Dietrich Bonhoeffer Channeled by Karl Mollison 20Nov2019
Born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. After completing his theological studies, he served a German‑speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain, from 1928–1930.
He studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York from 1930–1931. During that time he attended Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem and became deeply interested in the issue of racial injustice. He also became active in the Protestant ecumenical movement, making international contacts that after 1933 would prove crucial for the Confessing Church and for his time in the German resistance.
The German Evangelical Church under National Socialism
With Hitler’s ascent to power, Bonhoeffer’s church—the German Evangelical Church—entered the most difficult phase in its history. Strongly influenced by nationalism and unsettled by the chaos of the Weimar years, many Protestant leaders and church members welcomed the rise of Nazism.
In 1933, a group called the German Christians (Deutsche Christen) began to promote the nazification of German Protestantism through the creation of a pro-Nazi “Reich Church.” The German Christians wanted Protestantism to conform to Nazi ideology, and they pushed for the implementation of the state “Aryan laws” within the churches. The German Christians claimed that Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of an “Aryan” German Church through baptism.
Despite widespread anti-Semitism and enthusiasm for Nazism, most church leaders initially opposed the Aryan paragraph because it contradicted traditional teachings about baptism and ordination. Bonhoeffer argued that its ratification surrendered Christian precepts to political ideology.
One of Bonhoeffer’s most famous texts was his April 1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”
Addressing the challenges facing his church under Nazism, Bonhoeffer in this essay argued that National Socialism was an illegitimate form of government and hence had to be opposed on Christian grounds. He outlined three stages of this opposition. First, the church was called to question state injustice. Secondly, it had an obligation to help all victims of injustice, whether they were Christian or not. Finally, church might be called to “put a spoke in the wheel” to bring the machinery of injustice to a halt.
The essay reveals the complexity of Bonhoeffer’s thought and action. It was one of the earliest and clearest repudiations of National Socialism, revealing his early opposition to the regime.
Bonhoeffer’s outspoken political opinions isolated him within his church, and throughout the 1930s many of his activities were focused abroad. The leaders of the German Evangelical Church in Berlin demanded that he withdraw from ecumenical activities; Bonhoeffer refused.
Bonhoeffer began to train young clergy at an illegal Confessing Church seminary, Finkenwalde, which was closed by the Gestapo in September 1937. Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly traveling throughout eastern Germany to supervise his students, most of whom were working illegally in small parishes. The Gestapo banned him from Berlin in January 1938 and issued an order forbidding him from public speaking in September 1940.
Bonhoeffer became informed about different German resistance plans in 1938 through his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked in the Justice Ministry and was one of the earliest opponents of the regime. In October 1940, Dohnanyi used his connections to help Bonhoeffer avoid military service, obtaining an assignment for him in the office of Military Intelligence. Led by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the Military Intelligence office became the center of the German military resistance groups that eventually culminated in the July 20, 1944, attempt to overthrow the regime. On behalf of the Military Intelligence office Bonhoeffer made several trips outside the Reich between 1941 and 1942, informing ecumenical contacts in Geneva and the Vatican of the resistance plans.
Bonhoeffer was initially charged with conspiring to rescue Jews, using his foreign travels for non-intelligence matters, and misusing his intelligence position to help Confessing Church pastors evade military service. After the failed July 20, 1944, coup attempt, his connections to the broader resistance circles were uncovered and he was moved to the Gestapo prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was taken to Buchenwald and in April moved to the Flossenbürg concentration camp.
On April 9, 1945, he was hanged with other conspirators.
His brother Klaus Bonhoeffer was also executed for resistance activities, as were his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher.
Martyrdom then. What is martyrdom now?