Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth: A Tale of Three Anti-Semites


Jesus once said:


  • ·                   “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:15–20).


  • ·                   What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.


  • §   NT James 2:14-17


Both of these statements contain a fundamental truth: faith by itself has little value unless it can mold and shape a person into an ethical human being. Although the Catholic Church has made a concerted effort to confront and challenge the church to respect Judaism and strive to cultivate better interfaith relations, the Protestant Church has demonstrated repeatedly that they still have a long way to go. 

In some ways, the hatred of the Jew is ancient centers on the concept of “chosenness,” or “divine election,” which gave rise to the doctrine of supersessionism, a.k.a., “replacement theology.” Since the days of the Early Church Fathers, the Jew has been branded by many of the most famous Christian thinkers  as, “Christ killers” worthy of any earthly retribution for failing to accept Jesus and the Church’s authority as the one sole means of heavenly reward. 

  • Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mt. 27:22-26).

Mel Gibson especially loved this passage, which he highlights in his film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Whenever one reads the anti-Israel emanating from many of the Protestant Churches today, one gets the distinct impression that we, as Jews, have been down this road before many times. Naturally, our Protestant churches love to distinguish between the Zionism and Judaism; however, in the years leading up to the Holocaust and the subsequent years that followed the Holocaust, leading Christian theologians made a distinction between the “symbolic” Jew and the “real Jews.” These thinkers had no trouble with the notion of a Jew as an abstraction, but dealing with “real” Jews proved to be irritable and unpleasant. 

When we think about some of the great people who defied Nazism during the Holocaust era, the names Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth are synonymous with courage. Most Jews consider these men to be among the other great righteous Gentiles who stood up for human dignity. 

Yet, we would be deluding ourselves if we think that each of these men “liked” or “respected” the Jewish people.

True, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became famous for saying on the night of Kristallnacht, “If the synagogues are set on fire today, it will be the churches that will be burned tomorrow.” Yet, who could imagine that the same man would say to one of his colleagues, “that the Nazis were merely giving what was owed to the Jews. After all, “they nailed the Redeemer of the world to the cross,” they had been forced to bear an eternal curse through a long history of suffering, one that would end only “in the conversion of Israel to Christ.”[1]

Here is one more example of Bonhoeffer’s animus against the Jews:

  • The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the “chosen people” who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering…. But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, stands under the sign of the final homecoming of Israel [the Jews] to its God. And this homecoming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ…. The conversion of Israel, that is to be the end of the people’s period of suffering. From here the Christian Church sees the history of the people of Israel with trembling as God’s own, free, fearful way with his people, because God is not yet finished with it. Each new attempt to solve “the Jewish question” comes to naught . . .[2]

Shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

Before I came across this passage, I never realized that Bonhoeffer suffered from religious schizophrenia when it came to the Jews. Bonhoeffer did not regard the Jew as a brother in faith, worthy of ecumenical respect.  He felt no sympathy for the racial anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis throughout the lands they conquered, after all, the German government was just carrying out classical Christian doctrines that were in place since the days of the 3rd century, where the Early Church Fathers promoted nothing but hostility toward the Jew. Short of actually killing the Jew, everything was considered permitted—even hard labor. After all, the Jews must suffer for their crimes against the Savior!

Many years ago, my synagogue sponsored a short film on the life of Bonhoeffer and the producer of the film was there as part of the panel. I was curious why Bonhoeffer was never included among the righteous Gentiles in the Va’ad Ashem in Jerusalem, but given his smug theological attitude concerning the Jews—it is not hard to figure out why.

(Part 2 to follow)

[1] Anders Gerdmar Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel. (Boston: Brill, 2008), p. 396. 

[2] Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 21.


One thought on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth: A Tale of Three Anti-Semites

  1. Jacob Israel says:

    I really enjoyed your answer to just who it was/is we are all wrestling before our name (nature) change… Would very much like to connect with you, i believe you would find it very rewarding, as would I. Peace Jacob

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