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Messengers of the Word


images of Dietrich Bonhoeffer







A PRIVATE MAN, BUT AN ATTENTIVE FRIEND— one description of this courageous Christian who dared to oppose the gross injustices of the Nazi regime in Hitler’s Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Remembered as theologian and author, pastor and teacher, his eminent place in history was secured by his martyrdom to the cause he had fought from early manhood.

The sixth of eight children born to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer in Breslau, East Germany (present-day Wroclaw, Poland), Dietrich was educated at home in his early years by his mother, one of the few women then to have a university degree. Father Karl was an eminent professor of psychiatry and neurology, and the young family grew up among the academic circles of Berlin University. Paula taught her children the importance of a strong moral and intellectual character, which they all grew to share, as evidenced by their later stand against a corrupt regime.

The Christian Ministry

Dietrich at 18 years of age began theological studies at Tubingen and Berlin Universities, and three years later was awarded a Doctorate with Honours for his dissertation Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints). After serving a while as assistant pastor to a German congregation in Barcelona, in 1930 he went to New York and studied at the Union Theological Seminary, working also at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In 1931, at the age of only 25, Dietrich returned to Berlin to take up the post of lecturer in systematic theology at the University, and later that year he was ordained a minister of the Protestant German Evangelical Church.


Hitler’s Germany

From its early beginnings, nationalism and state authority had influenced the Church, and this tradition, along with Hitler’s emergence as a strong new leader, inclined many German Protestants to favour the rise of Nazism. Victimization of "non-Aryans" specifically the Jewish population, who were by state legislation forbidden to work in the civil service, was approved by the Church in 1933, and those of Jewish descent were thereafter forbidden to become ministers or religious teachers.

Bonhoeffer protested bitterly against this policy. He argued that if non-Aryans were banned from the ministry, their colleagues should resign as a display of committed support, even if this resulted in the setting up of another Church, which would stay free from Nazi influence. He demonstrated his own sincerity by refusing an appointment as pastor to a Berlin congregation.

Into the desert

Finding himself opposed to most of his friends on the matter of Germany’s increasing anti-Semitism, and ashamed of what he viewed as cowardice on the part of the established Christian church, in late 1933 Bonhoeffer became pastor to German-speaking congregations in London. Writing to a friend, he explained his decision that "it was time to go for a while into the desert." He served the German Evangelical Church in Sydenham and the Reformed Church of St. Paul in London. His parish soon became a sanctuary for Christian and Jewish refugees.


The Confessing Church

A minority of German Christians were as distraught as Bonhoeffer at the growing injustices and the complacency of the Evangelical Church as a whole. Unable to cooperate with the Nazis in church affairs, a group of protesters formally set up in May 1934, The Confessing Church, dedicated to remaining free from the influences of Nazism. Bonhoeffer was a founding member. His London parish and other German parishes in England withdrew from the official German Evangelical Church in support of the new Confessing Church.

Returning to Germany in 1935, Bonhoeffer took up the leadership of the Confessing Church’s seminary. His students had an uncertain future, as the official church prevented them from getting appointments. The new Church, however, was under increasing pressure from the Gestapo, and while some members had begun to help Jews, others refused to discuss "the Jewish question" and even proposed a resolution explicitly supporting the state’s right to regulate the affairs of Jewish citizens.

Bonhoeffer was greatly disturbed at this lack of solidarity, but continued his teaching at the seminary until August 1937, when Himmler issued a decree declaring the education and examination of Confessing ministry candidates illegal. The seminary was closed by the Gestapo, and 27 of Bonhoeffer’s former students had been arrested by November.

The undercover ministry

For the next two years Bonhoeffer secretly toured East German villages, supervising his students, many of whom worked illegally in small parishes. At conferences throughout Europe he vigorously represented the cause of the Confessing Church and challenged the ecumenical movement about its theological foundations and its responsibility for peace. However, aware that the Gestapo were watching him closely, Bonhoeffer limited his public preaching.



That "night of broken glass" November 10, 1938, is the only date marked in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Bible. The day after the Nazi "Kristallnacht" destruction a concentrated attack on Jews and their homes, synagogues, and shops he marked the date next to Psalm 74, verse 8:

"They said in their hearts, let us plunder their goods!

They burn all the houses of God in the land….

O God, how long is the foe to scoff?

How long will the enemy revile your name?"

Having opposed Hitler and the Nazi party so far only in ideological terms, Bonhoeffer grew increasingly opposed to the Fuhrer and his party. He seriously contemplated leaving Germany, knowing war was inevitable and that he would never fight in Hitler’s army.

Offered a post at the Union Seminary in New York, he set out in June 1939, but by the time he arrived he had changed his mind. He wrote to a friend: "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America…I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people" (Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Eine Biographie. Munich: Christian Kaiser Verlag).

The German resistance movement

Dietrich Bonhoeffer first met with the organized German Resistance early in 1939. His brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was a member, and as a lawyer worked at the Armed Forces High Command office of Military Intelligence with Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Major-General Hans Oster. Both shared his political views and the office became a center of conspiracy and resistance.

In October 1940 Bonhoeffer began work as a Military Intelligence agent, purportedly to win support for Nazism among his ecumenical contacts but in reality using his influence to spread information about the resistance movement. Visiting various European countries he tried to persuade them that some Allied gesture of support for a German conspiracy to overthrow Hitler was critical. However, the Allied governments were sceptical and not prepared to accept such demands.

Operation Seven

This was a plan to smuggle Jews out of Germany, using forged visas. The first 14 reached Switzerland safely by September 1942, but the Gestapo discovered the substantial funds sent for their support, traced the money back to Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer, and arrested them in April 1943. Dietrich was charged with:

• Conspiring to rescue Jews;

• Using his travels abroad for non-intelligence matters;

• Abuse of his intelligence position to keep Confessing Church pastors out of military
   service, and for his own ecumenical work.

The Cost of Discipleship

Though he had participated in a failed assassination attempt on the Fuhrer, it took the Nazis a long time to realize the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s participation in the resistance movement. Imprisoned first in Berlin, then moved to Buchenwald and finally to Flossenburg concentration camp, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, along with other conspirators. His brother Klaus, and brother-in-law Dohnanyi, were executed a few days later.

Bonhoeffer’s writings reveal a deeply spiritual man, concerned at the secularization of the world and the 20th century departure from religious values. The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1939, is an interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, and calls for radical living if the Christian is to be a genuine disciple of Christ. The letters of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from prison betray no tortured struggle or spirit of rebellion. Rather, as the SS doctor who witnessed his death later observed: "I have hardly ever seen a man so submissive to the will of God."


Encyclopaedia Britannica. Inc.;



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