or raise his voice, patiently waiting for them to quiet down, which they did eventually. Somehow, his peaceful demeanor seemed to spread to the whole class. He began to creatively tell stories, deliberately keeping them short which always left the boys wanting more. During the week, when he began to visit these boys in their homes and meet their families, he witnessed the deplorable conditions they lived in. Against social custom, he moved from his privileged area in Berlin into a small flat in their neighbourhood, operating with an open-door policy for the boys to come and visit, ask questions, and play games. He even saw miraculous healings, including one time when he visited and prayed with a boy at risk of having his leg amputated in the hospital. Miraculously, the boy’s leg was saved after Bonhoeffer had prayed with him. Bonhoeffer won the boys’ hearts. His confirmation class altered the lives of each of those 50 boys forever.  

“Herr Volf ist Tot!”

One of my favourite and perhaps defining stories of Bonhoeffer with children occurred during a season of ministry he had in Barcelona, Spain with German ex-pats. Again, he was assigned to a Sunday school class which started with just one girl! The next week, thanks to an energetic campaign to invite more children, 15 attended, and again, during the following week, he visited all of these 15 children in their homes and met their parents. The class quickly grew to more than 30 which never declined during his season there. 

One day, a 10 year old boy came to his office on an errand from his parents, but the boy clearly had other things on his mind. He began wailing, “Herr Volf Ist Tot!” that is, “Mr. Wolf,” (his dearly loved German Shepherd dog), “was dead.” The little boy cried out his anguish, but after awhile, he said hopefully to Bonhoeffer, “But, I will see Mr. Wolf in heaven, right?” Bonhoeffer didn’t know how to respond. He knew that even a “Well, we don’t know…” would be a “No” for this little boy, so he responded, “Look, God created human beings and animals and I’m sure he also loves animals.  And I believe that with God, it is such that all who loved each other on earth – genuinely loved each other – will remain together with God, for to love is part of God. Just how that happens, we admittedly don’t know.” The boy’s countenance changed dramatically now that he was confident that he would once again play with “Herr Volf.” Bonhoeffer repeated several times to the boy that “We don’t know how this happens...” but later he wrote, “The little boy knew.” After a few moments, the boy remarked, “Today I really scolded Adam and Eve for if they had not eaten the apple, Herr Volf would not have died!” 

Bonhoeffer wrote, “There I stood, I, who was supposed to ‘know the answer,’ – feeling quite small next to this little boy, and I cannot forget the confident expression on his face when he left.” Pastoral and theological genius came together in Bonhoeffer's interaction with this 10 year old boy. 

Yes, Bonhoeffer was heroic in standing up to Hitler and the Nazis. Yes, he was a theological and academic genius. But, he’s my hero, mostly, because in addition to all of these things in his very full life, he made time for children and passionately invested in them. In light of all that Jesus had to say about kids, I believe this, by far, was his most lasting legacy. 

[1] Eric Mertaxas: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2010. I am so indebted to Mertaxas for this brilliant (re)telling of Bonhoeffer's story, which I read on an Okanagan pool deck in April. The photo is from the cover of the book and I have drawn heavily from excerpts in this blog.