2014-12-12 / Commentary

Ethics & Religion

The Most Inspiring Man of the 20th Century

Michael McManus Michael McManus Who was the most inspiring man of the 20th century? Churchill? FDR?

Few have ever heard of my nominee: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. However, this Christmas give this book —

“Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” a bestseller by Eric Metaxas — to someone you would like to inspire.

At age 14, Dietrich told his family that he wanted to be a theologian — in a home where his parents did not attend church. His father was a noted psychiatrist.

In 1927, he earned a doctorate at age 21, and the next year was a pastor in Barcelona.

By 1932, he was teaching theology at Berlin University. On Jan. 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the elected chancellor of Germany. Just two days later, Bonhoeffer gave a courageous radio address on the “ Fuhrer Principle.” The word “ Fuhrer” means leader. He outlined the fundamental problem of leadership by a Fuhrer, explaining how such a leader inevitably becomes an idol and a “mis-leader.”

He said real leadership derives its authority from God, the source of all goodness. But the Fuhrer was submitted to nothing, was “self-derived and autocratic…. The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity... Leaders which set themselves up as god mock God…and must perish.” Before he could finish, the prophetic speech was cut off — perhaps by Nazis.

He had the courage of Jeremiah the prophet.

In 1933, Bonhoeffer declared the duty of the church was to stand up for the Jews, who were prohibited from serving as lawyers, doctors and dentists, and were banned from the worlds of film, theater, literature and journalism. Bonfires were set to burn Jewish books. Bonhoeffer quoted Galatians 3: 28 declaring that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, bond nor free…” He had two Jewish brothers-in-law.

Hitler criticized Christianity for “its meekness and flabbiness.” Most Lutheran churches called themselves German Christians, an obsequious bow to Hitler. Bonhoeffer responded, “The question is really: Christianity or Germanism? And the sooner the conflict is revealed in the clear light of day, the better.”

Reinhold Krause, a leader of the German Christians spoke to 20,000, demanding that the German Church must divest itself of every hint of Jewishness. The Old Testament would be first to go, he said to great applause. The New Testament must be revised too, and must present a Jesus “ corresponding entirely with the demands of National Socialism.”

In response, Bonhoeffer midwived the birth of the “ Confessing Church,” in May 1934 with a detailed confession that repudiated anti- Semitism and the “ false doctrine” that the Church is “an organ of the state.” Hundreds of churches signed on.

Bonhoeffer paid for his fearlessness. He was told he could no longer preach, though he led a Confessing Church seminary. Soon he was removed altogether.

Hitler issued Nuremberg Laws prohibiting Jews from marrying Christians. Bonhoeffer famously declared, “ Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”

However, the state subsidized pastor salaries, and many feared speaking out. With good reason. In 1937, 800-plus Confessing Church pastors and lay leaders were imprisoned.

When Hitler told his generals to plan for war in 1937, several were so horrified they plotted a coup. Hitler wanted to march on Czechoslovakia, which would give them a reason. But British Prime Minister Chamberlain handed the country to Germany for “peace in our time.”

Bonhoeffer was invited to America in 1939, when war seemed imminent. He accepted a position but soon regretted it. He read Isaiah 28:16: “The one who believes does not flee.” Within weeks he left safety to return to “share the trials of this time with my people.”

He became involved in a plot to kill Hitler with a brother-in-law and brother plus generals. Bonhoeffer said of Hitler, “ Evil had stepped to the center of the world stage and removed its mask.” Bonhoeffer sought British assistance if the conspiracy could oust Hitler. Oddly, Churchill wasn’t interested.

Nevertheless, Hitler boarded a plane on which a bomb was set — but did not explode. In 1944, a general carried a bomb to a meeting with Hitler that did detonate, but a long leg of a table shielded Hitler.

Bonhoeffer spent two years in prison on a minor charge. But when Hitler learned of his leadership in the assassination attempt, he was hanged at age 39 — only three weeks before the war ended.

In a sermon on death, he once said, “Whether we are young or old makes no difference… Life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only prologue before the curtain goes up.”

Read and give “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy” to learn of a man who lived with the courage of Christ.


Michael J. McManus is president of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist.

Return to top