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Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought against the Nazi’s in Germany as a Lutheran pastor and wrote many influential books on Christianity and secularism. He helped found the Confessing Church and worked extensively with the Abwehr resistance organization. His most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship, along with his public condemnation of the Nazis led to his ultimate execution in 1945.

Young Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, now Wroclaw, Poland, on February 4, 1906. He had a twin sister named Sabine Bonhoeffer Leibholz and six other siblings by their parents, Karl and Paula (née von Hase) Bonhoeffer.

The family moved to Berlin in 1912 when his father began working at the Berlin Charity Hospital as the chief of psychiatry.[1] Bonhoeffer started his theological studies in 1923 at Tübingen University where earned his doctorate with his thesis analyzing the Christian church entitled Sanctorum Communio, or The Communion of Saints.

Theological Education

In 1930, Bonhoeffer began studying through the Sloane Fellowship in New York at Union Theological Seminary.

It was during this sermon where Bonhoeffer realized the great power the church has to positively influence the minds of many people.

Though he was greatly unimpressed. Ford quotes Bonhoeffer in his book, The Modern Theologians, as saying, “There is no theology here.”[2] He did hear Adam Clayton Powell, Sr. give a sermon on the Gospel of Social Justice while in New York that greatly influenced his view of minority groups and the church’s role in combating injustices.[3]

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to teach theology at the University of Berlin in 1931. After attending the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches in Cambridge, he became a firm believer in ecumenism, or the promotion of unity between all Christian denominations. He was ordained on November 15, 1933, at St. Matthias Church.[4]

The Confessing Church

Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke out against Hitler and the Nazis only two days after they took control on January 30, 1933.[5] He called for the church to fight the persecution of Jews.

Bonhoeffer’s connection to his home country and the atrocities occurring there came above everything and everyone.

Ford quotes Bonhoeffer declaring in April 1933 that the church needed to do more and “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel, but at times halt the wheel itself.”[6]

During the 1933 elections of German church officials, Hitler unconstitutionally changed the election rules and a large majority of positions went to German Christian leaders who supported the Nazis.[7] Bonhoeffer and more than 2,000 other pastors formed the Confessing Church with his ecumenical ideals. He sought help from other ecumenical groups, eventually accepting seminary positions in England at two German-speaking churches. He returned to Finkenwalde, Germany in 1935, turning down an opportunity to study with Grandi, in order to secretively train pastors for the Confessing Church.[8]

The Abwehr Resistance

Bonhoeffer first learned of the growing resistance in Abwehr, Germany prior to his June 1939 return to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. His brother in law, Hans von Dohnányi, introduced him to German resistance members organizing there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer remembered this during his trip to New York and quotes in his letter to Reinhold Niebuhr that, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany.”[9]

When he returned to Germany, Bonhoeffer faced strategic harassment from the Nazis. He was banned from public speaking, printing, publishing, and forced to check in with police regularly. Dohnányi recruited him for the Abwehr, now an established military intelligence group. During 1943, the Abwehr plotted many attempts to remove Hitler from power.[10] Dietrich Bonhoeffer learned many things from Abwehr members and quotes in his posthumously published book of poems and letters that, “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”[11]

Bonhoeffer attempted to earn support for the Abwehr by contacting the Allies through his ecumenical connections. He traveled around Europe under the guise of conducting intelligence missions. He tried to gain British support in May 1942 when he talked with George Bell, an Anglican Bishop and House of Lords member, but it proved fruitless.[12]

During this period, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began another of his famous books, Ethics, but did not finish before his arrest with Dohnányi on April 5, 1943.[13]

Imprisonment and Execution

Bonhoeffer remained imprisoned at Tegel Prison in Berlin until the failed July 20, 1944, assassination attempt of Hitler. That September many documents were discovered revealing the Abwehr resistance and his connection to it. The Gestapo then moved him to the Reich Security Head office until February 1945 when they secretly transferred him to Buchenwald concentration camp then a camp in Flossenbürg.

When the head of the Abwehr’s diaries were found on April 4, 1945, Hitler ordered all associated be executed.[14] On April 8, 1945, Judge Otto Thorbeck condemned Bonhoeffer to death with no witnesses, no defense, and no record in Flossenbürg.[15] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged with other conspirators on April 9, 1945.[16]

References

Bibliography

Bethge, E., & Barnett, V. (1999). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Biography - theologian, Christian Man for His Times. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers.

Bonhoeffer, D., & Bethge, E. (1997). Letters and Papers from Prison. United States: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

Ford, D. F. (2005). The Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918 (3rd ed.).

Kelly, M. B., Finkbiner, T., & Journey Films. (2006, January 12). Bonhoeffer Timeline. PBS.org.

Raum, E. (2003). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Called by God. United Kingdom: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Stern, F., & Sifton, E. (2012, October 5). The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi. The New York Review.

Footnotes

  1. Stern & Sifton, 2012
  2. Ford, 2005
  3. Kelly, Finkbiner, & Journey Films, 2006
  4. Ford, 2005
  5. Kelly, Finkbiner, & Journey Films, 2006
  6. Stern & Sifton, 2012
  7. Raum, 2003
  8. Stern & Sifton, 2012
  9. Bethge & Barnett, 1999
  10. Stern & Sifton, 2012
  11. Bonhoeffer & Bethge, 1997
  12. Slack, K. (1971). George BellSCM Press Ltd. SCM Book Club 204.
  13. Bonhoeffer, D. (2007). It is Worse to Be Evil Than to Do Evil: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Challenge to the Quaker Conscience. In P. Dandelion (Ed.), Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives. United Kingdom: Ashgate Publishing.
  14. Fest, J. C., & Little, B. (1996). Plotting Hitler’s Death: The German Resistance to Hitler, 1933-1945. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  15. Hoffmann, P. (1996). The History of the German Resistance, 1933-1945. Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
  16. Kelly, Finkbiner, & Journey Films, 2006

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