Since the earliest days of the Nazi regime Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of its most vocal and defiant opponents. On the 9th April, 1945, with the regime collapsing and military defeat inevitable, it showed it was still capable of vicious suppression. Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg, days before the POW camp was liberated by American forces.
Born in Breslau, Germany, in 1906, Bonhoeffer was raised in an nonreligious family with a strong artistic and musical heritage. Despite displaying a natural talent for music from a young age, he unexpectedly decided at fourteen that he wanted to train to be a priest.
He graduated from the University of Berlin in 1927, with a doctorate in theology. He spent several years living and working in Spain and the USA, gaining practical experience of how the messages of the Bible could be applied in the real world. In particular, he developed a belief that the Church could act in issues of social justice, and as a defender of the oppressed.
Aged 25 he returned to Germany and was ordained a priest. His return coincided with a tumultuous time, the Great Depression had seen unemployment soar, while the Weimar Government seemed increasingly incapable of handling the situation. It was the perfect atmosphere for the rise of the Nazi party.
Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933. Two days later, Bonhoeffer launched his first protest, taking to the airwaves to denounce Hitler’s leadership. The broadcast was cut before Bonhoeffer could finish. The event set two precedents, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to publicly challenge Nazi rule, and the Nazi administration’s readiness to silence that criticism as soon as possible.
With the exception of an eighteen month period during which he served as pastor to two German congregations in London, Bonhoeffer remained a thorn in the side of Hitler’s regime. In particular, from his return to Germany in 1935 onward, he was a key figure in the Confessing Church, a Protestant movement which had broken away from the main German church with the aim of keeping religion independent of the regime.
As the years wore on the Nazi regime became increasingly intolerant. In 1936, Bonhoeffer had his right to lecture or publish revoked after being denounced as a pacifist and enemy of the state. In 1937, the Confessing Church was closed down on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, forcing Bonhoeffer to conduct his teachings in secrecy.
After a brief stay in the USA in 1939, where Bonhoeffer considered seeking long term refuge from the Nazis, he decided to return to his home in the hopes of aiding in liberating it from oppression, or at least suffering alongside his countrymen. Bonhoeffer became increasingly vocal about both the Nazis’ antisemitic policies, and the church’s response to them. “…the Church was silent when it should have cried out because the blood of the innocent was crying aloud to heaven. She is guilty of the deaths of the weakest and most defenseless brothers of Jesus Christ.”
Bonhoeffer joined the German resistance movement, and along with his accomplices, helped Jews escape Nazi Germany to neutral Switzerland. He became a central figure in the resistance, flying to Sweden in 1942 in an attempt to negotiate peace with the Allied powers. Ultimately however, in 1943, he was caught and captured by the Gestapo for his role in helping Jews escape the Nazi’s wrath.
The resistance carried on without Bonhoeffer, of course, and this ultimately led to his execution. Following the failed attempt on Hitler’s life in July 1944, the Gestapo launched a fine toothed investigation of the resistance movement. Documents were discovered linking Bonhoeffer with those behind the assassination plot, and he was promptly sentenced to death following a court martial.
Waiting for his execution at Flossenburg, Bonhoeffer is said to have continued acting as a counselor and pastor to other prisoners. In the years since his death, he has become a brave icon of defiance in the face of great oppression, while his theological works remain influential to this day.