Dietrich Bonhöffer: “When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.”
On 9 April 1945, Lutheran Pastor and Theologian Dietrich Bonhöffer was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenburg Prison Camp only days before the camp was liberated by U.S. troops and one month before the end of the war in Europe.
Bonhöffer and his twin sister, Sabine, were born in 1906.
His family were not religious but had a strong musical and artistic heritage. Dietrich’s father, Karl, was Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist. The Bonhöffers were related (by the marriage of Sabine Bonhöffer to Hans von Dohnanyi) to the musical von Dohnanyi family, a family which is prominent in Classical music circles to this day. From an early age, Dietrich Bonhöffer displayed great musical talent, and the pursuit of music was important throughout his life. When living in the U.S., Dietrich Bonhöffer was quite taken by Negro spirituals and collected a considerable amount of American music. Music, however, was not to be his calling. His family were quite taken aback when, at the age of 14, he announced he wanted to train and become a Pastor.
In 1927, he graduated from the University of Berlin. He gained a Doctorate in Theology for his influential thesis, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of Saints.) After graduating, he spent time in Spain and America giving him a wider outlook on life and helping him move from academic study to a more practical interpretation of the Gospels. He was moved by the concept of the Church’s involvement with and protection of those who were oppressed.
In 1931, at the age of 25 he returned to Berlin and was ordained as a Pastor. The early 1930s were a period of great upheaval in Germany, with the instability of Weimar Germany and the mass unemployment of the Great Depression leading to the election of Adolf Hitler in 1933.
While the election of Hitler was widely welcomed by the German population, including significant parts of the Church, Bonhöffer was a firm opponent of Hitler’s philosophy. Two days after Hitler’s election as Chancellor in January 1933, Bonhöffer made a radio broadcast criticising Hitler, and in particular the danger of an idolatrous cult of the Fuhrer. His radio broadcast was cut off mid-air.
In April 1933, Bonhöffer raised opposition to the persecution of Jews and argued that the Church had a responsibility to act against the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Bonhöffer sought to organise the Protestant (i.e. Lutheran) Church to reject Nazi ideology from infiltrating the church. This led to a breakaway church – The Confessing Church which Bonhöffer helped form with Martin Niemoller. The Confessing Church sought to stand in contrast to the Nazi-supported, German Christian movement in which the Gospel of Christ was subverted by Nazism.
In practice, however, it was difficult to agree on bold initiatives to oppose the Nazification of society and the church. Bonhöffer felt disillusioned by the weakness of the church and opposition, and in the autumn of 1933, he took a two-year appointment to a German-speaking Protestant (Lutheran) church in London.
After two years in London, Bonhöffer returned to Berlin. He felt a call to return to his native country and share in its struggles, despite the bleak outlook. Shortly after his return, one leader of the Confessing Church was arrested and another fled to Switzerland; Bonhöffer had his authorization to teach revoked in 1936, after being denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state.
As the Nazi control of the country intensified, in 1937, the Confessing Church seminary was closed down by Himmler. Over the next two years, Bonhöffer travelled throughout Eastern Germany, conducting seminaries in private to sympathetic students.
During this period, Bonhöffer wrote extensively on subjects of theological interest. This included The Cost of Discipleship a study on the Sermon on the Mount (The Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5-7) and argued for greater spiritual discipline and practice to achieve ‘costly grace’ as opposed to ‘cheap grace.’
Worried by a fear of being asked to take an oath to Hitler or be arrested, Bonhöffer left Germany for the United States in June 1939. After less than two years, he returned to Germany because he felt guilty for seeking sanctuary and not having the courage to practise what he preached.
“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. … Christians in Germany will have to face the 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 civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
On his return to Germany, Bonhöffer was denied the right to speak in public or publish any article. However, he managed to join the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. Before his visit to the U.S., Bonhöffer had already made contacts with some military officers who were opposed to Hitler. It was within the Abwehr that the strongest opposition to Hitler occurred. Bonhöffer was aware of various assassination plots to kill Hitler. It was during the darkest hours of the Second World War that he began to question his pacifism, as he saw the need for violent opposition to a regime such as Hitler’s. Bonhöffer struggled with how to respond to the evil nature of the Nazi regime.
“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” – Letters from Prison (published posthumously)
When Visser’t Hooft, the General Secretary of The World Council of Churches, asked him, “What do you pray for in these days?” Bonhöffer replied: “If you want to know the truth, I pray for the defeat of my nation.”
Within the cover of the Abwehr, Bonhöffer, served as a messenger for the small German Resistance movement. He made contact with associates of the British government – though the feelers of the German resistance were ignored as the Allies pursued a policy of requiring ‘unconditional surrender.’
Within the Abwehr, efforts were made to help some German Jews escape to neutral Switzerland. It was Bonhöffer’s involvement in this activity that led to his arrest in April 1943. As the Gestapo sought to take over the responsibilities of the Abwehr, they uncovered Bonhöffer’s involvement in those escape plans. For a year and a half, Bonhöffer was imprisoned at Tegel Military prison. Here he continued his writings such as Ethics. Helped by sympathetic guards, his writings were smuggled out. In his letters from prison, Bonhöffer reflected on the significance of his imprisonment:
“There remains an experience of incomparable value. 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 — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.” (Letters from Prison)
At the end of 1943 the Schutz Staffeinel (SS) and the Gestapo managed to arrest several Germans involved in plotting to overthrow Adolf Hitler. This included (as written above) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, plus Klaus Bonhoeffer (Dietrich’s brother), Josef Mueller and Bonhöffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. The arrest of the Bonhöffers and Hans von Dahnanyi was also a result of the Gestapo discovery that they Bonhöffers and von Dahnanyi were working to smuggle Jews out of Germany into Switzerland. Others under suspicion like Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster were dismissed from office in January, 1944.
Major Claus von Stauffenberg now emerged as the leader of the group opposed to Nazi rule. In 1942, he decided to kill Adolf Hitler. He was joined by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Friedrich Olbricht, Werner von Haeften, Fabian Schlabrendorft, Ludwig Beck and Erwin von Witzleben.
The plot was developed as a modification of Operation Valkyrie (Unternehmen Walküre), which was approved by Hitler for use if Allied bombing of German cities or an uprising of forced laborers from occupied countries working in German factories resulted in a breakdown in law and order. Members of the Reserve Army, including members of the Kreisau Circle, modified the plan and decided to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. Afterward, they planned for troops in Berlin to seize key government buildings, telephone and signal centers and radio stations. Hitler’s death was required to free German soldiers from their oath of loyalty to him. Operation Valkyrie was meant to give the plotters control over the government so they could make peace with the Allies and end the war.
At least six attempts were aborted before Claus von Stauffenberg decided on trying again during a conference attended by Hitler on 20 July 1944. It was decided to drop plans to kill Goering and Himmler at the same time.
Stauffenberg, who had never met Hitler before, carried the bomb in a briefcase and placed it on the floor while he left to make a phone-call. The bomb exploded killing four men in the hut. Hitler’s right arm was badly injured but he survived the bomb blast.
The plan was for Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Friedrich Fromm to take control of the German Army. The coup failed in part because they delayed implementing the plan until official confirmation of Hitler’s death could be received. When they learned that Hitler had survived, Valkyrie was not put in effect.
In an attempt to protect himself, Fromm organized the execution of Claus von Stauffenberg along with two other conspirators, Friedrich Olbricht and Werner von Haeften, in the courtyard of the War Ministry. It was later reported the Stauffenberg died shouting “Long live holy Germany”.
As a result of the July Plot, the new chief of staff, Heinz Guderian demanded the resignation of any officer who did not fully support the ideals of the Nazi Party. Over the next few months Guderian sat with Gerd von Rundstedt and Wilhelm Keitel on the Army Court of Honor that expelled hundreds of officers suspected of being opposed to the policies of Adolf Hitler. This removed them from court martial jurisdiction and turned them over to Roland Freisler and his People’s Court.
Over the next few months most of the group, including Wilhelm Canaris, Carl Goerdeler, Julius Leber, Ulrich Hassell, Hans Oster, Peter von Wartenburg, Henning von Tresckow, Ludwig Beck, Erwin von Witzleben and Friedrich Fromm, were either executed or forced to commit suicide. Ninety of the supposed conspirators were executied between August 1944 and April 1945 at the Plotzensee Prison.
It is etimated that 4,980 Germans were executed after the July Plot. Hitler decided that the leaders should have a slow death. They were hung with piano wire from meat-hooks. Their executions were filmed and later shown to senior members of both the NSDAP and the armed forces.
Despite the fact that he was imprisoned at the time of the failed assassination of Hitler, Bonhöffer was peripherally involved in the plot and was thus condemned to death. By this time, Hitler knew that the end was near and determined that the Allies, particularly the Russians, would never take him alive. But he vowed that before he died, every last person involved, no matter how slightly, in the 20 July 1944 attempt on his life would die before he committed suicide.
After the failed plot of July 1944, Bonhöffer was moved to the Gestapo’s high-security prison before being transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp and finally to the Flossenburg concentration camp.
Even during the privations of the concentration camp, Bonhöffer retained a deep spirituality which was evident to other prisoners. Bonhöffer continued to minister his fellow prisoners. Payne Best, a fellow inmate and officer of the British Army, wrote this observation of Bonhöffer:
“Bonhöffer was different, just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease… his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison. He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real and ever close to him.”
On April 8th, 1945, Bonhöffer was given a cursory court martial and sentenced to death by hanging. Like many of the conspirators, he was hung with a piano wire suspended by a meat hook, to prolong the death. Ordered to strip naked, he was led into the yard of the concentration camp in the chill early morning hours of 9 April and executed with six fellow conspirators including Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and Hans Oster. Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus, and a brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, were executed in Berlin on the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops were already fighting in the capital. Bonhöffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnányi had been executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp on 8 or 9 April. Lifted just high enough that his toes could touch the ground but not really support him, Bonhöffer lingered for some six hours before death took him. (There is a story that had been touted by the concentration camp’s doctor that Bonhöffer died in only seconds after being hung, but that story has been well-refuted. It was largely a self-serving story. The specific assignment of the camp doctor was to revive prisoners who had been tortured almost to the point of death so that they could later be tortured again. Nonetheless, the camp doctor’s story in several respects echoes what British prisoner Payne Best wrote about Bonhöffer.)
Just before his execution, Bonhöffer asked a fellow inmate to relate a message to Bishop George Bell of Chichester “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhöffer is known by many for one main sentence. It is a sentence worthy of Holy Week. Here is the context of his most famous quote in his most famous book, “The Cost of Discipleship”:
“The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.
When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.
It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But it is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.”
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“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross,” Bonhöffer wrote. “He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. [The Bible] … makes quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering. … The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.”
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