Christian Martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian executed in the German Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. His crime was opposing the Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime. His letters and works still profoundly influence Christians today.
Since the holocaust, many Christians have been reexamining the role of the Church during that era. What they found is the vast differences between the church’s claimed values, morals and ideals and the way it actually reacted to German atrocities perpetrated upon its’ citizens.
Bonhoeffer was one of very few who didn’t kowtow to the Nazi iron fisted brutality and is considered by many to be a true martyr. Little publicized is the fact he played a minor role in the assassination attempt of Hitler as a courier and diplomat to the British government.
Dietrich was one of eight children born to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer in Breslau, Germany February 4, 1906. His father was a noted professor of psychiatry and Neurology at Berlin University.
Bonhoeffer grew to be a man of great intelligence. He earned a doctorate from Berlin University at the incredibly young age of 21. He conducted many theological lectures during early 1930. However, the young scholar was still too young to be ordained.
Therefore he decided to spend a year in the United States doing postgraduate studies. It was to be an eye opening experience.
Dietrich found the American seminary not up to the rigid standards he had become accustomed to in his native land. But he did learn about social injustices suffered by minorities and the failure of the church to do anything about them, which perhaps explains his participation in later Nazi opposition. In 1931, after returning to Germany, he became an ordained Lutheran pastor at the age of 25.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Bonhoeffer had been an outspoken opponent of the Nazi’s since the beginning. Only 2 days after Hitler gained power, Bonhoeffer made a radio broadcast assailing Hitler’s policies and warning the nation about the dire consequences they could bring. Bonhoeffer’s broadcast was abruptly shut down. Responsibility for the act has never been discovered.
In 1934, over 2,000 Lutheran pastors formed the Pastors’ Emergency League. Its’ purpose was to oppose the Nazi state controlled church. This organization became what was to be the Confessing Church with Bonhoeffer at the helm. It was a free, independent protestant church having five seminaries. However, it was outlawed and shut down by the Nazis in 1937.
When it became apparent war was unavoidable, Bonhoeffer’s friends urged him to flee Germany, knowing his beliefs would not allow him to serve in Hitler’s military and he was likely to be forcibly conscripted. In June 1939, American friends managed to get him to the United States. But, Bonhoeffer’s heart was with the oppressed masses in his homeland and he felt he had to return. Bonhoeffer wrote before leaving America, “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." He never regretted his decision, even after being imprisoned.
In 1940, Bonhoeffer was still actively speaking out and joined others in resisting Nazi dictatorship. About this time the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was unfolding. The main conspirators included, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Head of Military Intelligence, General Hans Oster and Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law. Bonhoeffer, his sister Christel and her husband, were arrested by the Gestapo on April 5th,1943. His main mission in prison became ministering to the sick and other prisoners. It was said he was an immense comfort to the ailing and depressed.
During his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer continued to defy the regime. Before a Gestapo hearing he said that as a Christian he was bound to be an enemy of Hitler's National Socialistic policies. He stuck by his guns although the Gestapo continuously threatened the lives of his family. In 1944, he had the opportunity to be liberated when friends offered to get him to safety. However, true to his beliefs, he opted to remain…not wanting to endanger anyone else.
Bonhoeffer was never formally tried, but was hanged anyway, along with his sister Christel and her husband. Bonhoeffer remained calm, composed and quiet as he walked to the gallows and his death. Also executed were Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus and another brother-in-law, for their participation in the Hitler assassination attempt.