Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Short Biography
Compiled by Slawomir Gromadzki
“When God calls you, He calls you to die… God’s Son took on our nature, ourselves. Now we are in Him. Where He is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the Cross, and in His resurrection. We belong to Him because we are in Him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together)
“Time is the most precious gift in our possession, for it is the most irrevocable. This is what makes it so disturbing to look back upon the time which we have lost. Time lost is time when we have not lived a full human life, time unenriched by experience, creative endeavour, enjoyment, and suffering. Time lost is time not filled, time left empty.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 47)
“How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge… We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.” (Letters and papers from Prison, p. 311)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Feb. 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945) was a Protestant Lutheran Pastor, theologian, and active in the German resistance to the policies of Hitler and Nazism.
Due to his opposition to the Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer was arrested and executed at the age of 39 at the Flossenburg concentration camp, during the last month of the war. He remains an important symbol of opposition to Hitler, and his views on Christianity increasingly influential.
Bonhoeffer was born in Wroclaw, Poland (formerly Breslau, Germany), in 1906. His family were not religious (except his mother) but had a strong musical and artistic heritage. Dietrich’s father, Karl, was Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist from 1912 until his death in 1948.
From an early age, Bonhoeffer displayed great musical talent, and the pursuit of music was important throughout his life. His family were quite taken aback when, at the age of 14, he announced he wanted to train and become a priest.
In 1927, he graduated from the University of Berlin. At the age of 21 he gained a doctorate in theology for his influential thesis, Communion of Saints. He was moved by the concept of the Church’s involvement in social justice and protection of those who were oppressed.
In 1931, he was ordained in Berlin as a priest, aged 25. The early 1930s were a period of the mass unemployment of the Great Depression leading to the election of Adolf Hitler in 1933.
While the election of Hitler was widely welcomed by the German population, including significant parts of the Church, Bonhoeffer was a firm opponent of Hitler’s philosophy. Two days after Hitler’s election as Chancellor in Jan 1933, Bonhoeffer made a radio broadcast criticizing Hitler, and in particular the danger of an idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer. His radio broadcast was cut off mid-air.
In April 1933, Bonhoeffer raised opposition to the persecution of Jews and argued that the Church had a responsibility to act against this kind of policy. Bonhoeffer sought to organize the Protestant Church to reject Nazi ideology from infiltrating the church.
However, in practice, Bonhoeffer felt disillusioned by the weakness of the church and opposition, and in the autumn of 1933, he took a two-year appointment to a German-speaking Protestant church in London.
After two years in London, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin. He felt a call to return to his native country and share in its struggles, despite the bleak outlook. Shortly after his return, one leader of the Confessing Church was arrested and another fled to Switzerland; Bonhoeffer had his authorization to teach annulled in 1936, after being denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state.
As the Nazi control of the country intensified, in 1937, the Confessing Church seminary was closed down by Himmler. During this period, Bonhoeffer wrote extensively on subjects of theological interest. This included ‘The Cost of Discipleship‘- a study on the Sermon on the Mount in which he argued for greater spiritual discipline and developed the concept of a ‘cheap grace’:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline… Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” (The Cost of Discipleship)
Worried by a fear of being asked to take an oath to Hitler or be arrested, Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States in June 1939. After less than two years, he returned to Germany because he felt guilty for seeking sanctuary and not having the courage to practice what he preached. When his friends in America warned him against coming back to Germany, he answered, “What can Hitler do to me? I have already died in Christ” (Gal 2:20; Rom 6:6-8; Rom 7:4; Col 3:1-3).
Bonhoeffer’s involvement in helping German Jews escape to neutral Switzerland led to his arrest in April 1943. For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel Military prison. Here he continued his writings such as ‘Ethics‘. Helped by sympathetic guards, his writings were smuggled out.
The 39-year-old theologian had also been involved in planning an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler. His participation in the murder plot obviously conflicts with Bonhoeffer’s position as a pacifist. His sister-in-law, Emmi Bonhoeffer, cited his reasoning. He told her: “If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
After the failed bomb plot of July 20th, 1944, Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo’s high-security prison, before being transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally Flossenburg concentration camp.
Even during the miseries of the concentration camp, Bonhoeffer retained a deep spirituality which was evident to other prisoners. He continued to minister his fellow prisoners. Payne Best, a fellow inmate and officer of the British Army, wrote this observation of Bonhoeffer:
“Bonhoeffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease… his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”
On April 8th, 1945, Bonhoeffer was given a cursory court martial and sentenced to death by hanging. Like many of the conspirators, he was hung by wire, to prolong the death. He was executed with fellow conspirators such as Admiral Wilhelm Canaris.
Just before his execution, he asked a fellow inmate to relate a message to the Bishop George Bell of Chichester: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life“.
Bonhoeffer went calmly to his death. The prisoners were ordered to strip. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for one last time to pray. Five minutes later, he was dead (on April 9th, 1945 at the age of 39).
The camp doctor who witnessed the execution of Bonhoeffer later wrote: “Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. 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.”
After his martyrdom at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer continued his witness in the hearts of Christians around the world. His Letters and Papers from Prison became a prized testimony to Christian faith and courage, read by thousands.
Bonhoeffer’s principled resistance to Hitler’s regime was a source of inspiration for other figures such as Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He also shared many ideals with Mahatma Gandhi. (In 1935 he turned down an opportunity to learn in Gandhi’s ashram)
Bonhoeffer gave greater importance to the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the responsibility of Christians to imitate his life and teachings. In particular, he sought to teach the necessity of striving for spiritual perfection and forgiveness of sins.
From prison he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge: “One must abandon every attempt to make something of oneself, whether to be a saint, a converted sinner or a churchman“.
“In following Jesus, people are released from the hard yoke of their own laws to be under the gentle yoke of Jesus Christ. … Jesus’ commandment never wishes to destroy life, but rather to preserve, strengthen, and heal life.” Discipleship (1937)
QUOTES FROM “LIFE TOGETHER” BY DIETRICH BONHOEFFER
“Christian is a man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he does not feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification. He lives wholly by God’s Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.
The death and the life of the Christian is not determined by his own resources; rather he finds both only in the Word that comes to him from outside, in God’s Word to him. The Reformers expressed it this way: Our righteousness is an ‘alien righteousness,’ a righteousness that comes from outside of us (extra nos). They were saying that the Christian is dependent on the Word of God spoken to him…
When God’s Son took on flesh, he truly and bodily took on, out of pure grace, our being, our nature, ourselves. This was the eternal counsel of the triune God. Now we are in him. Where he is, there we are too, in the incarnation, on the Cross, and in his resurrection. We belong to him because we are in him. That is why the Scriptures call us the Body of Christ. But if, before we could know and wish it, we have been chosen and accepted with the whole Church in Jesus Christ, then we also belong to him in eternity with one another. We who live here in fellowship with him will one day be with him in eternal fellowship. He who looks upon his brother should know that he will be eternally united with him in Jesus Christ.
This fact that we are brethren only through Jesus Christ is of immeasurable significance. Not only the other person who is earnest and devout, who comes to me seeking brotherhood, must I deal in fellowship. My brother is rather that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, delivered from his sin, and called to faith and eternal life. Not what a man is in himself as a Christian, his spirituality and piety, constitutes the basis of our community. What determines our brotherhood is what that man is by reason of Christ. Our community with one another consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us…”
Pettinger, Tejvan. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Biography”, Oxford, UK – www.biographyonline.net. Published 12th Jan. 2014. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy