Bonhoeffer was born on February 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany. A twin, he grew up in a comfortable professional home. His father was an eminent psychiatrist and neurologist.
It was nominally a Lutheran, though not a profoundly religious, environment and the young Bonhoeffer caused something of a stir when he announced, at thirteen, that he would go into the church.
After school he enrolled as a student at the University of Berlin, the city in which the family now lived and in whose university there gathered a host of brilliant thinkers. Intellectually, Bonhoeffer was striking. But he was determined to expand his horizons, too.
At the age of eighteen he went to Rome and was powerfully moved by the Roman Catholic Church. In 1930-1931 he studied in New York, at Union Theological Seminary, and regularly attended Services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. Here too he became increasingly drawn to ecumenism. Three times he made plans to travel to India and visit Gandhi, whose life and teachings he found compelling.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, became chancellor and then dictator of Germany. Bonhoeffer saw Nazism as an idolatrous counter-religion and a danger to Christianity. He became an active participant in the dispute that broke out in the state-controlled German Lutheran Church between those who sympathized with Nazism and those who sensed that the new politics threatened the integrity of the church.
When Hitler appointed his own bishop and declared that pastors of Jewish descent could no longer serve in the church, Bonhoeffer and others left the church in protest. They founded the Confessing Church which soon became the center of German Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was a leading spokesman of the new church. In 1935 he was appointed to organize and lead an underground seminary for the Confessing Church on the Baltic Sea at Finkenwald in the region of Pomerania. The Gestapo shut it down in October 1937.
In 1939 he sailed to the United States, and once again to New York. But war was imminent. He chose to return to his own country, knowing what costs may lie before him, and remarking that the victory of Nazism in Europe would destroy Christian civilization.
After the start of World War II, Bonhoeffer joined in the political resistance to Hitler. To Bonhoeffer, true discipleship demanded political resistance against this criminal state.
Members of Bonhoeffer’s family had for some time been on the fringe of circles that were opposed to the Nazi regime. He was increasingly implicated in the work of groups committed to the overthrow of the government. To Bonhoeffer, true discipleship now demanded political resistance against this criminal state.
imprisonment and execution
In March 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in Berlin. In July 1944 an attempt was made to assassinate Hitler. It failed disastrously, and hundreds of political prisoners were executed afterwards. Bonhoeffer was eventually executed by hanging at the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg on April 9, 1945 only a few days before the end of the war. He was 39 years old.
Bonhoeffer is important for his firm belief in the need for a reinterpretation of Christianity for the modern secular world. The stripping off of “religion,” in the sense of otherworldliness and preoccupation with personal salvation, Bonhoeffer suggested, will in fact free Christianity for its authentic this-worldliness in accordance with its Judaic roots. Dietrich Bonhoeffer believed that religion is not an abstraction, but a way of life. It was his opinion that a man of God must care for all of his fellow human beings, and reach out to support them when they are in need.
Bonhoeffer urged a conformation to the form of Jesus as the suffering servant in a total commitment of self to others. He wrote that the church should give up its inherited privileges in order to free Christians to “share in God’s sufferings in the world” in imitation of Jesus, “the man for others.”
Bonhoeffer left the immortal phrase that it was essential “to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled—in short from the perspective of those who suffer.”
- Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (1927 dissertation, published in 1930)
- Act and Being (1930 dissertation, published in 1931)
- Creation and Fall: A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (1933; 1959 English translation)
- The Cost of Discipleship (1937; 1949 English translation)
- Life Together (1939; 1954 English translation)
- Ethics (1943; 1955 English translation)
- Letters and Papers from Prison (1951; 1953 English translation)
- No Rusty Swords (1965)
- Christ the Center (1966)
- The Way to Freedom (1966)
- A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1990)
- Fiction from Tegel Prison, edited by Clifford Green (1999)
- The Young Bonhoeffer 1918–1927 (2002)
- Conspiracy and Imprisonment 1940–1945 (2006)
Bonhoeffer is a 90-minute documentary film directed by Martin Doblmeier. The film uses footage of Hitler’s reign, interviews with Bonhoeffer’s friends, family, and students, and analysis from historians to vividly tell his story. These individuals describe Bonhoeffer as an inspiring teacher, a thoughtful writer of theological treatises, and finally, an active resister who took part in a failed conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace is a dramatization of the adult life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Among the many books about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an excellent novel based on his life:
- Denise Giardina, Saints and Villains (1998)