Dietrich Bonhoeffer was only thirty-nine years old when he was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp in the South of Germany on April 9, 1945. He was a pastor and theologian of some renown. His open opposition to the Third Reich was considered to be a formidable enough threat to the fascist ideology that the leadership determined that he needed to be eliminated. It is interesting to note that this occurred at a time when the war was reaching its disastrous conclusion in regards to the ill-conceived aspirations of Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany – a city that is now Wroclaw, Poland. He had a twin sister, Sabine, born ten minutes after him. They were the sixth and seventh children born to Paula and Karl Bonhoeffer; there would be eight children in the family. Karl Bonhoeffer was an eminent and practicing psychiatrist. His specialty what was referred to as “intuitive psychiatry.” This psychiatric approach depends upon intuition rather than analytical reasoning as a way to bring the elements of the subconscious mind into consciousness. His contemporaries in the field of psychoanalysis were such notables as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. As a parent he was insistent upon expecting high intellectual standards from all his children.
Bonhoeffer’s maternal great-great grandfather was a well-known and respected theologian and professor at the University of Jena. His maternal grandmother had studied music under Franz Liszt. Musical ability had been passed down to Bonhoeffer’s mother who was a talented pianist and singer. Paula Bonhoeffer was also a highly literate, intelligent and fiercely independent woman; she was also a teacher – an unusual profession for a woman in Germany at the time. Bonhoeffer was also a talented musician. Although his father was ambivalent about religion, – not surprising given his profession – his mother took on the spiritual education of her children and Karl did not interfere.
Even at a young age, Bonhoeffer was admired for his gentleness and kindness of spirit. Although he was athletic and was vigorously competitive, he remained notably fair and measured in his judgment. He mastered the piano by age eight and when he was ten years old, he could play Mozart sonatas. At the age of six, his family moved to Grunewald so that his father would be close to the University of Berlin where he secured a prestigious position. The year was 1912 and two years later was the beginning of World War I. In that horrendous conflict, Bonhoeffer lost three cousins and another was blinded. He was personally devastated when his brother left for the front in April of 1918 and was killed two weeks later. His mother was deeply stricken with grief. This left a lasting impression on the young boy.
Following Germany’s ignominious defeat, the German economy was plagued by horrendous problems including, unemployment, malnutrition, and disease. The plight of Germany was further exacerbated as the Great Depression of 1929 swept through Europe. Furthermore, the draconian provisions of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) – the treaty that ended the war - drained the country of its economic resources. The cumulative impact of these conditions would ultimately make the German population susceptible to the disastrous fascistic policies and fantastic promises in regards to the future of the “fatherland” that would become the hallmark of the Third Reich.
Following his brother’s death, Bonhoeffer made the momentous decision to become a theologian. Given the severe hardships endured by the German people, Bonhoeffer was acutely sensitive to his family’s privileged position. This may have been a contributing factor in his ultimate decision regarding the career he chose to pursue. He was fourteen years of age (1920) when he brought this decision up with his family. His father was somewhat disappointed with his choice; for, his family had a long tradition of pursuing professions in law and science.
Bonhoeffer went to the University of Tubingen where he studied religion, philosophy and Hebrew. He actively pursued sports being endowed with both strength and agility. As a first year student - during the winter of 1924 – he had a terrible fall while ice skating and suffered a severe concussion. He spent his eighteenth birthday confined to a hospital bed. After his recuperation, he spent a term studying in Rome where he taught himself Italian. During his visit, he was impressed by the strong sense of community he witnessed among Italian Catholics. This reality had a profound impact on his view of religion; he began to see religion as having a strong communal component. He began to see the Church as community.
Bonhoeffer pursued further studies at the University of Berlin and focused on liberal theology. He read Martin Luther assiduously. He became interested in the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth who was a professor at the University of Gottingen. He was drawn to Barth’s ideas that were in marked opposition to the thinking of liberal theologians that relegated scripture to an accounting of religious experience, and that focused upon Jesus from an historic perspective. For example, Barth claimed that in scripture we find “divine thoughts about men, not human thoughts about God.”
Bonhoeffer became somewhat of a theological rebel who was able to express his ideas brilliantly and was gifted with a natural charisma. Given his propensity towards community, he became interested in parish work rather than becoming an academician. He enjoyed working with young people who found him to be open, receptive, generous and mostly a good listener.
On October 18, 1925 he had the opportunity to give his first sermon. The following is a brief excerpt from that address - “Christianity means decision, change, denial, yes, even hostility to the past, to the men of old. Christ smashes the men of the past into total ruin. He smites and cuts through with his sword to the innermost nerve…where the apparently most noble feelings meet with a satisfied morality.”
In 1927, Bonhoeffer received his doctorate in theology. His dissertation was entitled, The Communion of Saints. In it, he elaborated upon his idea of Church as community working together to fulfill God’s will on earth. Following his graduation, he was offered an assistant minister position at a church in Barcelona; he accepted the position. As part of his post-graduate work he studied, lectured and worked in Berlin, New York and a German congregation in London. His thesis was eventually published as a book in 1929 as well as his post-doctoral thesis entitled, Act and Being in which he proposed that the Church should not only function as a community but should also be involved in outreach to the community in response to urgent social need. Bonhoeffer was influenced by Gandhi’s use of non-violent resistance in response to state-sanctioned oppression.
In September of 1930, he was offered a Sloane Fellowship to study at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, a prestigious position. At first, Bonhoeffer did not expect to learn anything from his stay in America. However, much to his surprise, he became quite taken with the strong sense of community he found within the Afro-American Church in Harlem. In addition, he befriended a French scholarship student, Jean Lasserre, who was an outspoken proponent of pacifism. His arguments were so compelling to Bonhoeffer that he began to reconsider his own position in this regard. Although he did not entirely embrace pacifism, he was to become a powerful advocate for peace.
During his stay in America, the National-Socialist German Worker’s Party (NSDAP, Nazi Party) had begun to make serious inroads into the political leadership within Germany. The likelihood of the leader of the Nazi Party, Adolph Hitler, becoming the nation’s chancellor was becoming increasingly more likely.
Upon his return to Germany, he was deeply troubled by the political situation and entered a period of intense prayer and meditation. He promoted small group meetings with students that became involved with intense and open theological discussions. In 1931, he was officially ordained as a minister. The political atmosphere was rapidly becoming hostile to the churches as the National Socialist Regime was taking steps to control them; some of the Nazi Party leaders wanted to ban the churches entirely. The Party was skillfully exploiting the economic uncertainty that had gripped the nation; a central pledge of its leadership was to pull the country out of its profound economic depression.
Bonhoeffer was deeply disturbed by these events. In November of 1932, he delivered a sermon at the Kaiser Frederick Memorial Church in Berlin. The occasion of this talk was Reformation Sunday that was the traditional celebration of the legacy of Martin Luther. In this sermon, Bonhoeffer issued the first of his many warnings regarding the perilous situation that the church faced in Germany. The following is a brief excerpt from that sermon – “Our Protestant Church has reached the eleventh hour of her life. We have not much longer before it will be decided whether she is done for or whether a new day will dawn.” Two months later on January 30, 1933, German President Paul Von Hindenburg appointed Nazi Party leader, Adolph Hitler, as the Chancellor of Germany.
As if to confirm Bonhoeffer’s dire warning, Hitler immediately instituted the following measures that made abundantly clear the repressive nature of his regime –
• The German Parliament, the Reichstag, was dissolved
• Through a series of executive mandates, Hitler declared himself Fuhrer (leader) and Reich Chancellor of Germany.
• Extreme censorship was imposed upon the country
• Public disagreement with Hitler or his policies was considered to be tantamount to treason.
In defiance of these developments, Bonhoeffer issued a provocative radio address – that had been cut off from broadcast – and distributed copies to students and friends. The following is an excerpt from this address – “If the leader tries to become the idol the led are looking for–something the led always hope from their leader–then the image of the leader shifts to one of a mis-leader, then the leader is acting improperly toward the led as well as toward himself. The true leader must always be able to disappoint. This, especially, is part of the leader’s responsibility and objectivity.”
A mere four months after Hitler assumed his post, the Reichstag building was burned down to the ground. Although a leading communist leader was accused of arson and beheaded for this alleged crime, there is a strong suspicion that the Nazis were involved. Following the destruction of the Reichstag building, emergency decrees were put into place including the suppression of habeas corpus – the right of the accused to due process of law. Finally, on March 23 of that year (1933), a law was enacted that essentially put an end to German democracy; that law was the Enabling Act that essentially gave Hitler the right to enact laws without the necessity to adhere to the German constitution.
The Nazi regime claimed that the German people had two enemies – the Jews and the Communists. In order to “protect” the people from these combined threats, the following strategies were employed by the State –
• Arbitrary search of homes
• Indiscriminate tapping of phone lines
• Seizure of property
• Arrest without probable cause.
As a result of these measures, 26,000 Germans were arrested in 1933 and more than 50 concentration camps were secretly established. On April 1, Hitler proclaimed a nationwide boycott of all Jewish-run businesses. Nazi storm troopers used this opportunity to harass and assault Jews. Bonhoeffer’s ninety-one year old grandmother refused to be intimidated and purposefully shopped at the Jewish business she habitually frequented. A few years later, the Aryan Clause was promulgated that barred Jews from civil service jobs. This latter decree personally impacted Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine. Sabine’s husband, Gerhard Leibholz was a Christian of Jewish descent. As a result, he lost his teaching position at the University of Gottingen and the family immediately became subject to threats.
Bonhoeffer was so disturbed by the cumulative impact of these policies that he gave a talk to fellow ministers entitled, The Church and the Jewish Question in which he claimed that it was the duty of the church to oppose any government that abused basic human rights and that the church had the responsibility to help the victims of Nazi repression. Some attendees were so appalled and probably frightened that they walked out of the talk. This represented the first public opposition to the treatment of the Jews. It was Bonhoeffer’s stated conviction that Christianity and National Socialism could not coexist. Furthermore, it was his strongly held belief that by not speaking out, churches were, in fact, undermining their own moral authority.
By 1933, the Christian church in Germany had become split into two essentially irreconcilable groups – the German Christians that had a clear Nazi affiliation and the Young Reformers of which Bonhoeffer was an influential member. He was urged by this group to compose a confession - a statement of faith. He agonized over the composition of this work that was entitled, The Bethel Confession. In it, he urged the church to remain true to the bible, to be concerned with the plight of the Jews and to be willing to endure persecution rather than abandon the Jews or any suffering people. To Bonhoeffer’s great disappointment, this document was so severely watered down after review by twenty theologians that he could not put his signature to it. Following this personal debacle, he left Germany and traveled to London accepting a position there. He spent eighteen months abroad where he found some comfort and solace.
Karl Barth, the famed theologian, had become so unnerved by Hitler’s claim that his “mission” was in accord with God’s plan that he issued the Barmen Declaration that was published in June 4, 1934. At the core of this declaration was the claim that the Christian message cannot be adapted to suit any political agenda. This statement of principles became the founding document for the Confessing Church.
In the spring of 1935, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to the Berlin-Brandenburg District Seminary in Fickenwalde – now in Poland - where he was offered an administrative post; he arrived on April 15. He used this position to train young clergy on the path of the Confessing Church that focused on the church as community and emphasized Christian responsibility in regards to the issue of social justice. This viewpoint was in direct opposition to the German Christian church that was aligned with the Nazi Party. All through 1935, the Nazis tried to dislodge the Confessing Church from any prominent role in church affairs. The Nazi social agenda was temporarily sidelined, however, in 1936; for, that was the year the Olympics was hosted in Germany. It was Hitler’s desire to use the Olympics as a showcase of Germany’s alleged superiority as a nation and a people.
Fickenwalde was finally shutdown in 1937 and 800 hundred of its clergy were arrested in that same year. In spite of this setback, Bonhoeffer continued to secretly train the clergy. He did so in his house and at secret German locations in Koslin, Schlawe and Gross-Schlonwitz. He periodically returned to Berlin communicating using secret coded messages and secret mailing addresses. On April 20th, Hitler’s birthday, the German churches prepared an oath of allegiance that pastors were expected to take. Bonhoeffer refused; he was chagrined to learn that many of the confessing church pastors felt compelled to take the loyalty oath.
The situation had grown so dangerous in Germany for Jews that by 1938, 300,000 Jews had fled the country. On departure they were required to sign over all property to the State. On September 8 of that year his sister Sabine and her family fled to England. On November 9, Hitler ordered a massive nationwide event tailored specifically to terrorize the German Jewish population. This event was referred to Kristallnacht – the night of broken glass. On that horrific occasion, storm troopers dressed in civilian clothes burned 200 synagogues to the ground and burned and looted more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses. Hundreds of Jews were killed in the ensuing chaos and many were attacked and killed by lawless mobs. Following that event, 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps.
In 1938, Bonhoeffer briefly traveled to England to stay with his sister. While there, those that were concerned with his continued safety managed to help get him secure a lecturing position in New York at the Union Theological Seminary. He left for New York on June 4 but stayed only briefly feeling that he had abandoned his country at a time of desperate need. He returned to Germany on July 7.
Even in the face of the terrible events that gripped Germany, the nation’s churches remained silent including the confessing churches. This became a turning point for Bonhoeffer; for, he made the momentous decision to become actively involved in the German resistance. He was introduced to several army generals and Admiral Wilhelm Franz Canaris who were well entrenched within the resistance movement. Canaris was the head of Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence service, and led the opposition to Hitler’s rule. He was ultimately executed at Flossenburg concentration camp for his efforts.
World War II began on September 1, 1939 when Germany attacked Poland on a pretext in which German troops, disguised as Polish soldiers, attacked a German radio station on the Germany-Poland border. In this alleged attack a Jew wearing a German uniform was killed. Using this sham as a reason for retaliation, Hitler launched the massive German war machine on its unsuspecting neighbor. In response, England, Australia, France and New Zealand declared war upon Germany.
It was also in September of that year that the Nazi’s were contemplating the mass extermination of the Jews. Between 1936 and 1939, doctors were required to register all children with birth defects. By edict, all these children became wards of the State. They were subsequently killed by poison gas or lethal injection. Between 1939 and 1941, more than 70,000 children and disabled adults were murdered in this way. The experience gained from this “study” was used to perfect the machinery for mass extermination. Bonhoeffer followed these developments very closely. He ultimately was enlisted as a spy for the resistance using his position as a minister to travel freely and gather information.
The situation worsened for the resistance when on June 17, 1940, France surrendered to Germany. This was soon followed by the surrender of Belgium and Holland. Bonhoeffer was effectively leading a double life and between 1941 and 1943 he was constantly on the move. No one knew of his involvement in the resistance.
In the meantime, the situation for Germany’s Jews grew progressively worse. Jews were required to wear yellow stars to signify their ancestry. It was not long before their forcible removal to concentration camps became a matter of national policy. In July of 1942, Nazi party officials and the Gestapo collaborated to formulate the Final Solution to the Jewish Question. General Heydrich proposed that all the remaining Jews in Europe and Germany be deported to special death camps in Germany. Just prior to this, Bonhoeffer got involved with a surreptitious activity called Operation 7 that was engineered to safely get Jews out of Germany with the help of Admiral Canaris. The plan succeeded over the short term; however, the Gestapo would ultimately uncover the plot and its conspirators by following the trail of money that was used to finance the operation.
With Germany’s situation worsening and drawing to its disastrous conclusion, with the Russians making inroads on the Eastern front and with the mass extermination of Jews well under way, the resistance was primed to move quickly. In March of 1943, two attempts were made to assassinate Hitler and a final attempt was made on July 20, 1944. All of these attempts failed. Although Bonhoeffer was not directly involved in these plots, he was aware of them. His rationale for this involvement was that the death of Hitler would lead to the saving of millions of lives.
On April 5, 1944, Bonhoeffer was arrested for his involvement in the conspiracy. During his time in prison, he had an opportunity to think, pray and meditate. It was within this period of incarceration that he came up with the concept of what he called, “religion-less Christianity.” A collection of his prison letters was ultimately published. The following are excerpts from some of these communications -
“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.”
“Subservience and self-sacrifice could be exploited for evil ends.”
“Civil courage, in fact, can grow only out of the free responsibility of free men.”
“We must take our responsibility for the molding of history in every situation and at every moment.”
“Folly – moral rather than intellectual defeat.”
“Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves.”
“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do and more in the light of what they suffer.”
On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was executed. He lived a remarkable life. He ultimately sacrificed his life for the sake of his strongly held beliefs at a time when the world was enshrouded in such inexplicable darkness.