February 4th, 1906 was a very important day in the Bonhoeffer household in Breslau, Silesia-
– on that day twins, a girl named Sabine and a boy named Dietrich were born. There were already five older children, three boys and two girls, and three years later another sister completed the family. They were a highly cultured, upper middle class professional lot, who kept servants and played plenty of music at home. Their father Karl was professor of psychiatry at the University and director of a clinic. Six years later they all moved to Berlin when he was appointed Chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Kaiser Wilhelm University there. Paula, their mother was the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who for two years had been a chaplain to the Kaiser himself- and he had married a Countess, no less. Though they were members of the Lutheran Church, they were not regular church-goers, and the children were not sent to Sunday school. Paula preferred to teach them herself, as she thought Sunday school teachers did a lot of harm. But an important influence was the younger children’s nanny, Maria Horn, a member of the Moravian Church, with a very personal faith which she shared with her charges. When at age 14 Dietrich announced that he wanted to study theology, however, the family were taken aback. Brother Klaus, five years his senior, ridiculed him, asking why he would want to waste his life on such a “poor, feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.” “If what you say is true”, Dietrich replied “I will reform it.”
Before that the family had gone through the trauma of the First World War, including the death of Walter who was killed in action in April 1918. Like almost all Germans, Dietrich resented the harsh terms imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles, but did not like so many boys born between 1900 and 1910, who had been too young to fight in the War, become enthusiastic about rabble-rousers like Adolf Hitler. Nor did he swallow the growing rhetoric that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by cowardly civilians, many of them Jews, who had betrayed the army (the Generals had been very careful to hand over to civilians before the actual armistice, which they could clearly see was inevitable). Bonhoeffer was of the class of people (which included many senior military officers) who disdained such political nonsense.
It was the time of hyper-inflation in Germany. When Dietrich started University at Tübingen, near Stuttgart, in 1923, a meal in the University canteen cost a billion Reichsmarks. His father had cashed in his life insurance but was only able to buy a basket of strawberries with it. Later that year the Government was able to stabilise the currency somewhat. Tübingen was famous for the way it had pioneered the historical study of the Bible, back in the 19th century- a way of thinking which many people still saw as a threat to faith. But his studies there were mainly in philosophy, not theology. He was joined also by his older sister Christine, who came to Tübingen to study Zoology. She was expected to iron his shirts and resented that fact- apparently Dietrich never knew.
In Holy Week 1924 he went to Italy with his older brother Klaus. In Rome he saw the glamour of Catholic worship for the first time in his life, and he began to appreciate the Church as a community with its own life, rather than just the “spiritual” arm of the State, with the rather formal and boring services he had experienced in North Germany. This was an insight which led him to the theme of his doctoral thesis “The Communion of Saints” three years later in Berlin, where he went to study theology in summer 1924.
In theology the talk of the town was Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian who had reacted to the disaster of the First World War by rejecting all the liberal theology of the 19th century, which he said had led to the War, or at least had failed to prevent it. No more of this nonsense about building a Christian civilisation, he said- what theology is about is hearing God’s Word for our day. But Bonhoeffer’s tutor in Berlin was Harnack, who had severe doubts about Barth’s ideas. Bonhoeffer struggled to reconcile these two very different ways of doing theology. He also began to teach in the Sunday school at his local church and became very good at it. Perhaps because of his own lack of experience in Sunday school, he was willing to stretch their minds, rather than talk down to “their level”.
At the end of 1927 he was sent off to Barcelona to become assistant pastor (“vikar” in German) to the German Church there. He preached 19 sermons and gave four lectures during his year there- these proved more popular than those of the senior pastor, which created some tension.
Back to Germany in early 1929 for yet more study and a post as a volunteer assistant lecturer. As yet Bonhoeffer had shown little interest in politics and its relationship to theology. But these were times that forced you to think seriously about that. The US Wall Street Crash in October of that year was spreading economic depression and unemployment through Europe, adding to Germany’s burden with the war reparations demanded by the Allies. People were losing faith in democracy and turning to the political extremists of both left and right- in the September 1930 election the Nazis increased their seats in the Reichstag Parliament from 12 to 107. By that time, however, Bonhoeffer was in New York, sent for a year’s study at Union Theological Seminary. He was disappointed by what he saw as the shallowness of faith in the white American churches, and became involved with a Black Baptist Church in Harlem. He also became friends with Jean Lasserre, a French pacifist, who began to persuade him that the Sermon on the Mount ought to be taken seriously. This was a radical thought for someone brought up in Lutheran theology, which tended to say that the Sermon was an impossible ideal in the real world, designed not to be practiced, but to show us how much we need Jesus as our Saviour. He said later in a letter to a friend that it was in New York that he stopped being just a theologian, and began also to be a disciple of Christ.
He began work as a Lecturer in Theology at Berlin University in the summer of 1931. In that November he was ordained into the ministry of the Old Prussian United Church and became Chaplain to the students in the Technical University, which he found hard going because two-thirds of them were members of the Nazi student organisation. He also got involved again with parish work, especially helping local pastors in their work with young people, and in international ecumenical work, becoming youth secretary for the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches. His constant urging there that churches needed to work together for peace was swimming against a growing tide of national antagonisms- but his meeting and friendship with Bishop Bell of Chichester was to prove significant for his future. In the winter of 1932/3 he began a course of lectures on Genesis, later published as “Creation and Fall”. A common idea at the time was that certain “orders of creation” were God-given and therefore could not be challenged- especially nationhood and race. Bonhoeffer argued that everything in Creation, though created good, was tainted by sin and by the Fall, and so without Christ could become evil and destructive. On the 31st January 1933, the day after Hitler became Chancellor, he spoke on Genesis 3 verse 4: “You will be like God, knowing good and evil”. And on February 1st he gave a planned radio talk on the idea of leadership. If the leader, the Führer, allows himself to become an idol (“like God”), he said, he risks becoming a Verführer, a mis-leader, a seducer. The microphone was cut off- was it simply that he had run out of time?
Not everyone in the German churches agreed with Bonhoeffer’s assessment of Hitler. Many saw him as the saviour of Germany, after the long years of humiliation and weakness. He had at least saved them from the threat of Communism and the Trades Unions. Even those who thought he was an uncultivated thug thought that wiser and more conservative leaders would be able to keep him under control. Of course, Hitler had carefully concealed his plan for Germany’s Eastward expansion, which would inevitably mean war again. But he had clearly set out those dreams in “Mein Kampf”, written ten years before in prison- if anyone had bothered to read it. Others thought that, provided Hitler and the Nazis left the Church alone to preach eternal salvation it their right to run the State as they thought fit- in line with much Lutheran thinking, which saw a clear division between politics and religion. As one King of Prussia had put it: “Salvation is reserved for God. Everything else belongs to me.” It was forgotten that Luther has said that Christians must never become involved in an unjust war- and of course even that left open the question of who had the right to decide whether a war was just or unjust- the Church or the rulers. There were even some who believed that the Church must bring its theology and structures into absolute conformity with National Socialism, to create a pure positive Christianity in its German form. They called themselves the “Faith Movement of German Christians”. While Hitler was working out his agreement (Concordat), with the Papacy and the Catholic Church, they hoped to impose those ideals on the Protestant churches.
Before long Hitler was showing his hand more clearly. The fire in the Reichstag, the Parliament, on February 27th meant that he could announce the “Edict for the Protection of People and State” the following day. This abolished the right of privacy for mail or phone calls, and set up concentration camps for “enemies of the people”. On April 1st came the call to boycott Jewish businesses, which Bonhoeffer’s 91 yr-old grandmother (the Countess) defied by walking through a Nazi picket to buy her strawberries at the usual shop. On the same day came the “Reconstruction of the Professional Civil Service”, with its Clause 3, the so-called “Aryan Paragraph”, which dismissed Jews from all Government posts. The German Christians demanded that this be applied to Protestant pulpits: Christianity was utterly opposed to Judaism, they said- you only have to read John’s Gospel to see that- so how can the Church preach to the German people if it harbours so-called converted Jews in its ministry. In the Church elections of July 1933 they won control of many Provincial churches in north Germany, and a new post of Reich Bishop, head of the Protestant Churches of all Germany, was set up, with Hitler’s choice of Ludwig Müller foisted on the Churches. Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and others called for a Pastors’ Emergency League to resist all this- that was a rapid turn-round for Niemöller, who had welcomed Hitler when he became Chancellor. 2000 pastors joined the League, 6000 by the end of 1933, about a third of the total number of Protestant pastors in Germany at the time.
Bonhoeffer, however, had been invited to be pastor of two Lutheran congregations in London- and he decided to accept, leaving Germany in October. Karl Barth was furious with him “Why have you taken your machine gun away, just when we need you here”, he wrote. I have some sympathy with Bonhoeffer- he was still only 27 years old, whereas Barth was twenty years his senior. Not that Bonhoeffer wasted his eighteen months in England. He was able to travel often to Berlin, and through his links with Bishop Bell made sure that people knew what was happening in Germany. He was less successful in getting the international ecumenical movement to refuse recognition to the churches dominated by the German Christians. But things were moving fast in Germany. Müller and the German Christians were making a hash of bringing the Protestant churches into line with Hitler, particularly when they agreed to Hitler’s demands to incorporate all the church youth organisations into the Hitler Youth. At the end of May 1934 139 delegates from 18 churches met at Barmen, near Wuppertal, in West Germany, and issued a Declaration condemning the heresies of the German Christians. It made no comment on the politics of Hitler’s Germany, or even on the Aryan Paragraph. But it was a first step, and became the basis of the Confessing Church, distinct from Hitler’s Reich Church, with some 3000 pastors in membership.
In March 1935 Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. He was to lead a seminary, training pastors for the Confessing Church. This was set up at Finkenwalde, near Stettin (now just over the border in Poland), as a semi-monastic community, which Bonhoeffer had studied while in England, and which he wrote about later in his book “Life Together”. In March 1935 also a second Synod of the Confessing Church met at Dahlem in Berlin- this went much further than Barmen, and declared “we see our people threatened by a great danger. This danger is the new religion of National Socialism”. Pastors were to read the text of the declaration the following Sunday from the pulpit, but when the Government found out it banned it and demanded that pastors must notify the state in writing that they would not to read the text. Many refused to comply, and over 700 were arrested. Although they only spent one day in jail, it clearly hinted at the dangers of using your pulpit to oppose Hitler. From then on the Nazis did their best to disrupt the Confessing Church, placing severe restrictions on their ability collect funds and to pay pastors, and in December 1935 it was finally declared illegal. Many Confessing Church pastors reluctantly decided to co-operate with the official Reich Church, but Finkenwalde carried on illegally until it was closed down by the Gestapo in September 1937. Even that did not end the work of training pastors, which carried on in so-called “Collective Pastorates” established further east in remote rural areas, where students were attached as assistants to Confessing Church pastors.
Bonhoeffer’s mind was beginning to change about what kind of resistance was now possible and effective. In November 1937 Hitler announced plans for war to the heads of the Armed Forces: “every generation needs its own war”, he said, “and I shall take care that this generation gets its war”. Officers who protested were sacked. Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, (married to Christine, who had ironed the shirts at Tübingen) was working in the Ministry of Justice, and keeping an archive of Nazi crimes, ready for a future trial. He now began to believe that the only hope was to find a way to overthrow Hitler. For the time being this was impossible- Hitler’s march into Austria in February 1938 brought him huge popularity, as did the Munich agreement with Chamberlain in September, which gave him the Sudentenland without firing a shot. November 9th 1938 was a notorious day in Germany- reacting to the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a young Jewish man, shop windows of Jewish businesses were smashed- earning it the name Kristallnacht- and synagogues set on fire. But Bonhoeffer did not protest publicly. The time for that was over, he had decided- now more radical and secret action was needed. But for the time being he accepted an invitation to give a series of lectures in the USA. Then Hitler broke the Munich Agreement in March 1939, and marched into Prague. Poland was clearly next on his list. In June Bonhoeffer travelled to the US for his lecture tour, but soon felt this was the wrong move, and he returned to Germany on 27th July 1939.
This meant that the question of military service loomed on the horizon- Hitler’s Germany had no place for conscientious objection- refusers were simply executed. In August 1939 Hans von Dohnanyi moved to a post in Military Intelligence, the Abwehr, which was led by Admiral Canaris. Several of the Abwehr staff, including Canaris, were secretly looking for a chance to bring Hitler down. When in March 1940 the police finally closed down Bonhoeffer’s Collective Pastorate, Dohnanyi secured him an unpaid post in the Abwehr. The story was that his international contacts could be useful for the war effort.
Hitler’s surprise rapid victory over France in June 1940 was bringing him even greater popularity in Germany. But for Bonhoeffer now treason and patriotism had exchanged places- what did it mean to follow Christ in a situation like this? Can we say that any rules for life are absolute, or must they be worked out according to the circumstances? These were the question he wrestled with as he worked on his new book “Ethics”.
Under cover of his job with Military Intelligence, which he began in their Munich office in October 1940, he was able to travel abroad- often to Switzerland, making arrangements for Jews to escape deportation by the SS in Germany, and to Sweden, making contact again with Bishop Bell. The crucial question for the Resistance was: how would the British Government react if Hitler were to be overthrown or assassinated and a new Government put in place? Would Britain be willing to make peace? But the British were not convinced that there was any real opposition to Hitler inside Germany. To Churchill all Germans were Nazis, and especially after Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June 1941 there could be no thought of a separate peace with Germany. Unconditional surrender was the only demand that could be entertained. Despite that, plans went ahead to assassinate Hitler, and an opportunity seemed to come when his invasion of Russia was halted with the disastrous loss of the army at Stalingrad in February 1943, at least in part because Hitler refused to let them fight their way out. Dohnanyi helped to smuggle a bomb onto Hitler’s plane as he returned from Russia in March 1943, but it failed to go off, and another conspirator only just managed to recover the unexploded bomb before it was discovered. There were other attempts, which Hitler seemingly miraculously escaped.
When Bonhoeffer came back to Germany in 1935 to lead the Finkenwalde Seminary he had decided not to get married- opposition to the Nazis would be too dangerous to involve a wife, let alone children. But in the summer of 1942 he met again the grand-daughter of someone who had been a great support to the Finkenwalde community- an 18-yr old girl called Maria von Wedemeyer, who he had first met five years before. Bonhoeffer found that, while he carried on with his work, his mind kept wandering back to Maria, and they were engaged in January 1943.
But by then the net was beginning to close around the conspirators. In late 1942 the Prague Customs Office had arrested a currency smuggler, who claimed to have been working for someone connected to the Munich Abwehr office. This was just the chance that the SS, who had been out to get Canaris for a long time, were looking for. Friends of the conspirators were able to get any action delayed for some time, but on 5th April 1943 Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer and several others were arrested. Bonhoeffer was put in Tegel Prison in Berlin. His mother phoned her cousin, who just happened to be the Berlin City Commander, and he phoned the Prison Commander to ask about his nephew. Conditions became noticeably better after that, and Maria was allowed to make several visits. After one of these he wrote “The Past”, the first of ten poems which he composed in prison.
Some of the guards at Tegel were also sympathetic, and helped him get letters to Eberhard Bethge, who had been a student at Finkenwalde. More poems were included with these, including “Night Voices in Tegel” and “Who Am I?”. Also notes for a new book he wanted to write, talking about the need for a renewed Christianity for modern times. He had noticed before, but now especially in Tegel, that people were concerned about the things that immediately affected then, and had no interest in the things traditionally dealt with by religion. It was something that an army chaplain, Rudolph Bultmann, had seen first hand during the First World War. Bultmann later became a University professor, and published a lecture “The New Testament and Mythology”- he said that the stories of the Bible had to be interpreted in terms of people’s lives now. While Bonhoeffer didn’t agree with all Bultmann’s conclusions, he knew he had asked the right questions, and in his notes for his new book he talked about the need for a faith that had grown beyond religion, a “religionless Christianity”. People have debated what he meant by that ever since.
On 20th July 1944 came another attempt on Hitler’s life. Count von Stauffenberg placed a bomb in the room where Hitler was meeting with his staff. This time it exploded, but again Hitler escaped. And this time, of course, it could not remain hidden that there was a conspiracy against his life. The SS appointed 400 investigators to get to the bottom of it. At first there was no real suspicion that the Abwehr people were involved, but in September 1944 Hans von Dohnanyi’s archive was found (although he had earlier asked for it to be destroyed). Bonhoeffer was taken from Tegel to the SS headquarters in Berlin for interrogation, threatened with torture, but not tortured. Despite far stricter conditions, Bonhoeffer was able to send letters to Bethge, including a poem for the end of 1944: “By Powers of Good”.
Hans von Dohnanyi’s archive was to prove everyone’s downfall. On April 5th 1945 an investigating officer discovered further materials from it, including Admiral Canaris’ diaries. These were shown to Hitler, who immediately ordered the liquidation of everyone involved. They were taken to Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, and after a sham trial were put to death by hanging on April 9th. Four days later the American forces reached Flossenbürg and liberated the camp.