Berlin fights to save work of anti-Nazi theologian

January 9, 2009

Germany is launching an appeal to save thousands of valuable letters and manuscripts which had belonged to Protestant theologian and Nazi resistance fighter Dietrich Bonhoeffer by digitalising them.

(Photo: 1995 German stamp honouring Bonhoeffer)

The Berlin state library says it needs 40,000 euros to save the documents which it counts as one of its most prized collections. It wants to put about 6,200 pages of his work on the Internet to make them more widely available.

The papers include the farewell letter Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents before his execution in a concentration camp in 1945, just days before the end of World War Two, for opposing Hitler. He was 39.

Last summer, the library put the originals in non-corroding folders as the paper was in danger of falling apart and had been damaged by rusting paper clips. The collection also includes draft papers, sermons he held in Barcelona and New York as well as fragments from his book Ethics.

Bonhoeffer is viewed by many as one of the most important Protestant theologians of the last century. He was a leading member of the Confessing Church which opposed the Nazis.

He was particularly against the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies, arguing Christians had a duty to resist any unlawful action undertaken by the state. He wrestled with the question of how far a Christian can go in fighting evil — and whether a Christian, or a pacifist, can justify murder.

He was arrested and imprisoned in 1943 on suspicion of conspiracy.

How important is it to save Bonhoeffer’s bequest and how much relevance does his work have today?

5 comments

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[...] I read this brief but interesting article on FaithWorld today, about how the German government wants to put [...]

Reverend Bonhoffer was a true hero, a courageous man who stood for the principles of his faith.Dive me an mail address and the name of a custidian and I will send a contribution for the preversayion of his writing. I suggest that in addition to its preseveration that his writing ne given wide deceminationnot only in Europe by through out the works.

Posted by Paul Lockrey | Report as abusive

I studied quite a bit of Bonhoeffer working on my Masters in Theology. It would be difficult to argue that his work is relevant today, in fact it is quite dated. Were it not for the circumstances surrounding him his work would probably be mostly forgotten by now. The only reason anyone would consider him “one of the most important Protestant theologians of the last century” is because of his politics not his theology. (Think MLK Jr., also a theologian by training, as a similar example.)

Having said that, it would be an incredible shame to lose his work for lack of, lets face it, not very much money. The historical value of these documents is immense and far outweighs any theological value. This is one of the great German resistors of the Nazi regime. They can’t find someone to run this stuff through a scanner? I am a little incredulous.

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

“Bonhoeffer is viewed by many as one of the most important Protestant theologians of the last century” is a vast overstatement. He is known because of his life story; he has little relevance strictly as a theologian. He was a pastor primarily. Compare him to Martin Luther King Jr., also a trained theologian, but whose relevance is political and historical rather than theological.

To be sure any of Bonhoeffer’s letters and any documents that have historical relevance should be saved at any cost. This is, after all, one of the most important German resistors of the Nazi regime. I am frankly surprised this is even an issue. They can’t find anyone to run this stuff through a scanner? Any of the documents that are nothing more than notes for his theological texts are probably not that important, but is someone seriously thinking about just tossing them out?

Posted by Chris | Report as abusive

To even suggest that the papers of Bonhoeffer are not “worth” saving is sheer non-sense. How could anyone think of not preserving these precious papers from not only one of the 20th Century’s great minds but one of the 20th Century’s greatest lives??? There is more attention in Berlin on a Polar Bear that there is on one person, and a group of Resister’s who threw themselves on the mercy of God, and decided to make a difference in history…rather than the those who attempted to ruin it…
If the Library is considering removing them because of cost why not offer them to Union Theological Seminary or Princeton Seminary – Library of Special Collections where they would be treated with the respect that they deserve…Bonhoeffer was a great Pastor, Theologian, and Christian Man. At all costs – preserve this collection

Posted by Revd Kurt I. Johanson | Report as abusive

To imagine that no money can be found to preserved the heritage for one of the greatest Germans that has ever lived is is outrageous when there is plenty of money for lesser causes. Germany owes men like Bonhoeffer a debt, in a most literal sense. Shame on the Germans, yet again!

Posted by Dieter Schneider | Report as abusive