For the past several years toward the end of the Lenten season, I have been reminded of the sad yet heroic life and times of the brave German theologian and scholar, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Although rarely discussed in popular culture, it was on April 8, 1945, that Bonhoeffer, the young, patriot pastor, led his last worship service one week after Easter at a church associated with the Flossenburg concentration camp in the isolated Bavaria town near the Czechoslovakian border.

So who exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and what did he do nearly 70 years ago that he continues to be remembered as an exemplary proponent of the Christian faith?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Born Feb. 4, 1906, to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer in the small town of Breslau in a part of Eastern Germany that is now Poland, the young Dietrich was home-schooled by his mother along with seven siblings. He went on to graduate with honors from the University of Berlin in 1927.

Too young to be ordained as a minister, in 1931 Bonhoeffer traveled to take a graduate degree from the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While there, he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, taught Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, and began collecting African-American gospel spirituals.

In 1931 he joined the theological faculty of his alma mater, where his father had been a professor of psychiatry and neurology since 1912. As a lecturer in systematic theology, in 1933 when Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist regime came to power amid a conservative majority cabinet, Bonhoeffer became one of the first outspoken critics of the policies being promoted by the fledgling government.

It was not long before the tentacles of the Nazi regime extended deep into the German Lutheran and Protestant churches across Germany, professing it was race, not religion, that determined one’s civic identity and the character of a nation.

With the strong anti-Semitic wave of public opinion washing over Germany, Bonhoeffer joined with some 2,000 theologians and church men to form the Confessing Church and began making appeals to ecumenical organizations abroad regarding the evils deep within the Nazi government.

In 1935 he took a teaching position in a seminary on a remote Pomeranian estate but visited with his family in Berlin quite frequently.

At several times during 1933 and 1934, Bonhoeffer traveled to England teaching and hoping to garner support for the Confessing Church within Germany. At one point he had an opportunity to study with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram but decided to return to Germany as the oppression of his organization increased.

From 1936 through 1938, he traveled secretly among the various seminaries within the Confessing Church, teaching young seminarians and preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The following year he returned to the U.S. for a time but became disenchanted.

With many of his friends urging him to stay out of Germany, he wrote to Niebuhr, “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany … Christians in Germany are going to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose.”

Returning to Germany in light of increased oppression of his church and associates, he was repeatedly harassed by the Nazis and was required to report his travels and activities to the Gestapo in 1940.

By 1941 he was forbidden to preach or publish within Germany.

Worked to end Third Reich, Hitler’s Reign
During this time he secretly joined the Abwehr, a German military intelligence operation, which was secretly behind efforts to assassinate Hitler and bring an end to the Third Reich.

Continuing to travel abroad under the cover of the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer functioned as a courier for the resistance movement, conveying information from within the Third Reich to his friends in England and raising money for his fellow churchmen in Germany.

With his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, he also assisted in the escape of 14 Jews to Switzerland.

In 1943, looking desperately for a means by which to discredit the Abwehr in a long-standing rivalry over control of foreign intelligence, Bonhoeffer, von Dohnanyi and others were arrested for subverting Nazi policy toward the Jews and misusing the Abwehr.

Apparently, when Gestapo agents searched Abwehr headquarters, they found a note discussing a planned trip to Rome to explain to church leaders why the assassination attempt upon Hitler’s life in March 1943 had failed.

For more than a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel military prison awaiting trial. Impressed by his faithfulness and his dynamic personality, prison guards frequently smuggled books, messages and visitors to see the jailed cleric.

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