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Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer with a group of young boys

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Theologian Against the Third Reich


A Lutheran Pastor and a prominent theologian, he offered his voice and his life to stop the massacre of the Jews.

In the face of a horror like the Holocaust, there were no more voices to condemn. The role of the Church, as depicted in the Costa-Gavras film Amen was lukewarm, at best. But that film also shed light on those who did feel they had to act despite the danger. One such person was Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a Lutheran pastor who joined the resistance with the intention of facing off the Third Reich.

Bonhoeffer stood out early in his theology studies for his innovative ideas about Christianity. This fact is attested to in what theologian Karl Barth once described his thesis as a theological miracle. He received his doctorate with that thesis at age 21 with cum laude distinction. The young man born in Breslau showed early signs for this clerical vocation. As a child, he’d played at baptizing his brothers before the eyes of his astonished parents, and his decision to study theology couldn’t be put off. At 17, he began his theological training in Tübingen and continued at the University of Berlin. After a period overseeing the vicarage of the Lutheran Church of Barcelona, he returned to Berlin, where at the young age of 25, he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor. Bonhoeffer is regarded, even today, as one of the most relevant theologians of the 20th century.

With theological ideas standing out for their heterodoxy, his intention had been to renew a dated image of God, the product of ignorance, and a lack of progress. Bringing God back to the center of life was one of his fundamental concerns:

"I see again very clearly that we should not use God as a catch-all for our imperfect knowledge. Because then, if the limits of knowledge go backwards more and more, God will go back with them… God is to be recognized in the midst of our lives and not only in the limits to our possibilities."

Bonhoeffer promoted a “Christianity without religion,” a concept which still intrigues theologians. Surely, the origin of his unusual understanding of Christianity was precisely in his call to social action, that which prevented him from conceiving of the sacred scriptures as a simple motive for speculation.

Only he who cries out for the Jews can also intone a Gregorian chant!

To put Christ’s words into action was to confront the injustice of his time, and prayer appeared as something necessary but clearly insufficient. In his Ethics he wrote:

"The Church remained silent, when it ought to have screamed… The Church recognizes having witnessed the abuses of brutal violence, the physical and psychic suffering of countless innocents […] without having raised its voice for them…"

Bonhoeffer joined the resistance and fought with his companions until March 13, 1943, the day a colleague put a bomb on the plane Adolf Hitler was to board. The detonator failed, but those participating in the attempted attack were captured.

Although today there remain doubts about his direct involvement, his opposition to Nazi politics played out in in his seminars. His close relationship with those opposed to and trying to overthrow the regime meant that he’d inevitably be among the accused.

Arrested in April 1943, on February 7, 1944 he was led to Buchenwald concentration camp and later transferred to Flossenbürg. On April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer was executed on the gallows. The field doctor who witnessed the execution, left his testimony of the moment with these words:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. […] In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

It’s possible that on his way to the gallows a sentence from his book, The Cost of Discipleship, ran through mind: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” But beyond speculation, history has retained what were possibly his last words.

This is the end – for me the beginning of life.

Bonhoeffer —today considered a martyr and one of the key figures of 20th-century ethical thought— was 39 years old.

Image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 – Creative Commons

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