There is a profound congruence between Bonhoeffer's life and times and thought. The telling of his story here will indeed attempt to supply the necessary context for understanding his contributions to religious thought and life, but without pretending that knowing the biography is a sufficient rendering of the remarkable contributions of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to modern theology and practice.
Born on February 4, 1906, Dietrich was the sixth of eight siblings, including his twin sister Sabine, all born in the space of ten years. One brother, Walter, did not survive World War I; another brother, Klaus, was to be executed for his own participation in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. Dietrich himself did not live until his fortieth birthday, as he was hanged by the Gestapo at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 for his own acts of resistance against Nazism.5 Dietrich's father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a noted neurologist and professor of psychiatry at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. Dietrich's mother, Paula -herself a university graduate and a descendent of a long line of pastors, theologians, and musicians - home-schooled her children.
Out of this family (along with Klaus and Dietrich), Rüdiger Schleicher, the husband of Dietrich's sister Ursula, and Hans von Dohnanyi, the husband of Dietrich's sister Christine, would later be executed for their parts in the resistance. Other surviving siblings included his brother, Karl-Friedrich, a physicist, and a sister Susanne.
In the calm before the storm of Nazism, the Bonhoeffers were a family, as Eberhard and Renate Bethge have described them, with "a deep-rooted sense of obligation, the awareness of being guardian of a great historical heritage and cultural tradi-tion."6 Visitors in the Bonhoeffer home included academics and professionals from the university. Evenings found the family gathered for musical performances, with Dietrich playing the piano, which at one time he considered pursuing as a career.
At an early age Dietrich excelled in sports, and then later in music and in his facility with learning foreign languages (especially Latin, Hebrew, and Greek). As a teenage student his broader intellectual precociousness became evident. Barely 17 when he completed his Gymnasium studies in Berlin, Dietrich began his degree at Tübingen University, where he studied in 1923-4, the year of the Munich Putsch. While Adolf Hitler was writing Mein Kampf in prison, Dietrich was immersed in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason ("I liked it a lot").
Just turned 18, Bonhoeffer spent April 3 to June 4, 1924 on an extended trip to Rome and North Africa with his brother Klaus. His diary from the journey reveals the young Protestant's first concrete encounter with the Catholic Church. He was not too impressed with his audience with Pope Pius XI ("Great expectations dashed"). But upon seeing St. Peter's he remarked: "You are immediately overwhelmed." And his experience of the liturgies of Holy Week in Rome was a memorable, indeed transformative, encounter with Christianity's universality: "I believe I am beginning to understand the concept of 'church.'"7
Back at the University of Berlin, where he was a student from 1924 to 1927, Bonhoeffer read Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, Edmund Husserl and Friedrich Schleiermacher. He was part of one of Adolf von Harnack's seminars, and that same year also first encountered the writings of Karl Barth. The confluence of the latter's Christocentrism and the former's concern to show the relevance of Christianity to the modern world would have an indelible effect on Bonhoeffer's approach to theology.
In Berlin, Bonhoeffer studied Luther with Karl Holl, systematic theology and ethics with Reinhold Seeberg, epistemology with Heinrich Maier, and practical theology and catechetics with Friedrich Mahling. He received his licentiate in theology in December 1927, upon the successful defense under Reinhold Seeberg of his doctoral dissertation, The Communion of Saints, which Karl Barth later described as a "theological miracle."
In January 1928 Bonhoeffer passed his first set of theological examinations and was accepted as a candidate for ordination. He then spent February 1928 to February 1929 as assistant pastor in the German-speaking Lutheran congregation in Barcelona. "Bonhoeffer was increasingly aware of the international financial crisis of the late 1920s and the resulting social chaos in Europe. One wonders about the reaction of his prosperous congregation members when Bonhoeffer preached to them about their difficulty in connecting the gospel with the increasingly evident needs of the world around them. 'God wanders among us in human form,' one sermon said, 'speaking to us in those who cross our paths, be they stranger, beggar, sick, or even in those nearest to us in everyday life, becoming Christ's demand on our faith in him.'"8
Bonhoeffer returned to the University of Berlin in 1929 to serve as an assistant to Wilhelm Lutgert, a specialist in German idealism, presenting his first lectures in the summer of 1929. There he secured his credentials to teach in the university by writing his Habilitationsschrift., Act and Being, which was accepted on July 18, 1930. Thus qualified as a university teacher, his official inaugural lecture, "Humanity in Contemporary Philosophy and Theology," was presented two weeks later.
On September 5, 1930, he traveled to New York as a postgraduate Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary. His German arrogance flashed in his early estimations of his faculty and fellow students: "There is no theology here."9 Still, there were life-changing friendships to be made, for example with Frank Fisher, an African-American student at Union who took Bonhoeffer to Harlem to Abyssinian Baptist Church, where Bonhoeffer taught a Sunday School class, but perhaps more importantly learned lessons about American racism that he was to take home to Germany and apply to anti-Semitism there. There he met Erwin Sutz, the Swiss student who shared with Bonhoeffer a love of the piano, and who became a confidant and contact later during the war years; and Jean Lassere, the French pacifist whose influence can be seen throughout Bonhoeffer's writings about peace and loving one's enemies all through the 1930s; and Paul and Marion Lehmann, who gave Bonhoeffer a home away from home in New York, and who with Reinhold Niebuhr made the last-gasp effort later in 1939 to convince Bonhoeffer to remain in New York in the face of the looming prospect of war.
For a place with "no theology," New York provided Bonhoeffer a life-altering laboratory for learning about the demands of the world on the life of the church. Perhaps these were the "first impressions abroad" to which Bonhoeffer referred later in a letter from April 22, 1944, to Bethge, the point at which Bonhoeffer said: "I turned from phraseology to reality."10 One thing is sure, after New York he would never be the same.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in July 1931 facing a dramatically changed academic, political, social, and economic environment. Full of enthusiasm from his first personal meeting with Karl Barth at the University of Bonn earlier that month, Bonhoeffer in August joined the theological faculty at Berlin as Privatdozent or unpaid assistant lecturer, a position he continued through the summer semester of 1933. His Habilitationsschrift, Act and Being, was published two months later. A promising academic career was underway, and over the next year he taught courses on the history of twentieth-century systematic theology, the nature of the church, and Christian ethics.
And yet a larger world and the practical affairs of the church beckoned, as well. In August and September 1931 Bonhoeffer had attended conferences of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, principally in Cambridge; this was his first formal involvement in the ecumenical movement and his first trip to England. That November 15, at the age of 25, he was ordained at St. Matthias Church, Berlin, and began his duties as a chaplain at the Technical College at Charlottenburg, where he also served until 1933. His ecumenical travels continued during July and August 1932, when he attended ecumenical gatherings at Geneva and Gland, as well as a Youth Peace Conference in Ciernohorske Kupele, Czechoslovakia.
But when on January 30, 1933 Adolf Hitler became the Chancellor of Germany, all of Bonhoeffer's plans for a routine academic, as well as ecclesiastical, life were irrevocably altered. While Bonhoeffer's letters from the end of 1932 often still arose from his fresh new interest in ecumenical activities - and include Bonhoeffer's earliest surviving letter to Karl Barth, dated Christmas eve 1932 - those from early 1933 begin to be haunted by more ominous possibilities, reflected in letters to friends such as Anneliese Schnurmann, who was being forced to leave Germany because of her Jewish background, or one to Reinhold Niebuhr the week after Hitler became chancellor.
His 1932-3 winter-semester course "Creation and Sin," published in 1933 as Creation and Fall, and the summer-semester 1933 courses "Christology" and "The Philosophy of Hegel," were to be his last offerings before leaving the University of Berlin. Already it was clear that his energies and commitments were leading him elsewhere. As he watched the National Socialists sign the Concordat with the papacy on July 20, 1933, and reeled from the crisis brought on by the German Christians' winning up to 70 percent of church posts in Protestant church elections on July 23, he began to understand that the church in Germany - indeed, among Christians anywhere - had reached a status confessionis, a moment of decision when it must either submit to the claim upon it by the gospel, or the counterclaim being made by Nazi authoritarianism. With his colleague Martin Niemoller, Bonhoeffer helped form the Pastor's Emergency League in September 1933, a forerunner to the Confessing Church that was to be organized in May 1934 as a protest against National Socialism's deepening control over Christianity in Germany.
Bonhoeffer's patience and energy had by this time worn thin. He needed, he wrote Karl Barth, "time to go for a while into the desert." And so in October 1933 Bonhoeffer moved to London to begin serving pastorates at the German Evangelical Church, Sydenham, and the Reformed Church of St. Paul, London. In London, Bonhoeffer made one of the two most significant friendships that were to shape his path through the last dozen years of his life: George Bell, formerly Dean of Canterbury Cathedral and, when Bonhoeffer knew him, Anglican Bishop of Chichester.11 Bell and Bonhoeffer first met in person in November 1933, soon learning that they shared the same birthday, a love of music and the arts, and a commitment to ecumenism. During this time Bonhoeffer traveled to Fan0, Denmark, to attend the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches, making there a plea on behalf of the Confessing Church. "The hour is late," Bonhoeffer wrote to his ecumenical colleagues. "The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust which looks out of all men's eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting?"12 Bonhoeffer was frustrated that even his more progressive friends in the ecumenical movement seemed so prone to indecisiveness: "People have to make up their minds and cannot keep waiting for ever for a sign from heaven, for a solution to the difficulty suddenly to fall into their laps. The ecumenical movement must decide too . . . Postponed or belated decisions can be more sinful than wrong decisions made in faith and love ... To believe means to decide."13
Bonhoeffer was divided about whether to study in India under Gandhi or to return to Germany. In the end Bonhoeffer chose to go home, perhaps remembering Karl Barth's sharp rebuke in November 1933 for fleeing Germany in the first place: "The building of your church is burning . . . come home on the next ship!"14 On April 29, 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany and became director of the underground seminary just founded at Zingst on the Baltic coast of Pomerania and then moved in June to Finkenwalde. Back home, Bonhoeffer continued to use his contacts in the ecumenical movement, particularly his deep friendship with George Bell, to garner support for the Confessing Church's opposition to Nazism. Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer's authorization to teach at the University of Berlin was revoked in August 1936, and the Finkenwalde seminary was itself finally closed by order of the Gestapo in September 1937, after two years of illegal operation.
Having been forbidden to work in Berlin after January 1938, Bonhoeffer was among those who refused in April 1938 to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler in commemoration of Hitler's fiftieth birthday. Over the next two years Bonhoeffer continued a clandestine ministry through the so-called "collective pastorates" through which he and his former Finkenwalde students continued their work underground in Koslin, Schlawe (later moved to Sigurdshof), and Gross-Schlonwitz.
Bonhoeffer traveled to New York a second time from June 2 to July 27, 1939, at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr and other friends who hoped Bonhoeffer might choose to remain there. But in July 1939 Bonhoeffer chose to return to Germany to share in the fate of his country. The collective pastorates, too, were closed in 1940, and by September 1940 Bonhoeffer was prohibited from speaking in public and was required to report regularly to the authorities about his activities. That November he was assigned to the Abwehr (or Military Intelligence Office) staff in Munich, in which was working the conspirators' group - led by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Major General Hans Oster, and Col. General Ludwig Beck - planning to assassinate Hitler.
Stationed in Munich, Bonhoeffer lived from November 1940 to February 1941 at the Benedictine Abbey in Ettal, near Munich. Through this position and his contacts in the ecumenical movement, Bonhoeffer continued to be able to travel during 1941 and 1942, making contacts for the resistance movement in Switzerland, Norway, Sweden, and Italy. Bonhoeffer took part that October in "Operation 7," an Abwehr-based enterprise which successfully smuggled 14 Jews into Switzerland.
On April 5, 1943, less than three months after his engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer was arrested because of the increasing suspicions about the nature of his travels outside Germany and about his participation in the Operation 7 rescue of Jews. He was sent to the military interrogation prison in Berlin, first to the third floor, then to a 6' x 9' cell (no. 92) on the first floor, with a plank bed, shelf, stool, and bucket, where he was to remain for 18 months. It was from Tegel Prison that Bonhoeffer wrote the letters to his fiancé, family, and his friend, Eberhard Bethge, collected in the Letters and Papers from Prison.
The failed attempt on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944, by Count Klaus von Stauffenberg, and the discovery of incriminating Abwehr files concerning the Bonhoeffer family, led to deepening suspicion that Bonhoeffer himself was more broadly involved in the work of the resistance movement. In October 1944 his brother Klaus, and Rüdiger Schleicher, were arrested by the Gestapo. On October 8, 1944 Bonhoeffer was moved to the Gestapo prison at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin, and the letters to Bethge, which had lasted barely a year, came to an end. From February 7 to April 3, 1945 Bonhoeffer was moved to Buchenwald, then in April to Regensburg, then to Schönberg, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp. There, along with other members of the resistance movement, he was hanged on April 9, 1945, by order of Himmler. That same day at Sachsenhausen, Hans von Dohnanyi was executed. In the night of April 22-23, 1945 Dietrich's brother Klaus and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher were shot by the SS, the day the Red Army reached Berlin. A week later, on April 30, Hitler committed suicide. On May 7, 1945 the war in Europe ended.
Was this article helpful?