If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction. ~ Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Today is the anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis at the age of 39.
A Lutheran pastor from an elite German family (his parents, although supportive, were essentially non-religious and stunned by Dietrich’s decision for the ministry), Bonhoeffer was a visiting scholar in the
United States when the clouds of war began to
cover Europe. His American friends urged him
to sit out the war on this side of the Atlantic,
but he could not resist the summons he felt to return to his country.
Bonhoeffer became a leader in the Confessing Church, a Christian community that held out against the pressures of Hitler’s state takeover of the church as long as it could (while the majority of German Lutherans signed on to a document that basically said, “One nation, one Fuhrer, and out with the Jews!”) Far from being remembered simply because he was the victim of execution, Bonhoeffer was an accomplished theologian, and the works that survive him are a testament to the richness that the world has lost because of his untimely death.
Bonhoeffer’s work as a civilian in the Abwehr (German intelligence), provided him cover to accomplish some limited success in providing safety for Jews, and, eventually, protected him (for a while) as he joined a conspiracy of insiders committed to getting rid of Hitler and to negotiating a peace with the allies.
Bonhoeffer was an ethicist and a pacifist, and considered his part in the plot to assassinate Hitler to be a grave sin, yet he also felt it was the only choice he had as a Christian. When the plot failed, Bonhoeffer was caught in the net of vengeance that followed, and he was executed at Flossenberg Prison on April 9, 1945. The criminal tragedy of his death is made the sadder by its timing: Two weeks after his execution, Hitler committed suicide, and on May 8 the war came to an end. Dietrich’s brother, Klaus, and two brothers-in-law were also executed.
The volume, “Letters and Papers from Prison” is considered essential for an understanding of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The poignancy of the death of this young man is captured in one of those letters – to his fiancée:
When I think about the situation of the world, the complete darkness over our personal fate, and my present imprisonment, then I believe that our union can only be a sign of God’s grace and kindness, which calls us to faith…. Jeremiah says at the moment of his people’s great need “still one shall buy houses and acres in this land" as a sign of trust in the future. This is where faith belongs. May God give it to us daily. And I do not mean the faith which flees the world, but the one that endures the world and which loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the suffering which it contains for us. Our marriage shall be a yes to God’s earth; it shall strengthen our courage to act and accomplish something on the earth.
Bonhoeffer’s last words to a fellow inmate, upon being led away to the place of execution, were, “This is the end, for me, the beginning of life.”
The best biography of Bonhoeffer is “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography,” a labor of love by his closest friend, Eberhard Bethge. Other good ones are "Dietrich Bonhoeffer: 1906-1945," by Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, and "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy," by Eric Metaxas (a recent NY Times bestseller). Also recommended are “Letters and Papers From Prison,” and “Life Together,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “Letters and Papers” is a collection of what the title implies. “Life Together” is Bonhoeffer’s outline of the elements of a Christian community. It is, rightly, regarded as a “classic.” "Ethics" is his most widely known work of theology.
Photo: Bonhoeffer in prison