Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and brilliant theologian who was made famous by his role in the German resistance movement. He was executed in April 1945 for his involvement in plots to overthrow Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer and his twin sister, Sabine, were born on February 4, 1906, in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a distinguished psychiatrist, and his mother, Paula, presided over the early education of her eight children with the aid of a governess, entering her children for state examinations at an early age.
In 1912 the Bonhoeffers moved to Berlin, where Dietrich's father took a post as a professor of psychiatry. By age 14 Dietrich Bonhoeffer had already decided to pursue theology. His family was not particularly religious, attending church only occasionally, but respected his decision even at a relatively young age.
In 1923 at age 17, Bonhoeffer entered the University of Tübingen. In 1924 he switched to the University of Berlin, a center for theology made famous by one of its founders, Friedrich Schleiermacher. The theology faculty was headed by Adolf von Harnack, an eminent theologian, and Reinhold Seeberg, a well-known systematic theology professor and author. Bonhoeffer stood out as a brilliant, studious, and somewhat independent thinker.
It was during this period that Bonhoeffer began to read and be influenced by the works of the NeoOrthodox movement, a reaction to the liberal theology of Schleiermacher and von Harnack made famous by Karl Barth. Bonhoeffer began work on his doctoral thesis in mid-1926 under Seeberg, finishing in December 1927 at age 21 with a rarely awarded summa cum laude.
Assigned to work for a year as an assistant pastor in a Lutheran church in Barcelona, Spain, Bonhoeffer plunged into congregational life. Always interested in children, Bonhoeffer quickly organized a Sunday school program aimed at boys, who responded well to his leadership.
In 1930–31 Bonhoeffer did postgraduate study in New York at the Union Theological Seminary. Returning to Berlin, he took up his pastoral duties but continued his association with the university. By this time he had published two books (Sanctorum Communio and Act and Being).
In 1931 Bonhoeffer attended an ecumenical conference in Cambridge, England. This conference proved to be the start of his leadership role in the ecumenical movement as well as a wartime cover for many of his activities. During this period, Bonhoeffer's own faith grew more intensely personal rather than simply academic.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power and quickly moved to control the churches. After spending several months in England in late 1933, where he was able to inform British Christians about the increasingly severe plight of Christians in Germany, Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin.
During 1934 the regional churches that were still relatively free from government influence formed what was called the Confessing Church. This church body decided to form unofficial seminaries separate from the theological schools at the government-controlled universities. Bonhoeffer was asked to run a seminary consisting of 23 seminarians in the country town of Finkewalde.
It was during this time that Bonhoeffer wrote his best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, which was based on some of his evening lectures to the seminarians. In the context of Germany with its unquestioning obedience to the führer, Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer focused on what true obedience as a Christian meant. He would eventually prove such obedience with his own life.
In 1939, in part to avoid a call-up into the military, Bonhoeffer went to England for several months. During that time he met with church and ecumenical authorities trying to persuade them to support the Confessing Church on an official basis.
In the United States Bonhoeffer was offered a position as pastor to the German refugees in New York. Accepting it would have meant he could never return to Nazi Germany, then on the verge of war. After much discussion and prayer he chose to return to Germany to share in the fate of his country.
Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, was already deeply involved in the resistance movement, which at the time was trying to persuade influential generals to arrest Hitler. Hitler's early successes in the war precluded this strategy.
In 1940 Bonhoeffer began working for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service headed by Admiral Canaris ostensibly to gather information for the Germans from his international church contacts. This cover provided Bonhoeffer with the freedom to travel internationally as well as avoid a military call-up but at the same time drew him deeper into the circle of resistance, which included Admiral Canaris himself.
In 1941 and 1942, well aware of the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler, which involved several German generals, Bonhoeffer traveled several times to Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden looking for ways to communicate via church channels to officials in England and elsewhere the necessity for a speedy recognition of the new government that would result from Hitler's overthrow.
In March 1943 Dohnanyi was involved in a failed plot to blow up Hitler during one of his inspection tours. The Gestapo investigations of the resistance were drawing their nets tighter around Canaris and his associates, and on April 5, 1943, Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer, and several others were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy and put in prison in Berlin.
Bonhoeffer had carefully prepared for this moment and was able to evade the charges against him successfully, although he was never released from prison. His case never came to trial, and in 1944 it increasingly looked like Bonhoeffer would be released. During his time in prison Bonhoeffer secretly worked on his book Ethics, which was published posthumously.
On July 20, 1944, there was another assassination attempt on Hitler by the conspirator von Stauffenberg. The resulting investigation uncovered incriminating evidence against Canaris and Dohnanyi and indirectly against Bonhoeffer. This judgment sealed the fate of all the conspirators. They were moved to a concentration camp, where they were hanged on the personal orders of Hitler on April 9, 1945.