“How can success make us arrogant or failure lead us astray,
when we participate in the sufferings of God by living in this world?”
Born on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer began his theological education in 1923 to the mild surprise of his upper middle-class family. Following what he would later call a sort of conversion experience, Bonhoeffer intensified his focus on contemporary theological problems facing the church. With the ascendancy of the Nazi party in Germany in the early 1930s, Bonhoeffer was among the first of the German theologians to perceive the pervasiveness and significance of the looming threat.
When the pro-Nazi German Christian party won the church elections in the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer quickly opposed the anti-Semitism of the Nazis. Bonhoeffer’s consistent and committed resistance to the Nazi regime included his support for and pastoral participation in the Confessing Church along with other prominent Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Martin Niemöller. His resistance also lent new depths to his intricate association with the broader ecumenical movement.
When the effectiveness of the Confessing Church’s opposition to Hitler was blunted and his efforts to bring the moral authority of the ecumenical movement to bear met with failure, Bonhoeffer became involved with the so-called Abwehr conspiracy, which was intended to assassinate Hitler and end the war.
After imprisonment for his role in the escape of Jews to Switzerland, Bonhoeffer was implicated in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944. At the age of 39, he was hanged by the SS at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the liberation of the area under Allied troops.
In the weeks and months before his death, Bonhoeffer meditated at length upon the text of Jeremiah 45, which promises both suffering and deliverance to God’s people. Bonhoeffer understood suffering and persecution to be a mark of true discipleship. In his famous text Nachfolge (ET: The Cost of Discipleship), Bonhoeffer wrote that “the Church knows that the world is still seeking for someone to bear its sufferings, and so, as it follows Christ, suffering becomes the Church’s lot too and bearing it, is borne up by Christ.”
Bonhoeffer’s death has been passed on through the account of the concentration camp’s physician, who said, “I saw pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer, and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed.” This account is included by Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, reappearing again and again in the literature about Bonhoeffer.
But journalist and theologian Uwe Siemon-Netto writes of an even more chilling truth, “Apparently the doctor made up this tale in order to avoid punishment later in a war crimes trial. Joergen L.F. Mogensen, a Danish diplomat imprisoned in Flossenbürg, denied the existence of a scaffold or gallows in that camp. Mogensen is certain that Bonhoeffer’s life ended in the same ghastly way as his two Abwehr superiors, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris and Maj. Gen. Hans Oster.”
Siemon-Netto continues, “They were slowly strangled to death by a rope snapping up and down from a flexible iron hook that had been sunk into a wall. When they lost consciousness, they were revived so that the procedure could be repeated over and over again. The man who revived them was evidently none other than the camp doctor, Mogensen believes.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testament to his commitment to the Christian faith and his ardent opposition to the absolutism and idolatry of Nazi Germany.