He was 39 years old, brilliant and courageous. His last words were “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.”
When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young priest and lecturer at the Berlin University. Two days later, on 1 February 1933, Bonhoeffer gave a radio talk denouncing the leadership principle of the Nazi Fuhrerprinzip, pointing out that it was a synonym for “dictatorship” and that it was an cult of idolatry. Before he finished the broadcast was cut off mid-air.
By April 1933, Bonhoeffer was vocal in his opposition to the persecution of Jews. He argued that the Church had a duty to act strongly against this kind of policy.
Bonhoeffer further encouraged the Protestant Church to reject Nazi ideology and to prevent it from infiltrating the church. This led to a breakaway church – The Confessing Church – formed by Martin Niemoller and which Bonhoeffer helped to form. The Confessing Church sought to stand in contrast to the Nazi-supported, German Christian movement.
In autumn of 1933 Bonhoeffer moved to London where he supported the Confessing Church movement in Germany. He returned to Germany in 1935 to run a seminary for the Confessing Church, but Bonhoeffer was denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state and had his authorization to teach and to publish revoked in 1936. The Nazis closed the seminary in 1937.
Bonhoeffer left Germany for the United States in June 1939, concerned for his own safety if he did not take an oath of allegiance to Hitler, but after less than two years, he felt compelled to return to Germany because he felt guilty for seeking sanctuary and not having the courage to practise what he preached.
Bonhoeffer joined the German resistance movement centered around the Abwehr (German Military Intelligence), even knowing about the plot to assassinate Hitler. His struggle with his previous stance on pacifism caused him considerable spiritual discomfort. He wrote: “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 and Papers from Prison (1967).
In April 1943, shortly after becoming engaged to be married to Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo as a result of his involvement with a plan to send Jews to neutral Switzerland. Evidence implicating him in the plot to overthrow the government came to light and he was court-martialed and sentenced to die.
While in prison, he acted as a counselor and pastor to prisoners of all denominations. Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison was published posthumously.
Among his celebrated works of theology are The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics. His letters to his fiancee from prison were published, in book form, as Love Letters from Cell 92: The Correspondence between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, 1943-45.