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Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 — April 9, 1945) was a German religious leader and participant in the resistance movement against Nazism. Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and theologian, took part in the plots being planned by members of the Abwehr (Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Hitler. He was arrested, imprisoned, and eventually hanged following the failure of the July 20, 1944, assassination attempt.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) into a middle to upper class professional family. His father was a psychiatrist in Berlin; his mother homeschooled the children. At a very young age, he decided to become a minister. His parents supported his decision and when he was old enough he attended college in Tübingen, received his doctorate in theology from the University of Berlin, and was ordained. He then spent a post-graduate year abroad studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
He returned to Germany in 1931, where he lectured on theology in Berlin and wrote several books. A strong opponent of Nazism, he was involved, together with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth and others, in setting up the Confessing Church. Between late 1933 and 1935 he served as pastor of two German-speaking protestant churches in London. He returned to Germany to head an illegal seminary for Confessing Church pastors, which was closed down in 1937. The Gestapo also banned him from preaching, teaching, and finally speaking at all in public. During this time, Bonhoeffer worked closely with numerous opponents of Hitler.
During World War II, Bonhoeffer played a key leadership role in the Confessing Church, which opposed the anti-semitic policies of Adolf Hitler. He was among those who called for wider church resistance to Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. While the Confessing Church was not large, it represented a major focus of Christian opposition to the Nazi government in Germany.
In 1939 Bonhoeffer joined a hidden group of high-ranking military officers based in the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence Office, who wanted to overthrow the National Socialist regime by killing Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 after money that was used to help Jews escape to Switzerland was traced to him, and he was charged with conspiracy. He was imprisoned in Berlin for a year and a half. After the unsuccessful July 20 Plot in 1944, connections of Bonhoeffer to the conspirators were discovered, he was moved to a series of prisons and concentration camps ending at Flossenbürg, where he was executed by hanging just three weeks before the liberation of the city. Also executed for their parts in the conspiracy were his brother Klaus and his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer is considered a martyr for his faith; he was absolved of any crimes by the German government in the mid-1990s. An oft-quoted line from one of his more widely read books, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), foreshadowed his death. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” His books Ethics (1949) and Letters and Papers from Prison (1953) were published posthumously.
The theological and political reasons behind his shift from Christian pacifism, which he espoused in the mid-1930s, to participation in planning the assassination of Hitler are much debated.
Bonhoeffer’s nephew by his sister is the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi, son of Hans von Dohnanyi.