Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The German Minister Who Stood Against Hitler's Germany
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant Lutheran Pastor in Germany when Hitler was in power. He was a leader in the church and was known for voicing his opposition to Hitler and persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer declared the church couldn’t just bandage victims seen under the wheel but was also responsible for jamming the spoke of the wheel used to cause harm. He preached against Hitler, worked for the small resistance movement in Germany, helped German Jews escape to Switzerland and more. His loud and constant opposition to the Nazis in Germany resulted in Bonhoeffer being arrested. During the last months of World War II, he was executed at the Flossian concentration camp.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany on February 4, 1906. He was the sixth of seven children. His father was Karl Bonhoeffer who was a neurologist and psychiatrist. His mother was Paula Bonhoeffer who worked as a teacher. Her great-grandfather was Karl Bonhoeffer, a well-known Protestant theologian. During his youth, Bonhoeffer exhibited great promise with playing music. His family thought he would pursue a career as a musician. All of them were shocked when Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his family he wanted to become a priest. Bonhoeffer was 14 years old.
In 1927, Dietrich Bonhoeffer completed his studies at the University of Berlin and earned a doctorate in theology. Bonhoeffer was 25 years old when he was ordained as a priest. He then spent some time in the United State and Spain after graduating. This gave him a broader perspective of the world. Bonhoeffer felt this experience gave him a more practical understanding of the Gospels. It is during this time he developed his belief it was the church’s obligation to be involved with social justice. He believed the church was responsible for protecting those in the world who were oppressed. After he finished traveling in 1931, he returned to Berlin. This was a very unstable time in Germany. The Great Depression was affecting nations all over the world. German unemployment was very high. It is believed this helped Hitler win the election in 1933. During this time, the churches that supported the Nazi were labeled as intact churches. Those few that opposed the Nazis were labeled as destroyed churches.
Two months prior to the Nazis taking over Germany in 1932, an election was held by the church to determine church officials. It was a struggle between the nationalistic German Christians and young reformers. Hitler came to power and went against the German constitution by demanding new church elections be held in 1933. The elections were rigged and all important positions in the church went to Deutsche Christen people who supported the Nazis. This was the beginning of Bonhoeffer's conflict with the German church, Nazis as well as Hitler's Germany.
During 1933, Bonhoeffer voiced his opposition to the persecution of Jews. He worked to persuade church leaders they had a responsibility to confront this type of policy. Bonhoeffer made a radio broadcast that year. During it, he criticized Hitler as well as the persecution of the Jews. Bonhoeffer talked about danger from the followers of the Fuhrer and them being an idolatrous cult. The radio broadcast was cut off in the middle of him speaking.
The Confessing Church
Bonhoeffer formed a breakaway church known as The Confessing Church. The driving force in this church was to stand against the German Christian movement supporting the Nazis. Too many people around him felt helpless to go against the Nazification of German society as well as the Nazi churches. Bonhoeffer was extremely upset by this course of events. He was given an appointment in London to serve in a German-speaking Protestant church for two years.
Enemy Of The State
While in London, Bonhoeffer continued working for the Confessing Church. He spent significant amounts of time on the telephone and at international gatherings inspiring people with the Christian gospel to speak against the Deutsche Christen movement and Nazi nationalism. A Bishop in charge of the German Lutheran Church foreign affairs visited Bonhoeffer in London. He told Bonhoeffer to stop any and all types of ecumenical activities that did not have direct authorization from Berlin. Bonhoeffer refused this request. When he returned to Germany, one leader of the Confessing Church had been arrested. The other had made his way to Switzerland. Bonhoeffer had his teaching authorization taken away. In 1936, he was officially labeled as an enemy of the state.
During the next two years, Bonhoeffer would go from one German village to another and work with illegal parishes helping their worship. This was known as seminary on the run. This activity was discovered and in 1938, Bonhoeffer was banned from Berlin by the Gestapo. Many participants in the seminary were able to get away. The Gestapo shut down all the buildings used for the seminary. Bonhoeffer's brother-in-law Gerhard Leibholz was classified as Jewish as well as was Bonhoeffer's sister and her two daughters. All of them were able to escape to England through Switzerland.
Return To Germany
Bonhoeffer made plans to leave Germany. He was a committed pacifist. Bonhoeffer knew he would refuse to swear an oath to Hitler or fight in the German army. To do this would be considered a capital offense. In June of 1939, Bonhoeffer left Germany and went to the United States. It was less than two years before he returned. He felt guilty for being in a safe sanctuary and not displaying the courage necessary to practice what he preached. When he returned, the Nazis informed Bonhoeffer that he was not permitted to speak in public or publish articles of any kind.
Prior to leaving for the United States, Bonhoeffer was able to meet with some German intelligence officers who opposed to Hitler. Abwehr was the German military intelligence agency. The strongest opposition to Hitler was within Abwehr. It was during a very dark time during World War II when Bonhoeffer felt conflicted with his pacifism. He began to feel the need for violent opposition to the evil of the Nazi regime.
Bonhoeffer would travel to church conferences taking place across Europe. It was believed he was obtaining information about the places he visited. Bonhoeffer was actually working to help Jews escape Nazi oppression. He went to England and met with members of British intelligence. Bonhoeffer provided them with important intelligence information. Bonhoeffer worked with Abwehr on a plot to overthrow Hitler. He also worked on a plan to assassinate Hitler.
Helping Jews escape and Bonhoeffer’s other activities against the Nazi's became known. Records from Abwehr detailing German resistance were discovered. It was April 1943 when a black Mercedes arrived at Bonhoeffer's home. Two men arrested him and placed him in the car. Bonhoeffer was taken to Tegel prison. He was transferred to Buchenwald prison and eventually taken to Flossenburg and an extermination camp. During this time, Bonhoeffer did outreach to his fellow prisoners. He was eventually given a quick court-martial and sentenced to death.
On the day of his execution, Bonhoeffer was taken from his cell with other prisoners. The verdict from his court-martial was read to him. Prior to going to the gallows, Bonhoeffer fell to his knees and prayed. Once near the gallows, he again said several prayers. Those who witnessed this were overwhelmed by Bonhoeffer's belief that God was hearing his prayers. Once he was finished, Dietrich Bonhoeffer calmly climbed up to the gallows and was hanged. He died on April 9, 1945.
Bonhoeffer was a theologian and pastor with a strong belief in God. He lived as he preached and dedicated his life to helping those in need. Bonhoeffer was put to death because of his strong opposition to the Nazis. His life and death inspired many such as the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. Bonhoeffer has also been considered an inspiration to the Anti-communist movement in Eastern Europe as well as the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and more.