Today is the anniversary of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's death, 66 years ago. I would like to remember this remarkable man, and his impact upon our world.
"Dietrich and his twin sister Sabine were born on February 4, 1906, in Breslau Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland). His mother was descended from the famous nineteenth-century church historian, Karl von Hase, and his father, Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer, was a noted physician and soon to be professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin.
By age sixteen, Dietrich had decided to enter the ministry of the church. The decision gained little comment from his parents, but his brothers opposed it. His brother Klaus attempted to impress him with the purely provincial nature of the Protestant church in Germany and regretted that his brother should give his life to a superfluous cause. With resolution Dietrich replied, "If the Church is feeble, I shall reform it." However facetious his reply might have been, it was portentous of the future way Bonhoeffer felt about the church's needs.
Karl Friedrich, another brother, talked with Dietrich about science and the universe it held up to behold, but at this point Dietrich would have nothing to do with science. When he could not argue against Karl Friedrich he simply commented, "You may knock my block off, but I shall still believe in God." It was not until the years of his imprisonment that he seriously began to come to terms with science. This is one reason the Letters and Papers often sound so revolutionary.
Bonhoeffer began his study at Tubingen, but after a year moved to the University of Berlin in 1924. At Berlin, Bonhoeffer encountered a galaxy of erudite but often liberal scholars. Here Adolf Deissmann had made his contribution to New Testament studies. Hans Lietzmann was teaching the history of the early church, and Adolf von Harnack, Karl Holl, and Reinhold Seeberg were in one way or another connected with theology. Seeberg was the man under whom Bonhoeffer worked for the licentiate of theology, a degree comparable to the doctor of theology.
In 1927, Bonhoeffer submitted his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio: A Dogmatic Investigation of the Sociology of the Church, to the faculty of the University of Berlin. This work was praised as a "theological miracle" by Karl Barth and was published three years later.
After his formal theological training at the university, Dietrich went to Barcelona, Spain, where he served in a position comparable to an assistant minister on an intern basis with a German-speaking congregation. His ability to relate to people of diverse conditions became apparent here in this congregation of small businessmen whose religious and cultural advancements had been small. As he worked with the elderly pastor and shared his life with the congregation, the church was resurrected in spirit and doubled in size. He started a service for children and a study group for boys in the sixth form (the last year) of their education. He gave pastoral care to the people and preached every two weeks. He became very attached to the people, and they returned the affection.
Upon his return to Berlin in 1929, Dietrich worked on his inaugural dissertation, a requisite for being permitted a faculty position in theology. In 1930, after completing Act and Being: Transcendental Philosophy and Ontology in Systematic Theology, he was given a position teaching systematic theology.
Before getting to the serious work of teaching, Bonhoeffer came to America for a year of study at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, on a Sloane fellowship. At Union also, he became aware of the growing problem of the Negro in America. He visited with Negros in Harlem and attended a large Negro Baptist church (Abyssinian Baptist Church, pastored by Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.)
By 1931, although he had enjoyed his stay in America, he was ready to return home and begin his period of lecturing at the University of Berlin. As a beginning lecturer, he had to depend upon his ability to attract students. They came out of curiosity at first. One student recalled, "He looked like a student himself when he went to the desk. But then our attention was so much riveted by what he had to say, that we no longer came for the sake of the very young man, but for the sake of his subject." Except for the enjoyment of the students, Bonhoeffer led a rather lonely life in the unbending liberalism of the university. His independence of mind plus his affinity for Barth's theology made him suspect among the old-line theological liberals.
The year after his return to Germany brought momentous events in his life. In the summer of 1931 he journeyed to Bonn (Germany) and met Karl Barth. His only regret was that he had not come sooner. A mutually respectful relationship grew through the years as indicated from the extant correspondence and Barth's references in Church Dogmatics to Bonhoeffer's published works. Barth's extremely critical letter about Bonhoeffer's later move to London could only have been written by a real friend.
He became student pastor at the Technical College in Berlin, and at the same time was requested to take over a confirmation class of fifty rowdy boys who lived in one of the roughest areas of Berlin. As the elderly pastor and young Dietrich ascended the stairs of the multi-storied building where the boys were, the children dropped rubbish on the two men below. At the top of the stairs the pastor tried to gain attention by shouting an introduction of Bonhoeffer. Some of the children only heard the word "Bon" and began to chant it, until the bewildered, frustrated old pastor left.
At first Dietrich stood in silence against the wall while the boys chanted. Then he began to speak softly to those near him. Out of curiosity the others began to be quiet. When the noise had subsided, he told them a story about Harlem and promised more next time if they behaved. Not only did he win their attention for class instruction, but he moved into their neighborhood for two months to live among them. This most "hopeless" class was carried to its completion, and many of the boys remained long-time friends.
In the fall of 1932, he began a series of lectures which were later published as Creation and Fall.
The elections in Germany in 1932 brought about the Nazi rise to power, and the stage was set for the German church struggle. Bonhoeffer aligned himself with the evangelical opposition to Hitler. This alignment ultimately cost him his life.
In 1933 he gave a series of lectures on Christology which were never completed, nor published, except as they were reconstructed from the notes of students, and published under the title Christ the Center. Following the summer session, Bonhoeffer took a leave of absence from the university and went to London to be minister of two German-speaking congregations. During this interim period in London, Bonhoeffer attended the World Alliance of Churches meeting in Fano (Denmark). Germany was represented only by the Deutsche Christians ("German Christians"), the pro-Hitler group. The council, due in part to Bonhoeffer's influence, denounced the "German Christians" and aligned its sympathies with the Confessing Church.
These plans (to travel to India in the hope of meeting and observing Gandhi's community) were interrupted by a call from the Confessing Church to come home and assume the leadership of an "illegal" seminary for training ministers. The call of duty won out over the desire to go to India, and he returned to a most dangerous task in Germany.
The seminary was eventually located at Finkenwalde (now Zdorje Poland), a tiny village south of Settin on the Oder River in what was then Pomerania and is now Poland. There Bonhoeffer instituted a new type of theological education. He organized the students into a community with a "proper balance between work and worship, the academic and the practical, discipline and freedom." The curriculum of the seminary provided for lectures by Bonhoeffer, reading of books, pastoral duties such as visitation, times of worship and confession of sin. Extracurricular community involvement included just plain fun, singing, doing dishes, and cleaning house. The experiences of the "brother-house" were recorded in Gemeinsames Leben (Life Together), published in 1939.
As his work progressed, Bonhoeffer attempted to retain his teaching post at the University of Berlin and did so until August 5, 1936, when it was withdrawn because of his opposition to Hitler's innovations in the church. His immperturbability was expressed in his comment, "I have long ceased to believe in the University."
At Finkenwalde romance entered his life. Maria von Wedemeyer was seventeen years younger than he. Their first meeting was without meaning. She was only one among several grandchildren of Ruth von Kleist-Ritzow, a well-to-do, spiritually minded widow who attended church at the seminary.
Shortly after their (Dietrich and Maria's) engagement he was imprisoned. She saw him at least once a month in prison, and letters were exchanged as permission was allowed. Their engagement was a source of delight to him. Her visits formed a feeling of anticipation he treasured. He always wanted to know of her coming in advance, for without knowing he was cheated "out of the joy of anticipation and that is a very necessary part of your visit."
During the troubled days of the late thirties, Bonhoeffer spoke a number of times on the subject of the "Visible and Invisible Church." The theme is one that had held his interest from his student days. He was very much concerned with the inner life, the question of communion, and the confession of the church.
Bonhoeffer's first popular work was published in 1937. As a study of the Sermon on the Mount Nachfolge (The Cost of Discipleship) harshly criticizes "cheap grace" which churches had been preaching, and calls for "costly" discipleship to Jesus Christ. In this same year the seminary was officially disbanded by the government, but it nevertheless maintained an underground existence until 1940.
Friends of Bonhoeffer's (Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Lehmann) tried to persuade him to come to America and were successful for a short time. Bonhoeffer was appointed to the faculty of the Union Theological Seminary for an indefinite period of time, and arrived in the United States on June 12, 1939. But the safety of America was too much for him, and he was back in Germany on July 25.
Bonhoeffer's diary records two different episodes during this brief period: "I do not understand why I am here.... The short prayer in which we thought of our German brothers almost overwhelmed me.... If things become more uncertain, I shall not stay in America...." Later, after his decision to return home, he wrote, "Since I came on board ship, my mental turmoil about the future has gone."
Bonhoeffer escaped military service by serving as a courier in the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence Agency), and thus was able to enjoy certain freedoms from the interference of the Gestapo. Certain members of the Abwehr opposed Hitler, and eventually planned to assassinate him. Bonhoeffer came to accept the full implications of the resistance movement, justifying his position as follows: "It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all."
Details of the plot against Hitler were worked out minutely for each person to have alibis for his actions. However, the rival spying arm of the Gestapo had been hoping to discredit leaders of the Abwehr on trumped up charges of bribery (and money laundering) for helping Jews to escape Germany (called Operation 7), or in the case of Bonhoeffer, of evading the draft. It was presumably on this charge that he was arrested on April 5, 1943. Two men arrived at his father's house in Berlin requesting to see Dietrich in his room. Without a search warrant or notice of arrest, Bonhoeffer was ordered to accompany them. He was taken to Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. At first conditions were extremely bad - the blankets, for instance, were too smelly to use. But after it was known who he was, his position improved (thanks to his Uncle, Paul von Hase, who was military Commandant of Tegel).
Six months were to drag by before he was given a warrant for his arrest. The alibis of the plotters were all in order, and each played his part well. Bonhoeffer was able to have communication with the outside by means of coded messages passed in books and food parcels. Good-hearted guards made it possible for members of the family to visit and keep him informed.
Bonhoeffer spent eighteen months in Tegel Prison. Here he wrote the letters later incorporated into the intriguing work Letters and Paper from Prison (or as some editions title it, Prisoner for God). In passing the long hours of imprisonment, Bonhoeffer read the Bible and works ranging over such diverse subjects as literature, science, philosophy, theology, and history. Much of his reading related to the nineteenth-century cultural heritage of Germany.
In July 1944, another attempt on Hitler's life failed (commonly know as the July 20th plot, or the Stauffenberg plot; the film Valkyrie showcases this plot). Several had been made from various sources. The Gestapo's desire to incriminate the Abwehr was fulfilled in a dramatic way with the finding of the Abwehr's secret file in Zossen (chronicling the Nazi atrocities) just two months later. The news spread quickly through the secret grapevine of the Abwehr, and Bonhoeffer heard it. Escape was the reaction to the news, and a plan had been made for some time. Arrangements were made with a friendly guard, and Bonhoeffer was to live "underground" until the destruction of Hitler came. Details were set in operation but halted when Dietrich's brother Klaus was arrested. The plan was jettisoned for fear that his family would be the scapegoats for his escape.
After finding the Zossen documents, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. Now along with others he was tortured to squeeze out information on collaborators. The evidence already on hand was enough to have them shot, but Hitler desired to ferret out all conspirators, and this desire prolonged their lives. Bonhoeffer remained on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse until February 1945, when he was removed secretly to Buchenwald. On February 7, the guards assembled twenty of the most important prisoners and ordered them into two vehicles. Bonhoeffer was among them.
Payne Best, one of the survivors of Buchenwald (and a captured British intelligence officer), described Bonhoeffer during this time: "Bonhoeffer was different; just quite calm and natural, seemingly perfectly at ease... his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison." Bonhoeffer served as unofficial chaplain to many of the men of various nationalities. His spirit was gentle, and he became "the man for others" during the crucial days of Buchenwald. Best affirms, "He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real, and ever close to him."
On April 3, a lumbering enclosed vehicle pulled up to load seventeen prisoners including Bonhoeffer. Destination: Flossenburg, an extermination camp in the Bavarian forest. The vehicle was turned away because the prison was full, and this raised the men's hopes temporarily. For a short time they were imprisoned in Schonberg, until two men appeared before the open door of Bonhoeffer's cell and called out: "Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us."
He moved quickly to place certain mementos in the hands of friends with instructions concerning them. He wrote his name in the beginning, middle, and end of a work of Plutarch - a book eventually returned to the Bonhoeffer family. He sent special greetings by Payne Best to his old friend, the Bishop of Chichester (George Bell): "This is the end - for me the beginning of life."
At Flossenburg, on April 8, a court martial met in full session. Dietrich was "tried" and sentenced to death - all in one night! The camp doctor of Flossenburg recorded this impression of the events:
On the morning of that day [April 9] between five and six o'clock the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris (former head of the Abwehr), General (Hans) Oster, General Thomas and Reichgerichstrat (Judge) Sack were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.Of death, we know what Bonhoeffer’s thoughts were: In a sermon he preached while a pastor in London, he said:
No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from bodily existence.
Whether we are young or old makes no difference. What are twenty or thirty or fifty years in the sight of God? And which of us knows how near he or she may already be to the goal? That life only really begins when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up – that is for young and old alike to think about. Why are we so afraid when we think about death?… Death is only dreadful for those who live in dread and fear of it. Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world?
Death is hell and night and cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.
Of these events, the family of Bonhoeffer knew nothing. A month later (May 7, 1945), Nazi Germany fell. Communication was difficult, and search was made for news of him. Geneva was the first to hear the news which was passed on to Bishop Bell. The elder Bonhoeffers were listening to the radio from London on July 27 (1945) when an English voice spoke: "We are gathered here in the presence of God to make thankful remembrance of the life and work of His servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in faith and obedience to His holy word...."
With Bonhoeffer's death the church - and the world - was deprived both of a powerful intellect and of a creative Christian."All notes contained within the parentheses ( ) are my own.