World War 2.
Two men lived through this time. One on the side of the Third Reich’s crushing dictatorship. The other as a resistance fighter, spy and pastor. Joseph Goebbels was the head of propaganda for Hitler’s Nazi regime and he ruthlessly lied to an entire generation of Germans, entrancing them to follow a crazed Fuhrer off the cliff of world domination. On the other hand, pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer refused to escape from his native Germany because of his desire to alleviate the plight of innocent countrymen. By the end of the war, both men were dead. But it was how they lived that separated them in breathless fashion.
Here are their stories.
Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945)
After failing to become a novelist and a journalist, Goebbels joined the Nazi Party in 1924. Nine years later in 1933, Hitler became the head of German governmental powers and Goebbels was propelled to the highest office in the country. Formally, he was the head of the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda and as such took control of all media in Germany. Radio and film were new mediums and Goebbels made swift use of these to whip up the German people into a frenzy of adoration for their saviour, the Fuhrer Adolf Hitler.
Virtually all sectors of cultural, intellectual and public life were immediately placed under the thumb of the powerful propaganda minister. He controlled the major newspapers, radio and television. Goebbels organized huge parades and gatherings to indoctrinate the masses into the Nazi platform. He organized book burnings and outlawed many German and Jewish artists and intellectuals. Goebbels essentially controlled what everyone in Germany was allowed to publicly say. Extreme censorship was practiced over movies, radio, theatre, newspapers, music and books.
Nothing could circulate publicly without the approval of the Nazi Party.
In fact, in order to ensure access to every home in Germany, Goebbels created the “peoples’ receivers” (Volksempfänger), cheap radio receivers that were to be distributed nationwide.
Goebbels was brutally anti-semitic, painting the Jews as the cause of most of Germany’s economic woes. He helped drive Jewish lawyers, bankers and businessmen from the market place. He forced Jewish shops to be marked as off limits to Germans and prevented Jews from using public transportation. His and the Reich’s goal was to purge all public and economic life of Jewish participation.
As the Nazi Regime turned its persecutive gaze against Christian churches, the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda was oft used to distribute subversive cartoons and news articles against the local churches. Many clergymen were falsely imprisoned on trumped up charges.
As the war dragged on, it became apparent to many of the top brass within the Reich that defeat was imminent. Many high ranking Nazi Party members began planning their escape or bargaining for leniency with the West and with Russia. Goebbels appears to have stayed loyal to Hitler until the bitter end.
On April 30, 1945, with the Russian army running through Berlin, Adolf Hitler killed himself, making Joseph Goebbels the official Chancellor of Germany. The next day, on May 1, 1945, Goebbels and his wife poisoned their six daughters and then killed themselves as well. Interestingly, as the bombings stopped and the Goebbels family bodies were discovered, Joseph’s body was the only one to be completely charred by fire.
After living through World War 2 in the high life of prestige, power, high society and prominence, Goebbels murdered his family and himself and is only remembered in infamy. What a contrast to the life of a German pastor who also lived through this same period…
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Born into a wealthy and somewhat famous family – his father a famous psychiatrist and his brother a famous chemist – Dietrich grew up to become a theologian.
After spending some time teaching in the United States and London, Bonhoeffer became entrenched in the underground church activities as part of the resistance to the Third Reich. He received permission to visit Ghandi and study his non-violent resistance methods but ultimately declined. And with many of his pastor and theologian friends being exiled from Germany as the Nazis clamped down on German life, Bonhoeffer began organizing an underground seminary to keep Christian education and theology alive. This required him to stay on the run, visiting students in different villages and supervising their progress. He had been officially banned from public life by the Gestapo and he became acquainted with the German Resistance movement in 1938. Members of the resistance were active soldiers in the military intelligence department of Hitler’s Reich and through these contacts Bonhoeffer learned that war was imminent. Leading him to flee to America for a second visit. Being a pacifist, Bonhoeffer feared what forced conscription into the Nazi army would mean for him and his students.
After a brief sojourn in New York, Bonhoeffer’s conscience led him to write these words to a friend:
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people…”
Bonhoeffer then took the very last scheduled boat ride back to Germany in 1939.
Unable to publicly preach, Bonhoeffer was welcomed into the official Reich intelligence organization known as Abwehr. Apparently, the German officials felt that Bonhoeffer’s connections to many church leaders inside and outside Germany could be useful for the Third Reich. Although Abwehr was an arm of Hitler’s Nazi regime there were members of the underground Resistance within it. Therefore Bonhoeffer enjoyed both the freedom to travel due to his official position within the Reich but also enjoyed the ability to use this freedom in order to communicate for the Resistance with Western allies.
Bonhoeffer was also active in helping German Jews escape to Switzerland.
As World War 2 raged on, members of the Resistance – including Bonhoeffer – began plotting Hitler’s assassination. Notes from his sermons show that the pacifist within Bonhoeffer was at odds with the idea of murdering the Fuhrer but that he had most likely come to terms with its necessity. Yet he did not have peace with how God would view such an act. However, this was not to be his plight as he was captured and imprisoned in 1943 for his membership to the Resistance.
During his two year imprisonment he corresponded with his fiancée and these works were post humously published as “Letters and Papers from Prison.” A valuable edition to Bonhoeffer’s other seminal works.
Five days before he was hanged naked in a German prison camp Bonhoeffer preached his final sermon. In it he stated: “”This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
Only two weeks after his execution, American troops stormed and liberated the camp. Only one week after this liberation Russians overtook Berlin, forcing an official surrender by Nazi Germany.
Unlike Goebbels, Bonhoeffer spent World War 2 scurrying underground under the evil force of the Third Reich. The German theologian and pastor did not dine in fancy palatial halls or sit as an honored guest in banquets. He was not carried around in high end automobiles and adorned in decorative uniforms. Bonhoeffer had no official power or prestige in Germany. Yet, as is so oft the case in the history of Christendom, he lived a life of meaning, purpose and impact. Since his death, his life and works have blossomed into a bouquet of hope and brilliance that inspire and will continue to inspire generations of Christians.
Goebbels’ privilege ended abruptly with the crash of the Third Reich. His charred body a metaphor for the full destruction of his life and hopes. He lives on nowadays only as an ugly footnote in the history of a despised movement.
May we aim not to be celebrated only by men in this life, may we aspire to be faithful to our God in the face of a darkening culture and allow Him to plant us and from us grow a beautiful legacy.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul