April 24, 2005

Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Pastor, Rebel and Martyr

On the 60th Anniversary of the end of the WWII

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Protestant Pastor and a theologian. He was known as one of the few figures of the thirties who could understand theology both in English and German. He was also one of the principal figures of the German Resistance to the Third Reich led by Adolf Hitler.

He was born on February 4th, 1906, in Breslau. He was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. His father was a well-known psychiatrist and neurology professor; his mother, one of the few women in those years with a university degree.

He studied theology in Tübingen, Berlin, and in the Theological Union Seminar in New York. He also took part in the European Ecumenical Movement.

After studying for three years in the Berlin University (1924 -1927) he wrote his lecture, Sanctorum Communio, and he obtained his doctorate with honors. The name of his thesis was Act and Essence approved in July 1930, which allowed him to give classes in the University of the German Capital.

From 1929 to 1930 Bonhoeffer carried out pastoral activities in a German Congregation in Barcelona.

After taking a post-graduate course in the Seminar of the Theological Union in New York, from 1930 to 1931, he went back to Berlin University to act as a lecturer in theology. In November of that very year he was ordained in St. Mathew Church in Berlin.

In September 1933, he helped organize the Pastors Emergency League. Afterwards he took office as a Pastor in the German Evangelic Church (the most important Protestant Church in the country) and in St. Paul Reformist Church in London.

During his stay in England, he developed a great friendship with George Bell, the influential bishop of Chichester. In May 1934, after organizing the Confessional Church in Barmen, Germany, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back to England to take on the seminar in Zingst town – a school which was moved to Finkenwalde, in Pomerania, that very year.

In September, 1937 the Gestapo closed the Finkenwalde seminar. In November, 27 of Bonhoeffer’s ex pupils were already in prison.

The Confessional Church had been born by the initiative of the most important opponents to the Nazi interference in the churches. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was among them.

In the essay The Church and the Jewish Question, wrote in 1933, Bonhoeffer was the first to deal with the emerging problems that had to be faced by the church under the Nazi regime.

Bonhoeffer made it clear that the church was obliged to fight against political injustice.

From his experiences in Finkenwalde not only two of his most known books came up, The Cost of Discipleship, and Community Life , but also his less known writings, such as Spiritual Care.

The Confessional Church held that Christianity was incompatible with the National Socialism and its racial doctrines. Bonhoeffer not only insisted in the freedom to preach the Gospels but he was also ready to risk his life as a Christian who withstood Hitler and who helped Jews to avoid being captured.

As a result of this, on August 5th, 1939, his authorization to teach in the Berlin University was withdrawn.

He went on forming pastors of the Confessional Church until 1939.

According to Robert S. Wistrich in his book Who’s Who in Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer repeatedly stated that ”a church is a church, when it exists also for those that do not belong to it”, and he proclaimed its ”unconditional obligation for those victims of any social system, even if they did not belong to the Christian Community”.

During his stay in Sweden, in May 1942, Bonhoeffer got in touch with the Foreign British Office. He carried there concrete offers of a resistance group he was part of, led by General Hans Oster and by General Ludwig Beck. The motion was turned down.

Bonhoeffer’s contacts and activities made him one of the principal suspects for the secret police and the Reich security services. After closing the seminar for a second time in 1940, the Gestapo prohibited him to speak, preach and publish his writings.

On April 5th, 1943, he was arrested and taken to prison, accused of rebelling against the army. After the trial against him in 1944, Bonhoeffer was sent to Buchenwald and finally to the concentration camp in Flossenbürg. On April 9th 1945 he was hung. He was 39 years old.

Three other members of his family were also murdered for taking part in the Protestant Resistance Movement.

The letters that he wrote during his last two years were posthumously published by his pupil and friend Berhard Bethge with the title Letters and Writings from the Prison. The letters to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, were published as Love Letters from Cell 92.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer’s ideas and his discussion on a ”Secular Christianity”, which were reinforced by his martyrdom, had a considerable influence upon the post war protestant thinking in Great Britain and America.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was also a musician and the author of plays and poetry.

Translation: Nora Bellettieri