Description: WER BIN ICH


Making moral decisions with political implications is something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was accustomed to.  His life was marked by one key decision that eventually cost him his life in 1945.  Bonhoeffer struggled with his transition from submission to resistance against the Third Reich.  His early life, views of Adolf Hitler, and theology shaped his actions during World War II.   Bonhoeffer’s concept of accepting the guilt of the German people was important in his decision to resist the Third Reich and involvement in plans to eliminate the Führer.  

The Making of a Theologian

Early Life and Influences

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany on February 4, 1906.  He was the son of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer and had seven brothers and sisters.  When his father became a professor at the University of Berlin, Bonhoeffer and his family moved to Grünewald, a section of Berlin.[1] Young Bonhoeffer’s life was filled with hardships.  One of the first incidents that led to his adoption of pacifism was the death of his brother, Walter, in the Great War when Bonhoeffer was only twelve years old.[2]  Even though the Bonhoeffer family was already against killing and the idea of war, the death of Walter ultimately led to Bonhoeffer becoming a theologian and an ethicist later in life.[3]  His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was not a religious person.  It was Paula, Dietrich’s mother, who was most influential in shaping Bonhoeffer’s faith.  Bonhoeffer’s family was not wealthy.  They were a humble family who, according to friend, Eberhard Bethge, “derived its real education, not from school, but from a deeply rooted sense of being guardians to a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.”[4]  It was this family that would have a great influence on Bonhoeffer during his days of resistance. 

God and Caesar

As a Lutheran minister, Bonhoeffer based his decisions in life strictly on the Word of God.  When looking at Genesis 3, Bonhoeffer believed we should not ask what is right and wrong; rather, we should ask what the will of God is.[5]  This belief ruled Bonhoeffer’s life, especially during his transition from submission to resistance in 1939.  A major change came to the people of Germany in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power under the National Socialist Party.  Bonhoeffer was always opposed to the National Socialism, however, his interpretation of Scripture and how to deal with authorities changed as he studied the Bible in depth.  There was a major conflict between the views of Bonhoeffer and the views of the Führer.  In order to solve this conflict, Bonhoeffer looked to Scripture.  Romans 13 seemed very clear about how to deal with political authority.  In this reference, the apostle Paul stated that, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”[6]  This was the traditionally held view of the Lutheran church at the time.  As a Lutheran minister, Bonhoeffer bowed down and took this oppressive form of government as a punishment from God.  Bonhoeffer believed that there was a sharp distinction between politics and religion.[7]  He believed in the Lutheran theory of two kingdoms, the spiritual and temporal.[8]  In regards to those who questioned whether or not they should resist this corrupt government, the next verse in chapter 13 says, “Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.”[9]  When one reads this it seems obvious that a Christian would not even think about resisting the authorities that were placed above them by God.  This convicting Scripture was what kept many Christians out of the resistance during the 1930s and 1940s, but the interpretation of Romans 13 would still be challenged in many ways. 

The Young Theologian

Bonhoeffer’s theological views were greatly influenced by his family.  During his graduate studies, Bonhoeffer wrote a doctoral dissertation called “Sanctorum Communio” in 1927.  It was so promising and challenging that the famous theologian, Karl Barth, called this writing a “theological miracle.”[10]  This was the beginning of his theological career and the beginning of a transformation from seeming innocent to bearing Germany’s guilt that wouldn’t be reversed. 

After the death of his brother and move toward pacifism, Bonhoeffer made plans to study with Mohandas Gandhi.  Gandhi was involved as a political and spiritual leader of India during the Indian independence movement.  He was also a man known for pacifist resistance.  Even though these plans did not come to fruition, Bonhoeffer was able to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1930.  During this time, Bonhoeffer became active in and committed to Abyssinian Baptist Church, a black church in Harlem where he spent a great deal of time.[11]  As he studied social justice and taught Sunday school, Bonhoeffer saw how it felt to suffer under oppression.  His experiences in that church eventually led to his Christian Humanism and commitment to minorities, such as Jews.  At this point in his life, Bonhoeffer demanded that people begin to live a Christian life as the world had outgrown its desire for religious tutelage.[12]  In order to truly understand how Jesus wanted us to live and become his obedient followers, Bonhoeffer believed he needed to study and master the Sermon on the Mount and attempt to live by it.  This dedication to understanding Scripture and living by it would transform Bonhoeffer’s mind and deepen his pacifism. 

Chapter 2 - Fight Against Hitler

Issues with National Socialism

Beginning in 1933 after Hitler came into power, Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Führer in speeches and sermons.  In one specific speech he referred to the Führer as the Verführer, which means seducer.  Before he could finish his address, Bonhoeffer’s microphone was cut off and he was escorted off stage.[13]  That National Socialism essentially made the Führer an idol did not sit well with Bonhoeffer and the Protestant Church, who believed there should be no other god other than the One True God.  Bonhoeffer also believed National Socialism was founded on the strength of man alone; in this case the strength came from Hitler.[14] 

Bowing One’s Head

In 1938 Bonhoeffer still had the mindset of a traditional Lutheran who looked at Romans 13 and followed that command. At this time, Bonhoeffer was in the middle of a work called, The Cost of Discipleship.  It was inspired by the setting of the communal life in Finkenwalde, the seminary where he taught.  This seminary was an illegal non-sanctioned seminary in Germany.  This book was a reflection of Bonhoeffer’s study of the Sermon on the Mount in which he talks about the grace of God and what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.  He coined a terms “cheap grace” and “costly grace.”[15] He explained cheap grace to mean “the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.”[16]  Bonhoeffer notes that this cheap grace is a serious problem in the church today and refers to it as the deadly enemy of the church.[17]  Costly grace, on the other hand, is grace that demands we follow Jesus Christ; it costs a man his life.  He describes it as a treasure hidden in a field that must be protected from the world at all costs.[18] 

These views of cheap grace and costly grace shaped Bonhoeffer’s approach to his study of the Sermon on the Mount, which is described in depth in his book The Cost of Discipleship.  As Bonhoeffer wrote this book in 1938, the dominant idea was bowing one’s head in acceptance of the government that was in place in Germany at the time.  The entire work is filled with references to respecting authority and having love for one’s enemies.  His Lutheran traditions are obvious in this writing as he mentions a disciple’s role as a follower of Christ.  Shortly after The Cost of Discipleship was published, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went through a radical transformation which would ultimately determine his fate.

The Decision to Resist

  Dietrich Bonhoeffer had many opportunities to travel during the 1930s, to meet different church leaders, and speak at churches and universities.  In 1939 he was invited back to New York to speak at Union Theological Seminary.  During his time there, Bonhoeffer struggled with issues back home in Germany and the question of whether or not he should return.  He realized the political authority in Germany had become corrupt and immoral and must be changed.  He believed it was the Christian right and duty to oppose tyranny.[19]  A personal war was being waged inside Bonhoeffer and he eventually broke down in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr in which he admitted:

 “I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America.  I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany.  I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”[20] 

Bonhoeffer sincerely believed he could not desert his friends who were oppressed when they needed him the most.  Looking at Scripture, he was drawn back to Psalm 31:8 which says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”[21] This verse compelled Bonhoeffer to return to his friends and family who were in the midst of oppression and could not speak up for themselves.  He felt that there were three ways he could react to the atrocities being committed in Germany.  The first would be to simply ask the state if its actions are legitimate and in accordance with their responsibilities.  The second is to aid the victims even if they aren’t a part of the Church.  Finally, the third action would be to “jam a spoke in the wheel itself.”[22]  Bonhoeffer believed that just helping the people caught under the wheel was not enough.  By “jamming a spoke in the wheel itself,” Bonhoeffer would be taking direct political action in eliminating the Führer.  He thought that one must ask what the actual possibilities and consequences of direct action are.  It may not always be feasible to take the final step of killing Hitler at once.[23]  Bonhoeffer believed “responsible actions must not be blind.”[24]  On June 20, 1939, Dietrich Bonhoeffer boarded the last ship headed back to Europe before the beginning of the war.  This decision, based on his theology and love for the German people, was the point where Bonhoeffer actively sought to kill Hitler. 

Acceptance of Guilt

As a Christian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood the concept of Jesus Christ bearing the guilt and shame of humanity on himself as he died on the cross.  According to Bonhoeffer, just as “Jesus did not seek first of all to be good or to preserve his innocence, rather, he freely took upon himself the guilt of others, so responsible men should do the same.”[25]  The guilt that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is referring to is not described in depth in any of his writings, however, Ethics is the best work to use.  Ethics was a compilation of letters and notes Bonhoeffer wrote on his way back to Europe and in the next couple of years following.  It was an attempt to address moral dilemmas and the need to resist an evil government.[26]  This book was never finished, therefore, his concept of guilt is not explained in depth in his writing.  The guilt he is referring to is the guilt of the German people for all of the atrocities that were being committed.  Through Bonhoeffer’s actions he would bear the guilt of the German church as well as his bourgeois heritage.[27] 

Bonhoeffer’s theology and Christology may seem very peculiar here; however, he was fully committed to bearing Germany’s guilt on himself, just as Jesus did.  Essentially, the sinner is supposed to follow the sinless One in accepting the guilt of others and that is exactly was Dietrich Bonhoeffer was committed to doing.[28]  As a leader in the Confessing Church, which was a church opposed to the Nazification of the Protestant Church, it was said by other leaders that “The confessor became a conspirator,” speaking of Bonhoeffer.[29]  The guilt that Bonhoeffer chose to bear would be criticized by other leaders in the Church as well as himself.  Regardless, his responsible action was seen by the Confessing Church as a bold venture of faith.[30] 

As word began to spread through the Church that Bonhoeffer felt Hitler needed to be eliminated, questions about his previous views in The Cost of Discipleship arose.  All throughout Bonhoeffer’s writings one can see small pieces of this concept of acceptance of guilt beginning with his doctoral dissertation, “Sanctorum Communio.”  In this writing, Bonhoeffer relates prayer to the acceptance of the guilt of others.  He notes that through intercessory prayer, one actually steps in the other’s place.[31]  As Bonhoeffer’s writings continue, one sees a sharp contrast between the ideas in The Cost of Discipleship and his unfinished work, Ethics.  In The Cost of Discipleship, the focus is single minded obedience and grace, with most of decisions based on Romans 13 and the idea of submission. 

In Ethics, however, the main themes tend to be freedom, permission, and liberty.[32]  These writings are great examples of how Bonhoeffer changed from submission to resistance in 1939 but they also make others question what the correct view from Scripture is.

Throughout the reign of Hitler and the Third Reich, people struggled with the choice to either accept this form of government or try to overthrow it.  Bonhoeffer was a prime example of a man who drastically changed his mindset as he moved from accepting the punishment of the Third Reich to seeking to overthrow it.  Along with this decision came the question of whether one was innocent or guilty.  As Bonhoeffer was struggling with this idea of overthrowing Adolf Hitler, there was a constant state of tension in his mind.  At times Bonhoeffer acknowledged that his guilt was forgiven by Jesus Christ dying on the cross but other times Bonhoeffer was almost choked by the burden of guilt of choosing to act against the Nazis.[33]  In accordance with Bonhoeffer’s views, no man can act in complete purity because all of our actions are tainted with sin.  This, however, is not an excuse to remove one from the responsibility to act.  He had to gain a clear conscience as he proceeded with the resistance and eventually Bonhoeffer realized that one would have a clear conscience when accepting guilt.  Even though one has a clear conscience during this situation, there is still question of how God will judge one when the person comes before Him.  To this question Bonhoeffer answered, “Before other men the man of free responsibility is justified by necessity, before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he only hopes for mercy.”[34]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer realized that even though he had a clear conscience he would have to stand before the Almighty one day and give an account of his life on earth.  As he stands before God, Bonhoeffer knows his only chance of gaining favor is through the grace of Jesus Christ and mercy from the Father. 

Bonhoeffer also addressed Christians who were not fully committed to the resistance.  Even though Bonhoeffer was once accepting of the Nazi regime and the rule of Hitler, he was harsh when it came to speaking to others that were not part of the resistance.  His views may seem extreme in many cases, but they were also very desperate and necessary.  Bonhoeffer wrote in Ethics that “If any man tries to escape guilt in responsibility he detaches himself from the ultimate reality of human existence.”[35]  He is telling the Christians that they are being selfish if they do not accept the guilt of their people and that they are setting their own personal innocence above their responsibility for men.[36]  Bonhoeffer goes on to remind the Germans that maintaining their innocence by not being involved in the resistance in a setting like the Third Reich would be extremely irresponsible.

His extreme views come out when he writes that it would be considered irresponsible if one was not committed to plotting Hitler’s death.[37]  He described the concept of responsibility by using the word “deputyship.”[38]  Bonhoeffer compares the relationship of the German people to a father’s relationship with his son.[39]  The son needs the father to step in on his behalf at times in order that he may survive.  If the father attempted to live as though he were alone, that would be a denial of the actual fact of his responsibility as a father.[40]  Just like the father, if a member of the resistance attempted to live as though he were alone, he would be denying his responsibility to his fellow Germans.  Bonhoeffer concludes that no one can avoid this deputyship, therefore, no one can avoid the responsibility to act.[41]  He states in Ethics, “When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, and no responsible man can avoid this, he imputes this guilt to himself and no one else; he answers for it; he accepts responsibility for it.”[42]  Bonhoeffer finally addressed the Germans by asking them which choice carried more guilt: tolerating the Hitler dictatorship and becoming guilty of mass murder, or removing the dictator and bearing the guilt of killing Hitler for fellow Germans.[43]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was clear that he believed one incurs more guilt in choosing innocence and tolerating the dictatorship.  In another call for Christian action Bonhoeffer wrote:

“We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s largeheartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer.  Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior.”[44] 

His words were encouraging and convicting but, ultimately, Bonhoeffer believes “it is himself who must observe, judge, weigh up, decide, and act.”[45] With these views, Bonhoeffer would become involved in a resistance group and draft numerous plots to kill Hitler. 

Chapter 3 - Resistance and Arrest

Bonhoeffer and Abwehr

From 1939 on, Bonhoeffer’s opposition to Hitler became apparent in the way he responded to authorities.  During that year, all of the leaders in the Evangelical Church were to swear an oath of loyalty to the Führer or they would be dismissed by the government.[46]  Many members of the Confessing Church, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, did not take the oath and were forced to work elsewhere.  Bonhoeffer’s great friend, Eberhard Bethge was another who did not take the oath.  He responded by saying, “We have not attached our hearts to organizations and institutions, not even to our own.”[47]  Bethge and Bonhoeffer were two people who swore allegiance to Christ and Christ alone.  They would not stoop to a level of making the Führer their god.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer found a great friend in a man who surprisingly worked within the Reich government.  Hans Von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, worked in the Reich Ministry of Justice and eventually became a close friend Bonhoeffer’s.  As Von Dohnanyi collected information for his job, he also kept a secret file on Nazi crimes in hopes that one day he could win the German military over to a coup.[48]  Little did Bonhoeffer know that his brother-in-law would become one of his closest and most useful allies during the resistance of Hitler.  Because of Von Dohnanyi’s position in the government, Bonhoeffer received information about atrocities being committed well before others in the resistance knew.  

After Bonhoeffer was prohibited from speaking in public and was constantly being harassed by Nazi officials, his brother-in-law introduced him to people in the Abwehr, a German intelligence service which contained a group that was interested in overthrowing Hitler.[49]  Within this organization, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was to use his ecumenical contacts abroad to communicate secret information about German movement and talk about post-Hitler peace terms with the Allies.[50]  Previously, Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to travel, speak in different places, and meet a lot of church leaders as he visited foreign missions.  This allowed him to maintain a net of illegal relations which he would use in his work with the Abwehr.[51]  While he was working with the organization, Bonhoeffer and Von Dohnanyi came up with a plan to help Jews escape from Germany.  In a plan called “Operation 7,” Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law smuggled seven Jews disguised as Abwehr agents into Switzerland.  Although the operation was successful, this was the beginning of the end as Nazi officials eventually came across traces of the operation as well as the names of Bonhoeffer and Von Dohnanyi. 

Arrest of the Conspirator

On April 6, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested along with his brother-in-law for using Abwehr resources inappropriately.  The two men had a long battle with the Gestapo, including the “Operation 7” incident, prior to this operation but the Gestapo finally had enough information to arrest them.  As Bonhoeffer sat in prison he wrote that he wasn’t sure exactly why he was arrested but that “Strangely enough, the discomforts that one generally associates with prison life, the physical hardships, hardly bother me at all.”[52]  Because Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law knew that arrest was inevitable, they were well prepared for the imprisonment and torture that was sure to come.  They even came up with a code to communicate with each other and people outside the prison by using books and underlining certain letters of certain words.[53]  Bonhoeffer was able to make friends with many of the guards in the prison who were willing to smuggle letters and documents out of the prison. 

On July 20, 1944 news reached the prison of a failed attempt to kill Hitler. The next day Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote his friend, Eberhard Bethge, a letter of confession because he knew as that point he would be traced back to the attempt through files found with his name in them.[54]  He was involved as a courier in the early stages of the July 20 attempt so his name would have been in many documents related to the assassination attempt.  As expected, the “Zossen Documents,” which were the plans outlining the July 20 attempt, set off a string of new arrests in October 1944.  Unfortunately, all of the people that could protect Bonhoeffer were arrested as well.[55]

Hanged on a Twisted Cross

In April of 1945, just three weeks before the war was ended, Dietrich Bonhoeffer stood in front of SS Judge Thorbeck with other Abwehr members.  In a relatively quick trial, Bonhoeffer was sentenced to be hanged on April 9, 1945.  On the day of his execution, a camp doctor noticed Bonhoeffer, “kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer.” As Bonhoffer walked up the stairs to the gallows, he was calm.  According to the same doctor, “His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”[56]


The life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer was based on determining what the will of God was and being obedient to his Word.  Though his mind was transformed in 1939 as he sought to bear the guilt of the German people on himself just as Christ bore our guilt, Bonhoeffer was still obedient to what he felt God calling him to.  In regards to the call of Jesus Christ, he noted in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[57]  The last words that we have from Dietrich Bonhoeffer represent his life and what he was committed to during his years in Germany.  He wrote to Bishop George Bell of Chichester, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.  I believe in universal Christian brotherhood which rises above national interests and I believe that our victory is certain.”[58] That victory was certain.  Just three weeks later, the Nazi Party was removed from power and Adolf Hitler was found dead in his bunker.  The martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would not live to see what the future held for his fellow German people. 

[1] Kenneth Morris, Bonhoeffer’s Ethic of Discipleship (University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1986), 44.

[2] Ibid, 78.

[3] Ibid, 71.

[4] Ibid, 59.

[5] Stephen Plant, Bonhoeffer (New York: Continuum, 2004), 115.

[6] The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 1759.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 29.

[8] Raymond Mengus, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Decision to Resist,” Journal of Modern History vol. 64, no. 1 (1992): 138.

[9] The Holy Bible, 1760.

[10] Morris, Bonhoeffer’s Ethic, 29.

[11] Ibid, 30.

[12] Ibid, 2.

[13] Mengus, “Decision to Resist,” 140.

[14] Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 16.

[15] Ibid, 43.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid, 45.

[19] Ibid, 30.

[20] Reinhold Niebuhr, “The Death of a Martyr,” Christianity and Crisis (1945): 6.

[21] The Holy Bible, 819.

[22] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom (New York, Harper Collins Publishing, 1995), 132.

[23] Ibid, 133.

[24] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (New York: Macmillan, 1955), 203.

[25] Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography  (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2000), 241.

[26] Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 355.

[27] Larry L. Rasmussen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Reality and Resistance (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1972), 52.

[28] Ibid, 51.

[29] Christine Schliesser, Everyone who acts responsibility becomes guilty: Bonhoeffer’s concept of accepting guilt (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 143.

[30] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1953), 6.

[31] Schliesser, Bonhoeffer’s concept of accepting guilt, 159.

[32] Rasmussen, Reality and Resistance, 50.

[33] Schliesser, Bonhoeffer’s concept of accepting guilt, 173.

[34] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 216.

[35] Ibid, 210.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Rasmussen, Reality and Resistance, 51.

[38] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 194.

[39] Ibid, 194.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, 195.

[42] Ibid, 216.

[43] Renate Wind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A spoke in the wheel (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1992), 144.

[44] Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom, 358.

[45] Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 217.

[46] Ibid, 129.

[47] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 517.

[48] Wind, A Spoke in the Wheel, 141.

[49] Ibid, 150.

[50] Ibid, 142.

[51] Mengus, “Decision to Resist,” 143.

[52] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 21.

[53] Wind, A spoke in the wheel, 157.

[54] Ibid, 170.

[55] Ibid, 172.

[56] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 927.

[57] Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 11.

[58] Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 830.