Soon after Adolf Hitler took over Germany’s government early in 1933, his now infamous Third Reich started its anti-Jewish policies that led to the deaths of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. It was not difficult for the Nazis to blame the Jews for Germany’s problems; anti-Semitism was widespread throughout the western world, certainly including the United States.
In this sociopolitical climate, it was difficult to speak up for German Jews; few mustered the courage to do so. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran pastor and theologian, did oppose the Hitler regime and he went far beyond, becoming a double agent in the Abwehr, German Military Intelligence.
Bonhoeffer’s indirect participation in one of the assassination plots against Hilter led to his execution by hanging on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg prison, 23 days before Allied troops liberated Flossenburg. Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Bonhoeffer’s execution came after the discovery of the papers of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr. Canaris and others also were executed, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and two brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher. So the Bonhoeffer family paid heavily.
Dietrich and his twin sister Sabine were the sixth and seventh children of Karl and Paula von Hase Bonhoeffer. The father was a distinguished professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Berlin, Charite Hospital. Paula was from a family of artists and musicians. Dietrich was a gifted pianist and could have had a career in music. He somewhat disappointed his parents by deciding, when he was a teenager, to be a theologian. He had a brilliant intellect, earning a doctorate (University of Berlin) at age 21, too young to be ordained as a pastor.
At Union Theological Seminary in New York, he was a friend of Frank Fisher of Alabama who introduced Bonhoeffer to the Harlem church of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. Bonhoeffer often was at the church. Biographers suggest that Fisher’s experiences as a black American influenced Bonhoeffer’s 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which addressed problems the German church faced under Nazi rule. The big question was how the church would respond to the government’s action against Jews.
Many German Protestants welcomed the rise of Nazism. Deutsche Christen (German Christians) was the state church and its leaders espoused Nazi ideology and advocated removal of the Old Testament. The church approved the “Aryan Paragraph,” which prevented non-Aryans from being ministers or religious leaders, just as it applied to other professionals.
In 1934, Bonhoeffer helped organize the anti-Nazi Confessing Church and in 1935 established an underground seminary, at Zingst on the Baltic Sea and then at Finkenwalde in Pomerania. The Gestapo (secret police) closed the seminary in 1937 and imprisoned former students. From his Finkenwalde experiences came two of Bonhoeffer’s well-known books, “The Cost of Discipleship” and “Life Together.”
Bonhoeffer wrote 16 volumes (books, essays, poetry) and works about him, including non-fiction and fiction books, films, plays, audio drama, even opera. Seven decades after his death, he is widely recognized as a major league theologian. He is a hero to many for his courage, integrity and martyrdom.
In 1939, taught and lectured at Union Seminary in New York then returned to Germany. He wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr: “I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany.”
He joined the political resistance movement, and in 1941 participated in a rescue of Jews, drawing the attention of the Gestapo.
A rivalry over control of military intelligence led to Bonhoeffer’s arrest in April 1943. He was imprisoned in Berlin, moved to Buchenwald, then Flossenburg, after discovery of the Canaris dairy.
Books on Bonhoeffer
The several books on Dietrich Bonhoeffer include: Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Charles Marsh (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) and Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxes (Thomas Nelson, 2010)
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