Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer – The Beginning of Life

Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and children from his church

Credit:German Federal Archives

A German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer also acted as an anti-Nazi activist during World War II.

Born in what is now Poland, Dietrich grew up in a family of eight children. One of his brothers and two of his sisters’ husbands were – like Dietrich – to become victims of the Nazis.

Learning…to Love God

The son of a neurologist and a teacher, Dietrich took his education seriously – an education that led him to God. After earning a doctorate in theology in Berlin, Dietrich continued his studies in the United States.

While teaching Sunday School at an African-American church in Harlem, Pastor Bonhoeffer learned to love the power and faith of the gospel spirituals he heard sung there. He also formed many of his beliefs on peace, and against inequality and segregation, beliefs he stood for the rest of his life.

Opposing Hitler

Dietrich returned to Germany in 1931, so he was there two years later when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis came to power. From the start, Dietrich opposed Hitler and all that his regime stood for, warning Germany to avoid slipping into following the fuhrer as one would an idol or a cult. Two days after Hitler came to power, Dietrich said these very things on radio, but was cut off in the middle of his remarks.

Once in power, Hitler rigged church elections so that Nazi members filled leadership roles. Opposing these actions, Dietrich formed a church group to oppose the Nazis. In turn, the Nazis revoked Dietrich’s authority to teach in Berlin, declaring him a pacifist and enemy of the state. He continued to teach pastors who opposed the Nazis in underground seminaries. During this same time, he wrote his most famous book, The Cost of Discipleship.

In 1938, Dietrich returned to the United States, but soon considered this move a mistake. Feeling that he should undergo the same trials his fellow German Christians were experiencing, Dietrich returned to Germany on the last passenger steamer to cross the Atlantic before the outbreak of World War II.

Resisting the Nazis

Unable to publish or teach in Germany, Dietrich helped in the resistance against the Nazis. Using his travels abroad as a pastor and speaker as cover, he served as a courier for the resistance to communicate intelligence with the Allies.

This Is the End…

In April 1943, however, the Nazis arrested and imprisoned. He continued his work and his outreach while in prison, but in 1944, his connection to the resistance was discovered. A year later, the Germans discovered further connections, and on April 9, 1945, they executed Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer at Flossenburg concentration camp, less than a month before the war’s end.

Despite his tragic death, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and works inspired many through the years. Not only did he lead others to stand against the Nazis, but he influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, anti-communist resistance in Eastern Europe, and anti-apartheid resistance in South Africa, and his beliefs of equality and peace live on today.

Let us remember Pastor Bonhoeffer’s words as the Nazis led him to his death: “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”

Tags: Advocates and Allies Christians Dietrich Bonhoeffer History Holocaust Yad Vashem

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