As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I want to
share with you the story of one of the great witnesses to the Christian
faith that come from our Lutheran tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a
German pastor who opposed Adolph Hitler's rise to power and stood
beside the Jewish people during the Nazi era. Much of the detail of
this article comes from "Christian History and Biography" magazine.
was born into a very prominent family. His father was a neurologist and
professor of psychiatry at the University of Berlin. Bonhoeffer's
family was socially concerned but not very religious, so when at age
14, Dietrich announced he intended to become a minister, the family was
After studies in Germany and America, Bonhoeffer
wrote his doctoral dissertation and became a lecturer at the University
of Berlin. During these years, Hitler rose to power, becoming
chancellor of Germany in January 1933. Together with other pastors and
theologians, Bonhoeffer organized the Confessing Church, which opposed
Hitler's anti-Semitism. "The Barman Declaration"-a confession of faith
expressing confidence in Christ alone, above any earthly authority
stands as a lasting monument to the brave pastors and theologians who
risked their lives in opposition to Hitler.
opposition to Hitler forced him to leave the prestigious University of
Berlin. He began teaching dissident pastors in an underground seminary
in the small town of Finkenwalde. But after the seminary was discovered
and closed by the Gestapo, the Confessing Church became increasingly
reluctant to speak out against Hitler. Bonhoeffer began to change his
strategy. To this point he had been a pacifist, and he had tried to
oppose the Nazis through religious action and moral persuasion.
1939, Bonhoeffer joined a hidden group of high-ranking military
officers based in the Abwehr, or Military Intelligence Office, who
wanted to overthrow the National Socialist regime by killing Hitler. He
was arrested in April 1943 after money used to help Jews escape to
Switzerland was traced to him. He was charged with conspiracy and
imprisoned in Berlin for a year and a half. He was moved to a series of
prisons and concentration camps ending at Flossenburg. Here, he was
executed by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just three weeks before
the liberation of the city.
A decade later, a camp doctor who
witnessed Bonhoeffer's hanging described the scene: "The prisoners ...
were taken from their cells, and the verdicts of court martial read out
to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts, I saw
Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the
floor praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way
this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his
prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a prayer and then
climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued
in a few seconds. In the almost 50 years that I have worked as a
doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the
will of God.