(February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945) was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, participant in the German Resistance movement against Nazism, and a founding member of the Confessing Church.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau (Wrocław), Silesia. He and his sister Sabine were twins and the sixth and seventh of eight children. His brother Walter was killed during World War I. His sister was married to Hans von Dohnanyi and was mother of the conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi and the later mayor of Hamburg, Klaus von Dohnanyi. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a prominent German psychiatrist in Berlin; his mother, Paula, home-schooled the children. Though he was initially expected to follow his father into the field of psychology, Dietrich decided at an early age to become a theologian and later a Christian pastor. His parents supported his decision. He attended college in Tübingen and later at the University of Berlin, where he received his doctorate in theology at the age of only 21. As Dietrich was under 25 at the time [per church regulations], he was unable to be ordained. This, however, gave Dietrich the opportunity to go abroad. He then spent a post-graduate year abroad studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. During this time, he would often visit the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he became acquainted with the musical form that ethnomusicologists call the African-American Spiritual. He amassed a substantial collection of these spirituals, which he took with him when he went back to Germany.
Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1931, where he lectured on theology in Berlin and wrote several books. A strong opponent of Nazism, he was involved, together with Martin Niemöller, Karl Barth and others, in establishing the Confessing Church. In August 1933, he co-authored the Bethel Confession with Hermann Sasse and others. Between late 1933 and 1935, he served as pastor of two German-speaking Protestant churches in London: St. Paul's and Sydenham. While Bonhoeffer desired a trip to India to discover non-violent resistance with Gandhi, he returned to Germany to head a seminary for Confessing Church pastors which had been made illegal by the Nazi regime, first in Finkenwalde and then at the von Blumenthal estate of Gross Schlönwitz, which was closed at the outbreak of World War II. The Gestapo also banned him from preaching; then teaching; and finally any kind of public speaking. During this time, Bonhoeffer worked closely with numerous opponents of Adolf Hitler.
In 1939, Bonhoeffer joined a secret group of high-ranking military officers based in the Abwehr, or Military intelligence Office, who wanted to overthrow the National Socialist regime by killing Hitler. Bonhoeffer was arrested in April 1943 after money used to help Jews escape to Switzerland was traced to him. He was charged with conspiracy and imprisoned in Berlin for a year and a half.
In Flossenbürg, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging at dawn on 1945 April 9, just three weeks before the liberation of Berlin and one month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. The manner of execution was, like other executions associated with the July 20 Plot, so brutal and graphic that even Wehrmacht soldiers were loathe to watch. Bonhoeffer was stripped of clothing in his cell, tortured and ridiculed by the guards, and led naked into the execution yard. The lack of sufficient gallows to hang thousands of Germans after the July 20 Plot had caused Hitler and Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels to seize on the idea of using meathooks from slaughterhouses and slowly hoisting the victim to dangle from an incrementally tightening noose formed of piano wire. The asphyxiation is thought to have taken approximately half an hour.
O God our Father, Who art the source of strength to all Thy saints, and Who didst bring Thy servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer through imprisonment and death to the joys of life eternal: Grant that we, being encouraged by his example, may hold fast the faith that we profess, and that we may seek to know, and according to our knowledge to do, Thy will, even unto death; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
St. Matthew 13:47-52
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