Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such man, a modern martyr whose crucible
experience at the hands of the Nazis created a new understanding of
the cost of discipleship.
Coming of age in the chaotic years of Germany’s post-war Weimer
Republic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer seemed an unlikely candidate for ministry.
He was just completing his graduate studies when Adolph Hitler began
his meteoric rise to power. Bonhoeffer felt an immediate disgust for
the Nazis, which unfortunately wasn’t shared by the majority
of his fellow churchmen. The “Cradle of the Reformation”
had become, almost overnight, the cradle of menacing fascism.
The hysteria and pageantry of Nazism quickly supplanted Germany’s
former spiritual life. Bonhoeffer despaired as he watched Christians
do little to hinder Hitler’s sinister agenda. Writing to friends,
“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…intolerable
conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still
of any use?”
Before the war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's had challenged Adolph Hitler
in a radio address that questioned the very concept of a German Fuhrer.
Without his knowledge, his words were censored on air, even as he
This speech alone would have marked him as an enemy of the state.
But Bonhoeffer soon became involved in a network of underground seminaries
formed to guard theological study against the taint of Nazi ideology.
Before long, the Gestapo moved in and closed the secret schools, and
Bonhoeffer escaped briefly to America, where he was warmly welcomed.
As he agonized over whether to return to his home in Germany, Dietrich
Bonhoeffer also struggled with his self-declared pacifism. In a letter
to his sister-in-law, he wrote:
“If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent
bystanders, then I can’t, as a Christian, simply wait for the
catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must
try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver.”
Throughout the terrible first years of World War II, Bonhoeffer worked
secretly against the Nazis. Implicated in the conspiracy to assassinate
Hitler, he was actually arrested for his involvement in “Operation
7”, a mission to smuggle a group of Jews across the border into
It was while imprisoned that Dietrich Bonhoeffer articulated the
theological models that had directed his personal Christian walk.
During the next twelve months he poured forth a lifetime of work,
outlining a new concept of Christian service and bringing a fresh
dimension to the idea of discipleship.
On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was brought to a Nazi extermination
camp. There he was condemned to die by hanging, just one month before
the suicide of Hitler and the final collapse of the Third Reich.
As he prayerfully faced his death, Bonhoeffer’s last words
to a fellow inmate were:
“This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”
The legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is in no way diminished by the
tragedy of his needless death, so close to the war’s conclusion.
A man of great intellect and spiritual depth, he was also able to
be simple and direct in expressing a courage based on faith.
“I believe that God can and wants to create good out of
everything, even evil…I believe that God provides us with as
much strength to resist as we need. But he does not give it in advance…We
trust Him alone. In such a trust, all anxiety about the future must
To learn more about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, visit the International Bonhoeffer Society or
the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum web
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