Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, anti-Nazi dissident and a founding member of the Confessing Church who was born in Breslau, Silesia, Prussia, (then Germany, now Poland), the sixth of eight children, to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century whose theological writings are classics throughout the Christian world.
As an outstanding theologian, he excelled on church models, Christology (Divine and Human Nature of Jesus Christ) and ethics who revived the idea of imitation of Christ (following the example of Jesus).
Dietrich had a twin sister named Sabine (1906–1999) who married legal scholar, Gerhard Leibholz (1901–1982), a founding father of the new constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany.
His brother, Walter Bonhoeffer, died on the western front on April 28, 1918, aged 19, of a shrapnel wound in Francourt, France, during World War I.
His grandfather, on his mother's side of the family, was a preacher at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II and his father was a prominent neurologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin.
The Bonhoeffer children were raised in a religious environment and a culture of learning through the great literature and fine arts.
Young Dietrich's passion for the piano, led his family to believe he would pursue a career as a professional musician.
From the age of 14 however, Dietrich was Divinely inspired to serve God and to share in the Special Mission of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Dietrich’s father wrote: “When you decided to devote yourself to theology, I sometimes thought to myself that a quiet, uneventful minister’s life, as I knew it …, would really almost be a pity for you.”
From 1923 to 1927, Bonhoeffer completed his Staatsexamen (equivalent to a master's degree), at the Protestant Faculty of Theology of the University of Tübingen and
completed his Doctor of Theology at the age of 21 from the University of Berlin.
Pastoral Ministry involves caring for God's people through spiritual healing and communicating the Gospel of Jesus Christ in a way the great Reformer, Martin Luther described as “God's Voice heard by faith.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent time in Barcelona, Spain as curate (assistant pastor) to a German, Lutheran congregation where his pastoral ministry involved preaching, teaching Sunday school, leading youth activities, doing visitations, counseling the unemployed, meeting with committees and comforting the bereaved.
He then, returned to Germany to write a dissertation which gave him a university appointment as a lecturer at the University of Berlin.
He also served as student chaplain at the Technical University of Charlottenburg and teacher of a confirmation class in the Zion parish of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin where he catechized forty children from impoverished homes.
In 1930, he went to America for postgraduate study and a teaching fellowship at New York City's Union Theological Seminary and was involved with a boys’ Sunday school in the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where he became interested in racial injustice.
In 1931, he returned to the post of lecturer at the University of Berlin.
On November 15, 1931, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was ordained at St. Matthias Church in Berlin.
On April, 1933, Bonhoeffer's famous essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question” was released which focused on anti-Semitic persecution.
London, Great Britain
From the fall of 1933 to the spring of 1935, Bonhoeffer served two small, German-speaking congregations in London.
The Sydenham congregation gathered families, businessmen and members of the German diplomatic community.
St. Paul’s, a Reformed congregation with a two-century history attracted tradesmen such as butchers, tailors, bakers and their families.
His pastorate in Great Britain introduced children’s services, youth clubs, Nativity and Passion plays, financial assistance for German refugees and a revised hymnal.
Following the devastation of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate during the German Revolution of 1918 – 1919 and fled to Holland.
The Weimar Republic (1918 - 1933), officially named the German Reich, was established on the 9th of November, 1918.
*Friedrich Ebert became president of the German Reich from 1919 to 1925.
*Field Marshal, Paul von Hindenburg, the famous German general who gained renown during World War I, became president from 1925 to 1933.
Adolf Hitler's rise to power through the Nazi Party began during Germany's interwar period of social and political upheaval after returning as a wounded veteran from the trench warfare of World War I.
German Workers' Party
Hitler joined the German Workers' Party (German: Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), the forerunner of the Nazi Party in Munich where he became attracted to founder, Anton Drexler's anti-Semitic, nationalist, anti-capitalist and anti-Marxist ideas.
He rose to leadership of the party through his emotional and captivating speeches and transformed the Nazi Party from an obscure party to the nation's leading political force.
Hitler became chancellor of Germany on the 30th of January, 1933.
With the death of President Hindenburg on August 2, 1934, Hitler united the chancellorship and presidency under the new title of Fuhrer.
Influenced by nationalism and the chaos of the Weimar years, many Protestant leaders and church members took a favorable attitude to the rise of Nazism.
Hitler's rise to power marked a turning point in Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life.
His tenure in England was cut short to serve the Confessing Church (German: Bekennende Kirche) movement in his native Germany that developed from their resistance to Adolf Hitler’s, government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church.
The Confessing Church was organized at Barmen, Germany, and the Barmen Declaration was adopted, stating that Christ, not the Fuhrer, is the Head of the church.
Bonhoeffer, along with other Protestants such as Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth and Wilhelm Busch saw Nazism as a danger to Christianity and objected on moral and theological principles over a state-controlled, German Lutheran Church.
They believed ultimate sovereignty must belong only to God.
The anti-Semitic and racist, Nuremberg Laws were enacted, canceling citizenship for German Jews.
The Confessing Church created an underground seminary located in Zingst then, in Finkenwalde on the Baltic Sea in the region of Pomerania and Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer became its first director to train pastors as an alternative to the Nazi-influenced German Reich Church.
In December, Heinrich Himmler declared all examinations for the Confessing Church invalid, all training there invalid and all involved, liable to arrest.
In 1936, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no longer permitted to teach at the University of Berlin or to publish books.
In September the seminary at Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo.
By November, 27 pastors and former Finkenwalde students were arrested.
Also in November, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his book, The Cost of Discipleship.
One of the most quoted parts of the book deals with the distinction between "cheap" and "costly" grace.
According to Bonhoeffer, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
In February, Bonhoeffer makes his initial contact with members of the German Resistance.
In April, all pastors are required to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler.
In September, Bonhoeffer writes Life Together with its central theme that the Church as the fellowship of Christ, centers on Christ rather than being a mere association of people with a common purpose.
Bonhoeffer’s sister Sabine, her Jewish husband Gerhard Leibholz and two daughters escape to England by way of Switzerland.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was forbidden to live in Berlin.
In 1940, he was forbidden to speak in public, and had to report to the police regularly.
From 1940 to 1943 Bonhoeffer writes Ethics which details the seminal reinterpretation of the role of Christianity in the modern, secularized world.
On September 5, 1941, all Jews in the Reich were ordered to wear the yellow star.
In December, 1942, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes his Christmas essay, “After Ten Years” to his closest friends in the resistance.
On 13 January 1943, he became engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer, the granddaughter of his close friend and Finkenwalde seminary supporter, Ruth von Kleist Retzow.
On April 5, he is arrested and incarcerated at Tegel Prison in Berlin.
In July, Bonhoeffer is intensively interrogated in prison.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pacifist but, became persuaded that violence was needed to overthrow the Nazi regime.
In 1941, Dietrich Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr, a German Military Intelligence as an agent to use his ecumenical contacts to help the cause of the Reich.
His real mission however, was to spread information about the resistance movement and in turn, to gain foreign support.
There primary goal was to assassinate Hitler, take political control of Germany and its armed forces from the Nazi Party and to make peace with the Western Allies.
The decision to return violence for violence, however justified it might seem, was for Bonhoeffer, a repudiation of all that was worth living for. "The sacrifice more painful than that of his life is that of his ethical purity."
The name "Operation Valkyrie" has become associated with the entire Nazi resistance movement.
On 20 July 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg and other conspirators attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler inside his Wolf's Lair field headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia, now Kętrzyn, in present-day Poland.
The July 20 plot exposed those Abwehr agents who had leaked sensitive information to the Allies.
Several Abwehr agents were charged with treason and executed.
On 18 February, 1944, Hitler abolished the Abwehr.
On the 5th of April, 1943, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel Prison for one and a half years awaiting trial.
He was accused of helping Jews flee the country and for being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler with other former members of the Abwehr.
While waiting for his trial, he continued his religious outreach among his fellow prisoners and guards and wrote many moving letters and notes which were published with the book Resistance and Surrender by Gütersloher Verlagshaus.
Sympathetic guards helped smuggle his letters out of prison to Bonhoeffer's close friend, German theologian and pastor, Eberhard Bethge and others.
These uncensored letters which were posthumously published became one of the great classics of prison literature in "Letters and Papers from Prison."
One of those guards, a corporal named Knobloch, even offered to help him escape from the prison and "disappear" with him.
Bonhoeffer declined, fearing Nazi retribution against his family, especially his brother Klaus and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi, who was also imprisoned.
From April 3, 1945, Bonhoeffer was moved from Buchenwald to Regensburg and later transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp during the night.
On April 9, 1945, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was stripped and led naked into the execution yard where he was hanged with six others at Flossenburg.
His last words were, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.”
His brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer was also executed for resistance activities, as were his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher.
Flossenburg concentration camp was liberated by the Americans on the 23rd of April, 1945.
Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's letters and theological works still influence and inspire Christians across all denominations and ideologies including Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States as well as the anti-communist movement in Eastern Europe during the Cold War (12 March 1947 – 26 December 1991).
He lived his life as he preached and argued that Christians should not retreat from the world but act within it.
The cornerstone of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ethical world: "In any given context there is always a right thing to do."
In his book, "The Cost of Discipleship" Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer compels the reader to face themselves and God in any situation.
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