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 antisemitism 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. If “non-Aryans” were banned from the ministry, he argued, their colleagues should resign in solidarity and establish a new “confessing” church that would remain free from Nazi influence. The ideological and theological extremism of the German Christians provoked a backlash among more moderate Protestants, leading to the formation of the Confessing Church in May 1934.
Although the Confessing Church took a clear stand against the German Christians, most of its leaders avoided political criticism of the Nazi regime. With few exceptions the Confessing Church remained silent about the persecution of German Jews.
“The Church and the Jewish Question”
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. On the other hand, the theological section of the essay also contains the traditional antisemitic teachings that for centuries had characterized Christian understandings of Judaism, and Bonhoeffer argued that the “Jewish question” would ultimately be resolved through the conversion of the Jews. He never explicitly abandoned this view.
Bonhoeffer's outspoken political opinions isolated him within his church, and throughout the 1930s many of his activities were focused abroad. He reported regularly on events in Nazi Germany to ecumenical Protestant leaders in Europe and the United States. In September 1933 he attended the ecumenical World Alliance meeting in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he spoke about the Jewish question and the delegates passed a resolution condemning Nazi actions against Jews. Bonhoeffer took a copy of the resolution to the German consul in Sofia to prove that Nazi policies were damaging Germany's image abroad. The leaders of the German Evangelical Church in Berlin demanded that he withdraw from ecumenical activities; Bonhoeffer refused.
From September 1933 to April 1935, Bonhoeffer served as pastor to several German-speaking congregations in London, leading them to break with the official German church and join the Confessing Church. In April 1935, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, where the Confessing Church was under increasing pressure from the Gestapo. Most church leaders refused to openly oppose the Nazi regime and criticized their colleagues who did. As a result, more radical Confessing Christians found themselves embattled on all sides.
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 travelling 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.
The first deportations of Berlin Jews to the east occurred on October 15, 1941. A few days later, Bonhoeffer and Friedrich Perels, a Confessing Church lawyer, wrote a memo giving details of the deportations. The memo was sent to foreign contacts as well as trusted German military officials, in the hope that it might move them to action. Bonhoeffer also became peripherally involved in “Operation Seven,” a plan to get Jews out of Germany by giving them papers as foreign agents. After the Gestapo uncovered the “Operation Seven” funds that had been sent abroad for the emigrants, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943.
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.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations affected Bonhoeffer’s choices during the Nazi era?
- What relationship between government and religious leaders may be appropriate or inappropriate?
- Do religious leaders have any obligation to speak out about or resist government actions or policies they believe are unethical or heretical? Why or why not?