Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Feb. 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945) was a Protestant Lutheran Pastor, theologian, and active in the German resistance to the policies of Hitler and Nazism.
Due to his opposition to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed at the Flossian concentration camp, during the last month of the war. He remains an important symbol of opposition to Hitler, and his views on Christianity increasingly influential.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. His family were not religious but had a strong musical and artistic heritage. From an early age, Bonhoeffer displayed great musical talent, and the pursuit of music was important throughout his life. His family were quite taken aback when, at the age of 14, he announced he wanted to train and become a priest.
In 1927, he graduated from the University of Berlin. He gained a doctorate in theology for his influential thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints.) After graduating, he spent time in Spain and America; these gave him a wider outlook on life and helped him move from academic study to a more practical interpretation of the Gospels. He was moved by the concept of the Church’s involvement in social justice and protection of those who were oppressed. His wide travels also encouraged a greater interest in ecumenism (outreach to other churches).
In 1931, he returned to Berlin and was ordained as a priest, aged 25. The early 1930s were a period of great upheaval in Germany, with the instability of Weimar Germany and the mass unemployment of the Great Depression leading to the election of Adolf Hitler in 1933.
While the election of Hitler was widely welcomed by the German population, including significant parts of the Church, Bonhoeffer was a firm opponent of Hitler’s philosophy. Two days after Hitler’s election as Chancellor in Jan 1933, Bonhoeffer made a radio broadcast criticising Hitler, and in particular the danger of an idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer. His radio broadcast was cut off mid-air.
In April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised opposition to the persecution of Jews and argued that the Church had a responsibility to act against this kind of policy. Bonhoeffer sought to organise the Protestant Church to reject Nazi ideology from infiltrating the church. This led to a breakaway church – The Confessing Church which Bonhoeffer helped form with Martin Niemoller. The Confessing Church sought to stand in contrast to the Nazi-supported, German Christian movement.
However, in practice, it was difficult to agree on bold initiatives to oppose the Nazification of society and the church. Bonhoeffer felt disillusioned by the weakness of the church and opposition, and in the autumn of 1933, he took a two-year appointment to a German-speaking Protestant church in London.
After two years in London, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin. He felt a call to return to his native country and share in its struggles, despite the bleak outlook. Shortly after his return, one leader of the Confessing Church was arrested and another fled to Switzerland; Bonhoeffer had his authorization to teach revoked in 1936, after being denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state.
As the Nazi control of the country intensified, in 1937, the Confessing Church seminary was closed down by Himmler. Over the next two years, Bonhoeffer travelled throughout Eastern Germany, conducting seminaries in private to sympathetic students.
During this period, Bonhoeffer wrote extensively on subjects of theological interest. This included ‘The Cost of Discipleship‘ a study on the Sermon on the Mount and argued for greater spiritual discipline and practise to achieve ‘the costly grace’.
“Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship)
Worried by a fear of being asked to take an oath to Hitler or be arrested, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States in June 1939. After less than two years, he returned to Germany because he felt guilty for seeking sanctuary and not having the courage to practice what he preached.
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. … Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
On his return to Germany, Bonhoeffer was denied the right to speak in public or publish any article. However, he managed to join the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Before his visit to the US, Bonhoeffer had already made contacts with some military officers who were opposed to Hitler. It was within the Abwehr that the strongest opposition to Hitler occurred. Bonhoeffer was aware of various assassination plots to kill Hitler. It was during the darkest hours of the Second World War that he began to question his pacifism, as he saw the need for violent opposition to a regime such as Hitler. Bonhoeffer struggled with how to respond to the evil nature of the Nazi regime.
“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” Letters and Papers from Prison (1967; 1997)
When Visser’t Hooft, the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, asked him, “What do you pray for in these days?” Bonhoeffer replied: “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation.”
Within the cover of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer, served as a messenger for the small German resistance movement. He made contact with associates of the British government – though the feelers of the German resistance were ignored as the Allies pursued a policy of requiring ‘unconditional surrender.’
Within the Abwehr, efforts were made to help some German Jews escape to neutral Switzerland. It was Bonhoeffer’s involvement in this activity that led to his arrest in April 1943. As the Gestapo sought to take over the responsibilities of the Abwehr, they uncovered Bonhoeffer’s involvement in escape plans. For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel Military prison. Here he continued his writings such as ‘Ethics‘. Helped by sympathetic guards, his writings were smuggled out. In his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer reflected on the significance of his imprisonment:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.” (Letters from Prison, p.16)
After the failed bomb plot of July 20th, 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo’s high-security prison, before being transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally Flossenburg concentration camp.
Even during the privations of the concentration camp, Bonhoeffer retained a deep spirituality which was evident to other prisoners. Bonhoeffer continued to minister his fellow prisoners. Payne Best, a fellow inmate and officer of the British Army, wrote this observation of Bonhoeffer.
“Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease… his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”
On April 8th, 1945, Bonhoeffer was given a cursory court martial and sentenced to death by hanging. Like many of the conspirators, he was hung by wire, to prolong the death. He was executed with fellow conspirators such as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster.
Just before his execution, he asked a fellow inmate to relate a message to the Bishop George Bell of Chichester ‘This is the end – for me the beginning of life.’
The camp doctor who witnessed the execution of Bonhoeffer later wrote,
“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
“In following Jesus, people are released from the hard yoke of their own laws to be under the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. … Jesus’ commandment never wishes to destroy life, but rather to preserve, strengthen, and heal life.”
Because of its fragmentary nature, his theology is open to different interpretations. However, the central themes of his theology are:
Bonhoeffer’s principled resistance to Hitler’s regime was a source of inspiration for other figures such as Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Bonhoeffer also shared many ideals with Mahatma Gandhi. (In 1935 he turned down an opportunity to learn in Gandhi’s ashram)
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Biography”, Oxford, UK – www.biographyonline.net. Published 12th Jan. 2014. Last updated 8th March 2017.
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy at Amazon
The Cost of Discipleship at Amazon
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