By Mel Barger 


According to most accounts, Adolf Hitler ended his life on April 30, 1945, while burrowed deep in a Berlin bunker that was about to be overrun by Russian infantry.  Dying with him was the devoted Eva Braun, whom he had married only hours earlier.  It was a grim but relatively easy death for a man who had ruled Germany for twelve savage years and had been responsible for the outright murder of millions in Europe. The millions of Europeans still living had good reason to cheer his passing and the end of the Nazi era.

For two other men, however, the Fuehrer’s bitter finale meant that they had failed in their individual missions.  One, the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, had been executed only three weeks earlier for his role in a long-simmering plot to kill the Nazi dictator.  The other, a minister/reformer named Frank Buchman, had sought to convince Hitler to change his ways and become a messenger of four great Christian standards:  honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.  Each in his own way had stalked Hitler with the aim of bringing about the desired outcome, and each had paid a price. Bonhoeffer paid with his life, while Buchman was unjustly labeled a Nazi sympathizer. 

It’s not surprising that they failed.  Any reasonable person would have to say that each man’s mission was nearly impossible.  Bonhoeffer was highly intelligent but probably unsuited for the brutal business of engineering a high-level hit on a highly guarded political leader.  Buchman, though sometimes controversial, had performed brilliantly in leading others to God.  But Hitler was having great success with his own brand of preaching and wasn’t open to other messages.  So neither man had a real chance for the one action that could have changed history. 

Despite their failures with Hitler, each man left an important legacy.  Bonhoeffer has been elevated to sainthood in the liberal church and also among some evangelicals.  His courage in opposing the Nazis and facing death bravely has won universal admiration and summoned others to hold him up as a model.  Some have questioned his decision to advocate violence in removing the Fuehrer, but this effort has been properly rationalized and defended, even by pacifists.  (Bonhoeffer himself wrestled with this moral dilemma and concluded that he had no choice except to follow the course his conscience had outlined.) 

Buchman’s greatest legacy is still unacknowledged.  He laid the essential groundwork for the spiritually based self-help philosophy that now prevails throughout North America.  Buchman was also a strong advocate for peaceful solutions to social conflicts and was apparently effective in a number of troubled situations.  There is good reason to believe his important role will be acknowledged in the future.

Besides being Hitler stalkers,  Bonhoeffer and Buchman actually had much in common.  Both were well-educated Lutheran ministers, though Bonhoeffer  had the edge in an intellectual way.  Both were German, Bonhoeffer as a native of the Reich and Buchman as a Pennsylvania “Dutch” who had learned that version of the German language as a child and later learned to love Germany itself.  Each was a fine speaker and had a profound ability to persuade and attract others, though Bonhoeffer had the better appearance by far.  Their most important common bond was a deep spiritual commitment, a complete surrender to God and an earnest, insatiable desire to establish true peace in human relationships and in the world.

Since Buchman was the older man, we can discuss him first.  He was born in Pennsburg (near Allentown), Pennsylvania in 1878 and grew up in comfortable circumstances.  After attending college and seminary, he was ordained and found employment running a hospice for orphan boys in Philadelphia.  But a fight with his trustees over the food budget forced his resignation in 1907, and he left in extreme bitterness to tour several countries.

Carrying that corrosive resentment towards the men who had fired him, Buchman attended a religious conference in Keswick, England, in 1908.  In the process, he wandered into a small chapel and heard a woman evangelist, Jessie Penn-Lewis, whose message had a transforming effect on him.  He would always say afterwards that her simple talk about the Cross of Christ and the One who had made full satisfaction for the sins of the world changed his life.  He said that this had been “a doctrine which I knew as a boy, which my church believed, which I had always been taught and which that day became a great reality for me.  I had entered the little church with a divided will, nursing pride, selfishness, ill-will, which prevented me from functioning as a Christian minister should.  The woman’s simple talk personalized the Cross for me that day, and suddenly I had a poignant vision of the Crucified.

“There was infinite suffering on the face of the Master, and I realized for the first time the great abyss separating myself from Him,” Buchman later said.  “That was all.  But it produced in me a vibrant feeling, as though a strong current of life had suddenly been poured into me, and afterwards a dazed sense of a great spiritual shakeup.  There was no longer this feeling of a divided will, no sense of calculation and argument, of oppression and hopelessness; a wave of strong emotion, following the will to surrender, rose up within me from the depths of an estranged spiritual life, and seemed to lift my soul from its anchorage of selfishness, bearing it across that great sundering abyss to the foot of the Cross.”

Buchman’s next action was to return to his rooming house and write letters of amends to the trustees he had resented.  Then he spoke about his experience to another young man who accepted Christ immediately.  And so it went.  Returning home to the U.S., he began counseling others, eventually working at Penn State and Hartford Seminary.  By the 1920’s he had gained a considerable following that acquired the name “Oxford Group” in 1928.  From a book by the noted Robert Speer, he picked up the four standards which became the hallmark of his fellowship:  honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.  The essential program he offered included confessing one's sins, committing oneself to Christ, seeking Divine guidance, making restitution for past wrongs, and helping to convert others to the same beliefs.  And hundreds who followed this found transformations of their own.  These were religious conversions, which they preferred to call "change."

By the 1930s, the Oxford Group was so well known that a number of publications were discussing it in feature articles.  In 1936, Buchman was even featured on the cover of Time magazine, and a large Oxford Group meeting in the Berkshires drew ten thousand enthusiastic pilgrims and was the subject of a major magazine story.  It was clear that Buchman had a powerful spiritual message, and it was reaching people from every social class and also transcending denominational and national barriers.

But 1936 was also the year of his downfall---or at least a great setback.  It stemmed from what the Oxford Group members called the “key person” strategy.  And it got Buchman and the Group into a bundle of trouble that survives to this day.

The “key person” strategy had been developed during Buchman’s work with students at Penn State.  He discovered that if he could “change” the captain of the football team, other students followed.  He would use that repeatedly in his later work, always seeking out the top person and trusting that others would also be persuaded by example.

Trusting in his instincts and believing that he was being guided by God, Buchman went to Germany in 1936.  He never reached Hitler, but did have a brief, unsatisfactory contact with the notorious Heinrich Himmler.   This short meeting was described as "a fiasco" by Garth Lean and did not give Buchman a chance to speak to Himmler about the Oxford Group program for change.  It's doubtful, however, that either Hitler or Himmler would have been even slightly receptive to Buchman's message.  Buchman also had to be aware of Hitler's attack on Germany's Jews, which was already evident in 1936.  But Buchman apparently believed that a real conversion would deflect Hitler and the Nazis from this course.  His reasoning was that a changed Hitler could put the Germans on a new path.  

Back in New York City, he was interviewed by reporters and also had a private interview with a reporter from the New York World-Telegram. In a long interview, he said, “My barber in London told me Hitler saved Europe from Communism.  That’s how he felt.  Of course, I don’t condone everything the Nazis do.  Anti-Semitism?  Bad, naturally.  I suppose Hitler sees a Karl Marx in every Jew.

“But think what it would mean to the world if Hitler surrendered to the control of God.”  According to his biographer Garth Lean, Buchman then outlined what he considered a God-controlled country might look like. He also spent much time telling the reporter of his own experience of the Cross of Christ, a Power strong enough to remove hatred from his own life, and so, he believed, to change anyone and control even a dictator. 

It was a public relations disaster, because the next-day story was headlined:  “HITLER OR ANY FASCIST LEADER CONTROLLED BY GOD COULD CURE THE ILLS OF THE WORLD, BUCHMAN BELIEVES.”  It gave the false impression that Buchman endorsed Nazism when he was totally opposed to it.  But he always clung stubbornly to the belief that any person can be changed, and his friends later argued that he was sending a message to Hitler!  A few even believe that a Hitler conversion would have headed off World War II and saved millions of lives. 

But Buchman never had the opportunity to carry his message to Hitler.  Buchman’s movement, called Moral Re-Armament after 1938, did recover quite well in the 1940s and could record a number of accomplishments in the postwar years.  Most of the press coverage at Buchman’s passing in 1961 was favorable, and there is substantial evidence that he was a positive influence in a very troubled world.  His movement even had considerable influence with reconciliation between postwar Germany and France.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the second man to stalk Hitler without success, had apparently given up on any belief that Hitler would be transformed by religious conversion.  Yet he was Christ-centered in his own thinking and writing and believed just as fervently as Buchman in the power of prayer to change and uplift people.  His intellectual gifts were extraordinary.  Born in Breslau in 1906 into a high-achieving German family, he excelled in scholarship and was awarded a doctorate by Berlin University at age 21.  He then served a German-speaking congregation in Spain before attending New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1930-1931.  Leading theologians including Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr took note of him, and clearly marked him as a rising star in theology.  By late 1931 he was back in Germany as a lecturer in theology at Berlin University. 

But the deepening worldwide depression and political instability in Germany were about to put Bonhoeffer on a collision course with a newly empowered demonic force that was poised to take power in Germany.  The shaky Weimar Republic was soon to collapse and in the 1932 elections Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party claimed a dominating presence in the Reichstag.  Early the following year, Hitler was named chancellor and systematically began claiming powers that would lead to absolute control of Germany.

In the early days of Nazi rule, there was some euphoria in Germany over a noticeable improvement in employment and morale.  But Bonhoeffer and his family were not fooled and immediately saw what was happening when measures were taken to restrict civil service to persons of Aryan descent.  The persecution of the Jews was already underway, and Bonhoeffer called on the church to oppose it.  He organized a group that became what was called the Confessing Church and soon became involved in anti-Nazi resistance.

Bonhoeffer lectured in London from 1933 to 1935 and could have easily stayed there permanently or gone to the U.S., where any number of academic or pastoral appointments would have been open to him.  But his conscience required him to return to Germany, where he decided he would have to suffer with his countrymen.  And when war came, he also believed that he would have to work for Germany’s defeat.  He bravely accepted whatever consequences might come from his decision, and his courage was evident in the years remaining to him and as he faced death by hanging in April, 1945.

It was Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom, however, that elevated him into sainthood.  And this came about for two reasons:  1) He was determined and uncompromising in his opposition to Hitler, and 2) He may have unknowingly supplied the information that resulted in his  execution and the deaths of his fellow conspirators.

Bonhoeffer's opposition to Hitler was shared by many Germans, but they must have felt helpless after the Nazis consolidated their power and made open resistance almost impossible. It was also appallingly true that many Germans were anti-Semitic and approved of the early measures taken against Jews.  And though the Nazis had not actually possessed a real majority when they led the 1932 elections, it's likely that Hitler could have won in a landslide if he had dared hold elections in 1934 or '35.  While the Christian churches should have opposed Hitler in principle, a majority had made their peace with the Nazis by the mid-1930s.

Bonhoeffer, however, never saw any reason for compromise with Hitler.  According to some reports, he believed Hitler to be the anti-Christ, and also came to believe that the Nazi leader had to be eliminated by assassination, since no other method was open.  When the Oxford Group came on the scene in the early 1930s with hopes of converting the Nazis, Bonhoeffer showed only disgust for them and explained that all such efforts had failed.  "The Oxford Movement has been naive enough to try to convert Hitler---a ridiculous failure to understand what is going on," he was quoted as saying.  He also found the Oxford Group's demand for "change" very disturbing and held that they had replaced the witness of the Gospel with the witness of personal change. 

What about the argument that assassinating a leader was immoral and wrong?  This gave Bonhoeffer some bad moments because he was basically a non-violent person who would have abhorred the actual requirement to pick up a weapon and kill even a Hitler.  But he made an exception in the case of Hitler and was said to have compared the dictator to a mad driver on the loose.  It was more important to stop the mad driver rather than merely minister to his victims later on.  So he soon allied himself with others who were plotting Hitler's assassination, and these included several top military officers who would eventually be executed.  Bonhoeffer, as a loyal German, believed it was necessary for persons within Germany to remove Hitler rather than wait for it to be done by outside forces.  It was only this action by Germans, he thought, that would give them the moral right to aid in the reconstruction of Germany after the Nazi defeat.

There were hopes of overthrowing Hitler before the outbreak of war and some of the plotters thought that the ill-starred Munich peace pact of 1938 undercut their chances by raising false hopes.  But Hitler proved that he couldn't be trusted and---against the advice of his top generals---ignited World War II with an attack on Poland on September 1, 1939.

It's surprising that Bonhoeffer was able to avoid military service because he was an athletic person in excellent physical condition.  He fell under suspicion, but still had the freedom to continue working with other conspirators and to work for Hitler's overthrow.  He never wavered from this even in the early war years when the Low Countries and France fell before the Nazi blitzkrieg and it appeared for a time that Hitler could conceivably conquer the world.

By early 1942, however, the tide was turning, giving Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators good reason to believe that a German defeat was only a question of time.  In May, 1942, Bonhoeffer managed to travel incognito to Sweden to meet secretly with Dr. George Bell, the Anglican Bishop of Chichester.  Bonhoeffer, through the bishop, wanted to convey to the Western Allies that an active opposition group was available in Germany to form a non-Nazi government once Hitler was overthrown.  Author William Shirer wrote that Bonhoeffer even furnished the bishop with a list of the names of the (opposition) leaders---an indiscretion which later was to cost him his life and to help make certain the execution of many of the others.

This was the second reason why Bonhoeffer and his associates were finally hanged only weeks before the Allies liberated Germany.  Shirer did not explain how the list finally reached the Gestapo, but it's believed that Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler knew the identity of the co-conspirators long before he ordered their executions.  (He may have delayed because he had his own plans for taking over from Hitler and saw a use for the conspirators in that venture.)

Bonhoeffer was finally arrested and sent to prison in April, 1943, apparently for helping Jews escape from Germany. He was a prisoner when the climactic but ill-fated attempt on Hitler's life by using a concealed bomb came on July 20, 1944.  Hitler escaped serious injury, but hundreds of military officers and other conspirators were put to death, often under extreme torture.  And though the imprisoned Bonhoeffer could not have been actively involved, his name was associated with the plot and his execution became a certainty.  The Nazis were all but finished by this time, so the execution of Bonhoeffer and others has to be seen as Hitler's (and Himmler's) last action of desperate revenge.  Both Hitler and Himmler would be dead by suicide within several weeks.

Since Bonhoeffer was a complete failure as an anti-Nazi conspirator, what was successful about his life?  His real success was in the grace he exhibited throughout his imprisonment and in the hours when he faced the gallows.  He had always argued that grace had to be "costly" and that Christ calls men to go forth and die.  His martyrdom has become enshrined in the public mind, and his writings have taken on special meaning as a result of his death.  It's not likely that he would have reached this saintly standing without his execution at the Flossenberg prison camp.

In the meantime, how can Frank Buchman's success be measured?  His ill-advised comment about Hitler left a lasting stain on his reputation, though much of his work after World War II helped redeem him.  He was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and his passing in 1961 brought eulogies from around the world.  But his movement, named Moral Re-Armament since 1938, declined following his death and today has only a fraction of its former membership.  It recently went through another name revision and is now known as Initiatives of Change, though still offering the four standards and Frank Buchman's basic program of personal conversion.

Frank Buchman's real legacy for the 21st Century may be a fellowship he never claimed and that never honored him. While he never reached the Nazi dictator, he set down and offered principles that were later molded into the famous Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Steps and have even become applied to many personal problems other than alcoholism.  His contribution to the Twelve Step movement was so important that it's reasonable to say that AA couldn't have come into being without his Oxford Group program.

A month after Buchman's death in 1961, AA founder Bill W., privately acknowledged Buchman's contribution to the fellowship.  "Now that Frank Buchman is gone and I realize more than ever what we owe to him, I wish I had sought him out in recent years to tell him of our appreciation," he wrote in a personal letter to an old Oxford Group friend.  And as long ago as 1955, Bill W. had stated at a large convention that AA got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgment of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and from nowhere else.  But he gave the credit to Dr. Sam Shoemaker, a popular New York minister who had been associated with Buchman.  Shoemaker, however, owed his personal change to Buchman.  (Other famous ministers who acknowledged a personal debt to the Oxford Group were Paul Tournier, Leslie Weatherhead, and Norman Vincent Peale.)

How did the Oxford Group give birth to AA?  It all happened in the mid-1930s when Bill W., hopelessly struggling in alcoholic despair, was approached by an old friend who was temporarily sober as a result of spiritual principles learned from the Oxford Group.  Bill W. recovered and six months later contacted another alcoholic, Dr. Bob S., during a business trip to Akron, Ohio.  The doctor, too, had been working with the Oxford Group, and for the next few years the two men did their work under the Oxford Group umbrella, eventually severing their connection entirely in 1939.  At least one of several reasons for the separation, according to Bill W., was that the Oxford Group "was falling fast in the public favor," an obvious reference to the adverse effects of Buchman's ill-starred comments about Hitler.

Did Buchman take any pride that AA had its roots in the Oxford Group?  According to one longtime Oxford Group member, Frank Buchman knew about the alcoholic recoveries in the fellowship, but considered them of secondary importance.  "I'm all for alcoholics getting changed," he was alleged to have stated.  "But we have drunken nations on our hands."  He never expressed great interest in alcoholic recoveries, although he certainly considered them a logical outcome of the spiritual program he had developed.  His main concern was always to bring peace to warring nations and to end social and civil strife.

Bill W., for his part, always urged AA members to stick solely to the task of helping alcoholics and never to get the belief that they had the answers to other world problems.  He said it would be a "heady drink" for alcoholics to believe that because they had performed well in one area (of recovery) that they could transfer this to other areas as well.  Even when there was an explosive increase in drug addiction in the U.S., most AA groups insisted on restricting their meetings to alcoholics only (though the Twelve Steps could also be used by groups devoted to recovery from hard-drug addictions.)

Since Bill W. was AA's main historian, information about the society's roots included small pieces of information about AA's debt to the Oxford Group but virtually nothing about Frank Buchman himself.  That was certainly the way the AA founder would have preferred to leave it.  He had obviously considered Buchman a "loose cannon" in his public relations while he, in contrast, did everything possible to focus AA on the single goal of helping the alcoholic recover and staying out of trouble with the press and important groups such as doctors and ministers.

Then, in 1978, a writer/minister named T. Willard Hunter sponsored an event in Pennsylvania to observe the centennial of Frank Buchman's birth.  Hunter, who was then public relations director for the Claremont School of Theology, had spent 18 years as a devoted follower of Frank Buchman and he sought to enlist the aid of groups and individuals who had benefited from the Oxford Group program.  But he got a polite turndown from the general manager of AA's World Services in New York, the main headquarters for the loosely organized society.  One reason was that AA's anonymity principle ruled out anyone's speaking for AA.  An added reason:  "I think some of our members would say that we got out of bed with those people---why should we now get back in?"

While disappointed, Hunter was not deterred.  The Pennsylvania centennial observance was held with considerable attendance and publicity. He also devoted himself to the task of pointing out the connection between Frank Buchman and the origin of AA.  This included writing to editors of encyclopedias and to others who made mention of AA.  Though not an alcoholic, he showed up at large AA conferences and shared his information with anybody who would listen.  He had also completed a master's program at an elite divinity school, writing his thesis on the life of Frank Buchman.

One result of this was the inclusion of Buchman's name and photo in AA's official biography of Bill W., published in 1984.  The fellowship also provides information about the Oxford Group and Buchman from persons who send in specific inquiries about the connection.  This did not completely satisfied Hunter, but it has at least cleared up part of the record.  Future historians of AA and the Oxford Group will find an easier path to follow, largely because of Hunter, who passed away in 2009.

The AA connection would not satisfy Buchman either, because he wanted world peace as his legacy for all time.  He would have difficulty finding that in a society of ex-drunks, even those with a spiritual program of his own remote authorship.

The martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer might tend to be more approving of AA, though he had nothing to do with its founding and probably never knew about it.  There is nothing in the AA program or fellowship that could show anybody how to curb the madness of a Hitler.

If Bonhoeffer and Buchman are able to communicate today, they could at least agree on one point.  There's a growing belief today that Hitler (and Stalin) suffered horribly as a child from abuse inflicted by an alcoholic father.  Some would say that this helped make Hitler a monster who had to be converted or killed.  Both Bonhoeffer and Buchman would agree that a sober parent might have made a difference for Hitler and lots of others, even if the Twelve Step program cannot be applied retroactively.

  Dietrich Bonhoeffer                            Frank Buchman