Brief Overview

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German pastor, theologian, ecumenist, and peace activist. He wrote profoundly about Christian faith, community, grace, and ethics, centered in one way or another on the question, who is Christ for us today? The atrocities of the Nazi Regime, which resulted in unspeakable human suffering, compelled him to participate in a conspiracy that tried unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler and install a new government that would end the war and those atrocities. Imprisoned during the last two years of his life, Bonhoeffer was executed just weeks before the end of the war.

Introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer

(Excerpt from “Exploring the Life and Theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” a Westar Institute Webinar, by Lori Brandt Hale, February 10th, 2021)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – the well-known theologian, pastor, and Nazi resister – was born on February 4th, 1906, along with his twin sister, Sabine, into a large, tight-knit family that was highly educated, politically engaged, but only nominally religious, though there were “churchmen” on Paula Bonhoeffer’s (Dietrich’s mother’s) side of the family, including a court chaplain (Dietrich’s grandfather) and a theologian (his great-grandfather). Dietrich, however, was a prodigious pianist, playing chamber music by the age of eight, and there was some thought that he would pursue a career as a professional musician. But, in 1918, when Dietrich and Sabine were twelve years old, their older brothers – Karl-Friedrich and Walter – left to fight for the monarchy in what would be the last year of the first world war. Karl-Friedrich returned; Walter did not. He was wounded, and died, just a few weeks after his departure from home. His death took an emotional toll on the family and raised deep existential questions for the young Dietrich – about life, death, and the nature and impact of violent political realities (see DBWE 9:9). By age thirteen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer decided and announced that he would become a theologian. His mother was not surprised, but he was openly mocked by Karl-Friedrich and his other brother, Klaus, who found “religion a distraction from the urgent work of promoting equality and human rights” and “warned that becoming a theologian would amount to a retreat from reality” (Marsh, Strange Glory, 17).  

Bonhoeffer’s theological path would not, in fact, lead him away from the world, but more deeply and profoundly into it. His execution at the hands of the Nazis, for his role in opposing them, bears this out. Famously, he wrote in his “Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943,” which was a letter of encouragement to his co-conspirators, “The ultimately responsible question is not how I extricate myself heroically from a situation but [how] a coming generation is to go on living” (DBWE 8:42). A few pages later, in that same essay, Bonhoeffer reiterates his commitment to the world. “There are people who think [optimism] frivolous and Christians who think it impious to hope for a better future on earth and to prepare for it… they withdraw in resignation or pious flight from the world, from the responsibility for ongoing life, for building anew, for the coming generations. It may be that the day of judgment will dawn tomorrow; only then and no earlier will we readily lay down our work for a better future” (DBWE 8:51) From his earliest work on, Bonhoeffer’s theology and ethics are premised on what he will come to describe in his Ethics as the irreversible situation in which we always find ourselves, namely, “we are living” (DBWE 6:246). It is really no surprise, then, that these early commitments coupled with his historical context should lead him to explore ideas about a this-worldly Christianity in his last years, while writing from prison.

There is an old adage among folks pursuing doctoral degrees that the best dissertation is a finished dissertation. But I contend that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s dissertation stands as an exception to that rule. It is not possible to understand the whole of Bonhoeffer’s theology without a careful look at his dissertation, or said another way, Bonhoeffer’s key theological concepts – that he develops over the course of his life – can be found in the dissertation, Sanctorum Communion: A Theological Inquiry into the Sociology of the Church, written when he was 21 years old. The editor’s introduction to the critical English edition is helpful in laying out these ideas: he “articulates the concept of ‘person’ in ethical relation to the ‘other,’ Christian freedom as ‘being-free-for’ the other, the reciprocal relationship of person and community, vicarious representative action as both a Christological and an anthropological-ethical concept, the exercise by individual persons of responsibility for human communities, social relations as analogies of divine-human relations, and the encounter of transcendence in human sociality” (DBWE 1:1). In other words, Bonhoeffer determines that his basic existential, ontological, theological, and ethical questions have an integrated answer, that “the concepts of person, community, and God are inseparably interrelated” (DBWE 1:34). Accordingly, when one encounters an ‘other’ that ‘other’ places an ethical demand on me.

After finishing his dissertation in 1927, Bonhoeffer became the associate pastor of an expatriate German congregation in Barcelona. In the sermons and lectures he gave that year (it was just a one-year post), a tension in his theology became quite evident. On one hand, that ethical imperative to respond to the ‘other,’ derived from his theology (more specifically, from his Christology), served as a guide for starting to think about how to act with and for others. On the other hand, he was still quite sympathetic to German nationalism and had been shaped by a triumphalist theology. It wasn’t until he spent a year in New York at Union Theological Seminary (the 1930-31 academic year) that he would recognize the ways that suffering, the suffering of real human beings in the world, racialized human beings, would and could shape his theological understanding.

It would be very difficult to overstate the impact Bonhoeffer’s year at Union had on his life and thought. Despite the fact that Bonhoeffer was quite unimpressed, initially, with his course of study, his experiences (including travel), his observations, and his friendships were life-changing. From Professor Reinhold Niebuhr, to friends Paul and Marion Lehmann, Erwin Sutz, Jean Lassere, and Albert Franklin Fisher, Bonhoeffer was pressed to examine many of his own assumptions and began to see the events of the world from below, from the perspective of the marginalized and disenfranchised.

Lassere was a French pacificist who challenged Bonhoeffer’s reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; he confronted Bonhoeffer with new ideas about the relationship between the Biblical text, God’s word, and living out that word as a citizen of the world, taking seriously Jesus’ peace commandment. By November of 1930, on Armistice Day, Bonhoeffer preached at a Methodist church in Yonkers, New York and began to articulate what would become his own ecumenical, peace ethic: “I stand before you,” he said, “not only as a Christian but also a German, who loves his home the best of all, who rejoices with his people and who suffers, when he sees his people suffering, who confesses gratefully, that he received from his people all that he has and is… [He went on] You have brothers and sisters in our people and in every people, do not forget that. Come what may, let us never more forget, that our Christian people is the people of God, that if we are in accord, no nationalism, no hate of races or classes can execute its designs, and then the world will have its peace for ever and ever” (DBWE 10:581, 584). Lassere reasserted this sentiment in a book published eight years after Bonhoeffer’s death when he wrote, “nothing in the Scriptures gives the Christian authority to tear apart the body of Christ for the State or anything else… one cannot be Christian and nationalist” (Bethge 154).

Albert Franklin Fisher was an African American student who opened the doors to Harlem and the Abyssinian Baptist Church for Bonhoeffer, and opened his eyes to the grave racial inequities and indignities in the United States. Bonhoeffer taught Sunday School at Abyssinian, became involved in various church clubs and studies, collected gramophone records of spirituals, and visited with church members in their homes. He also read the novels and poetry of many Harlem Renaissance writers – WEB DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Alaine Locke, Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes – and he concluded that the mood in this literature indicated that “the race question is arriving at a turning point. The attempt to overcome the conflict religiously or ethically will turn in a violent political objection” (DBWE 10:422). [There is a footnote in the text that says by “objection” he probably meant “resistance.”]

My friend and Bonhoeffer colleague, Reggie Williams, explores the impact of this year in New York on Dietrich’s thinking in his 2014 book titled Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance. Williams writes, “Most white liberals failed to see white supremacy as a matter for Christian attention, and as a consequence they ignored the constant dangers of daily life in America for black people. But avoiding racism was not a choice for African American Christians; it was a matter of life and death in a society organized by race and enforced by violence.  Consequently, Bonhoeffer’s friendship with Albert Fisher introduced him to Christian worship with an inherently different view of society. With Fisher, Bonhoeffer encountered Christians aware of human suffering and accustomed to living with the threat of death in a society organized by a violent white supremacy” (Williams 21-22).

So, Lassere, Fisher, Niebuhr and the others were instrumental in Bonhoeffer’s move toward ecumenism and internationalism, a move which came to fruition when he returned to Germany and took on roles as a youth secretary in both the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches and in the Ecumenical Council for Practical Christianity. In the two years after he returned from Union, Bonhoeffer engaged in this ecumenical work (which required travel throughout Europe) as well as lectured as a member of the theological faculty of Berlin University and served as a student chaplain, delivering sermons and teaching confirmation class in a working-class neighborhood of Berlin, a community riddled with unemployment and poverty. He found himself “moved by these people on the margins, ‘far away from the masquerade of the “Christian world”’” (Marsh 148). His work in the church and the community – both in New York and Berlin – influenced his academic inquiry and teaching. Even in class his questions were less exercises in academic abstraction and conjecture, and more existential and urgent questions about life and faith, eventually leading him to the question: who is Jesus Christ for us today?

The rise of the National Socialists in Germany had concerned the Bonhoeffer family since before Dietrich’s return from New York; the ascent of Adolf Hitler to power at the end of January 1933 brought their fears to the fore. Two days into his rule, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address warning his fellow Germans that to make an idol of the Führer (the leader) is to make him a misleader… [Moreover] the leader must radically reject the temptation to become an idol” which would be to mistake, or misappropriate, the penultimate for the ultimate. Those who make this misappropriation, who concede responsibility to a “Superman” will, in the end, be destroyed by him. (DBWE 12:280-281; see also Marsh 160).

Within months, Hitler opened the first concentration camps, passed the Aryan paragraph which removed all Jews and persons of Jewish descent from civil service, and unified twenty-eight independent, Protestant Landeskirche (regional churches) into a unified Reichskirche – a single, national, state church – under the leadership of Nazi sympathizer Ludwig Müller (described in the Bonhoeffer biography by Charles Marsh as “Hitler’s preening sycophant” (164)). The newly formed Reich Church adopted the Aryan paragraph, expelling from the church more than 350,000 Christians of Jewish descent. Bonhoeffer’s attempts – at the synod gathering – to voice his opposition to this adoption “was ‘met with jeers and catcalls’” (Marsh 164). So, he protested in a written statement titled, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he claimed that the church has the right and responsibility to question the actions of the state, to aid victims of the state – even if they are not Christian, and (famously) to jam the spokes of the wheel of the state, if the state is creating too much or too little law and order.

For Bonhoeffer, the adoption of the Aryan Paragraph by the Reich Church constituted a status confessionis; in other words, it required a state or stance of confession because it stood in contradiction to the gospel itself. In September of 1933, Bonhoeffer – along with Martin Niemöller and others – formed the Pastors’ Emergency League in response. An initial confession, the Bethel Confession, was published, followed soon thereafter by the Barmen Theological Declaration and the creation of the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer had helped draft the Bethel Confession, though refused to sign the final, watered down version. In both frustration and humility, Bonhoeffer left for London in October of 1933 to lead two German-speaking churches to, in his words, “go into the wilderness for a spell, and simply work as a pastor, as unobtrusively as possible” (DBWE 13:22-23).

Despite his hope to work unobtrusively, Bonhoeffer continued to pay attention to developments in Germany and reject the idea being purported by the leadership of the German Christians in Berlin that the work of the Third Reich was some kind of fulfillment of scripture, an unholy kairos, if you will. He rejected the words of Reinhold Krause, who said, “When we draw from the gospel that which speaks to our German hearts, then the essentials of the teaching of Jesus emerge clearly and revealingly, coinciding completely with the demands of National Socialism, and we can be proud of that” (Tietz 47). Rather, Bonhoeffer preached that Christians “should read the Bible not only ‘for’ ourselves… but also ‘against’ ourselves” to know and love the world in which we actually live, even one filled with struggle, poverty, and uncertainty (Best xxiii-xxiv). He remained active in the ecumenical movement, discussing developments in Germany with Bishop George Bell and other leaders, and he reunited with his friend, Jean Lassere, at a conference in Fanø, Denmark, in the summer of 1934, where Bonhoeffer insisted that the conference pass a resolution, proclaiming “we are immediately faced with the decision: National Socialist or Christian” (DBWE 13:192). It was here that he also issued a clarion call to peace, noting that peace is not reached by a path of security, but only with risk. “The hour is late,” he said. “The world is choked with weapons, and dreadful is the distrust which looks out of all men’s eyes. The trumpets of war may blow tomorrow. For what are we waiting?” (DBWE 13:309).

The passage on the flyer advertising today’s event [the Westar Institute Webinar] comes from a sermon Bonhoeffer gave in London, on an unknown date in 1934: “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness, and pride of power, and with its plea for the weak” (DBWE 13:402). It is not a very well-known Bonhoeffer quote, though the sermon – based on 2 Corinthians 12:9 (“my strength is made perfect in weakness”) – made it into Isabel Best’s 2012 volume of The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which only includes 31 texts. Best offers some context; she notes that some of Bonhoeffer’s work with the Emergency Pastors’ League had taken place at Bethel, a care facility in Bielefeld, Germany for persons with mental and physical disabilities. He had been struck by their vulnerability – especially in the Nazi context – and what he imagined to be their “better insight into certain realities of human existence” (Best 167). In July of 1934, he arranged for his congregations in London to send donations to Bethel. It strikes me that his concerns for these people – lingering nearly a year after he met them – are resonant with his early understanding that the “Other” places an ethical demand on me, calling me to respond; moreover, his concerns for these folks, and others on the margins, continue to shape his theological thinking until his last days, when he writes from Tegel prison that “human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, [toward the false concept of] God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God; only the suffering God can help” (DBWE 8:479). This shift in perspective, he goes on to say, will be the starting point for his “worldly interpretation” of (Christian) faith (DBWE 8:480).  

In the spring of 1935, Bonhoeffer accepted an invitation to direct a preachers’ seminary of the Confessing Church, first at Zingsthoff, then at Finkenwalde. His acceptance meant abandoning a planned trip to India, to study non-violent resistance with Gandhi. At Finkenwalde, Bonhoeffer tightly structured the days of the seminarians: time alone, time together, time for study, time for work, time for prayer, time for play. He was accused of legalism, of fostering a monastic retreat from the world, when – in fact – his intention was quite the opposite. His goal was to prepare the students for the difficult lived reality of life in parish ministry, in opposition to the Nazi regime. While there, Bonhoeffer wrote Discipleship, an important (and popular) text, that often gets misread as guide to Christian spirituality divorced from the world. Even Bonhoeffer, later – in his Letters and Papers from Prison – warns against reading the text in this way. Rather, Discipleship – with attention to the Lutheran concept of grace, developed as costly grace, and a considered reading of the Sermon on the Mount – is an astute, politically informed, call to live vicariously and suffer vicariously on behalf of others, in commitment and obedience to Christ. (To be blatantly obvious, Bonhoeffer emphasizes obedience to Christ over against obedience to Hitler.)

The seminary, though often described as illegal and/or underground, operated without interference from the state, until it was banned by the head of the SS at the end of August 1937, and closed by the Gestapo on September 28th, 1937. Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Third Reich to this point meant that he had limited options for work, including publishing and speaking. His friends abroad were worried for his safety in the increasingly hostile Nazi environment and, so, in June of 1939 he returned to the United States with all in order to stay through the pending catastrophe. But Bonhoeffer never felt settled about his decision to go, and returned to Germany by the end of July. “Christians in Germany will face a terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization,” he wrote to Niebuhr. “I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security” (DBWE 15:210).

“I cannot make that choice in security.” Bonhoeffer knew the weight of this statement when he made it because his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, a member of the Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence, had informed him of the coup being planned in that office, involving Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and General Hans Oster. Von Dohnanyi was able to secure Bonhoeffer an appointment that set Dietrich up as a double-agent, ostensibly using his ecumenical contacts throughout Europe to gather information for the Nazis when actually he was passing information about the resistance in the other direction. In this context, he began work on his Ethics, which he envisioned as his magnum opus. In it, he rejects the idea that ethics can be universally valid or derived from general principles. Rather, he advances a Christological understanding of responsibility that is tied to concrete reality and reiterates his idea that one is called to respond to an ‘other’ in need:

“Christ was not essentially a teacher, a lawgiver, but human being, a real human being like us. Accordingly, Christ does not want to us to be first of all pupils, representatives and advocates of a particular doctrine, but human beings, real human beings before God. Christ did not, like an ethicist, love a theory about the good; he loved real people. Christ was not interested like a philosopher, in what is ‘generally valid,’ but in that which serves real concrete human beings. Christ was not concerned with whether “the maxim of an action” could become “a principle of universal law,” but whether my action now helps my neighbor to be a human being before God. God did not become an idea, a principle, a program, a universally valid belief, or a law. God became human” (DBWE 6:98-99).

In letters to his best friend and eventual biographer, Eberhard Bethge, as well as Paul Lehmann, Bonhoeffer wrote that he found his work on Ethics “dangerous” and “stimulating.” “Sometimes I think after this time,” he said, “that Christianity will only live in a few people who have nothing to say” (DBWE 16:168).

On April 5th, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested on tenuous charges – related to his role in the Abwehr, but unrelated to the plot to kill Hitler. He was sent to Tegel prison in Berlin. While many readers of Bonhoeffer return again and again to Discipleship or Life Together (his brief account of life at Finkenwalde), I find myself drawn to the Letters and Papers from Prison. In fact, before the new critical editions of Bonhoeffer’s works were published by Fortress Press, my paperback copy of Letters was bound together with rubber bands and paper clips. (Two of my students “borrowed” my book, a dozen years ago, and had it bound for me.) I am drawn to the questions and conclusions Bonhoeffer reaches in his prison reflections, even though they are incomplete – questions about the possibility of a religionless interpretation of Christianity that means one only “learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life… living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities – then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world… this is faith; this is metanoia. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian” DBWE 8:486).

On July 20th, 1944, the final attempt on Hitler’s life failed. Two months later the Gestapo discovered the files (a secret archive) of the Resistance. Bonhoeffer was implicated in the planned coup; he knew he would never be released. In all his theological and ethical work, he never offered a justification for tyrannicide. He wrote of freedom and responsibility, and taking on guilt. In that essay written to his co-conspirators, after ten years of Hitler’s rule, he named the “great masquerade of evil” that “has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion” (DBWE 8:38). He wondered “who stands firm?” asserting that “civil courage can grow only from the free responsibility of the free man… It is founded on a God who calls for the free venture of faith to responsible action and who promises forgiveness and consolation to the one who on account of such action becomes a sinner” (DBWE 8:40, 41). Bonhoeffer closes that essay with what I might call the hermeneutical key, the interpretive lens, for the whole of his work and life. It is a section called “the view from below.” “It remains an experience of incomparable value that we have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed and reviled, in short from the perspective of the suffering” (DBWE 8:52).

On April 9th, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched, naked, to the gallows at Flössenburg Concentration Camp and hanged. He was 39 years old. The camp was liberated a few weeks later. His family and friends, including his fiancé, Maria von Wedemeyer, did not learn of his death until the end of June. His brother, Klaus, and brothers-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher, were all executed the same week in April as Dietrich.

Works Cited

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works in English (DBWE) published by Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN) with various editors and translators, (1996-2014). (This essay cites volumes 1, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 15, 16.)

DBWE 1: Sanctorum Communio                         

DBWE 2: Act and Being

DBWE 3: Creation and Fall

DBWE 4: Discipleship

DBWE 5: Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible

DBWE 6: Ethics

DBWE 7: Fiction from Tegel Prison

DBWE 8: Letters and Papers from Prison

DBWE 9: The Young Bonhoeffer, 1918-1927

DBWE 10: Barcelona, Berlin, New York, 1928-1931

DBWE 11: Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work, 1931-1932

DBWE 12: Berlin, 1932-1933

DBWE 13: London, 1933-1935

DBWE 14: Theological Education at Finkenwalde, 1935-1937

DBWE 15: Theological Education Underground, 1937-1940

DBWE 16: Conspiracy and Imprisonment, 1940-1945

DBWE 17: Index and Supplementary Materials

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, translated by Victoria J. Barnett. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, translated and edited by Isabel Best. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012.

Marsh, Charles. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Tietz, Christiane. Theologian of Resistance: The Life and Thoughts of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; translated by Victoria J. Barnett.  Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2016.

Williams, Reggie L. Bonhoeffer’s Black Jesus: Harlem Renaissance Theology and an Ethic of Resistance.  Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014.

By Lori Brandt Hale


The English Language Section is dedicated to advancing the theology and legacy of German pastor-theologian and Nazi resister, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the academy, church, and world, and has been on the forefront of this work for the last fifty years.

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