Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr

Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Headshot portrait of German religious leader and resistance participant Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945).

Authenticated News / Getty Images

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who took part in resisting the Nazi government during World War II. Bonhoeffer was eventually hanged as a war criminal in the German concentration camp at Flossenburg. His best-known work is the Christian classic The Cost of Discipleship, first published in 1937.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

  • Known For: German theologian, pastor, and modern Christian martyr known for opposing Nazi ideologies, conspiring to overthrow Hitler, and helping Jews escape Germany.
  • Born: February 4, 1906, in Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland)
  • Died: April 9, 1945, Flossenburg Extermination Camp, Germany
  • Parents: Dr. Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer
  • Education: Tubingen University and University of Berlin
  • Published Works: The Cost of Discipleship (1937); Life Together (1938); Letters and Papers from Prison (1953); Ethics (1943).
  • Notable Quote: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Early Determination

Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau to a cultured, upper-class German family. His father, Karl, was the leading neurologist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. His mother, Paula, was the granddaughter of Karl von Hase, a 19th-century church historian.

As liberal Germans and only nominally religious, the Bonhoeffer’s encouraged their eight children, including Dietrich and his twin sister Sabine, to pursue literature, arts, and higher education. Young Dietrich, a talented pianist, was expected to follow a career in music. But at age 14, much to his family’s dismay, he announced his determined desire to become a minister of the church.

In the family tradition, Bonhoeffer studied first at Tubingen University, where he began his theological education. He went on to study at the University of Berlin, where he earned his doctor’s degree in theology in 1927. By age 24, Bonhoeffer qualified for a teaching appointment at the University of Berlin.

Young Dietrich Bonhoeffer with workers' sons on an outing near Berlin.
Young Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer with workers' sons on an outing near Berlin. Walter Sanders / Getty Images

Sunday School in Harlem

In 1930-31, Bonhoeffer decided to take a year in the United States to do post-graduate work at New York’s Union Theological Seminary. While there, his study of Christian ethics plunged him into the real world of human existence.

As he encountered new experiences, forged influential friendships, and sat under the teachings of Reinhold Niebuhr (Professor of Applied Christianity at Union Theological Seminary), Bonhoeffer’s sensitivity to social problems deepened. He also developed an intense passion for the teaching of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount.

Fellow student Frank Fisher introduced Bonhoeffer to African American Christianity at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. There Bonhoeffer witnessed the wholehearted devotion to Christ of church members within the context of oppressive racism.

As he worshipped at the historic church and ministered as a Sunday school teacher, Bonhoeffer saw the community’s vibrant, joy-filled spirituality as the empowering force undergirding its struggle with social injustice and racial inequality. He was so impressed by the experience that he became convinced that racial prejudice would become one of the most “critical future problems for the white church.”

The time in America was a turning point for Bonhoeffer, dramatically deepening his faith and strengthening his determination to oppose Nazi oppression in Germany. When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to take up his post as lecturer at the University of Berlin, those who knew him could see that he was radically changed.

The Confessing Church

During the years Bonhoeffer was gaining his theological education, Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany. Many Germans saw the charismatic political leader as a savior to their nation, which was suffering under extreme economic depression after its defeat in World War I.

By the time Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Bonhoeffer had joined the ranks of theologian Karl Barth and pastor Martin Niemoller in opposing Hitler’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions. Along with other Christian leaders, they founded an alliance called the Confessing Church, which issued its famous Barmen Declaration in 1934. The declaration put forth a biblical challenge to Nazi ideology and called German Christians to return to the doctrines of the Reformation and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Portrait
Headshot portrait of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Authenticated News / Getty Images

The Cost of Discipleship

After a two-year stint serving as chaplain to a Lutheran congregation in London, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany to establish an underground seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde. During this timeframe, as Bonhoeffer secretly trained ministers, he also wrote copiously about the Christian life, including his most famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937.

Drawing from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount teachings, The Cost of Discipleship warns believers against “cheap grace,” the idea of allowing oneself to become too comfortable as a disciple of Christ. Bonhoeffer’s “costly grace” calls Christians to faithful and radical obedience to Jesus Christ’s commands: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

Double Agent

In October 1937, the Nazi Gestapo closed Bonhoeffer’s seminary. He began to think he should leave Germany to avoid the impending war. In 1939, by invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, Bonhoeffer went to New York to become a guest lecturer, but concern for his country occupied his thoughts. After less than a month in America, Bonhoeffer told Niebuhr, “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

Bonhoeffer believed God had called him back to Germany, but now he was forbidden to publish, teach, or preach. Needing to adapt his strategy of resistance, he joined the German secret service (the Abwehr) as a double agent on behalf of the resisters. He began traveling to church conferences around Europe under the guise of gathering information for German military intelligence, but instead was secretly conspiring to overthrow Hitler while helping Jews escape Germany.

Although he was never at the center of various plots to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer did take part in the plans.

Execution site at the prison camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in 1944.
Execution site at the prison camp where Dietrich Bonhoeffer died in 1944. Walter Sanders / Getty Images 

A Martyr’s Legacy

In April 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned at Tegel for smuggling Jews from Germany into Switzerland. At the time, Bonhoeffer had been engaged to Maria Von Wedemeyer, a German mathematician, but they never had the chance to be married.

The last two years of Bonhoeffer’s life were spent behind bars, pastoring his fellow captives and writing to family and friends. These writing were edited and published as Letters and Papers from Prison (1953) by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and primary biographer.

Eventually, Bonhoeffer was moved to Buchenwald and then to the Nazi extermination camp at Flossenburg. On April 9, 1945, less than one month before Germany surrendered to the Allies, Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging with six other dissenters.

Sealed by martyrdom at age 39, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a modern-day hero of the faith. He lived his convictions courageously, inspiring countless believers in Jesus Christ to commit themselves to authentic personal discipleship. His widely-read classics and theological writings continue to make him one of the most thought-provoking voices in the contemporary Christian church.

Sources

  • “Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.” Who’s Who in Christian history (p. 91).
  • 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (pp. 378–380).
  • Christian History Magazine-Issue 32: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian in Nazi Germany.
  • “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Pocket Dictionary of Church History: Over 300 Terms Clearly and Concisely Defined (p. 26).
  • “Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Dictionary of Christianity in America.
  • “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Violent Pacifist.” Ashland Theological Journal Volume 27, 27, 41.