February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945
Martyr for Christ in Hitler's Germanyby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
“Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.” -Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer, a theologian and devout believer in Jesus Christ, once said, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He soon became a living example of his own quote, both literally and spiritually. Devoting his life to Christ, he ministered in England and Germany. Despite his German heritage, he bravely denounced Hitler’s leadership time and time again. In 1943, he was arrested by the Nazis for standing up against them. Two years later, he was hanged. As a martyr for the cause of Christ, he became a role model of how a true, dedicated Christian should live.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906, in eastern Germany, now known as Poland. The sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, Dietrich had three brothers and four sisters. His father was a professor at the University of Berlin, while his mother home-schooled the children. Though Dietrich’s family had strong ties with the Lutheran teachings, they treated it more like a tradition rather than a way of life. At a young age, he told his family that he wanted to become a pastor. The reactions to this announcement were not completely positive, yet he did not give up on his ambition. Around the age of fourteen, he began to study theology. After a few years of research on this subject, Bonhoeffer studied theology at the Tubingen University. In 1927, at the ripe age of twenty-one, he graduated with honours, finishing his dissertation and first book, Sanctorum Communio, a theological study that looked at sociology of the church. For the next three years, Bonhoeffer served as vicar in Barcelona, Spain.
In his desire to share the Gospel with others, Bonhoeffer preached in several churches for many of the following years. He made people ponder the conflicting ideologies that were currently present in Germany. After Adolf Hitler took reign as chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, Bonhoeffer watched as many of his friends began to support Hitler’s anti-Semitism. As Hitler’s influence over the German churches grew, some of the churches questioned the Jew’s place in Germany. Very few, if any, churches stood alongside Bonhoeffer to refute Hitler’s rule. Because of this, Bonhoeffer became frustrated and moved to London to pastor a German-speaking church. However, the oppression of the Jews increased, and Bonhoeffer wished to help them. In the spring of 1933, he left the London parish and helped to found a Confessing Church which had already begun to aid the Jews. Many other German parishes in England joined with Bonhoeffer’s new church. In this way, Bonhoeffer influenced many people to support the Jews alongside of him.
However, Hitler was still a significant threat to the Jews. As he propagandized the German Evangelical Church, he poisoned the thinking of many church-going Germans. Numerous churches in Germany were taught the Nazi ideology by a group called the “German Christians”. They suggested removing portions of the New Testament, mainly Paul's writings, and all of the Old Testament. In the summer of 1933, the same group proposed the “Aryan paragraph,” which would prevent non-Aryans from becoming pastors. They also intended to prevent Jews from becoming church members. However, these disturbing actions did not stop Bonhoeffer from continuing to denounce Hitler and his Nazis.
After his Confessions Church was shut down in 1935, due to the ever-increasing pressure from Hitler’s Gestapo, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. He came looking for anyone who was willing to openly oppose the Nazis. Many were too afraid to follow Bonhoeffer, while others supported the German Evangelical Church and its false doctrines. Later, he started up a seminary course that was a direct attack against the Nazi ideology. However, his teaching and ministry was declared illegal in August 1937 under the Himler Decree. The next month, his seminary was shut down. By November, Nazis had arrested 27 of Bonhoeffer’s former students. Bonhoeffer then began to secretly visit his students, teaching and encouraging them in private. In January 1938, he was officially banned from Berlin. When World War I began in 1939, he left Germany to teach a seminary in New York. However, he soon realized that he had left his home country only to escape the hardships of war and oppression of the Nazis. He wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America...I shall have no right to take part in the restoration of Christian life in Germany after the war unless I share the trials of this time with my people.”
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany shortly thereafter and continued to condemn Hitler’s leadership. It was not long before the Nazis recognized that he was a dangerous threat to their cause. In September of 1940, the Gestapo forbade Bonhoeffer from public speaking and publishing. However, Bonhoeffer was so determined to oppose the German dictator that he even assisted in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and remained in several different prisons for nearly two years. In February of 1945, he was moved to a concentration camp in Buchenwald. On April 9, 1945, he was sentenced to be executed. As he was led out to the gallows, Bonhoeffer spoke: “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” Only days later, the Germans surrendered as their leader committed suicide. Bonhoeffer knew that, despite all the suffering he had to endure, it would all be for the cause of glorifying Jesus Christ. In answering Christ’s call, Bonhoeffer sacrificed his own life for the sake of others.
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