Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologian, priest, idealist, man of action and double agent working against Adolph Hitler, was born February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany and executed by the Gestapo on April 9, 1945. He and his twin sister Sabine were' the sixth and seventh children born to Julie and Karl Bonhoeffer. They were a patrician family. His mother's side numbered many nobles, professors of theology and historians. His father's side numbered lawyers and judges. Karl Bonhoeffer was head of the department of medicine at the University of Berlin and a practicing psychiatrist. He provided a very comfortable upper class standard of living for his family. In addition to their spacious home in the university section of Berlin, the Bonhoeffers had a summer lodge in the woods at Friedrichsbrunn in the foothills of the Hartz Mountain. They had servants and governesses to wait on then Their lives were orderly, disciplined, highly cultural and intellectual.
Dietrich went to a classical grammar school called Friedrich Werder School and found school work easy. He excelled in music and was playing the classical music of Mozart, Brahms and Schubert before he was a teenager. He did not have a love for science like his father or older brothers.
During the First World War, Dietrich was the family food scout and knew where the black market was. He also knew where to get a good deal. Two of his older brothers, Karl-Friedrich and Walter, served in the German Army. The eleven-year-old Dietrich sang the farewell song, "Now, at last, we say God speed on your journey" to his brother Walter when he left for the battle field never to return. Walter's death devastated their mother and plunged the whole family into deep mourning. The young Dietrich was indelibly affected by this tragedy and often mentioned It to his students when he became a teacher of seminarians.
From an early age, Bonhoeffer understood politics and predicted dire consequences because of the harsh peace terms enforced on a defeated Germany by the French and British. He joined the Scout Movement in 1919 but gave it up after a year because of the regimented routine, the radicalization of the youths and the war-games which his family and he himself did not like. He found himself disagreeing with the men who wore swastika. He experienced heated arguments on the public transportation system where he often encountered them. Young Dietrich judged them to be fanatical, extreme right wingers. The assassination of Walter Rathenau on June 24, 1922 greatly disturbed the sixteen-year-old Dietrich. He became gravely concerned about the future of Germany because all the moderate leaders were being annihilated, and because the Germans were looking back longingly towards the Bismarck Era when totalitarian government exercised dictatorial control.
At the early age of sixteen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided to become a theologian. He needed to exercise his independence and to do something different from his older brothers. His mother's devastating grief upon Walter's death in the battlefield at the end of World War I and his own overly sensitive concern with death itself might have been the other reasons for his choice. The members of his family accepted his decision and willingly helped him implement it. He started reading books on religion, philosophy, and theology written by famous German authors like Goethe, Max Weber, and Karl Barth.
In 1923, at the age of seventeen, he attended the University of Tubingen, his father's Alma Mater. He did well in his studies and attended a fortnight's military training in Ulm for the adventure of the experience. One of his contemporaries saw him as follows: "He was already at home...a theologian, musician, philosopher...He already had a sharp nose for essentials and a determination to get to the bottom of things. He was very natural and receptive to new ideas. He was capable of subtly teasing people and had a great deal of humor...He was already completely a man of the intellectually agitated world...1 was no match for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's stormy temperament and self-confidence" (Bethge.32).
Dietrich spent a semester studying in Rome in 1924. He enjoyed this sojourn very much. He was impressed by the Roman Catholic Church and its influence on the Italians; that is, the reality of religion in their daily living. He also visited Moslem North Africa and noticed that everyday life and religion were not kept as separate and non-connected parts of a believer's daily routine as in the Christian countries. Dietrich transferred to Berlin University and was registered as a student from June 1924 to July 1927. A brilliant student, he was especially interested in dialectical theology, that is, applying the intellect and reason in discussing theological questions. One of his classmates attested, "I was struck by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not only because he outdid practically all of us in the theological knowledge and ability. . .but because here was someone who thought for himself and already knew what he wanted" (Bethge.45).
Karl Barth, a contemporary German theologian, made an impact on Dietrich with his theory that God was not interested in the history of God, but rather in more practical matters, like living among humankind and taking part in the daily routine of his or her life. This influenced Bonhoeffer to study the social church in his doctor's thesis. He entitled it, "A Dogmatic Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church' As part of his training, Dietrich taught Sunday school. He was so successful that his graduates asked him for extra instructions which he provided for them on Thursday evenings at his home. On December 17, 1927, Dietrich Bonhoeffer graduated with his doctorate in theology summa cum laude from Berlin University.
In 1928, Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer took the job of assistant pastor in a German church in Barcelona, Spain. The Germans were mostly business people who had settled in Barcelona. He rented a room in the home of two old German women. He enjoyed the town, the harbor and the salubrious climate. Bullfighting fascinated him and he quickly became a fan of the sport. He taught Sunday school, visited parishioners homes, preached, advised and counseled--in short, he did the work of any regular parish priest.
This was a year of new adventure and learning for him. He wanted very much to journey to India and meet Mahatma Gandhi. He thought there was much to be learned from a very different country, a very different religion and a very different approach to the problems of the world. Dietrich seemed to have studied Buddha and Gandhi since his undergraduate days in Tubingen. His grandmother encouraged him in his quest for Indian ideas and even sent him money to further this objective.
Meanwhile, things were going badly for the democratic government in Germany. The death of Stresemann on October 3, 1929 and the economic depression led to the break-up of the coalition governing the country. The right wing parties, consisting of the War Veterans, the Nationalists, and the Nazis were gaining ground. The occupation of the Rhine and Ruhr areas by France was galling to the Germans, even after the French withdrew in 1929. The humiliating Versailles Treaty, heavy reparations payments by Germany to the Allies, and the depression and business decline of 1929 exacerbated conditions. The ground was fertile for some ultra-nationalist group like the Nazis to take over. The Nazis preached Teutonic racial superiority and called the Germans a better "species" than the Jews and other "non-Aiyans". They roused the people in an effort to get them to avenge the victors of World War I and even go to war in order to reclaim their larger boundaries and their "racial honor. Therefore the liberals, humanitarians and middle of the road parties were gradually being supplanted by the strident, super nationalistic groups like the Nazi Party.
In the midst of this shift of German sentiment, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to the position of Assistant Lecturer at Berlin University in 1929-1930. However, he kept aloof from politics, and did not actively resist the tide J until much later. He wrote a book called "Act and Being! and published it in 1930.
A Sloan Fellowship enabled the twenty-five year old theologian to spend the school year of 1930-1931 at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, U.S.A.
Bonhoeffer obtained inside information about India from a fellow passenger traveling by ship to New York. The man, an American educator, was principal of a college in Lahore, India. He invited Bonhoeffer to tour India and offered lodgings in Lahore and other places. Dietrich planned to return to Germany via the Pacific route and India but found out that the cost was too much. For the second time his hope of coming into actual contact with the teachings of the seers and rishis of ancient Hinduism and the modem Gandhian movement was thwarted. This was very unfortunate. Such a meeting could have changed the course of history.
Bonhoeffer learned from the wisdom of the west instead. He learned about the tolerance of Americans for the waves of refugees who were absorbed into productive lives in the new land. He learned about the rich black American music and culture which he found in Harlem. He learned about world peace from a fellow student, a Frenchman Jean Lasserre, who said, "It is impossible to be both a Christian and a nationalist" (Bethge..113). He learned about ecumenism from the diverse American population and expressed it as follows, "You have brothers and sisters in our people and in every people. .Whatever may happen, let us never again forget that the people of God are one Christian people, that no nationalism, no race or class hatred, can strike effective blows if we are one" (Bethge.113).
Bonhoeffer returned from the United States to Germany in 1931. He resumed his job as a lecturer of theology at Berlin University. He took on added responsibilities as one of the youth secretaries for the World Alliance of Churches and in the Ecumenical Council for Practical Christianity (Life and Work). He started pastoral work with all that it entails - sermons, confirmation classes, youth work, ministry, etc. Bonhoeffer finally became involved in the social, political and ecclesiastical struggle unfolding in his own country.
In September 1930, Hitler's Nazi Party had increased its representation in the Reichstag (Ruling Assembly) from fourteen to one-hundred and seven. Germany was moving towards fanatical nationalism. In June 1931 the German Church, a branch of The World Alliance of Churches, had stated that there will be no rapprochement between the German churches and the churches of those nations which were victorious in the First World War.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ordained a minister on November 15, 1931 at the age of 25. He became chaplain of the Technical University at Charlottenburg, which position he held until 1933.
Bonhoeffer was very successful in his work with the poor, uncouth boys in his confirmation classes. He treated them well but demanded discipline and study, which they gave him together with their love.
As a youth Secretary to The World Ecumenical Movement, Bonhoeffer attended the meetings for world peace. He asked for a ban on the Aryan clause in Germany, which prevented Jews from holding office in the church and in the government. When Hitler assumed power on January 30, 1933, the struggle between a state-controlled church and a free independent church commenced. For example, at Magdeburg Cathedral, where the altar was surrounded by Nazi swastikas, the Dean said, "It (the Swastika flag) has come to be the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol of ours is reviling Our Germany. The Swastika flags round the altar radiate hope - hope that the clay is at last about to dawn" (for German victory) (Bethge.191).
But what would that. day bring when it dawned? Since the Germans did not rely on peaceful means to attain their ends, it seemed that violence and war was the means by which they intended to impose their will on all of Europe and the world.
In contrast to the Dean of Magdeburg Cathedral, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from the pulpit of Dreifaltigkeitskirche in Berlin proclaimed "The Church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty. . before which all creatures must kneel...He who seeks anything other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God.. .me church has only one pulpit, and from that faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God, however well-intentioned" (Bethge.191).
The German elections were slated for March 5, 1933. In the month of February the various political parties which were still legal jockeyed for power. Many street battles ensued. The battles were orchestrated by Hitler's personal troops, the storm troopers. The chaos was probably intended by the Nazis. Finally somebody burned down the Reichstag (Parliament building) behind police barricades. All this disorder was possibly set up for Hitler's coup de grace which took the form of the "Reich President's Edict for the Protection of People and State." It proclaimed, "Therefore restriction of personal freedom, of the right of free speech, including the freedom o .f the press, of the right of association and of public assembly, intervention in the privacy of post, telegraph and telephone, authorization of search warrant and. the confiscation and restriction of property, beyond the hitherto legal limits, will henceforth be admissible" (Bethge. 198).
Thus Hitler assumed dictatorial powers, and with a stroke of the pen, deprived every German citizen of legal and civil rights. This occurred on February 28, 1933 and lasted until May 8, 1945. The vote for a German government gave Hitler's party 44%--the largest bloc of votes. But the "Enabling Act" of March 24, 1933 gave Hitler power over the legislative body as well. He did not need any other party to join with him. From then on, Hider was dictator of Germany.
As a consequence of the Nazi party taking over the German Government, and of the investiture of Hitler with supreme dictatorial powers, the Aryan clause went into effect. The Jews were dismissed from jobs in the German government, and in the church. They were expelled from German church membership, and their business establishments were confiscated. Most of the German people agreed with these anti-Semitic measures; at least very few from among the population of approximately forty million Germans did much to assist their proscribed non-Aryan (non-Teutonic) Jewish neighbors. Even the church members of the various Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church assented to the treatment of the Jews. It was very easy for Hitler to take the next step which was to put the Jews into concentration camps. The last step was to liquidate them all.
The German Church itself was at first divided. Bonhoeffer ant his friends tried to prevent the church from agreeing to be controlled by the state. When this failed, Bonhoeffer collected 106 Signatures and sent them to the Reich Chancellor protesting state control. Hitler called for a church election. Bonhoeffer, his students and those who wanted a church free from state control and racism valiantly tried to influence the vote. But most of the incumbent church leaders and most of the church members agreed to cooperate with the state (which really amounted to submission to the state). They voted 70%-30% to hand over control of the churches to Hitler and his administration.
Bonhoeffer, as one of the leaders of the opposition, retired to Bethel in August, 1933. He and other opposition leaders founded The Confessional Church, that part of the Protestant Church which opposed control by the Reich Chancellor and his government. The Confessional Church stood against the Aryan clause (no racial discrimination), stood for individual freedom (no state controlled euthanasia), affirmed allegiance to God, to the scriptures and the confession of faith (no allegiance to the Fuhrer) and pledged to help the persecuted brethren. Two thousand pastors initially signed this agreement. Later, six thousand joined the Pastors Emergency League.
On October 16, 1933 Bonhoeffer accepted a call to be a pastor of two churches of German immigrants in London. He stayed in that pastorate until March 10, 1935. He lived in the German vicarage in Forest Hill. All the duties of a full time ministry now occupied his talents. Here he became interested in the Sermon on the Mount which Jesus himself preached.
Bonhoeffer also preached on this topic. It is interesting to note that Mahatma Gandhi was also greatly influenced by the Sermon on the Mount.
Events in Germany changed quickly. The Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss was assassinated on July 25, 1934. Hitler's rival, Rohm, was killed later in the same year. On August 2, Hindenburg died. All the checks on Hitler were now removed. Hitler took over Hindenburg's position in addition to his own, declaring himself "Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor of the German People." This supreme position was affirmed on August 19, 1934 by a vote of the people. Bonhoeffer carried on his work with the Ecumenical World Alliance while in London. He became a good Mend of GKA Bell, Bishop of Chichester. He persuaded the German pastors in London to dissent front the state controlled church in Germany which now required its pastors to swear personal allegiance to Hitler, not just to the state.
In 1934, at the conference of the German Synod at Fano, Bonhoeffer was able to influence the pastors to support the Confessional Church of Germany and repudiate the state controlled German Christian Church. He also delivered his peace sermon favoring pacifism and condemning. all forms of warfare.
Bonhoeffer also made plans to visit India in early 1935. Bishop Bell wrote Mahatma Gandhi who welcomed Bonhoeffer's visit. Bonhoeffer wrote his grandmother, "I'm thinking again of going to India. I've given a good deal of thought lately to Indian questions and believe that there's quite a lot to be learned there. Sometimes it even seems to me that there's more Christianity in their `paganism' than in the whole of our Reich Church., Of course, Christianity did come from the East, originally, but it has been so Westernized. .it is almost lost to us... .I might go to Rabindranath Tagore University. But I'd much rather go to Gandhi and already have some very good introductions from close friends of his" (Bethge33O).
It is quite possible that Bonhoeffer was thinking of using some Gandhian non-violent resistance methods to oppose the Fuhrer. This however, never materialized, as he was called to head the Preachers' Seminary in Pomerania in April, 1935. The seminary consisted of 23 candidates in Thingst by the Baltic Sea, but was moved on June 14, 1935, to Finkenwalde near Stettin.
At the seminary the day started and ended in church services, prayers and silent meditation. Music and recreation on the dunes or in the woods broke up the serious study. Bonhoeffer, a fast and efficient worker, set the pace. Discipleship, liturgy, pastoral care, community, preaching, wide reading and worship were part of the curriculum. It was during these two and a half years while he molded and directed his seminarians that Bonhoeffer wrote The Cost of Discipleship. The book deals with living The Sermon on the Mount.
The first class of the Preachers' Seminary graduated from Finkenwalde on October 16, 1935. The graduates returned to their towns and villages as "illegal" pastors, seeking to serve and suffer for their belief.
In June 1936, Bonhoeffer helped write a memorandum to Hitler in which the complaints of the free Confessional Church against the state were outlined. It opened the door for negotiation. This however was the year that everything went according to Hitler's plans, and the memorandum was ignored.
By 1937, over 804 members of the Confessional Church had been imprisoned for some period of time. On September 28, the Gestapo closed his seminary. The class of ordinands had previously departed and Bonhoeffer was on holiday. All the five seminaries operated by the free Confessional Church were shut down by order of the Reich President's Decree for the Protection of People and State, dated February 28, 1933.
In 1938, Bonhoeffer was without a job. He spent most of his time at his parents' home. He assured his mother that he was safe; but was ready to go to prison if necessary. The state government was cracking down on members of the Confessional Church, which was now in serious jeopardy. The government used various methods of harassment including permits, prohibitions, banishments, oaths of allegiance ets. At one point Bonhoeffer was prohibited entrance to Berlin and lived like a gypsy.
November 9, 1938 was the day of the Jewish pogroms. The love and sympathy of the German people for their "non-Aryan" neighbors was deafening in its silence.
When Hitler annexed the Sudentenland in 1938, General Ludwig Beck resigned, stating that a soldier could exercise. his professional judgment to decide when he can disobey an order whichis against his principles, morality or country's welfare. Most of the younger generals however, were enthusiastic about going to war.
In March 1939, Bonhoeffer left Germany for England. He was a pacifist at heart and could not bear induction into the German army. He was back in Berlin on April 18th--Hitler's birthday. Dr. Werner of the German Evangelical Church wrote, "[We celebrate] with exultant joy our Fuhrer's fiftieth birthday.
In him God has given the German people a real miracle worker. . .Let our thanks be the resolute and inflexible will not to disappoint.. .our Fuhrer and the great historic hour" (Bethge.552).
Knowing his pacifist convictions, American Wends arranged to have Bonhoeffer go to the U.S.A. as a lecturer and pastor. He left Berlin on June 2, 1939 for London where he boarded the "Bremen" for the journey to New York. Bonhoeffer's conscience plagued him about the correctness of his action. He felt guilty leaving his family and Mends to face the coming catastrophe without his presence and assistance. And, as he wrote in "The Cost of Discipleship", he felt drawn to serve his God through the suffering of his fellow human beings in his own homeland. He was a willing martyr. So his moral duty pulled him back to Germany, and he left New York on July 8, 1939 for his homeland.
Bonhoeffer arrived on September 1, 1939, the beginning of World War II. Hitler, who had been preparing and arming for years for his war of aggression against Europe, attacked Poland. The German people knew that war was coming and accepted it with quiet resignation. Bonhoeffer tried to enlist as a chaplain in an Army hospital but was rejected because he did not have any military service.
Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, and General Beck tried to arrange an army coup d'etat, but Hitler was forewarned and prevented it. Colonel Hans Oster and Dr. Josef Muller, two counter agents, became acquainted with Bonhoeffer, and collaborated with him in future missions. Bonhoeffer now begann his pastorate in the underground German movement. He stayed at his parents' home in Berlin, at the Ettal monastery in the south of Germany, or at the estates of Kieckow and Klein-Krossin in the northern part of the country. His aunt's address in Munich was given as his official residence.
In May 1941 the brethren of The Old Prussian Church were arrested and severely punished. The "illegal" pastors of the Confessional Church were also hunted down.. Many of them were forced to serve in the German armed forces. Eighty out of Bonhoeffer's 150 Finkenwalde students were killed in military action. He wrote letters to the families of those slain. In October 1940 Bonhoeffer was made a member of the military intelligence called "Abwehr." Bonhoeffer acted as a double agent in conjunction with Dohnanyi, Oster, Muller and Admiral Canaris, head of Abwehr. Munich served as his base.
Bonhoeffer made three journeys to Switzerland and one to Norway to negotiate with church leaders of the Allied Powers. He tried to set up peace conditions in the name of the German opposition for normalization of relations between the belligerents after Hitler's demise or overthrow. Plans to kill Hitler after his huge success in France and the low countries could have been counter productive due to Hitler's popularity with the armed forces. However, after the German war machine stalled in Russia and other fronts, some generals became disenchanted. At least two unsuccessful attempts were made to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer did not take part in the actual attempts but must have known of them. Bonhoeffer was also engaged in smuggling Jews out of Germany.
After the Atlantic Charter Treaty between Roosevelt and Churchill and the British-Soviet Treaty of Alliance of May 26, 1942, wherein Germany was made an outcast and unconditional surrender was the terms imposed by the Allies, peace negotiations between Bonhoeffer and the Allied church leaders became impossible.
The Gestapo finally found documents incriminating Bonhoeffer and arrested him on April 5, 1943. He was incarcerated in Tegel prison. Here he spent two years reading, studying, and writing from Tegel. His letters were posthumously published as Letters and Papers From Prison.
While in prison, Bonhoeffer behaved with great courage and dignity. The peace of God shone through him. He conducted church services, comforted and assisted fellow prisoners, asked his father to work for the release prisoners and was the prime example of a brave gentleman. Even his guards loved and respected him as he ministered to their needs. One of them planned to escape with him, but Bonhoeffer did not follow through because he thought it would endanger the rest of his family, especially his brother and brothers-in1aw who were about to be arrested. Bonhoeffer thus remained a willing martyr to the end, sacrificing himself for the good of others.
On September 30, 1944, the Gestapo found documents linking Bonhoeffer with the smuggled Jews. His case then became more serious, and he was transferred to the Gestapo Security prison on Prinz-Albrecht Strause. After this building was destroyed by an air-raid on February 3, 1945, Bonhoeffer was moved to Buchenwald; then to Flossenburg. Himmler, or probably Hitler himself, ordered that Bonhoeffer, among others, be exterminated. He was hanged on Monday, April 9, 1945.
He wrote a poem in September 1944:
"To punish sin and to forgiveness you are moved, God, this people I have loved. That I bore its shame and sacrifices And saw its salvation--that suffices" (Bethge 791).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Eberhard Bethge. Harper & Row, N.Y. 1970
- The Cost of Discipleship. by D. Bonhoeffer Macmillan & Co., N.Y., 1957
Homework Sheet on Dietrich Bonhoeffer