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Resisters and Conspirators-Hans Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Updated on August 23, 2017
John Everette profile image

Being a Christian and history buff I wished to learn more about these men and the issues they faced in their conspiracies against Hitler

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (L) Hans Dohnanyi (R)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (L) Hans Dohnanyi (R) | Source

Hans Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since World War I the Bonhoeffer family, who lived among the upper class in Berlin, though not particularly political, were aware of all that was going on in Germany after Germany’s defeat and how psychopaths were rising to positions of power. One psychopath caught their attention, or rather that of Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer, noted German psychiatrist. That psychopath was Adolf Hitler. As a result the whole family was in opposition to him and his Nazi Party. Some of them moved from opposition to resistance and finally conspiracy all the while well aware of what such actions my cost them.

Among the first was Dietrich whose theological and biblical studies led him to not only seek what it means to be a Christian and on what basis a Christian, and a Christian church is to believe and live but oppose Hitler and his Nazi regime’s attempts to strip Christianity from the Lutheran, Protestant churches, in the form of the German Christian Movement and the Ministry of Church Affairs.

Then there was Hans Dohnanyi. Hans became a lawyer during the Weimar Republic around 1924 by then he was already known to be an ambitious, energetic man of exceptional intellect and integrity. He continued studying law in Hamburg and earned a doctorate degree.

It was in 1929 that he married Christine/Chrisel Bonhoeffer.

Franz Gurtner
Franz Gurtner | Source

Early Resistance

After his marriage, it was probably because of his intellect and integrity that, in 1933, earned him a position in the Ministry of Justice located in Berlin and soon became chief assistant to Franz Gurtner the former Bavarian minister of Justice. Though a member of the Nazi Party, Gurtner foremost believed in the legal system and often found himself at odds with the Party at what he saw happening to the legal system in Germany. Then, when he and Hans came to see more and more of the Reich’s criminality, Gurtner and Hans went to see Hitler. The two of them came away from the meeting believing that Hitler was mad (crazy). Still, the two of them stayed at their post, “to prevent worse from happening.” Hitler in fact he needed the two of them where they were to give the people some assurance that the Nazi Party did not control that ministry, when in fact the two of them were there to “facilitate the degradation of the law” as the Ministry of Justice was expected and made to sign off on pretty much everything the Reich did. At the same time Himmler and his Gestapo distrusted the Ministry of Justice and kept it under surveillance.

Gurtner was to have another meeting with Hitler, this one about Hans and how there would be some difficulty with his “indispensible personal deputy” providing evidence of an unblemished Aryan heritage. Hans was a Jew on his father’s side. Hitler declared that “Dohnanyi should not suffer any disadvantage because of his racial origins.” However, it was not until 1940 that Hans and his sister received official word of their “racial purity.”

Hans’s position at the Ministry of Justice provided him an opportunity not only to know new laws that the Reich had planned, and be able to pass useful information onto Dietrich, but, beginning in 1934, it provided him with documentation of the regime’s illegal acts that he kept copies of in chronological order in a file he called-“Chronicle of Shame.” These illegal acts of the regime also included illegal acts of the SS and Gestapo that ranged from arbitrary detention and torture to currency swindles. He was also able to keep track of measures taken against the clergy and Jews, and begin creating his network of resisters. Hans did all of this with Gurtner’s apparent approval as it was Gurtner who gave him permission to take his file with him when he left the Ministry of Justice. It was at this time that Hans came to secure the “Chronical of Shame” in a safe on a military base at Zossen some 20 miles from Berlin.

In 1934 Gurtner found himself having to sign into law a statue retroactively giving legality to all the political murders carried out at the end of June of that year during the “Night of the Long Knives.” It was this event that also demonstrated to Dr. Bonhoeffer Hitler’s enthusiasm for murder carried out in the name of the state.

In 1937, despite his talk of peace in Europe, Hitler, held a secret meeting of his principle military chiefs during which he outlined his plans for war and a New Order in Europe. Some of these military chiefs were against Hitler’s plans and it was these military leaders that Hans was to meet and work with as they saw the only way of avoiding war was the removal of Hitler. Two of these military leaders were General Ludwig Beck ad Hans Oster who worked in Abwehr (Military Intelligence) as deputy to Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (another conspirator). It was Oster who was openly against Hitler’s plan to attack Czechoslovakia, and who planned to remove Hitler, taking him prisoner, in the process it was presumed that Dr. Bonhoeffer would be ready to examine Hitler and certify him as clinically unstable.

Admiral Wilhelm Canaris
Admiral Wilhelm Canaris | Source

Hans and Dietrich join Germany's Military Intelligence-Abwehr

In 1938 Hans moved to Germany’s High Court in Leipzig where he would most likely be the only non-Nazi Party member. As it was, Leipzig provided Hans a chance to rest from his duties as both supporter and resister of the Nazi regime.

This rest period would not last long for in 1939 Admiral Canaris summoned him to be part of the Abwehr as Oster’s deputy. Himmler and the Gestapo trusted Abwehr less than the trusted the Ministry of Justice so not only was Hans under surveillance but Abwehr as a whole. Still, his position at Abwehr allowed Hans access to restricted material.

It was during this time that he turned more and more to his wife and Dietrich. One night Hans asked Dietrich about Jesus’s say-“All they that take up the sword shall perish with the sword.” He wanted to know if this would apply to those who sought to kill Hitler. Dietrich answered that it would but that there was a need for those who did so, to accept their responsibility for their actions. This answer corresponded to Dietrich’s own evolution from Christian opposition, to resistor, to conspirator against the state and Hitler. The resolve of the three of them to continue their work was cemented after November 5-“Kristlenacht”, the night that heard of synagogues all over Germany being burned, Jewish property smashed and 30,000 Jews arrested.

By 1940 the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin had become a meeting place for fellow resistors to the Nazis regime. It was also the place where Hans and Dietrich became involved in an effort seeking a halt a secret program of euthanizing involving: disabled, deranged, or permanently ill men, women, and children. Because Dr. Bonhoeffer knew of one of the killing centers-Charite hospital in Berlin- Dr. Bonhoeffer took the opportunity to get involved as well as he confronted his successor at the hospital, who supported the program.

It was also in 1940 that Dietrich was sent on his first mission as an “indispensable civilian worker” in Military Intelligence. He was sent to Munich to meet up with Josef Muller, the resistance’s contact with the Vatican. It was hoped that not only could the Vatican help, in getting British agreement on reasonable peace terms but that Dietrich’s ecumenical contacts in England could help.

In the meantime Hans sought to expand his network of resisters from military officers in the East, to lawyers in Berlin, to people like Klaus Bonhoeffer who was a lawyer and legal advisor to Luftahansa with international contacts.

"Operation 7"

Then in 1941 Hans was faced with perhaps his greatest challenge. Two Jewish lawyers that he and Gurtner had promised to protect faced deportation. In time the number of people that he was being asked to help grew to 14, many of them members of the Confessing Church. He had to find a way to get these people into Switzerland during a time that Switzerland was tightening its immigration policies, especially as they pertained to Jews. Hans eventually came up with a plane called “Operation 7.” This plan required help from his superiors for he had to have all 14 be declared “indispensable civilian workers” for Military Intelligence. It also called for permission from the Gestapo, for they had to agree that these people receive $100,000 from German reserves in order to demonstrate to the Swiz they did not need public funds. Dietrich too ventured out and asked help form his old friend Karl Barth who was a Swiz citizen for these people were to continue to South Africa.

Missed opportunity to end the war

In 1942 Dietrich met up with another friend in Sweden-Bishop George Bell. He asked Bell if he and his colleague might win some assurance from Churchill’s government as to what its response might be if a coup were to succeed in Berlin. Bell wrote up a memo to the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden. The memo stressed that that his conversation with Dietrich was for Dietrich to inform him of “the strong organized opposition” against Hitler and its determination to destroy the entire regime and install a new government. This government would renounce aggression and immediately “repeal the Nuremburg Laws.” It would also co-operate in the international settlement of Jews, withdraw German troops, in stages, from occupied countries. It would also assist in the establishment of economic interdependence among European countries including Poland and the Czech Nation. Finally it would pledge support for the formation of a European army which Germany would be a part of. Dietrich and Bell would later learn that Anthony Eden refused to entertain the contents of the memo.

The final word on the matter came at the Casablanca Conference where both Churchill and Roosevelt announced that they would not settle for anything less that Germany’s unconditional surrender.

Imprisonment and death before the end of the war

In early April of 1943 the Bonhoeffer family, minus a few members who had escaped to England, met at the family home in Berlin to celebrate Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer’s 75th birthday. Even Adolf Hitler sent a birthday message in which he bestowed the Goethe Medal for Arts and Science on the patriarch of a family who was not only in opposition to Hitler’s regime, but in resistance to it.

Then on April 5th Christel, Hans, and Dietrich were arrested. Josef Muller and his wife were arrested a day or two later. The women were taken to a prison in Charlottenburg. Dietrich was sent to the Tegel prison and Hans to a military prison in Berlin.

The Bonhoeffer family had long been prepared to deal with family members being arrested by the Nazi Regime. This family who had valued honesty and truth now found itself using techniques to get around the authorities that, while morally repugnant to them, also aroused a sense of comic relief. To this end they used books with tiny dots under letters spread out over many pages that together spelled out instructions, warnings, news, and loving notes of support. They also wrote in miniscule script on tiny bits of paper or cardboard that was easily buried at the bottom of a jar of food, or hidden in a bunch of flowers.

Though Christel was released after 18 months, Dietrich and Hans were to be in prison for a much longer time. The early part of their imprisonment weighed heavily on the two men. Hans because he felt responsible for Christel’s and Dietrich’s imprisonment to which Dietrich tried to assure him that there was no reason for him to feel that way. As for himself, Dietrich considered all the mistakes he may have made that led him to prison. From there he began a strict daily regime to keep up his strength and remember what he had learned in his studies. Hans managed to teach himself how to draw and point. During interrogations neither man gave out any of the information that their interrogators were looking for. When asked about “Operation 7” Hans led his interrogators through a “fog” of technical details about currency transfers.

Christel did her best caring for the Bonhoeffer family as well as providing her husband and her brother as much moral and practical support as she could with news from the family, and news about the war, as well as food; and books for Dietrich.

In time they learned that the High Treason charges that the two of them were facing had been dropped and, other lesser charges were added.

Still, Hans remained in as much emotional pain as physical pain. The emotional pain came from his separation from Christel. His physical pain came from phlebitis. Then in November of 1943, during Allied bombing, an incendiary bomb hit Han’s cell which caused Hans to develop a brain embolism which later resulted in him having a speech impairment. Because of his injuries he was transferred to Charite hospital in Berlin where Dr. Bonhoeffer still had some influence. There Christel was allowed to visit him every day as well as friends and allies. Then in January 1944 Hans was rushed to a military hospital in a suburb of Berlin. As his health improved he asked Christel to get her father’s assistance in helping him stay ill for he felt safer in a hospital than in a cell. Christel agreed and began lacing his food she managed to take to him with diphtheria. It was about that time that Hans was transferred closer to Berlin so that Christel could more easily visit him. It was also around that time that authorities acknowledged that they did not have sufficient evidence to bring against either of them.

Then in July of 1944 “Operation Valkyria” took place, an assassination and coup attempt that Hans had helped set in motion before he was arrested. This assassination and coup attempt led to the murder of principal conspirators in Berlin. It also led to the arrest of Oster and Canaris. Then on September 22, an Abwehr chauffer led Gestapo to Hans’s “Chronical of Shame” in Zossen. These papers, some of which were reportedly shown to Hitler, also included: details about the total scope of Hans’s network of resisters and conspirators, how Hans assisted in the planning of many of the coup attempts that went back to 1938, and overtures of peace through the Vatican and Britain. This later led Hitler’s order to have the whole of the Canaris group executed. The whole of Hans’s network were to be executed-perhaps as many as 4,980.

It is believed that Canaris and many of his group, including Hans Dohnanyi, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were moved from Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, in early April of 1944 and taken to Flossenberg. There many of the prisoners requested that Dietrich hold a short Sunday service. Then on April 4th Hans Dohnanyi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Canaris were among those that were the first to be killed for their “crimes”.

A little over a month later Germany unconditionally surrendered, bringing an end to World War II.


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