Courageous Leadership—A Portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


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History frequently glorifies the wrong individuals while overlooking the courageous acts of everyday people. Through intimidation, social, political and religious powerbrokers control perceptions and perpetuate the stories that serve their agendas. Few human beings have ever faced the level of intimidation (one of twelve obstacles to courageous leadership) that Dietrich Bonhoeffer faced in Nazi Germany.

A German pastor and theologian, Dietrich was one of the first Germans to oppose Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, and he openly supported the Jews. His life exemplified deep-rooted courage in the face of social, political and religious intimidation, but instead of bowing to threats, he stood virtually alone in calling for church resistance to the persecution of Jews. Firmly centered in his heart and spirit courage, Dietrich was able to “tackle the tough project” (one of twelve courage actions). This type of courageous leadership reflects a high integral level of courage consciousness in the field of Spiritual Intelligence (SQ).

Born February 4, 1906, Dietrich came from an educated, non-pious and yet, politically active family with seven other children. At the age of fourteen, Dietrich declared to his family that he would become a pastor. Considering that the Bonhoeffer family rarely went to church, his family was quite stunned at this announcement, but the choice secured Dietrich’s destiny.

Graduating with honors from the University of Berlin in 1924, the gifted Dietrich went to New York in 1930 on a teaching fellowship where he was influenced by the lightheartedness of the American theological students (“There is no theology here.” ) and the black gospel churches and singers in Harlem, which made him acutely aware of the injustices experienced by minorities and the Church’s ineptness at supporting integration. Hitler became chancellor in January 1933. Two days later, Dietrich delivered a radio address attacking Hitler and warning Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to be Verführer (mis-leader, or seducer). His speech was cut short mid-sentence.

By September the German Evangelical Church adopted racist Nazi policies, prompting Dietrich to accept an assignment in London. From London he rallied opposition to the German Christian movement and its efforts to incorporate Nazi racism into the Christian gospel. “The struggle was between the national church (which supported Hitler) and the ‘confessing’ church, called such because it confessed that there could be only one Fuehrer or leader for Christians, and it was not Hitler.” Even after the church bishop in charge of foreign affairs traveled to London and warned Dietrich to abstain from any activity not directly authorized by Berlin, the young pastor refused. He tackled the tough project and stood almost alone as the Confessing Church aided the Jews. In 1935, Dietrich received a much-sought opportunity to study under Mahatma Gandhi, but he decided to return to Germany to head an underground seminary for training Confessing Church pastors. As the Nazi suppression of the Confessing Church intensified, Dietrich’s authorization to teach was revoked in 1936, but the crescendo of Gestapo threats and intimidation did not stop him from taking risks to voice his courageous convictions.

In 1939 Dietrich sailed back to New York but soon returned to his homeland—on the last ship to set sail before the start of World War II. He also took on another tough project. He became an agent of the Military Intelligence Department and provided information to Allied agents hoping to assassinate Hitler. Dietrich was finally arrested on April 5, 1943, and imprisoned as a spy for nearly two years of torture and brutal interrogation. During his imprisonment, Dietrich befriended prison guards, who brought him books filled with coded communications from his family and fiancé. He also began writing Ethics, an eloquent expression of his courageous beliefs. So sympathetic were the prison guards that one even offered to help him escape, but Dietrich chose not to run, knowing his imprisoned family members would suffer Nazi retribution.

 By April 1945, Hitler had survived fifteen attempts on his life, Berlin was a total ruin, and the Germans knew they had lost the war. Under orders to kill the resisters, one of Hitler’s special commandos in the Flossenburg stripped Dietrich and hanged him in the nude. The courageous pastor was only 39 years old. Three weeks later, Hitler committed suicide, and American forces liberated Flossenburg. After his death, Dietrich’s work became increasingly influential as many civil rights and international ecumenical leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, followed his work on ethics. Dietrich stood in courageous opposition to intimidation by continually stepping up to tackle the incredibly tough projects.

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