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  • Print publication year: 1999
  • Online publication date: May 2006

11 - The ethics of responsible action

from Part two - Major themes in Bonhoeffer's theology


As a Christmas gift to his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi; fellow member of the conspiracy Hans Oster; and his closest friend Eberhard Bethge; Bonhoeffer penned an essay at the turn of the year 1942-3. Entitled 'After Ten Years', it was an account of lessons learnt in opposing Nazism across the decade following Hitler's rise to power in January 1933. Bonhoeffer speaks of feeling 'no ground under our feet' and of the shared experience that these friends straddled a 'turning-point in history', an epochal break in time. They had landed in that awkward place history sometimes serves up when 'every available alternative seem[s] equally intolerable' yet the shape of the future cannot be discerned. The way forward is not visible, even to the sage.

The subsection 'No ground under our feet' is followed by 'Who stands fast?' Bonhoeffer leads off with a blunt report: 'The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts.' Then he catalogues standard moral options generations have trusted, only to describe their destruction in the West as that had come to murderous expression under fascism. Appeals to 'reason', to 'moral fanaticism' (principled single-mindedness), to 'conscience' and to the paths of 'duty', 'freedom' and 'private virtuousness' had all crumbled as sure guides for living amidst turmoil and crisis.