Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Christian religious leader and
participant in the resistance movement against Nazism. Bonhoeffer,
a Lutheran pastor and theologian, took part in the plots being planned
by members of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate
Adolf Hitler. He was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually hanged
following the failure of the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland)
into a middle- to upper-class professional family. He was the
sixth of eight children, and he had a twin sister named Sabine.
His brother Walter was killed during World War I. His sister was
married to Hans von Dohnanyi and was mother of the conductor Christoph
von Dohnanyi and a former mayor of Hamburg, Klaus von Dohnanyi.
His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a prominent German psychiatrist
in Berlin; his mother, Paula Bonhoeffer, home-schooled the children.
he was initially expected to follow his father into the field
of psychology, he decided to become a minister at a very young
age. His parents supported his decision and when he was old enough
he attended college in Tübingen, received his doctorate in
theology from the University of Berlin, and was ordained. He then
spent a post-graduate year abroad studying at Union Theological
Seminary in New York City. During this time, he would often visit
the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he became acquainted
with the musical form that ethnomusicologists call the African-American
Spiritual. He amassed a substantial collection of recordings of
these spirituals, which he took with him back to Germany.
He returned to Germany in 1931, where he lectured on theology
in Berlin and wrote several books. A strong opponent of Nazism,
he was involved, together with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth
and others, in setting up the Confessing Church. Between late
1933 and 1935 he served as pastor of two German-speaking Protestant
churches in London: St. Paul and Sydenham. He returned to Germany
to head an illegal seminary for Confessing Church pastors, first
in Finkenwalde and then at the von Blumenthal estate of Gross
Schlönwitz, which was closed on the outbreak of war. The
Gestapo also banned him from preaching, teaching, and finally
speaking at all in public. During this time, Bonhoeffer worked
closely with numerous opponents of Adolf Hitler.
World War II, Bonhoeffer played a key leadership role in the Confessing
Church, which opposed the anti-semitic policies of Adolf Hitler.
He was among those who called for wider church resistance to Hitler's
treatment of the Jews. While the Confessing Church was not large,
it represented a major focus of Christian opposition to the Nazi
government in Germany.
1939 Bonhoeffer joined a hidden group of high-ranking military
officers based in the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence Office,
who wanted to overthrow the National Socialist regime by killing
Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 after money used to help
Jews escape to Switzerland was traced to him, and he was charged
with conspiracy. He was imprisoned in Berlin for a year and a
half. After the unsuccessful July 20 Plot in 1944, Bonhoeffer's
connections to the conspirators were discovered.
was moved to a series of prisons and concentration camps ending
at Flossenbürg. Here, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by
hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just three weeks before the liberation
of the city. Also hanged for their parts in the conspiracy were
his brother Klaus and his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and
Rüdiger Schleicher. For humiliation, and for the sadistic
whim of the SS-staff present, all four men were forced to strip
down completely in their cells before walking totally naked to
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is considered a martyr for his faith; in the
mid-1990s, the German Government officially absolved him of any
"crimes" he might have committed pursuant to the positive
law of the National Socialist regime. The calendars of the Episcopal
Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America commemorate
him on April 9, the date on which he was hanged in 1945.
oft-quoted line from one of his more widely read books, The Cost
of Discipleship (1937), foreshadowed his death. "When Christ
calls a man, he bids him come and die." His books Ethics
(1949) and Letters and Papers from Prison (1953) were published
theological and political reasons behind his shift from Christian
pacifism, which he espoused in the mid-1930s, to participation
in planning the assassination of Hitler are much debated.
last writings, as found in his fragmentary “Letters and
Papers from Prison,” continue to intrigue theologians. In
them he introduced the concepts of "religionless Christianity"
and “a world come of age,” which in turn became incorporated
into both John A.T. Robinson’s controversial 1963 book “Honest
to God” and the “Death of God” movement. Bonhoeffer
is one of the few theologians embraced by both liberal and conservative
Christians, but each group interprets his prison theology differently.
see those writings as simply another expression of his earlier
traditional theology, although perhaps done in updated language.
Liberals interpret his prison writings as a radical new expression
of a much more secular understanding of the basic Christian message,
and before his death Bonhoeffer himself frequently commented on
the radical nature of his late thought. It is universally agreed
that, with his death, the world lost a most insightful theological
are some who feel Liberation theology was first articulated by
Bonhoeffer in the late 1930s.
is one of the ten 20th-century martyrs from across the world who
are depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster