Bonhoeffer, Dietrich


b Breslau, Germany 1906, d Flossenburg, Germany 1945. Tutored initially at home by the Moravian Fräulein Horn who loved hymns; his mother taught him Scripture, and his father was a teaching consultant and Germany’s first Prof of Psychiatry, who hated platitudes, gossip and pomposity. Dietrich remained close to his twin sister Sabine, in a household (now moved to Berlin) well supplied with books, music, animals and a workshop, with due time for sport. He studied atTübingen from 1923, and after travels to Rome and N Africa he resumed theology at Berlin (Licentiate of Theol/PhD, 1927). After serving briefly as curate in Barcelona in 1928 he was an assistant minister in Berlin, 1929–30. In 1930 he became an accredited university teacher, lecturing in theology from 1931, the year of his ordination, after further studies at the Union Theological Seminary in New York and with Karl Barth in Bonn. His written and spoken contributions to conferences etc included papers on the church, creation and sin, Christology, and the Jewish people. He cooperated with Martin Niemoller for the Pastors’ Emergency League in the face of rising Nazism, becoming the spokesman for internal protestant opposition to the regime. In 1933–34 he ministered in London for 18 months and first met Bishop George Bell of Chichester, who became a staunch friend and ally. Back in Germany he lectured on ‘discipleship’ (1936); The Cost of Discipleship was published the next year, the last book to emerge in his lifetime and which he later qualified but never contradicted; recent appreciation of this book has come from Charles Colson, Stormie Omartian and Ron Sider among many others.

In 1941 DB’s works were proscribed by Nazi Germany. But before that his licence to lecture had been revoked for his opposition to Adolf Hitler, colleagues and students were being arrested and the preachers’ seminary closed. Life Together was written in 1938, reflecting his leadership of the seminary at Finkenwalde 1935–37; in 1939 he again met significant friends in London and New York, but realised that his true place was in Germany, alongside his own people. By 1940 he was forbidden to speak in public and ordered to report to the police. He travelled to Switzerland 1941–42, became engaged to Maria in 1942, but in April 1943 was arrested and imprisoned. In 1944 came the attempt to assassinate Hitler in which Bonhoeffer and his sister and brother-in-law were implicated; he was taken to the cellar of the Gestapo (secret police) prison in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. In 1945 he was moved via Buchenwald concentration camp and Regensburg to the extermination centre at Flossenburg, while Nazi rule was collapsing. There he was court-martialled the same night and hanged the next morning (9 April), on Himmler’s orders, only weeks before Hitler’s death and the end of the war. He was 39. Much of his fame beyond Germany was osthumous and delayed, including the published Letters and Papers from Prison and Christology (in German 1960; in English, 1966 and 1978); some of his books remained unfinished and some were reconstructed from his students’ notes.

While he distinguished religion from real faith, his Luther-like paradoxes have often been sadly misinterpreted or hijacked by those who ignore his devotion to Scripture and disciplined evangelical foundations; he did not feature in the 1958 edn of the (then definitive) Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, but many more recent books have tried both to correct and complete the record. Neither his friends nor his foes should see him through the 1960s eyes of John A T Robinson. The solution to ethical problems, Bonhoeffer consistently taught, ‘must be sought only in the revelation of God in Christ’. This is the Christological question: ‘When I know who he is, who does this, I will know what it is he does’. Among his recreations he loved to improvise on the piano and found bad music unbearable; hymns should be ‘not too slow’. He has been called ‘a most unGerman German’, full of vitality and excelling in many gifts, combining some of the expected national characteristics with a playful sense of fun. He enjoyed life. I knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer (ed W-D Zimmerman and R Gregor Smith, 1966) fills in much of the personal picture; among many recent studies of his place in history is one by Stephen Haynes in 2004. No.236.

Hymns and songs by Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

Number Hymn Name
236 By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered