For Holocaust Memorial Day 2023, Dr Nicholas Evans, Senior Lecturer in Diaspora History at the University of Hull’s Wilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation, reveals the story behind one of the less familiar names on the Institute’s wall – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
When the Wilberforce Institute opened in 2006 the rear of our home at Oriel Chambers, facing Hull’s Mandela Gardens, included the names of 18 key figures from across the world who fought for human rights in different times and places. Whilst some needed no introduction, such as Nelson Mandela, Sylvia Pankhurst, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., a couple have perpetually left visitors to our Institute and the surrounding Hull Museums asking for further information. One of the entries on the space entitled ‘Names On The Wall’ that people most often ask about is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who died a month before the end of the Second World War. For Holocaust Memorial Day this year we highlight aspects of his life that justify his inclusion in our list of freedom fighters - he was executed because of his opposition to Nazism.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Poland, then part of Germany, in 1906. A German Lutheran theologian, he studied in both Europe and America, but was especially influenced by his time in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York. Upon returning to Germany in 1931, his career as a scholar and cleric was dramatically affected by the coming to power of the Nazis in 1933. Two days after Hitler’s installation as Chancellor he spoke out against the Nazi leader, appealing to fellow Christians to oppose Nazism, and producing one of his most memorable quotes: ‘We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself”.
Alert to the dangers of Hitler’s rhetoric and Nazi influence on the German Evangelical Church, Bonhoeffer appealed for racial justice and founded his own seminary that was opposed to Nazi influence. When this was closed by the Gestapo, he found himself unable to officially speak or write out against the evils of the Holocaust.
Prevented from leaving Germany, he instead became part of the resistance movement fighting against Nazism within Germany, but was arrested in April 1943 for his involvement in Operation 7, a scheme that managed to smuggle fourteen Jews on deportation lists from Germany to Switzerland on visas; he was imprisoned awaiting trial. In February 1945, during the final days of Nazism, he was sent to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp, before ultimately being stripped naked and executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on 9 April 1945, four weeks before Victory in Europe [VE] day. His influence continued beyond his death, however, with adherents including Dr Martin Luther King Jr. citing his writings and his attempts to bridge ecclesiastical divides to champion freedoms. Later declared a twentieth century martyr by many churches, a statue of him was added to the exterior of Westminster Abbey in 1998.
Holocaust Memorial Day has been marked on 27 January in the UK since 2001 as a day to remember all victims of genocide because it was the anniversary of the Russian liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp. However I hope this blog is a timely reminder that death and slavery did not end on 27 January 1945. Like Bonhoeffer, countless innocent lives have been ended prematurely by both genocide and slavery around the world before, during and after the liberation of Auschwitz. This Holocaust Memorial Day, I argue, we need more people like Bonhoeffer to make a stand against those tyrants who seek to deprive us of our basic human rights. In very uncertain times, we should not take freedom for granted, but must speak out. Ordinary people can make a difference!