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Defending Human Dignity: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

by Horst Koehler Monday, Feb. 27, 2006 at 5:53 AM

The chapter of German resistance remains rather narrow compared with the wide support that Hitler could count on up to the end that enabled him to act mercilessly against all opposition.


On the 100th Birthday of the Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer executed by the Nazis

By Horst Koehler

[This commemorative article published in: Frankfurter Rundschau, 2/1/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, Dr. Horst Koehler, born in 1943, has been the President of Germany since 2004. The economist graduated from the University of Tubingen in 1969. His dissertation was titled “Liberation from Labor through Technical Progress.” Koehler was very active in economic policy. In 1981 he joined the CDU. Later he was president of the German Savings Banks and then of the European bank for Reconstruction and Development. Before his current office, he was managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington. He is also an honorary professor of the University of Tubingen.]

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood at the grave of his grandmother, he said her heart trusted the “uncompromising nature of justice” and the “free word of the free person” and treasured “clarity and austerity of speech” and “honesty and simplicity” in personal and public life. He recalled how she could hardly endure when “these goals were misused” and “the rights of a person were violated.” Three years after Hitler’s assumption of power, this attitude of his grandmother had long lost its self-evidence. By honoring her, Dietrich Bonhoeffer clearly criticized the conditions in the Third Reich. “Her inheritance obligates us,” he added.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s consistent championing of these words in the following years of the dictatorship is admirable. He was faithful to humanity. He as not overcome but opposed the politics of the national socialists. He even deviated from earlier principles when out of love for peace he decided against absolute pacifism and for an active resistance in collaborating in the violent overthrow of an inhuman regime. Dietrich Bonhoeffer acted out of faith. Conviction and act were a unity for him. He did not only write about “being for others” in his “Ethics”; he lived his being for others.

Today on his 100th birthday, many words of appreciation for Dietrich Bonhoeffer are heard. I rejoice about this. But at the same time there is little reason for us Germans to bask in the brilliance of the sincere resistance fighter. The chapter of German resistance is still rather narrow compared to the broad support that Hitler could count on to the end that enabled him to act mercilessly against all opposition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 and put to death two years later, just before the end of the war. His fate is part of the inheritance obligating us.

May we be set on fire again and again by Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s faithfulness to humanity. For example, whoever reads his book “Letters and Papers from Prison” begins to reflect beyond his own goals and attitudes of life. Whoever knows his commentaries, letters and poems understands how important it is to always ask: What are my standards? What has priority? What attitudes are necessary?

“Quality is the most robust enemy of depersonalization,” Dietrich Bonhioeffer wrote in 1942 in his pastoral report to relatives and friends. He emphasized the dignity of individuals in a time when only the mass counted. An exaggerated individuality would be the other extreme. In between is the upright independent spirit that respects fellow persons.

Happily we live today in another age. Germany is a democratic country. Still it remains our duty to relate sincerely with each other, to make decisions responsibly and meddle when contempt threatens human dignity. Only in this way do we really accept Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s inheritance.

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