Among the reams of history written during World War II, few people could be said to provide a more intriguing character study than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hanged at the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, the former Lutheran theologian and committed pacifist was executed for his role in the plot to kill Adolph Hitler.
Bonhoeffer’s road to the gallows that day is unlikely as they come. Growing up, he could not help but understand the value of an education: his father was a successful professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Berlin and his mother a school teacher — the early years for any Bonhoeffer child were spent learning from her. An exceptionally bright mind, by his teens he felt certain he would pursue a career in the ministry despite his parents’ hope he would join his father in the field of medicine.
As an 18-year-old student at the University of Berlin, Bonhoeffer found himself wrestling with deep questions about his faith, melding the more liberal tradition of his professors to the conservative ideology espoused by renowned Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Three years later, he received his doctorate with high honors, earning high marks for his dissertation Sanctorum Communio and applause for the “theological miracle” he produced from Barth himself.
Still in his early twenties, Bonhoeffer was considered too young by the Lutheran establishment to train as a pastor. Forced to seek opportunities for service elsewhere until he could be ordained as a minister, he spent two years in Spain before taking on a fellowship at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Living on the western edge of Harlem, the slender German theologian gained an appreciation for the African-American struggle and developed a stronger sense of justice — one which would serve him well when he returned to his homeland in 1931.
Well-traveled by the time he made it back to Berlin, he finally took on the role of pastor, aged just 25. An astute thinker and capable preacher, the rise of Hitler cast a dark shadow upon his ministry. As if sensing the gravity of der Fuhrer, Bonhoeffer took to the airwaves to share a prescient warning against worshipping the new leader — no one would know where such an attitude could lead.
With the Nazi Party in control by early 1933, Bonhoeffer continued to raise objections of creeping governmental influence on Christianity. Frustrated by his perception of blindness amongst officials within the German Evangelical Church — a reorganized religious structure closely tied to the state — Bonhoeffer left for England having refused an opportunity to lead a congregation in the new hierarchy. Feeling his voice drowned out by the politics of his homeland, he carried his message of a Confessing Church built on the idea of Jesus as the central figure of the faith instead of human authorities to London.
Upon his return to Germany two years after leaving for the English capital, Bonhoeffer assimilated himself into the network of secret gatherings raising up the Confessing Church despite Nazi oppression. Declared a “pacifist and enemy of the state,” he became a fugitive, forced to abandon Berlin altogether by the Gestapo. Urged by friends to seek refuge in New York City, he arrived in America around the middle of 1939 — and immediately regretted it.
Convinced he could not “participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time,” he sailed for his troubled country on the last ship to leave the US for a German port. Once there, Nazi officials moved to quiet him almost immediately, prohibiting him from speaking, printing or publishing any of his thoughts.
Thirty-five years old and filled with a desire to undermine Hitler’s government, on his brother-in-law’s recommendation Bonhoeffer received a position in the Abwehr during 1941, one arm of the intelligence community. Now safe from entering the army as a soldier, the Lutheran pastor was exposed to the depth of Hitler’s plan for Germany and the horrifying acts already being committed to bring his vision to reality.
At the same time, however, he joined his brother-in-law as part of the German Resistance. As early as 1943, a plan called Operation Spark was in place to assassinate Hitler, with Bonhoeffer serving as a messenger attempting to notify Allied governments of the Abwehr’s conspiracy and open negotiations for a post-Fuhrer peace. Arrested that April — just days after an attempt to kill Hitler failed — Bonhoeffer faced charges of aiding Jewish refugees and spreading Confessing Church doctrine. Though he was doing both, his connection to the botched Operation Spark was still hidden.
Imprisoned on the shores of Lake Tegel northwest of Berlin, Bonhoeffer treated the encampment as fertile ground for ministry, talking about Christianity and earning the respect of the guards. Despite being restricted from all communication, a handful of administrators quietly took Bonhoeffer’s letters and sent them to his former students and friends.
On July 20, 1944, a second — and nearly successful — assassination attempt occurred at Hitler’s field headquarters in the central German town of Rastenberg. Once the extent of the massive conspiracy was discovered eight months later, the Nazi leader was driven to the brink of madness and declared every Abwehr plotter must be executed.
The day after his court martial, Bonhoeffer was marched naked to the gallows on April 9, 1945. Standing alongside six of his fellow conspirators, he was hanged at the Flossenburg camp just three weeks before the end of World War II in Europe. He was only 39.
Perhaps due to his extraordinary life, Bonhoeffer’s writings had a tremendous influence on post-war Christianity, both through his pre-war book The Cost of Discipleship and the posthumous Ethics. His incisive thoughts, coupled with his martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis, continue to make him a witness to the steadfast commitment to what is right. As the prison physician would later testify, “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Also On This Day:
1241 – Mongol armies defeat the Polish and Germans at the Battle of Liegnitz
1585 – The Roanoke Colony expedition, organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, leaves England
1860 – Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville makes the the oldest known recording of the human voice on his phonautograph
1959 – NASA announces the names of its first seven astronauts as part of the Mercury program
2003 – Soldiers from the United States capture the Iraqi capital of Baghdad