One impact a theologian or historian considers when writing biography are the early influences that made his subject the person we have come to know. These influences not only pertain to family life, but also environmental factors such as the city where one was born and culture in which one developed a worldview. So as we approach the 111th anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s birthday (4 February 1906), I wanted to briefly explore the cultural and social climate of his birth city during the days before World War II.  

Bonhoeffer was borne in Breslau, Germany on February 4, 1906, which today resides in Poland and was renamed to Wrocław following the Potsdam Conference in July-August 1945. Characteristic of Breslau in Bonhoeffer’s time was its liberal environment, university, and significant Jewish population with respect to other German cities. Breslau featured one of the oldest and most renowned synagogues in Europe, the White Stork synagogue, which was home to the Orthodox Jewish community and the New Synagogue, which became a center for Liberal Judaism, forming after a schism within the Orthodox community.  Subsequently, Zecharias Frankel, one of the founders of Conservative Judaism formed his movement here. His theology of positive-historical Judaism borrows from trends in German Protestantism at large. More specifically, Bonhoeffer maintained a proximity to the relationship of history and revelation through his association with his dissertation advisor Reinhold Seeberg, a leading systematic theology in Germany working in this method. Thus, the historical-critical method becomes identified with Frankel’s movement as the cutting edge of progressive Jewish thought in his day, challenging both the Reform and progressive Orthodox views. Abraham Geiger, the leading figure in the Jewish Reform movement was also a resident of Breslau. And with regard to the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), only Berlin and Konigsberg rivaled Breslau in terms of Jewish scholarship. 

White Stork Synagogue, BreslauBreslau was home to the famous Jewish Theology Seminary built to educate Jewish seminary students in 1854.  None of these facts should be recognized as a small matter. And the fact that two movements, progressive in character, can trace their origins to this city is remarkable given the dominance of Orthodox Judaism as the premiere Jewish chain of tradition (Shashelet ha-quaddah).

While scholars have noted that Bonhoeffer inserts himself into the Jewish crisis only briefly in his writings in the early 1930s because of the laws passed by the Germany government restricting Jews from serving in civil service jobs and later preventing converted Jews from serving in the churches, we can imagine that Breslau provided ample opportunity for the Bonhoeffer family to encounter the Jewish population, which, despite their bourgeois sensibilities, was reported to take special interest in the downtrodden, less fortunate, and outsider.

An interesting book I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer emerged in 1966 as a compilation of memoirs by friends who knew Bonhoeffer directly. In those reflections describing his early life, there is a significant emphasis on the themes of justice and social intercourse with people that went beyond his social circles. It is regularly reported that the Christian gospel was only a nominal part of his life at the time and did not play a role in his early interactions. When Bonhoeffer revealed that he wanted to pursue theological studies, he was met with less-than-enthusiastic responses from his family.  Perhaps what the Christian gospel did do, however, was work to reinforce what he was already burgeoning in his life and give his concerns divine sanction. Dietrich could then see his own interest in social justice and care for the outsider as a work mirrored by gospel virtues.  These anecdotal stories nonetheless prove valuable as we examine the circumstantial evidence for interactions with competing communities.

Life in Breslau for Jews and Christian dialogue during the 19th century and 20th century remains difficult to cohere entirely, as Till van Rahden has noted, since interest in Breslau has been marginal and source material for the past 200 years has produced nothing of noteworthiness. What we do know is that Breslau benefitted significantly from being in the Silesia region where rich mines and trade routes established the city’s prosperity, and where, as early as the 18th century, Frederick II reluctantly allowed Jews to return and trade in the area with limited resettlement opportunities due to their mercantile acumen.  By 1840, the Jewish community grew exponentially, an event that instigated conflict with its German Christian neighbors, especially as the former found their way into the more attractive social circles in the city. With this economic growth came expansions in social and religious growth. Records from the city show a rise in intermarriages, especially among Jewish women to Christian men, and this fact remains a way for historians to gauge social interactions, as van Rahden writes that private contact between the two religious communities became “a matter of course.”[1] This observation suggests that “the city’s social life offered people manifold opportunities to get to know, to befriend, and possibly to marry one another across denominational boundaries.”[2] Likewise, many social institutions and associations were open to Jews, even going so far as to allowing Jews to maintain their ethnic identities without fear of public shame. 

By 1910, when Dietrich was four years old, the population was about 500,000, the size of modern-day Baltimore city, with about 60% Protestant, 35% Roman Catholic, and 5% Jewish. Abraham Ascher notes that Breslau’s Jewish population remained a good deal higher than the rest of Germany.[3] Jews on the whole did much better economically than their Protestant counterparts, averaging about three times more the average salary, and represented about 20% of the total income in the city.

While it is common to assume that Jews were reproached for their disproportionate wealth in the political rhetoric of Hitler, as early as 1918, Jews, and those in Breslau as well, were dealing with the effects of hyperinflation following the first World War. Many had their economic status threatened and in losing their wealth found their social status threatened as well. Van Rahden remarks that the geopolitics of Breslau made it more difficult for Jews where the Upper Silesian frontier town had been threatened by Polish-German tensions for years. Jews, who had lost their social and economic statuses, no longer had the benefit of asserting their “Germanness” as if to suggest that their national identities were on loan provided they maintain the economic health of the city. They were now under suspicion—as toxic to German stability as the Silesian Poles—and disdained as interlopers, even as national sentiment and anti-Semitism combined to aggravate the situation.

One cannot point to a specific event in these early years that might have shaped the Bonhoeffers’ resolve and produced such a family which actively resisted Nazism. But it is hard to imagine living decades in a city and not being affected by its social and intellectual climate. The family finally moved from Breslau in 1912, when Karl Bonhoeffer 44, accepted a post in Berlin. Paula Bonhoeffer was 38, and her son Dietrich was just six.  If we are to believe anecdotal accounts about the family from this time, saturation in Breslau might had an extended effect on their near-future interactions. Even if it is highly unlikely to have had any direct effect on young Dietrich personally, these values must have been passed on by his parents. Every indication was that Karl was a man of unflinching character. In one instance, he reportedly told his assistant Fred Quadfasel that going to jail was nothing to be ashamed of, that his family had a history of spending time in jail, and, in particular, during the 1848 revolution.  Norman Geschwind also reported that Bonhoeffer never hung a picture of Hitler on his wall and maintain a “classic Greek quality of measure in all things.”[4]

Events like the Judenzählung (Jewish census) of 1916, no doubt increased public consumption of anti-Semitism, despite the alleged suppression of factual information about Jews serving in the military.  By the early ‘20s, when Bonhoeffer was himself a schoolboy, anti-Semitic antagonism reached a tipping point, and, in Breslau, that energy seemed to be intensified by its youth. “Young people, who had been spared any experience of the front”[5] were the main provocateurs of violence. Van Rahden asserts that the students defaced “school buildings with swastikas, handed out thousands of anti-Semitic leaflets, and sought to undermine Jewish teachers’ authority by bringing their hatred of Jews with them into the classroom.”[6] Perhaps it was Bonhoeffer’s strong family structure and upper middle-class accommodations that saved him. But others could also point to similar upbringings, and those who grew up in “religious settings,” like Martin Heidegger and Paul Althaus, went on to support the Nazis for a time. Rather, it was the character of that upbringing, the intellectual climate, and the combination of early experiences, not least of all in Breslau, which appears to have set the stage. The Bonhoeffers had left Breslau two years prior to the outbreak of open hostilities towards Jews, and so perhaps the sensibilities they carried with them of an open and morally egalitarian society remained firmly implanted despite the soon-tragedy facing Germany. Bonhoeffer became refined in these fires, a young theologian whose intellectual gravitas resounded Christian virtue and Breslau sensibility. Quoting on several occasions Proverbs 31:8, he wrote, “Open your mouth for those who have no voice,” followed once with the question: who still knows that in the church today; that this is the least requirement of the Bible in such times?”[7]

[1] Till van Rahden, Jews and Other Germans: Civil Society, Religious Diversity, and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860-1925, Trans. By Marcus Brainard (The University of Wisconsin Press: Madison, WI, 2008), 18.

[2] Ibid., 19.

[3] Abraham Ascher, A Community Under Siege: The Jews of Breslau Under Nazism, Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2007), 31.

[4] Norman Geschwind, “The Work and Influence of Wernicke,” Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Proceedings of the Boston Colloquium for the Philosophy of Science, 1966/1968, Volume IV, Edited by Robert S. Cohen and Marx W. Wartofsky (D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht-Holland, 1969), 10-11.

[5] Van Rahden, Jews and Other Germans, 232.

[6] Ibid, 234.  

[7] DBW 13: London 1933:1935, 204-5. 

Trey Palmisano is a Rose A. Winder scholar in the Jewish Studies program at Towson University. He is the author of Peace and Violence in Ethics of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Analysis of Method (Wipf & Stock, 2016).

Topics: Biographies and Portraits
Trey Palmisano




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