October 9, 2003
The Pacifist Who Fought Hitler
Early in the Nazi regime, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a rising young Protestant minister and theologian, was asked by his twin sister to speak at the funeral of her Jewish husband.
Bonhoeffer consulted his church superiors and refused. Later, tormented by his decision, he asked himself, "How could I have been so afraid? I should have behaved differently."
It was perhaps the only time that Bonhoeffer's natural human fear trumped his moral courage in fighting the Nazi ideology, a stand for which he finally paid with his life.
The acts and religious beliefs of perhaps the most principled German Protestant voice during the Hitler era are woven together in the 90-minute documentary, "Bonhoeffer," opening Oct. 10 at two Laemmle theaters.
His complex theological thoughts, which emphasized the interconnectedness between traditional Christianity and secular action, might give some viewers pause, but the path leading to his martyrdom is marked by astounding feats of conviction and daring.
Bonhoeffer took the ultimate step by joining the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. But unlike his fellow conspirators in the army officers corps, whose chief aim was to save German honor and lives, the theologian made the persecution of the Jews the main spur for his resistance.
As early as 1932, Bonhoeffer, 26 at the time and a lecturer at the University of Berlin, became one of the first churchmen to criticize Hitler as a "misleader" who "mocked God."
Bonhoeffer was profoundly influenced by a year spent at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, during which time he befriended the Rev. Clayton Powell Sr. of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and absorbed some of the black congregation's emotional faith and social and political activism.
Despite his Nazi opposition, Bonhoeffer largely escaped Gestapo detection until the spring of 1943, when he helped 14 Jews flee to Switzerland and was subsequently linked to a resistance cell embedded in the Abwehr, the German army's intelligence bureau.
One month before the end of World War II, Bonhoeffer was led naked to the gallows at the Flossberg prison and hanged. Devout to his last breath, his last words were, "This is the end of me, but the beginning of life."
"Bonhoeffer" opens Oct. 10 at Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; and Fallbrook 7, 6731 Fallbrook Ave., West Hills, (818) 340-8710.