Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany whose opposition to Hitler cost him his life.
Born in Breslau in 1906, Dietrich was one of 8 children raised in a devout Christian home. He studied theology at Berlin University, and then traveled to the United States at age 24 to attend Union Theological Seminary.
In New York, Dietrich met Frank Fisher, a black seminarian who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Dietrich loved the music and the joyous style of worship at the African-American church. He started teaching Sunday school at Abyssinian Baptist. Dietrich said, “Here one can truly speak and hear about sin and grace and the love of God…the Black Christ is preached with rapturous passion and vision.”
In 1931, Dietrich returned to Germany, where he was ordained. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Dietrich became a vocal critic of the Nazi regime, especially their euthanasia policies and persecution of the Jews. Two days after Hitler was installed as Chancellor, Dietrich gave a radio address in which he tried to warn Germans that Nazism would destroy the country. Before Dietrich could finish speaking, he was abruptly cut off the air.
Around this time, a schism developed in the German Protestant church movement. The Deutsche Christens were Nazi sympathizers who tried to combine Christian teachings with Nazi ideology. They eliminated the Old Testament from their Bibles. Hitler imposed a country-wide church election in which the Deutsche Christens won control of most synods.
Bonhoeffer became a leader of the opposition movement and helped draft the Bethel Confession, a declaration of faith affirming God’s love for the Jews.
Dietrich taught theology at the University of Berlin but was fired for being an enemy of the state. He began leading an underground seminary, training anti-Nazi pastors. In 1937, the Gestapo shut down the seminary. For the next two years, Dietrich led a traveling seminary, working illegally in small villages throughout Germany.
He published the first of several books, The Cost of Discipleship, about the Sermon on the Mount. Dietrich preached a message of “costly grace” rather than “cheap grace.”
Dietrich was constantly harassed by the Nazis. He was banned from Berlin and forbidden to speak publicly or publish. He joined the German resistance movement and worked as a courier, delivering information about what was happening in Germany to the wider ecumenical community.
Dietrich’s brother-in-law Hans van Dohnanyi was a German intelligence officer and Allied sympathizer. Together, Dietrich and Hans secretly organized rescue operations to help German Jews escape to Switzerland.
In 1943, Dietrich and Hans were arrested and imprisoned. Dietrich continued his religious outreach, preaching the gospel to prisoners and guards. A sympathetic guard offered to help him escape, but he declined, fearing the Nazis would punish his family.
Both Dietrich and Hans were condemned to death. Dietrich was executed by hanging on April 9, 1945 – just two weeks before the collapse of Nazi Germany.
The morning of his execution, Dietrich was stripped of his clothing and led naked to the gallows. One witness later described the scene: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
For shining a light in dark times, and sacrificing his life so others could live, we honor Dietrich Bonhoeffer as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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