Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich (1906-1945) German theologian and diarist

A Lutheran pastor from Breslau, Silesia (modern Wroclaw, Poland), Dietrich Bonhoeffer courted martyrdom for Christian activism. He was born on February 4, 1906, to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer; his father was a prominent Berlin psychiatrist. An older brother, Walter Bonhoeffer, died in combat during World War I. Dietrich Bonhoeffer prepared for the pulpit with degrees from Tubingen and Berlin universities and from Union Theological Seminary in New York City. On November 6, 1932, he espoused anti-Hitler policies in a sermon to members of the Confessing Church, a Protestant religious movement that opposed the perverted nationalism of the rising Nazi Party. He lectured students at the University of Berlin in Creation and Fall: A Theological Exposition of Genesis 1-3 (his lectures were published in 1933) on the necessity of returning to the Bible for guidance and strength during the political unrest following the collapse of the Weimar Republic in 1933. After spending two years in London as the pastor of two churches (1933-35), he went to India, where he studied nonviolent resistance with Mohandas Gandhi before returning to Germany and becoming a leader of the Confessing Church. His masterwork, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), introduced the world to his belief that struggle is the price of Christian salvation.

In his 1936 pastoral report to the Lutheran synod, Bonhoeffer compiled the pervasive despair generated by Nazi dictatorship and looming disaster. He asserted, “We all know the distress, the inner contradiction, the sloth which seek to hold us back… . We still have enough time and warning” (quoted in Bethge 2000, 561). Idealistic in a time of peril, he considered threat to be a gift from god. He preached that faith requires obedience and action, the focus of Life Together (1939), a polemic on Christian cooperation reflecting the solidarity of the first disciples. His writings stressed that Christian tenets “affect civil life and, indeed, the entire earthly existence of people” (Bonhoeffer 2003, 4-5). He and others in the Confessing Church channeled humanitarian energies toward the revolutionary concepts of Jesus's Sermon on the Mount concerning persecution and rescue of the innocent.

Bonhoeffer preached and taught with the intention of shocking German Christians into revolt against Nazi barbarities targeting Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, dissidents, and the elderly and handicapped. Because of his activities, the Gestapo banned Bonhoeffer from teaching, oratory, and evangelizing. In 1939, he joined a group of army officers seeking an end to Hitler's power. For his role in financing the escape of Jews to Switzerland, he was jailed in April 1943. After the discovery of his association with the conspirators who tried to kill Hitler in July 1944, he was again jailed and subsequently executed on April 9, 1945. His grisly death entailed being hanged from a meat hook in a piano wire noose at the Tegel prison camp for criminals in Flossenburg, Bavaria.

Bonhoeffer's courageous letters, his prison diary, and essays inspired several books, both fiction and nonfiction; an opera; and the films The Restless Conscience (1991), Hanged on a Twisted Cross (1996), and Bonhoeffer—Agent of Grace (2000). Author Elizabeth Berryhill dramatized his costly resistance in the two-act play The Cup of Trembling (1962). In 2005, the film Bonhoeffer summarized the pastor's risk in defying the spread of fascism.


Berryhill, Elizabeth. The Cup of Trembling—A Play in

Two Acts Derived from the Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Seabury, 1962.

Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography.

Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2000.

Bethge, Renate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life.

Translated by K. C. Hanson. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Discipleship. Translated by John D.

Godsey. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

------- . A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of

Dietrich Bonhoeffer New York: HarperCollins, 1995.