Read an excerpt from my new book White Knights in the Black Orchestra
Chapter 1 Home and Abroad
The head pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City declared war on the Great Depression one Sunday morning in December 1930. More than a quarter of the people in this predominantly black Harlem neighborhood were unemployed, and it sickened him to see such despair. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was six-foot-three and still cut an imposing figure at age sixty-five and still delivered stem-winder sermons. This one took a half hour to roll off his tongue, enthralling an overflow crowd that spilled from the sanctuary into a basement community room.
"The axe is laid at the root of the tree," Powell thundered, paraphrasing the gospel of Luke, "and this unemployed mass of black men, led by a hungry God, will come to the Negro churches looking for fruit! And finding none, will say 'Cut it down and cast it into the fire!' " 1
Abyssinian was about to open a soup kitchen and launch its own relief fund for those struggling without jobs. The reverend announced he himself would donate four months' salary in order to set a righteous example. His flock responded with unexpected gusto. Unbidden, many of them got up and walked to the front of the church, digging deep into their pockets and filling the collection plates. One woman handed over her pocketbook containing a week's pay. All told, the deacons counted $1,500 in cash and pledges. With characteristic immodesty, Powell pronounced it "the most impressive climax to a sermon I had ever witnessed." 2
That also was unlike anything Dietrich Bonhoeffer had ever seen. And he'd come a long way to be part of it.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian on a fast track, having earned his bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees by the time he was twenty-one. He then briefly worked as an assistant pastor at a Lutheran church in Barcelona. Now twenty-four years old and fresh from finishing a postdoctoral degree in systematic theology at the University of Berlin, he wasn't old enough yet to be ordained in Germany. While biding his time, he accepted a two-semester fellowship at New York's Union Theological Seminary, a cradle of progressive Christian scholarship. In September Bonhoeffer had sailed west to America on a ship named Columbus.
Union Theological Seminary abutted the campus of Columbia University, two miles and several income-tax brackets from Abyssinian Baptist Church. Rather than attend nearby Riverside Church—a soaring, neo- Gothic replica of France's Chartres Cathedral paid for in part by moneybags parishioner John D. Rockefeller—Bonhoeffer chose to hike over to West 138th Street. To Abyssinian Baptist. Franklin Fisher, a black Union Theological seminarian from Alabama, suggested he come take a look. 3 Bonhoeffer not only wound up worshipping there, but also hit it off with the Reverend Powell and was soon teaching Sunday school, making pastoral home visits, and leading a weekly women's Bible-study group. He considered "this personal acquaintance with Negroes" as valuable a learning experience as any of his seminary classes. 4
Powell didn't find religion until his late twenties. As a boy Bonhoeffer already knew he wanted to be a minister. At fifteen he was studying Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and French. 5 His siblings teased him about his career choice, saying organized religion was dull and antiquated. Dietrich replied, "In that case I shall reform it." He wasn't joking.
He and his twin sister Sabine were the sixth and seventh youngest in a line of eight children raised by affluent, well-connected parents who made a point of not frequenting church. Karl Bonhoeffer was chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Charité Hospital, the largest teaching hospital in Berlin, a traditionalist who wanted nothing to do with Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic bunkum. Paula Bonhoeffer, a college graduate, homeschooled all her children for their first few formative years. "Germans have their backbones broken twice in life," she often said, "first in the schools, secondly in the military." 6
The Bonhoeffers lived in a stately single-family home in Grunewald, a leafy Berlin enclave popular with movie stars and business executives. They also had a getaway retreat in the Harz Mountains. Their children had rules to obey (study hard, let adults do most of the talking at the dinner table, no dead-fish handshakes allowed) and were thoroughly marinated in art, music, and culture, plus fussed over by cooks, nannies, and housekeepers. In high school Dietrich confided to Sabine, "I should like to lead an unsheltered life once," which might explain why years later he bypassed upscale Riverside Church in favor of gritty Abyssinian Baptist. 7
With his German accent, cornsilk hair, Old World refinements, and natural reserve (a friend dryly noted that Dietrich "was not the type to put all his wares in the shop window"), Bonhoeffer seemed destined to feel hopelessly out of place in Harlem. 8 Not so. He embraced it body and soul, devouring books by W. E. B. Du Bois and poems by Langston Hughes. A classically trained pianist who'd been playing Mozart sonatas since childhood, Bonhoeffer cut loose musically, hanging out in smoky jazz joints and occasionally at classier venues like the Cotton Club or Top Hat. He fancied Negro spirituals too. Paul Robeson's gospel baritone boomed from the record player in his dormitory. "Go down Moses! Way down in Egypt land. Tell old Pharaoh, Let my people go!"
Everything about the city resonated with him; everything except the "dreadful absurdity" of Prohibition. In a letter to his parents he remarked, "If one really tried tasting New York to the full, it would practically be the death of one." Ever methodical, Bonhoeffer brought along to America a notebook in which he'd jotted down suitable answers he could give nosy New Yorkers who wanted to know if Germans felt guilty about starting World War I. Nobody asked.
His biggest adjustment came in the classroom. Americans put much less emphasis on scripture and Bible study. "There is no theology here," Bonhoeffer complained. 9 Yet he grew to appreciate the expansive curriculum. Reinhold Niebuhr, a onetime socialist and evangelical preacher, was a relatively new addition to the Union faculty. Bonhoeffer signed up for his Ethical Viewpoints in Modern Literature course. He found Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry thought provoking, enjoyed Ibsen, but blew off George Bernard Shaw as a cynical windbag. A fellow student introduced him to the concept of pacifism and to an ecumenical worldview more idealistic than Niebuhr's brand of "practical theology."
Bonhoeffer seemed determined to maximize every minute abroad. He spent Thanksgiving in Washington, DC, with Franklin Fisher, marveling at both Lincoln the man and his memorial. He traveled to Cuba with a Swiss classmate for Christmas break. He then decided he'd like to become truly Americanized and get a driver's license.
He took the test—and flunked. Paul Lehmann, a fellow student at the seminary, wised him up to the ways of New York City: you gotta slip a few dollars to the person administering the test. 10 Pay a bribe? "I would never do such a thing," said Bonhoeffer.
He took the test again. And failed again. He went back a third time to the motor vehicle bureau, and Lehmann went along. Bonhoeffer took the test and emerged triumphant. "I passed!" he exclaimed.
Lehmann shrugged. "Of course you did. I gave the guy five dollars."
With license in hand, Bonhoeffer drove to Mexico and back with a French classmate in the spring of 1931, logging four thousand miles in a wheezing Oldsmobile they borrowed from a friend. What puzzled and discomfited him most about America was its entrenched racism. How could whites cheer Duke Ellington at the Cotton Club, but not abide him drinking from the same water fountain? There was nothing akin to that great divide in Germany.
Bonhoeffer left Berlin for New York City three weeks before the 1930 national elections. Heretofore dismissed as a novelty act, Adolf Hitler— a Munich-based, anti-Semitic rabble-rouser with a twitchy mustache— shocked the experts by reconfiguring the political landscape. His nativistic, chest-thumping Nazi Party placed second in the voting, providing him the power base to begin flexing his muscles. Hitler and his unruly swarm of paramilitary stormtroopers (the Sturmabteilung, or SA, known as "Brownshirts") and his elite bodyguards (the black-clad Schutzstaffel, or SS) no longer seemed quite so comical or benign.
In November Bonhoeffer had received a letter from his younger brother, Klaus, an attorney. "People are flirting with fascism," he said. "If this radical wave captures the educated classes, I am afraid that it will be all over for this nation of poets and thinkers." His mother wrote in January and sounded another alarm. Frau Bonhoeffer had this sinking feeling that "a government of Nazis is coming." 11
Karl Bonhoeffer remained sanguine. In April 1931 he wrote to his son, assuring him political-disaster predictions made "so far in advance" generally don't pan out. "Aside from everything else," he said, "even the Nazis are not so stupid as to believe that we are in a position to go to war."
The New York fellowship ended three months later. Dietrich Bonhoeffer repacked his suitcase, boxed up his newly acquired collection of gospel records, and sailed home, curious to see how much he and his country had changed while he was away.
Chapter 2 The Fog of After-War
Adolf Hitler was Austrian by birth, but served in the Bavarian Division of the German army during World War I, in four years somehow failing to rise above the lowly rank of lance corporal. Twice wounded, he suffered no ill effects other than a permanent inability to swallow the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. That peace agreement saddled Germany with crippling war reparations totaling $33 billion, plus the emasculation of its military, limited to one hundred thousand troops and thirty-six naval vessels. The final humiliation was a War Guilt Clause, which required Germany to accept sole responsibility "for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected." 1
In September 1919, while still on active duty in Munich after the war, Corporal Hitler became the fifty-fifth member of the fledgling, far-right German Workers' Party. The next year he left the army and took a job as the party's chief of propaganda. He helped push through a name change to the National Socialist German Workers' Party ("Nazis" for short) and designed an eye-catching flag that featured a black crooked-cross swastika superimposed on a field of red and white. He soon ascended to chairman of the party.
On November 8, 1923, Hitler decided to use the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich as his launching pad for an inept, spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the district government of Bavaria. The so-called Beer Hall Putsch resulted in the Nazi Party being outlawed and its ringleader getting sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison for treason. He only had to do eight months under lenient conditions, using that time to crank out an autobiography-cum-political manifesto. Hitler was released just before Christmas 1924 and immediately wangled to get the Nazi Party reinstated. A few months later Mein Kampf (in English, My Struggle) appeared in print, selling only 9,473 copies its first year, but significantly raising the author's political profile. 2 The book outlined the Nazi Party's plans for revitalizing Germany, which heavily depended upon jettisoning the Treaty of Versailles and ridding the country of pernicious communists, socialists, and Jews.
Mein Kampf made mention of only one American: reactionary automobile magnate Henry Ford. "It is Jews who govern the Stock Exchange forces of the American union," Hitler wrote. "Only a single great man, Ford, to their fury, still maintains full independence." 3 He'd long been an admirer, and a photo of Ford hung on a wall inside Hitler's Munich office. 4 A year before Mein Kampf came out, an American reporter asked Hitler if he thought Mr. Ford should someday run for president of the United States. "I wish I could send some of my shock troops to Chicago and other big American cities to help in the elections," he said. 5 "We look at Heinrich Ford as the leader of the growing fascist movement in America." 6
While still reeling from World War I, Germany began to feel the effects of a mushrooming worldwide depression that originated in the United States. Unemployment climbed past 8 percent, on its way to 30 percent. Industrial production shriveled, inflation skyrocketed, and a loaf of bread cost more than a million reichsmarks. 7 The exchange rate for US dollars was more than four trillion to one. German money was so worthless that children glued paper bills together to make kites. Adults watched their savings literally go up in smoke, using wads of reichsmarks for fire kindling. 8 Political instability compounded the turmoil. The country had been ruled by a hereditary monarchy from 1871 until the end of the Great War, when Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated under pressure and beat a hasty retreat to the Netherlands. The resulting postwar Weimar Republic became an experiment in democracy, so bold that women were granted voting rights, so chaotic that more than thirty parties were running candidates for office.
In some respects, the Germans overdesigned their political system, building a car with two engines. Under the new constitution, a largely ceremonial president—elected to a seven-year term by popular vote—served as titular commander of the military. But the presidency was also vested with emergency powers that, in times of crisis, could circumvent the other branches of government. The true constitutional center of power was a ruling chancellor and a cabinet, both of which required approval of the Reichstag, a legislative body analogous to Britain's House of Commons. Each political party's representation in the Reichstag was determined by its performance at the polls, with one seat awarded for every sixty thousand votes tallied. Members of a second, less powerful, legislative body, the Reichsrat, were appointed by the states and functioned much like Britain's House of Lords.
The center-left Social Democratic Party led every Weimar government—but never achieved majority status, depending instead on a succession of fragile coalitions. In the 1928 elections, the Social Democrats won 30 per- cent of the vote, good for only 153 of the Reichstag's then 491 seats, forcing them to form a shaky alliance with three smaller parties. The Nazis pulled only 2.6 percent of that vote. However, to an increasing number of Germans, decisive leadership taken to ultranationalist extremes seemed preferable to rudderless governance. If nothing else, Hitler exuded confidence. A volcanic orator forever fuming about communists and Jews driving the country into the ground, he graduated from speaking at rowdy beer halls to holding outdoor rallies for twenty thousand or more adoring Nazi converts. 9
By 1930 the Social Democratic Party's share of the vote had shrunk to 24 percent, with Nazis leapfrogging into second spot at 18 percent. The Social Democrats pieced together another flimsy coalition that soon imploded. Grandfatherly Paul von Hindenburg—a hulking former World War I field marshal now in his eighties—had been elected president in 1925. He interceded and, using his emergency powers, assembled a minority government headed by the more moderate Centre Party. Germany was basically marching in place, and by doing so falling deeper into the throes of the Depression.
Hindenburg won reelection in 1932 and retooled the Centre Party coalition he'd created. On June 1 he snubbed Hitler and tapped Franz von Papen, a hard-line conservative who avoided theatrics, to be chancellor. But Papen had so little support in the Reichstag that Hindenburg had to quickly call for new parliamentary elections in July. The Nazis campaigned under the slogan "All Power to Adolf Hitler," claiming a communist revolt was at hand that only he could avert. 10 The fearmongering worked. The Nazis captured 37 percent of the vote and became the largest political party, although clueless in the art of coalition building. They couldn't find any partners to form a government. A third round of elections had to be scheduled for November.
The Nazis backtracked in that vote, losing thirty-four Reichstag seats. Weeks of jockeying for position ensued. In the end, Papen resorted to a palace-intrigue gambit. He convinced Hindenburg to name Hitler chancellor, while he would selflessly accept a demotion to vice chancellor, fully expecting to outsmart everyone and become puppet master of his neophyte rival. Papen bragged to a political ally, "In two months we'll have pushed Hitler so far into the corner that he'll squeal." 11
Befuddled, eighty-five-year-old Paul von Hindenburg administered the oath of office to Chancellor Adolf Hitler around noon on January 30, 1933. He vowed to "employ my strength for the welfare of the German people, protect the Constitution and laws of the German people . . . with justice to everyone." 12
That night celebratory torchlight parades snaked through the streets of Berlin, led by stone-faced SA stormtroopers. The future had arrived, flash- ing straight-arm "Heil Hitler!" salutes.
Paula and Karl Bonhoeffer's three oldest sons were drafted during World War I. Walter, the second oldest and hardest to picture carrying a rifle, was eighteen when he departed for the front. In April 1918, after just a month in uniform, Walter Bonhoeffer was injured in an artillery attack. 13 "Today I had the second operation," he said in a letter to his parents mailed from a field hospital. "But there are more interesting things in the world at pres- ent than my wound." He died three hours later. Paula spent weeks in bed crippled with grief. Her husband always wrote a family update in his diary on New Year's Eve. After Walter was killed, Karl couldn't bring himself to make an entry for ten years.
The Bonhoeffers dreaded the prospect of going through that kind of anguish again. The whole family detested Hitler, not just for his politics, but also for his constant threats to disrupt the peace in Europe. When Dietrich returned to Berlin in late June 1931, those threats were inching closer to the realm of possibility.
While Hitler went about the business of consolidating power, Bonhoeffer embarked on his life's work. Technical College of Berlin hired him as a student chaplain. In November he was finally ordained. Two months after that he began teaching part-time at the University of Berlin. His lectures on the book of Genesis got turned into a book, Creation and Fall, in which he wrote, "The Bible tells only two temptation stories, the temptation of the first man and the temptation of Christ....Either the Adam in me is tempted—in which case we fall. Or the Christ in us is tempted—in which case Satan is bound to fall."
Pastor Bonhoeffer never felt tempted to consort with Nazis. In fact, he committed one of the first small public acts of resistance against the new regime. Two days after Hitler's inauguration, at 5:45 p.m. sharp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stepped up to a microphone inside the House of Broadcasting in downtown Berlin. He gave a fifteen-minute live speech on the Berlin Radio Hour, which was doing a multiweek, multipart series on Germany's "Younger Generation."
Other speakers were booked to talk about rural youth or how today's high school students compared to their predecessors. Bonhoeffer chose a weightier topic: "The Younger Generation's Altered Concept of the Führer," führer meaning "supreme leader." 14 He ended his segment with a thinly veiled reference to Hitler. Should anyone in a position of power "surrender to the wishes of his followers, who would always make him their idol, then the image of the leader will gradually become the image of the misleader," Bonhoeffer warned. "Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God." 15
Those were bold words of wisdom. And nobody heard them. The sound cut out just as Bonhoeffer reached the climax of his mini broadcast. He initially suspected foul play, but it turned out he'd simply gone over his allotted time, leaving the studio engineer no choice but to switch to the next scheduled program. 16 Determined to get his thoughts on record somewhere, Bonhoeffer mailed a copy of his radio script to a regional newspaper, which published the full text. 17
Later that same winter's night, another speaker took to the airwaves. Chancellor Hitler kept his remarks surprisingly short and sweet. His inaugural radio address to his countrymen lasted only thirteen and a half minutes. He talked about how German unemployment must be reduced "within four years" and how he would be "happy if the world, by restricting its armaments, made unnecessary any increase in our own weapons." No sturm. No drang. No beating of the war drums. 18
"Herr Hitler in office," the New York Times reported, "spoke more moderately in tone and words tonight than he had as the roving spellbinder of the last two years." 19
Earlier that day, however, Hitler issued a more typical fire-breathing "proclamation" to Nazi Party insiders, assuring them he would deal with "the Communist murder organization" intent on destroying his newly born Third Reich. "Keep calm!" he instructed his followers. "The hour for crushing this terror will come." 20
Abbreviations used in the Notes
CIC Counter Intelligence Corps (US Army)
DBWE Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English), multiple volumes (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997–present)
NARA National Archive and Records Administration
NCA "Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression" known as the Red Series; its eight volumes include the official condensed record of the subsequent Nuremberg trials
NIMT "Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal," known as the Blue Series; its forty-two volumes include documentary evidence and guide materials from the Nuremberg trials
USHMM United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Chapter 1: Home and Abroad
1. Cheryl Greenberg, Or Does It Explode? Black Harlem in the Great Depression (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 60.
2. A. Clayton Powell, Sr., Against the Tide: An Autobiography (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1938), 197–198, 228.
3. Scott Holland, "First We Take Manhattan, Then We Take Berlin: Bonhoeffer's New York," Cross Currents (Fall 2000).
4. Alan Bean, "The African-American Roots of Bonhoeffer's Christianity," Baptist News Global, October 30, 2015.
5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographical details and quotations from Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer; and Marsh, Strange Glory.
6. Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, "Die Ehre der Frau, dem Manne zu dienen: Zum Frauenbild Dietrich Bonhoeffers," in Wie Theologen Frauen sehen—von der Macht der Bilder, ed. Leonore Siegele-Wenschkewitz, Renate Jost, and Ursula Kuberg (Freiburg: Herder Verlag, 1993), 105.
7. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20. See also John McQuarrie, "Dietrich Bonhoeffer," New York Times, June 21, 1970.
8. Zimmermann et al., I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 95.
9. David Ford, The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology Since 1918, 32nd ed. (New York: Wiley, John & Sons, 1965), 45. Bonhoeffer wrote this in a letter to Max Diestil, the superintendent of his church district in Berlin.
10. Travis Rogers Jr., "Meeting Remarkable People: Paul Lehmann, Part Three," The Jazz Owl (blog), September 30, 2011, http://travisrogersjr.weebly.com/meetings-with-remarkable-people/meeting
-remarkable-people-paul-lehmann-part-three#comments; and author Facebook messages with Tra- vis Rogers, February 13–15, 2021.
11. DBWE, 17:69; Paula Bonhoeffer letter, dated January 20, 1931.
Chapter 2: The Fog of After-War
1. For full text of War Guilt Clause, see www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy
2. Mein Kampf, sales figure, www.biblio.com/mein-kampf-by-hitler-adolf/work/82968.
3. For Mein Kampf 's Ford quote, see blog of author Dinah Williams, www.dinahwilliams.com
4. "Berlin Hears Ford Is Backing Hitler," New York Times, December 20, 1922.
5. Ibid. At the time Hitler had an armed thousand-man "storming battalion."
6. Chicago Tribune, March 8, 1923.
7. Marsh, Strange Glory, 23.
8. See Alex Q. Arbuckle, "Hyperinflation in Germany," https://mashable.com/2016/07/27/german
9. On August 15, 1930, Hitler spoke to thirty thousand at Essen. For a list of Hitler's speeches and audience size, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List%20of%20speeches%20given%20by%20 Adolf%20Hitler.
10. Chicago Daily News, July 30, 1932.
11. Turner, Hitler's Thirty Days to Power, 147.
12. For details on Hitler's oath, see www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/riseofhitler/named.htm.
13. Zimmermann et al., I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 30.
14. Radio speech details, see DBWE, 12:268n.
15. As with almost all Bonhoeffer's writing, there are several translations of his radio speech. I used Bonhoeffer's No Rusty Swords, 202, 204. See also DBWE, 12:257, 259–260.
16. DBWE, 8:247.
17. Bonhoeffer's speech was published in the regional paper Kreuz Zeitung, February 26. See Hoffmann, Behind Valkyrie, 19n. See also Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 260. Marsh, Strange Glory, 160, says the speech was published in the Nazi paper Der Angriff.
18. Full text of Hitler's speech published in Völkischer Beobachter, February 2, 1933. For English translation, see Noakes and Pridham, Nazism, 1919–1945, 131–134.
19. Guido Enderis, "Cabinet Made the Issue, Hitler Moderate on Air," New York Times, February 2, 1933.
20. Text from "Collection of Hitler Speeches, 1922–1945," www.nommeraadio.ee/meedia/pdf/RRS