If you’re not familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story…let me share it with you. He is a personal inspiration to me and many others, even some who aren’t religious at all!
He was born February 4, 1906, in Germany. His family was a well respected and prominent one. His father was one of the most respected psychiatrists in Europe and his older brother would become a scientist that would eventually work with the likes of Albert Einstein. His mother was a formidable intellect as well, a master musician and thinker who would do much to help shape Dietrich’s thoughts.
Bonhoeffer decided to study theology, a choice that his scientist father and brother thought was a little odd, but they supported him. They instilled in Dietrich a desire to ask questions earnestly and seek answers, not just bend to whims of authority. Eventually he became an ordained minister in the German Lutheran Church and traveled all over the world, including: Rome, Barcelona, London, Havana, and even the United States.
He was critical of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party from the very beginning. In particular he openly and publicly objected to the persecution of Jews, the euthanasia program against the handicapped and terminally ill, and the Nazi incorporation of the German Lutheran Church into their sick and twisted ideology. This did not sit well with the Nazis, and they tormented him for years.
In the summer of 1939, just as things were starting to heat up in Europe, Bonhoeffer’s friends and family convinced him to take a teaching position in New York City so he could leave Germany and escape compulsory military service in the coming war. Then, when the the war was over he could return to Germany and help rebuild church and country. Bonhoeffer took their advice, but after being in New York for about a month, he decided that God was calling him to return to Germany and try to change things from within.
And return he did. He signed on with the German intelligence service, the Abwehr. However, instead of working for the Nazi state he spent his time making connections with foreign governments and trying to drum up support for a plot to assassinate Hitler. He also was involved in Operation 7, which successfully smuggled several Jews out of Germany and into Switzerland.
His connection to that was discovered however, and Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943. In July, 1944 to plot to assassinate Hitler went forward in Operation Valkyrie, but failed. An enraged Hitler ordered that no stone be left unturned as the Gestapo tore Germany apart in order to uncover everyone involved. Documents surfaced that tied Bonhoeffer, one of his brothers, and his brother in law to this and several other plots, and eventually Bonhoeffer was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp.
In April, 1945, Bonhoeffer was transferred to Flossenburg concentration camp and sentenced to death. On the morning of April 9 he was taken to the gallows. He was forced to strip, then he walked his own way onto the platform and prayed a final prayer, before being executed by hanging. Allied forces liberated the camp just a couple of weeks later. His remains were never discovered, and it is often presumed that his body was cremated and buried with the ashes of the Jewish victims of Flossenburg, some of the people he had fought so hard to save.
His legacy still influences Christians, and others, today through many of his original writings. His book “The Cost of Discipleship” is a modern classic in the field of theology as is his book “Life Together” about Christian Community. After the end of the war his best friend published many of Bonhoeffer’s personal letters to friends and family that were composed during his imprisonment. These form the classic “Letters and Papers From Prison.” Author Eric Metaxas published a critically acclaimed biography of Bonhoeffer in 2010 entitled “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” It’s a wonderful book that reads very easily and I would highly recommend it to anyone who might interested in going into depth on Bonhoeffer’s life.
For me personally it’s the fact that Bonhoeffer refused to stay silent in the face of one of history’s greatest evils that makes me admire him. He could have easily sat out the war in New York then returned to Germany to lead a full life, but he decided to get his hands dirty and really try to help those who were suffering one of the worst genocides ever. He stayed strong in his beliefs, and it cost him his life. He truly followed the path of Christ.
As he wrote in “The Cost of Discipleship”:
When Christ calls a man he bids him Come and Die.