Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Fox News Opinion on April 26, 2011. It has been slightly updated to reflect dates in 2018.
On Sunday, April 1, billions of Christians around the world celebrated Easter. But April 20, Friday, was a special day, too.
Did you forget? Friday — April 20th — is Hitler’s birthday! The Fuehrer would have been 129 years young!
Didn’t you celebrate?
As I explain in my book “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” during Hitler’s 12-year reign, people across Germany twisted themselves into veritable pretzels to praise the Fuhrer on his birthday! It was a day of national celebration.
How things change. Today, Hitler’s name is synonymous with evil. What a spectacular reversal of fortune.
How is it that one man slunk to his death defeated and is today despised by the whole world, while another man went to his death with God’s peace, and is today everywhere hailed as a hero?
Hitler’s last birthday — his 56th — was already a grim harbinger of things to come. Ten days later he would commit suicide, so the mood in the bunker on his last “Geburtstag” was not exactly festive.
He was a shattered man, hiding like a rat beneath the shattered city that was to have been the capital of his new Germany. His die-hard bunker-mates held a small celebration for him, but Herr Hitler had to be sedated before he could make an appearance. Can anyone dream up a more depressing birthday party? What’s the German word for “bummer”?
Contrast Hitler’s bleak ending with that of another German of that era, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a brilliant young pastor and a theologian, whose deep faith in God led him to get involved in the plot to kill Hitler. When Hitler learned of Bonhoeffer’s involvement he flew into a typically violent rage. As one of his final acts of revenge — just three weeks before he committed suicide — Hitler condemned the young pastor to death. Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945 at Flossenburg Concentration Camp.
But by all accounts, Bonhoeffer went to his death with the peace of God, with no regrets. How can that be?
He was 39-years-old, widely reckoned a theological genius. He had already written two of the classic books of the 20th century, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.” He was engaged to be married to a wonderful young woman. He had such a terrifically bright future!
Bonhoeffer even had an opportunity to escape his fate.
In my book I tell the story of how he had fled to America, but then decided to return to Germany, to face the horrors that lay ahead with his people.
Why did he return when he didn’t have to? And why didn’t he have any regrets for doing so, even after he knew he would pay the ultimate price?
Just before he died, Bonhoeffer told a fellow prisoner, “This is the end. But for me, the beginning of life.”
How is it that one man slunk to his death defeated and is today despised by the whole world, while another man went to his death with God’s peace, and is today everywhere hailed as a hero, as one of the few Germans with the courage to see what was happening and to speak against it and act against it, even at the cost of his own life?
There’s much to say by way of an answer, but since the Easter story is fresh in our minds, let’s start there.
Bonhoeffer believed the Easter story. He actually believed the extraordinary story of God’s coming to Earth and dying and then rising from the dead to defeat death forever. He believed that because if this was true, he need never fear death. All he needed to worry about was doing the right thing and trusting God with the results. And that he did.
Because Bonhoeffer believed these things he had the courage to do what almost no one else around him could do. He stood up for the Jews of Europe and today he is celebrated and cherished, while Hitler, who condemned him to death and who only believed in himself, is reviled as a monster.
That day in the bunker 73 years ago, as the drugged-up Fuehrer celebrated his last birthday, he was alive and Bonhoeffer had been dead for eleven days.
But on that day — April 20, 1945 — who was happy and who was at peace, Hitler or Bonhoeffer?
For that matter, which of them is happy and at peace today?
It’s something chilling to think about, the contrast between these two Germans, between these two lives and these two deaths.
But at this poignant time of year, when Passover and Easter have just been celebrated by billions around the world, it’s especially appropriate that we do think about it.
Do those of us who say we believe in God really believe it? Because if we do, it will affect how we behave today, this week, this month…
If we believe in the word of God, as Bonhoeffer did, it will give us the courage do the right thing wherever we are. Like Bonhoeffer, we will do the right thing and trust God with the consequences.
Faith and courage go together.
Bonhoeffer’s faith gave him the courage to stand against the greatest evil of the 20th century. And today we celebrate him and revile the inhuman tyrant he stood against.
So at this glorious time of year, dare to think about what you really believe. What you believe about your faith will affect how you behave today and how people regard you years from today. That’s a fact.
Let the life of Bonhoeffer, lived in faith and without fear, be a source of encouragement to you, so that your life in turn may be a source of encouragement to others in years to come.