Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Disciple, Martyr (1906-1945)
In February it was a hundred years ago that the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born. That centennial inspired a large number of articles, books, and conferences in remembrance of the life and work of this remarkable man.
Bonhoeffer was not a Reformed theologian. A Lutheran by birth, he received his theological education in the Bible-critical tradition and was subsequently influenced by Karl Barth and other members of the neo-orthodox school. The effect of these strains is noticeable in his theology. It has caused some of the post-war “progressive” and “death-of-God” theologians to claim him as the father of their movements – although by now it is widely admitted that they misinterpreted and exploited him. The fact remains, however, that Bible-critical influences are clearly evident in his theology.
Surprising as it may seem, there is also overwhelming evidence of Bonhoeffer’s submission to the scriptures and of his absolute trust in the certainty of God’s promises. It was this third strain that dominated his life, characterized his pastoral and ecclesiastical work, and determined his political stance. It enabled him to join the struggle against both an apostate church and an anti-Christian political system and to continue that struggle until death. It is because of Bonhoeffer’s authentic, uncompromising, biblically-founded discipleship that he can still serve as an example and guide. I can put it more strongly: Reformed Christians cannot afford to ignore him and his work.
Youth and Schooling
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, the sixth of eight children in an upper-middleclass family. When he was six years old, the family moved to Berlin, where his father was appointed professor of psychiatry and neurology. Dietrich’s ancestry on both his father’s and mother’s side included an array of lawyers, scientists, musicians, artists, and some well-known theologians. The family was deeply cultured and upheld, like so many upper-bourgeois families of the time, high moral ideals. That ingrained sense of noblesse oblige existed quite apart from church-membership. Although belonging to the Lutheran community, Dietrich’s parents, especially his father, were religiously liberal and the family did not normally attend church services. Such religious instruction as the young Dietrich received in his youth came mainly from his mother, who in her youth had spent time at Herrnhut with the Moravian Brethren and adopted some of their ideals. The children’s governess from 1906-1923, Maria Horn, was a member of the Moravian brotherhood.
Dietrich studied theology first at Tübingen and then at the University of Berlin, where one of his teachers was the famous liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack. In 1927, at age 21, he concluded his studies with a doctoral dissertation entitled Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints). Although too young to be ordained, he did preach, spending a year as an assistant pastor with a German congregation in Spain. In 1930 he submitted a postdoctoral dissertation and earned the licentiate for university teaching. He held a lectureship at the University of Berlin until 1936, when the Nazi government revoked his licence to teach. Meanwhile he had taken an eighteen-month leave of absence (1933-35) in order to take charge of two German congregations in London. For some years he had already been involved in the ecumenical movement and while in England he strengthened the foreign contacts that he would appeal to in his struggle against the Nazification of the German church. He worked especially closely with George Bell, Anglican Bishop of Chichester and a leading figure in the ecumenical movement, who became a trusted friend.
The Road of Resistance
Soon after his rise to power in January 1933, Hitler began to pressure the German churches to get in line with his ideology. They had to follow his racist program by expelling Jewish Christians from the ordained ministry and were also told to centralize church government in accordance with the “Führer principle.” Many churches and church members surrendered. Some did so quite willingly. The more radical among them formed the pro-Nazi “German Christian” movement in the German Evangelical Church, which had the support of a majority of the members.
From the beginning, however, there was also a group that opposed the Nazification of the church. This opposition transformed itself into the “Confessing Church” during the Barmen Synod of 1934. Barmen rejected Hitler’s attempts to subject the church to the state, confessing that Jesus Christ is the church’s owner and only ruler. Bonhoeffer supported the Barmen declaration and became one of the leaders in the Confessing Church. Throughout, he maintained that this was not a new church alongside the apostate one, but the lawful continuation of the German Evangelical Church. To the consternation of many, he would even write that “whoever knowingly separates himself from the Confessing Church in Germany separates himself from salvation.”
When Barmen was adopted, Bonhoeffer was still in England, but in 1935 his church called him home to lead one of its five illegal seminaries. These were organized to prepare graduates of regular seminaries for their work in the Confessing Church (for not a single university faculty of theology had joined Barmen). First located on the Baltic, Bonhoeffer’s seminary soon moved further inland to Finkenwalde, near Stettin in Pomerania (now Poland). It was at Finkenwalde that Bonhoeffer did some of his most important work for the church. It was here also that he wrote what became his most popular work, The Cost of Discipleship (original title, Nachfolge). Another book dating from this period was Life Together, an account of the life and work of the Finkenwalde community.
In September 1937 the government closed Finkenwalde and arrested twenty-seven of its former students. For some years Bonhoeffer continued the seminary’s work by means of secret visits to the remaining students and graduates, most of who were working illegally in small parishes. (Eventually practically all of them would be forced to join the army and more than half would be killed in action.) Bonhoeffer also continued to make trips abroad on behalf of the ecumenical movement, informing foreign churches of the challenges the German brotherhood faced and asking for support. In 1939 he travelled to the United States where he was offered a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He had left Germany because he expected to be called up for military service and knew that he could not and would not fight in Hitler’s armies.
As soon as he arrived in New York, however, he realized that he had made a mistake in leaving his country and after only a few weeks he went back, arriving in Germany shortly before the outbreak of World War II. This is how he explained his decision to his American mentor Reinhold Niebuhr:
I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people ... Christians in Germany will 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 our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose; but I cannot make this choice in security.
He never regretted his decision and later wrote from prison: I am sure of God’s hand and guidance ... you must never doubt that I am thankful and glad to go the way which I am being led. My past life is abundantly full of God’s mercy, and above all sin stands the forgiving love of the Crucified.
As early as the 1930’s a number of influential Germans, from both within and outside the military establishment, formed a resistance movement with as goal the removal of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen. One of Dietrich’s brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was involved and asked for Dietrich’s participation. As a member of the Evangelical Church which had always been characterized by strict obedience to the civil authorities, Dietrich at first refused. Resistance, he believed, was to be a matter of spiritual warfare, not of violence and the force of arms. Hitler’s astounding successes of the late 1930’s – the annexation of Austria, the conquest of the Sudetenland and soon of the rest of Czechoslovakia, the Münich conference – caused him to reconsider, however.
Another important reason was the Kristallnacht of November 9, 1938, when German mobs across the country destroyed Jewish stores and burned down synagogues, while the police stood idly by. Bonhoeffer now reached the conclusion that rather than restricting himself to simply helping the persecuted, he had to engage in battle with the force that did the persecuting. In his own words, it was not just his task to look after the victims of madmen who drove a motorcar into a crowded street, but to do all in his power to stop that motorcar itself. Resistance was a Christian duty. When he was reminded of the biblical warning that those who take up the sword perish by the sword, he answered that this consequence had to be accepted.
After his return from America, Bonhoeffer continued to work for his former students – by means of collective pastorates, visits, and correspondence. At the same time he engaged in various tasks for the resistance movement, both at home and abroad. He was placed on the staff of the Military Intelligence, which officially declared him indispensable so that, although drafted, he could avoid joining the army. His major qualification for joining the Military Intelligence had been that thanks to his ecumenical work he had established valuable foreign connections. While ostensibly working for the government’s official secret service, he was able to communicate with these foreign contacts on behalf of the resistance, making secret inquiries about peace aims among the allies and providing information about the planned military coup.
After the outbreak of war, these contacts were made mainly in neutral Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries. And so, although forbidden by the Gestapo to teach, preach, publish, and even to visit Berlin on work-related matters, he was able to continue to do his work on behalf of both the church and the resistance movement.
Bonhoeffer and some of his associates were also involved in efforts to help Jews escape into Switzerland. This was among the reasons for his arrest in April 1943. At the time there was no evidence yet of his work with the resistance movement, but Bonhoeffer’s case dragged on and his imprisonment would last until his death in April, 1945. For the first year and a half, he was kept in the military section of Tegel prison in Berlin. Conditions were at first very bad, but the situation improved when prison authorities and guards became aware of his connections with leading members of the Berlin government and of the German army. He was then granted freedom to correspond with his parents and others and to receive visitors.
Bonhoeffer’s attitude toward his guards and fellow-inmates also helped. He was friendly and appeared totally at ease in prison, whatever the circumstances. He was allowed to act as an informal chaplain to those who were sentenced to death or needed encouragement for other reasons and to assist in administering first aid to the wounded in the frequent bombardments. Becoming popular among inmates and guards both, he was able to extend his outreach. The letters that were officially allowed were censured, but before long some of the guards he had befriended smuggled uncensored letters with coded secret messages into and out of his cell. A selection of his prison writings was later published and appears in English translation under the title Letters and Papers from Prison.
The resistance movement planned a final attack on Hitler for July 20, 1944. Like previous ones, it failed miserably and Bonhoeffer knew that this failure, and the discovery of incriminating papers the following September, signified the end of his hopes for release. In October 1944 he was transferred to the dreaded Gestapo prison in Berlin, where he was kept for five months behind bars. The possibilities of contact with the outside world were now severely limited. In February 1945 the prison was destroyed in a bombardment and Bonhoeffer was moved to the concentration camp of Buchenwald. He spent seven weeks here in one of the camp bunkers. Fellow prisoners who survived the war have chronicled this period. Among them was Payne Best, an English intelligence officer who had been captured in 1939 and who wrote in connection with Bonhoeffer’s stay in Buchenwald,
Bonhoeffer was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life... He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.
In the first week of April 1945, shortly before the liberation of the camp (the American canons could already be heard in Buchenwald), Bonhoeffer and a number of other prisoners were sent on a transport to Flossenbürg, an extermination camp. Somehow their vehicle was sidetracked and ended up in Schönberg, a small village in Bavaria. Bonhoeffer and his fellow-passengers spent the night in a boarding school, where family members of resistance leaders were already imprisoned. The new group was taken to a classroom on the first floor. It was a very pleasant place with clean beds and the opportunity to congregate. There was no food, but compassionate neighbours came to the rescue. Bonhoeffer’s group was a diverse one, containing men from practically every corner of Europe, including Payne Best and a Russian air force officer by the name of Kokorin, a nephew of Molotov. A fellow prisoner later wrote to Dietrich’s twin sister that Dietrich again “did a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety. He spent a good deal of time with Wasily Wasiliew Kokorin ... who was a delightful young man although an atheist. I think your brother divided his time with him between instilling the foundations of Christianity and learning Russian.”
The day after their arrival, April 8, was a Sunday and his fellow-prisoners asked Bonhoeffer to lead a worship service. Afraid of offending non-protestants and the atheist Kokorin, he at first declined, but when all insisted he agreed and preached on the text of Isaiah 53, “...by his stripes we were healed.” The women hoped to smuggle him yet into their part of the building so that he could repeat his message, but time was running out. He had barely finished his service when two men, members of the Gestapo, walked in saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, make ready and come with us.” This type of summons meant one thing only – death. Bonhoeffer had time to say goodbye to the members of his group. While leaving, he drew the Englishman aside, saying to him, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life,” and asking him to deliver a message, if he could, to the Bishop of Chichester.
He was then transported to Flossenbürg and was hanged at dawn the next morning together with other members of the resistance movement. The concentration camp physician, who was present at the execution, testifies that Bonhoeffer remained steadfast to the end. He wrote later,
Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor in fervent prayer to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually likeable 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 steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued in 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.
Bonhoeffer was thirty-nine years old when he died.
Three other members of his immediate family were executed in the same month, namely Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher. Communication with Berlin was difficult and his parents would not hear of Dietrich’s death until July 1945. Listening to the BBC on July 27, they heard an English voice saying: “We are gathered here in the presence of God to make thankful remembrance of the life and work of his servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in faith and obedience to his holy Word...”
In his book The Cost of Discipleship, which was published in 1937, Bonhoeffer had written, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Less than ten years later, he sealed that profession with his life.