Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life contains the perfect ingredients of a tragedy. It’s the story of how an upright and virtuous man was rejected by his peers, separated from his true love and martyred just days before rescue arrived.
Bonhoeffer did not choose to become a martyr. But his choice to criticise Nazism was certainly deliberate, and did lead to his demise. At first there was little consequence to his almost theoretical attacks, hidden within academic essays. But as time went on, he had to seriously count the cost. Bonhoeffer was ostracised by the Church in Germany in July 1933. Soon after this he was risking arrest and would soon pay the ultimate price for his deeply held convictions.
Born in 1906 in to a bourgeois family, Bonhoeffer experienced a comfortable childhood in Berlin. His father, a respected professor at Berlin University, encouraged freedom of independent thought and, although affluent, instilled in Dietrich the belief that we must approach God with empty hands.
Because so many of Bonhoeffer’s letters and writings are available for us to read today, we can plot the development of his thinking from the age of 22 to his death at 39. One example of this is his change of mind on pacifism. He had grown up believing it was noble to sacrifice your life for your nation during a time of war. But after developing a friendship with French pacifist Jean Lasserre, he came to believe it was morally reprehensible for Christians to kill each other out of loyalty to the state.
It was this shift in his understanding of what kind of relationship Christians ought to have with the nation state that led to him taking to national radio on the 1st February 1933 to warn against Nazism – just days after the regime came to power. He cautioned the German people against buying into an idolatrous cult of the Führer “who mocks God”.
In his own words
“It is costly because it cost a man his life and it is grace because it gives man the only true life.”
“The cross means sharing the suffering of the cross. Only those thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross.”
“Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship.”
“Jesus stands at the door and knocks...He confronts you in every person that you meet … This is the great seriousness and the great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ stands at the door. He lives in the form of the person in our midst. Will you keep the door locked or open it to him?”
The next time he preached, he challenged the Church to “remain a church!” This challenge to “remain a church” is relevant for every age, but it was especially pertinent during the rise and rule of fascism. For Bonhoeffer it was of upmost importance that the Church have a solid ecclesiology. In other words, the Church needs to be able to answer the question, ‘What does it mean to be Church?’ It is from this clear identity that the Church can then form its response to a changing world. He wrote that this is because “Christ exists as community”. It is through being community that the Church ought to be a credible presence of Christ in the world. Christ exists in the Christian community – through its words, sacraments and the mutual love given and received.
In 1934, Bonhoeffer and other dissenting pastors such as Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller who were members of the Confessing Church (a group of Protestant pastors who objected to, among other things, the Nazis’ claim to complete sovereignty over an individual) published the Barmen Declaration. It was a battle cry of the Confessing Church and included: “We repudiate the false teaching that there are areas of our life in which we belong not to Jesus Christ but to other lords”.
In his quest to remain a confessing voice, Bonhoeffer was rejected by his friends, lost his licence to teach at the University of Berlin and was finally denounced in 1936 as a “pacifist and enemy of the state” by his bishop, Theodor Heckel.
Seminary on the run
Unable to work within the structures of a German Church which was by now loyal to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer threw himself into leading underground seminaries. He gained a generous benefactor in Ruth von Kleist-Retzow who sheltered the seminarians in her estate. Bonhoeffer stayed there often and later fell in love with Kleist-Retzow’s granddaughter, Maria von Wedemeyer. In 1937, when the commander of the German SS, Heinrich Himmler made the training of Confessing Church students illegal, the Gestapo closed the seminary and arrested 27 of its pastors and former students. Bonhoeffer then spent two years off the grid, travelling between villages to teach. He called it “seminary on the run”.
On the eve of the Second World War, Bonhoeffer went to New York at the invitation of his friend Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary. He soon regretted leaving Germany. Perhaps he remembered a strongly worded letter he’d received from his mentor Karl Barth a few years earlier which had chastised him for leaving Germany on another trip abroad. (While Barth believed Bonhoeffer should stay in Germany, it’s worth noting that Barth himself survived the war by returning to the safety of his native Switzerland.)
Bonhoeffer knew that there would likely be a high cost if he returned to Germany. After days of sitting alone, smoking and contemplating in his small study, he wrote to Niebhur, saying, “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will 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.” A few days later Bonhoeffer caught a passenger steamer back home. It was the last passenger ship to sail for Europe before the outbreak of war.
Upon his return, he was forbidden from speaking in public, or publishing his writing. He joined the Abwehr – a Nazi-run military intelligence organisation – and used his position as a cover for his real work as a messenger for the resistance movement. During this time, he famously became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He met with Anglican bishop George Bell in June 1942 under the guise of being a church visitor in an attempt to gain Allied support for establishing a new government once Hitler was killed. There were numerous attempts, using the code name ‘Operation Spark’ on the Führer’s life, but all of them failed. It was for his involvement in another plot, ‘Operation 7’, an attempt to smuggle Jews out of Germany into Switzerland, that Bonhoeffer was outed. After the arrest of his two immediate superiors, his phone had been tapped and his plan discovered.
This is the end – for me the beginning of life
A few months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer had proposed to the vivacious Maria van Wedemeyer. But because of the opposition from Maria’s family (due to an 18-year age gap between the two, as well as Bonhoeffer’s political work) the couple were forbidden from announcing their engagement. Bonhoeffer might come across as focused, reserved and unconcerned for a family life but his love letters to Maria von Wedemeyer reveal a passionate man ready to make himself vulnerable to the woman he loved.
During his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria was fostered with letters smuggled in and out by sympathetic guards. After over two years of captivity in various prisons, he was finally moved to Flossenbürg concentration camp. It was then that Maria’s family announced the engagement, in an attempt to encourage the imprisoned Bonhoeffer.
Hitler himself ordered the deaths of the Abwehr plotters. Upon hearing this news, Bonhoeffer gave a message to his friend Bishop George Bell, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life”. Four days later, he was stripped naked and hanged in the execution yard with his hands bound. He became one of over 30,000 prisoners who died there. Just twelve days after Bonhoeffer’s execution, Flossenbürg was liberated by the US army.
In the chaos of post-war Germany, Maria contacted various concentration camps in search of news of her already dead fiancé. Bonhoeffer’s family didn’t hear any news until three months after his death when a radio broadcast mentioned a memorial service held in London for him.
Today, the works of Bonhoeffer have never been more relevant. His book, The Cost of Discipleship is viewed as a modern classic for its exposition on the Sermon on the Mount, highlighting that the grace we experience as Christians is not a cheap grace but costly grace, demanding a response with our entire lives. With a re-emergence of the far-right across Europe, his challenge is as pertinent as it was in pre-war Germany, “remain a church! ... Confess! Confess! Confess!”
KATIE STOCK is a freelance news and features journalist for Premier Christianity magazine. She writes profiles on figures from Church history on her award winning blog, theologybee.com