Dietrich Bonhoeffer

February 22, 2022
February 22, 2022 Fiona

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

April 2022

The Common Worship Calendar commemorates Dietrich Bonhoeffer on 9 April, providing ‘Lutheran Pastor, Martyr, 1945’ as additional information. This is day when he was hanged by the Nazis at Flossenbürg concentration camp, accused of association with the 20 July Plot on Hitler’s life. It is recorded that, as he was led away, he said to a fellow-prisoner, ‘This is the end — for me the beginning of life’.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, and was ordained into the Lutheran church in November 1931. He was a determined opponent of the Nazis from the time of  the election campaign of 1933, which led to Hitler becoming Chancellor. He fought hard against Hitler’s euthanasia programme and the persecution and genocide of the Jews, and was one of the  notable church leaders who resisted Hitler’s attempt to create a Nazified German Protestant Church. This involved the dismissal of pastors and other officials who were of Jewish descent, and even the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible. The Christian opposition issued various declarations against this, asserting the Bible’s integrity, God’s fidelity to the Jews as his chosen people, and the power of baptism, regardless of racial or ethnic descent. One of the earliest of these declarations was the Bethel Confession of 1933, which Bonhoeffer played a leading part in drafting. But it was then watered down, and Bonhoeffer refused to sign it. He felt unable to accept a parish post in Berlin offered to him that autumn, and instead decided to withdraw by taking a two-year post as pastor of two German-speaking Protestant churches in London. Further oppositional declarations were issued in Germany, most notably the Barmen Declaration in 1934, and so, when Bonhoeffer’s appointment in London ended, he returned to Germany and became a leading figure in what had by then evolved into being the Confessing Church, the name given to those who resisted the Nazi distortion.

Bonheoffer had started his ecclesiastical career as a high-flying academic, beginning with studies in the renowned theological faculty in Tübingen. He went on to gain a doctorate in Berlin, followed by further postgraduate work and a teaching fellowship at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Now, in support of the Confessing Church, he travelled around eastern Germany running underground seminaries. But he was pursued by the Nazis, who closed successive seminaries and banned him from Berlin. In February 1938 Bonhoeffer made initial contact with the members of the German Resistance when his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi (father of the celebrated musical conductor) introduced him to a group in Military Intelligence who were seeking Hitler’s overthrow. In June 1939, however, Bonhoeffer accepted an invitation to return to the Union Theological Seminary in New York — a move he instantly regretted because of what was happening in Germany, and so he returned home only two weeks later. He had to report regularly to the police and was forbidden to publish anything or speak in public, but under the pretext of working for Military Intelligence, he travelled extensively, using his ecumenical connections abroad to make high-level contact with the Allies. With Dohnány he was also involved in helping German Jews escape to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer and Dohnánywere both arrested on 5 April 1943.

Bonhoeffer’s practical actions were underpinned by his publications, most notably The Cost of Discipleship (on the Sermon on the Mount), Ethics (unfinished when he was arrested in 1943), and — perhaps best-known of all — his Letters and Papers from Prison, which were published after his death.

Joyce Hill

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