It is unclear whether they ever met. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a serious-minded Lutheran minister active in the ecumenical movement and a man whose idealism led him to steadfastly oppose Hitler’s anti-Jewish rhetoric and even to be involved in American race relations during his time as a postdoc at Union Seminary in New York. He was apparently not a successful man with the ladies, only becoming engaged late in his life (which was too short) to a very young lady whose parents disapproved of the wide age difference between them, and his writing has been massively influential to postwar Christianity with his focus on the heavy burdens of discipleship and Christian community. Oskar Schindler, on the other hand, was a jovial alcoholic and womanizer among the Sudeten Germans who used his businesses in World War II occupied Europe to help save the lives of more than 1,000 Jews and to become among the most easily recognized righteous among the Gentiles in the postwar period, where he struggled to find his equilibrium and place.
Yet despite their differences, there are some immense similarities that bring them together. Bonhoeffer too helped rescue Jews, albeit fewer than Schindler, helping at least a few escape Germany into Switzerland, an act which hastened his arrest by the SS. Schindler too was arrested in part for the thoughts that he was a Jew-lover as well as his general corruption in bribing officials to protect his employees, although he survived the war, unlike the martyred Bonhoeffer, who was killed as the war was coming to a close. But both of these men were Abwehr agents whose moral decency was combined with some very tricky intelligence work. Even if they never met, the two of them both worked for Admiral Canaris and his associates, and their similarity in attitudes towards the Jews and their basic humanity, as well as their deep involvement in clandestine activities, speaks of some immense similarities that have perhaps not been examined very closely by researchers. I am not aware, for example, of any institutional history that looks at Abwehr and the sort of people it recruited, but any organization that manages to recruit two of the most notable figures of humanity among Germans during World War II is clearly doing something right. Whether their basic humanity was part of what drew them to the efforts of the Abwehr and their heroic opposition to Hitler’s regime and its anti-Jewish policies or whether it was helped by Abwehr, there is something notable about the fact that they were both part of the same small circle of spies in World War II Germany, albeit with different dossiers.
While both Bonhoeffer and Schindler were without question good Germans, it is worthwhile to consider the institutions that helped make this possible. Neither Bonhoeffer nor Schindler would have been able to accomplish what they did in the absence of institutions. Bonhoeffer’s greatness as a thinker and as a doer in Hitler’s Germany springs in large part from his institutional loyalties to the Lutheran church, where he helped pastor congregations as well as run some clandestine seminaries for confessing clergy during the beginning of World War II, as well as his recognition of the immense importance of opposing evil as best as one is able, even at heavy cost to oneself. Schindler, too, required the cooperation of figures within the Wehrmacht and civil and SS bureaucracy in order to operate his business and preserve the well-being of his increasingly Jewish workforce. Both of these men were able to do what they did because they combined an internal desire to help others and oppose the Nazi racial laws as well as an external ability to act that was based on their position within institutions that appreciated their efforts at providing for the German war effort in a way that was both honorable and deeply deceptive.
In Bonhoeffer and Schindler’s role as good Germans, the Abwehr is of great importance. After all, it is all too easy for people to be good but ineffectual. In order for our goodness, such as it is, to be effective it needs to be combined with resources and working together with others towards common goals. Bonhoeffer’s religious connections outside of Germany and his own shared commitment with other family members to hostility to the Nazi regime allowed him to be an Abwehr agent able to draw upon the assistance of others in engaging in operations that helped to save Jews and preserve the moral vitality of Christendom in Nazi Germany. Likewise, had Schindler not been able to develop good contacts with figures like General Schindler (no relation) and other figures in the German government, his efforts to save as many Jews as possible would have been ineffectual, no matter how willing he was to use his wartime profiteering to finance his humanitarian efforts. The heroic efforts of both Bonhoeffer and Schindler were possible because of their institutional loyalty and because both of them managed to be part of something greater than themselves.
Indeed, it can be argued that the Abwehr was of great importance in providing an honorable place within German society during its darkest hours for good Germans. Whether we are looking at the unsuccessful but unquestionably brave Valkyrie operation or the efforts by Bonhoeffer and Schindler and others, Abwehr included among its members a great many people who were important in providing the examples of German humanity and decency that allowed the nation as a whole to retrieve some honor among the horrors of Nazi Germany. To be sure, being principled did not come without a heavy price. For a basically pacifist Lutheran minister to become a spy engaged in clandestine operations no doubt wore heavily on Bonhoeffer’s soul. Schindler was likely greatly distressed by the efforts that he had made to befriend loathsome war criminals in the service of his beloved Jews. Whether people paid for their decency and their willingness to be active in attempting to thwart in some fashion the full measure of horror of the Nazi efforts during World War II with their lives or merely their peace of mind, there was a cost involved in being a Good German, and that cost could only be made good through involvement with others in some kind of resistance effort that was organized in some fashion.
What is the point of recognizing this? For one, the institutional history of Abwehr is something that bears closer research, so that we can better understand the fullness of its efforts at recruitment as well as engaging in clandestine operations that served the genuine interests of Germany even under its most terrible of leaders, and at heavy cost to those involved in its operations. For another, those of us who are filled with the desire to increase our own heroism and our own effectiveness in this vale of shadows need to have some idea of the way in which heroism becomes effective in the service of institutions and in the cooperation that one finds with others of like mind. We are inclined to think of heroes as lone candles flickering in the darkness and somewhat disinclined to recognize the need for cooperation and collaboration to exist so that our actions are effectual at doing good. All of this tends to require networks of good people who work together for noble and righteous ends, something that cuts against our tendencies to go it alone. In better understanding the behavior and context of the actions of heroic figures like Bonhoeffer and Schindler, we are better able to cultivate heroic virtues within ourselves in our own evil times.