Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By Bill Franklin · Apr. 14, 2014

One is Robert E. Lee who surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia 149 years ago this past Wednesday ending the Civil War – at least in the north. During the month following most remaining Confederate generals in the south surrendered their forces. The last surrendered in June.

The other historic figure is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was hanged on the morning of April 9, 1945 by order of Adolf Hitler.

This is his story.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided at age 14 that he would be a pastor – a goal from which he never wavered. By age 21 he had earned a doctorate summa cum laude from Berlin University and before age 25 he had completed post-doctoral work that awarded the highest university degree possible.

Still, he was too young to be an ordained pastor, so Bonhoeffer traveled to New York for a year to study and teach at Union Theological Seminary as a Visiting Fellow. Returning to Germany in 1931, he was appointed to teach systematic theology at Berlin University. But he had become interested in ecumenism, perhaps as a result of having been introduced to black churches during his stay in America and having come to understand racism. His papers and letters suggest a shift in thinking from an intellectual interest in Christianity to a transformed faith in the message revealed in the gospels.

Bonhoeffer was ordained later that year having reached the age of 25 just as Nazism was beginning its rise to power under Adolf Hitler. It would brook no rival ideology. Germans were two-thirds Protestant and one-third Catholic before Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria and about half and half thereafter. Hitler was able to strike an agreement with the Catholic Church that would prohibit political activism and Jewish conversions to Christianity. (Many in the Catholic Church power structure were sympathetic to Nazi anti-Semitism.)

The Protestant churches were another affair. When Hitler attempted to unify their 28 sects into a single anti-Semitic Reich Church, some Protestants were sympathetic to expelling Jewish Christians; others weren’t. Those opposed to the Kirchenkampf – the church struggle that sought to Nazify the Protestant church – formed the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer aligned with them.

Early in the Kirchenkampf, Bonhoeffer authored a paper, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” which was sure to attract the attention of the Nazis. He contended that baptized Jews were members of the Christian Church. Those who weren’t members were nevertheless under the protection of the church, which had an obligation to “not only bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel” of the state “but at times halt the wheel itself.”

Thus, Bonhoeffer’s religious ideology put him on a collision course with the Nazi state. It also put him in opposition to Catholic and Protestant church leaders who chose to remain silent in order to avoid attracting Nazi attention. Still, more than 2,000 Confessing pastors joined Bonhoeffer to warn the world of Nazism’s threat.

In 1933 Bonhoeffer accepted a two-year position in London to be the minister for two German-speaking evangelical churches. He spent a good portion of those two years drumming up ecumenical support for the Confessing Church and its fight against Nazism. When he returned to Germany, Nazi suppression of the Confessing Church had grown harsher. Karl Barth, a founder of the Confessing movement, decided in 1935 to return to his home country, Switzerland. The next year Bonhoeffer was denounced for his pacifism, declared an enemy of the state, and forbidden to teach at Berlin University. He turned his energies to training Confessing Church pastors in an underground seminary in Finkenwalde. Another Confessing founder, Martin Niemöller, was arrested in July 1937. That year Himmler declared it illegal to train Confessing Church minister candidates and the Gestapo shut down Finkenwalde, arresting 27 pastors and students.

The product of these persecutions was Bonhoeffer’s best known book, The Cost of Discipleship, an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount. In it he condemned “cheap grace” the cosmetic imitation of the “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer likely learned the meaning of cheap grace from the protest culture of the black churches during his American sojourn. It would empower his discipleship during the Nazi era.

Throughout 1938 and into 1939 it became evident that Hitler’s demands would provoke war. The potential for national conscription loomed large. It would require an oath of allegiance to Hitler, a great concern for Bonhoeffer. When his mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr invited him that summer to return to the Union Theological Seminary and arranged a teaching job there for him, Bonhoeffer accepted. But almost immediately he regretted his decision. Despite the encouragement of friends to stay in America, Bonhoeffer wrote Niebuhr:

I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people… Christians in Germany will have 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 civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in late 1939 on the last steamer to sail before the outbreak of war.

For the rest of the post…

Once there he was forbidden to speak publicly. Then he was forbidden to publish, and then he was forbidden to be in Berlin.