Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer stands out among the Christian leaders during the Nazi era, for he was one of the few to actively resist the racist actions of the Nazi regime. In addition to his legacy of courageous opposition to Nazism, Bonhoeffer’s theological writings are still widely read in Christian communities throughout the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, born in Breslau,Germany, on February 4, 1906. He completed his studies in Tübingen and Berlin. In 1928, he served as vicar in the German parish in Barcelona; and in 1930, he completed his theological examinations at Union Seminary in New York. During this period, he became active in the ecumenical movement and accumulated international contacts that would later aid his efforts in the resistance.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer took a teaching position with the theological faculty in Berlin. There he produced many of his theological writings, in which he took a traditional viewpoint in Jewish-Christian relations, believing that the Jewish people must ultimately accept Jesus as the Messiah. This theological work greatly increased his prominence in the Christian German community.His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship became a modern classic.
After years of political instability under the Weimar republic, most Christian institutions were relieved with the ascent of the nationalistic Nazi dictatorship. The German Evangelical Church, the foremost Protestant church in Germany, welcomed Hitler’s government in 1933. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, however, although a member of the German Evangelical Church, was not complacent. In his April 1933 essay, The Church and the Jewish Question, he assailed Nazi state persecution.
Bonhoeffer was born on 4 February 1906 in Breslau (now Wrocław, Poland), into a large family. In addition to his other siblings, Dietrich had a twin sister, Sabine Bonhoeffer Leibholz: he and Sabine were the sixth and seventh children out of eight. His father was psychiatrist and neurologist Karl Bonhoeffer. His mother Paula Bonhoeffer, née von Hase, was a teacher and the granddaughter of Protestant theologian Karl von Hase and painter Stanislaus Kalckreuth. His oldest brother Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer became a chemist, and, along with Paul Harteck, discovered the spin isomers of hydrogen in 1929. Walter Bonhoeffer, the second born of the Bonhoeffer family, was killed in action during World War I, when the twins were 12. The third Bonhoeffer child, Klaus, was involved in the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, along with Dietrich; he, too, was executed by the Nazis.
Bonhoeffer completed his Staatsexamen, the equivalent of both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University. He went on to complete his Doctor of Theology degree (Dr. theol.) from [Berlin University] in 1927, graduating ‘summa cum laude’
Still too young to be ordained, the 24-year-old Bonhoeffer went to the United States in 1930 for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary. Although Bonhoeffer found the American seminary not up to his exacting German standards (“There is no theology here.”),he had life-changing experiences and friendships. He studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and met Frank Fisher, a black fellow seminarian who introduced him to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where Bonhoeffer taught Sunday school and formed a lifelong love for African-American spirituals, a collection of which he took back to Germany. He heard Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., preach the Gospel of Social Justice and became sensitive to not only social injustices experienced by minorities but also the ineptitude of the church to bring about integration.Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below”—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. He observed, “Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God…the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.” Later Bonhoeffer referred to his impressions abroad as the point at which he “turned from phraseology to reality.”He also learned to drive an automobile, although he failed the driving test three times.He traveled by car through the United States to Mexico, where he had been invited to speak on the subject of peace. His early visits to Italy, Libya, Spain, the United States, Mexico, and Cuba opened Bonhoeffer to ecumenism.
After returning to Germany in 1931, Bonhoeffer became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Deeply interested in ecumenism, he was appointed by the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches (a forerunner of the World Council of Churches) as one of its three European youth secretaries.
At this time he seems to have undergone something of a personal conversion from being a theologian primarily attracted to the intellectual side of Christianity to being a dedicated man of faith, resolved to carry out the teaching of Christ as he found it revealed in the Gospels.On 15 November 1931—at the age of 25—he was ordained at the Old-Prussian United St. Matthew’s Church (German: St. Matthäuskirche) in Berlin.
In The Church and the Jewish Question (1933), Bonhoeffer pledged to fight political injustice. The Nazi injustice must not go unquestioned, and the victims of this injustice must not go unaided, regardless of their religion, Bonhoeffer wrote.
Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address in which he attacked Hitler and warned Germany against slipping into an idolatrous cult of the Führer (leader), who could very well turn out to beVerführer (mis-leader, or seducer). He was cut off the air in the middle of a sentence, though it is unclear whether the newly elected Nazi regime was responsible.
With Hitler’s ascent, non-Aryans were prohibited from taking parish posts, and when Bonhoeffer was offered such a post in the fall of 1933, he refused it in protest of the racist policy. Disheartened by the German Church’s complacency with the Nazi regime, he decided to accept a position at a German-speaking congregation in London.
The opponents of Nazi interference in Church affairs formed the “Confessing Church,” and some members, including Bonhoeffer, advocated open resistance against Nazism. The more moderate Protestants made what they saw as necessary compromises to retain their clerical authority despite expanding Nazi control. But under increasing Gestapo scrutiny, the Confessing Church was soon immobilized.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to teach at Finkenwalde, a Confessing Church seminary, where he continued to train clergy for the Confessing Church. But the official church barred his students from taking its clerical posts. In August 1937, the regime announced the Himmler Decree, which declared the training and examination of Confessing ministry candidates illegal. Finkenwalde was closed in September 1937; some of Bonhoeffer’s students were arrested.
Bonhoeffer went into hiding for the next two years; he traveled secretly from one eastern German village to another to help his students in their small illegal parishes. In January 1938, he was banned from Berlin, and in September 1940, he was forbidden to speak in public.
In the midst of political turmoil, Bonhoeffer continued to question the proper role of a Christian in Nazi Germany. When German synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned and demolished on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, Bonhoeffer immediately left for Berlin, despite having been banned by the Gestapo, to investigate the destruction.
After his return, when his students were discussing the theological significance of Kristallnacht, Bonhoeffer rejected the theory that Kristallnacht had resulted from “the curse which had haunted the Jews since Jesus’ death on the cross.” Instead, Bonhoeffer called the pogrom an example of the “sheer violence” of Nazism’s “godless face.”
The Confessing Church resistance expanded its efforts to help “non-Aryan” refugees leave the country. One member of the resistance movement was the passionate anti-Nazi, Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer married to Bonhoeffer’s sister.
In early 1939, Dohnanyi was transferred from the Justice Department to the Armed Forces High Command Office of Military Intelligence, and used his new post to inform Bonhoeffer that war was imminent. Bonhoeffer, knowing that he would never fight in Hitler’s army, left the country in June 1939 for a teaching position at Union Seminary in New York.
But upon arrival in the United States, Bonhoeffer realized that he had been mistaken, that if he did not lead his people during the difficult years of war and turmoil, then he could not partake in the postwar revival of German Christan life. His place, he decided, was in Germany; he returned only a month after his departure, in July 1939. He undertook a more active effort to undermine the regime. With international contacts in the ecumenical movement, he became a crucial leader in the German underground movement.
In October 1940, despite previous Gestapo tracking, Bonhoeffer gained employment as an agent for Hans von Dohnanyi’s Office of Military Intelligence, supposedly working for the expansion of Nazism. In reality, he worked for the expansion of the anti-Nazi resistance. During his 1941 and 1942 visits to Italy, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries, he attempted to gain foreign support for the resistance movement.
While plans to topple Hitler progressed only slowly, the need to evacuate more Jewish refugees became increasingly urgent. In early 1943, however, the Gestapo, which had traced Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s large monetary sums intended for Jewish immigrants, foiled plans for a new refugee rescue mission. Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943.
Initially, the Gestapo believed that Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were embezzling money for their own interests. Then the truth began to leak out, and Bonhoeffer was subsequently charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using official travel for other interests, and abusing his intelligence position to keep Confessing Church pastors out of the military. But the extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities was not fully realized for months.
In October 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison Tegel in Berlin.
In February 1945, he was taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp, and then to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defense in Flossenbürg concentration camp.He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945.
Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he was hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’s deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, GeneralFriedrich von Rabenau,businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher were executed in Berlin on the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops were already fighting in the capital.
His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi had been executed concentration camp on 8 or 9 April.
Eberhard Bethge, a student and friend of Bonhoeffer’s, writes of a man who saw the execution:
“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.”
Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945
Memorial of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in front of St. Peter’s Church, Hamburg
The metaphor of the “wrong train” is commonly taken to refer to his country under the Third Reich. How was one ever to turn the train around and make it go the opposite way?