Christian discipleship vs. Hitler's dictatorship. Commemorating Dietrich Bonhoeffer, man of God under the Third Reich

Essay 2005 19 Pages

History Europe - Germany - National Socialism, World War II




60 years ago, in accordance with Hitler’s express order, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in the concentration camp Flossenbürg. One miserable month before the end of the war and the downfall of the Third Reich, two weeks before the liberation of this Bavarian concentration camp by American troups, during the night of April 8th to 9th, Bonhoeffer was court-martialed, found guilty of high treason and sentenced to death. At dawn he was hanged - along with fellow-conspirators Admiral Canaris, the head of the “Abwehr”, the German military intelligence, and General Oster, his second-in-command.

The Gestapo had eventually found out their part in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler.

Therefore Bonhoeffer was and probably still is a controversial protestant pastor and theologian.

During the commemoration service held in London in July 1945 Bishop Bell, who knew him well, said that “his death [was] a death for Germany and that as one of a noble company of martyrs of differing traditions he represented both the resistance of believing soul, in the name of God, to the assault of evil, and also the moral and political revolt of the human conscience against injustice and cruelty” [i] whereas twenty years later a German Bishop refused to attend to a commemoration ceremony in Flossenbürg arguing that Bonhoeffer wasn’t a religious martyr and had died because of his political activities.

Bonhoeffer himself was “certain that the duty had been laid on [him] to hold out in this boundary situation with all its problems” [ii] and –metaphorically speaking - that if a mad-driver drove into a crowd his duty as a pastor was not only to burry the dead and comfort the mourners but also to do all what is in his power to stop the madman and prevent him from killing more people.

Bonhoeffer’s life story I am about to sketch is the story of a brilliant and ambitious theologian who became a committed Christian at the time of the rise of National Socialism, who, as a disciple of Christ opposed Hitler, the Antichrist, first as probably the most radical protestant clergyman of the confessional opposition, then as a political conspirator in the military opposition, BOTH on Christian grounds. It is the story of a man of God who, like Jeremiah, has been overpowered by God, shared the fate of his people, who, at the end, threw himself into God’s arms for, like Moses, he wasn’t allowed to enter the Promised Land.

When Bonhoeffer decided that he wanted to study theology he was 14 and not yet a Christian. There had been theologians among his forebears and the Bonhoeffer-children had been baptized and confirmed. But the Bonhoeffers were not churchgoers. His parents’ main upbringing principle was to make their 8 children responsible human beings who would always take into account the needs and feeling of others. (And they succeeded: two sons and two sons in law were executed by the SS because of their participation in the anti-Hitler-conspiracy.)

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided that he wanted to study theology his decision had much more to do with his personal ambition and – as he put it himself – his “pitiful vanity” than with Jesus Christ. He had to find a field of his own in which he would be the best. When he was born in 1906 he had three older brothers, two older sisters and one twin-sister, another girl came after the twins. He belonged to the group of the three little ones. And the gap between him and his brothers grew even deeper when two of them returned from WWI whereas he had stayed safely at home. Moreover his father and brothers were all leading experts in their field. The father was THE Berliner psychiatrist and neurologist of his time. (If one of the early plans for a coup d’état had succeeded Hitler would have been arrested by a general, publicly arraigned, examined for his mental health, declared insane and thus relieved of his positions. If this plan had succeeded Karl Bonhoeffer would have been the psychiatrist in charge of Hitler’s mental checkup.) Today Berlin’s psychiatric institutions are named after Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s father, the Max Planck Institut of Göttingen after his oldest brother.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer started studying theology in 1923, his oldest brother, Karl-Friedrich, succeeded in splitting the hydrogen atom which led to an invitation to Harvard among other universities and to a chair in physics in Frankfurt at age 31, his brother Klaus did his doctorate in jurisprudence and started working in international law at the League of Nations in Geneva.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer started studying theology at age 17 he “plunged into work in a very unChristian way”, “at that time [he] turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for [him]self”.[iii] But he didn’t think about going to church. He was an outstanding theology student: he completed his dissertation Sanctorum Communio in 1927 at age 21, his habilitation Act and Being three years later and spent one year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930/31 although he had already finished his studies. Why did this overqualified theologian go the USA to study? Because he had one year to fill, because he was too young to be ordained. And he did want to be ordained. It is remarkable that even if he hadn’t become a Christian yet, he had the feeling that theology was not only an academic matter but had to have practical application in church. So Bonhoeffer took all the steps to become a pastor as well. Between his dissertation and habilitation he spent one year in Barcelona as an assistant pastor, after he came back from America (where he didn’t go to church regularly either) he started lecturing at the University of Berlin as an assistant professor and he had reached the canonical minimal age for ordination: he was 25.

“Then something happened, something that has transformed and even reversed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible. (…) I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, and talked and preached about it-but I had not yet become a Christian (…) I know that at that time I turned the doctrine of Jesus Christ into something of personal advantage for myself. (…) Then the Bible, and in particular the Sermon on the Mount, freed me from that. Since then everything has changed. (…) It was a great liberation. It became clear to me that the life of a servant of Jesus Christ must belong to the church, and step by step it became plainer to me how far that must go.

Then came the crisis of 1933. This strengthened me in it. (…) I suddenly saw as self-evident the Christian pacifism that I had recently passionately opposed. (…) And so it went on, step by step. (…) My calling is quite clear to me. What God will make of it I do not know (…).

I must follow the path. Perhaps it will not be such a long one.(…) But it is a fine thing to have realized my calling.”[iv]

When the crisis of 1933 came, Bonhoeffer was a Christian. And he was a radical opponent to the Nazi-regime.

Two days after Hitler’s accession to power on January 30th, Bonhoeffer was to give a talk on radio about The youth and the principle of leadership. Unfortunately the broadcast was interrupted before he could say:

“If the leader allows himself to be persuaded by those he leads who want to turn him into their idol – and those who are led will always hope for this – then the image of the leader will degenerate into that of the misleader. The leader who makes an idol of himself and his office makes a mockery of God.”[v]

But fortunately, Bonhoeffer managed to have the entire talk published.


[i] Quoted in: BETHGE, Eberhard: Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Theologian, Christian, Man of his time. A biography. Revised and edited by Victoria J. BARNETT. Fortress press, Minneapolis 2000, (DB), p. 931.

[ii] Letter to Eberhard, 18 November 1943. In: BONHOEFFER, Dietrich: Letters and papers from prison. New greatly enlarged edition. Edited by Eberhard BETHGE. Simon & Schuster, New York 1997. (LPP), p. 129

[iii] Letter to Elisabeth Zinn. Finkenwalde, January 1, 1936. In: BONHOEFFER, Dietrich: A Testament to Freedom. The essential writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Edited by Geffrey B. BELLY and F. Burton NELSON. Harper, San Francisco, 1995 (TF), p. 424.

[iv] Letter to Elisabeth Zinn. Finkenwalde, January 1, 1936. In: TF, pp. 424-425. (Translation slightly modified by A. TAM)

[v] BETHGE, Eberhard: Bonhoeffer. An illustrated introduction in documents and photographs. Translated by Rosaleen Ockenden. Collins 1979, pp. 60-61.


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Christian Hitler Commemorating Dietrich Bonhoeffer Third Reich Gedenkrede Massachusetts Institut Technology




Title: Christian discipleship vs. Hitler's dictatorship. Commemorating Dietrich Bonhoeffer, man of God under the Third Reich