BIOGRAPHY OF DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906. His family was not particularly religious, but had a strong humanistic heritage. From an early age, Bonhoeffer displayed great 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 study theology.
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 experiences 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, at age 25, he returned to Berlin and was ordained as a pastor in the Evangelical Church. 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 January, 1933, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address criticizing the concept of “The Fuhrer,” and in particular the danger of an idolatrous cult. 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 organize the Protestant Church to reject Nazi ideology from infiltrating it. This led to a breakaway branch – The Confessing Church—which Bonhoeffer helped form with the prominent Berlin pastor, 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 the political opposition, and in the autumn of 1933, he took a two-year appointment to a German-speaking Protestant congregation in London.
After two years, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin. He felt a call to his native country and to 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 the SS. Over the next two years, Bonhoeffer travelled throughout Eastern Germany, conducting seminaries in private for sympathetic students. During this period, Bonhoeffer wrote extensively on subjects of theological interest. His work included “The Cost of Discipleship” a study on the Sermon on the Mount and argued for greater spiritual discipline and practice what he termed, “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 he would be required to swear an oath to Hitler or be arrested, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States in June 1939. After less than two years, he returned again to Germany because he felt guilty for seeking sanctuary and not having the courage to practice what he preached.
He wrote to his American sponsor, “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.”
Once back in Germany, Bonhoeffer was denied the right to speak in public or publish. However, he managed to join the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Before his visit to the U.S., Bonhoeffer had already made contacts with some military officers who were opposed to Hitler. It was within the Abwehr that the strongest opposition was found. Bonhoeffer was aware of various assassination plots, and it was during the darkest hours of the Second World War that he began to question his pacifism. He eventually came to see the need for violent opposition to an unprecedented and unparalleled evil. Bonhoeffer struggled with how to respond to the monstrous 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 the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, Willem A. Visser ‘t Hooft, 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.”
Under 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 his outreach was 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, he was confined to Tegel Military prison. Here he continued his writings, including his magnum opus, 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 assassination bomb plot against Hitler of July 20th, 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo’s high-security prison. He was then transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally Flossenburg.
Even during the privations of the concentration camp, Bonhoeffer retained a deep spirituality which was evident to other prisoners. He continued to minister to 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 suffering. 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 his English friend, 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.”