Pastor, theologian, dissident, martyr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short life (1906 – 1945) is an example of faith under fire and courageous resistance to the politics of Nazism.
Academically able (he gained his Doctorate in Theology at the age of 21), Bonhoeffer worked as a teaching fellow at Union Theological Seminary, New York and later lectured in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. He was ordained in 1931.
In 1933 the Nazis came to power. Bonhoeffer, like the rest of his family, opposed the regime from the beginning, warning of idolatrous worship of the Führer and resisting state interference in the church. He campaigned – unsuccessfully –against the application of the Aryan Paragraph dismissing baptised Jews from church offices. As swastikas were placed around altars and calls were made for the “Jewish” Old Testament to be removed from the Bible, the Nazification of the church led to the foundation of the Confessing Church. This emphasised the confessional freedom of the churches and to baptised Jews’ equality with other Christians, and Bonhoeffer was involved with it from the beginning.
Bonhoeffer’s criticism of the state led to his license to teach being revoked by the Nazi authorities in 1936, and he was later banned from Berlin. His response to was to set up underground “seminaries on the run” and teach there.
With war imminent, Bonhoeffer joined the Abwehr (German military intelligence) to avoid having to join the army and as a cover for resistance activities. There, he and his brother-in-law helped Jews escape Germany, sent news to the Allies and plotted to kill Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943, confined in prisons and concentration camps, and, just two weeks before the camp was liberated, Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp.
Bonhoeffer taught that Christians must act within this world, not withdraw from it, declaring that the church must not simply “bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.” He provides a model for resistance to political oppression,. His final words, en route to the scaffold, were “This is the end — but for me, the beginning — of life.”