Berlin, Germany April 5, 1943

On this date in 1943 in Berlin, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bon­hoeffer was arrested at his parents’ home by two agents of the Gestapo (Secret State Police). One of the leading Protes­tant theo­logians of the past cen­tury, Bon­hoeffer was a founding pastor of the dissi­dent Con­fessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), which rejected the Third Reich’s efforts to Nazify the German Evan­gel­i­cal (Lutheran) Church by forcing churches to embrace the aims and ideo­logy of the Nazi Party. Best known for his widely influ­ential 1937 (in Germany) expo­si­tion of the differ­ence between “cheap grace” and “costly grace,” Bon­hoeffer’s The Cost of Disciple­ship explored what it meant to live a gen­u­inely Christian life in a dangerous and evil world (think Adolf Hitler’s Germany).

A gifted theologian, Bonhoeffer graduated summa cum laude from Berlin Univer­sity with a degree in theo­logy in 1927. By 1929, at age 24, he had earned his doctor­ate a full year before he was of legal age to become an ordained pastor. He enrolled in a post­grad­uate course at New York City’s Union Theo­logical Semi­nary. During his year abroad Bon­hoeffer developed his Christ-centered theo­logy of social justice, deter­mined to live out his faith in life and ministry back home. He was ordained in 1931.

Apart from his pastoral ministry, his fierce opposi­tion to the Deutsche Christen move­ment (the faith wing of the Nazi Party), and his theo­log­ical writings, Bon­hoeffer was a fierce cri­tic of the Nazis’ eutha­na­sia pro­gram and the geno­ci­dal per­se­cu­tion of Jews and Jewish con­verts to Chris­ti­anity. (His twin sister married a descen­dent of German Jews, a baptized Chris­tian.) Not sur­prisingly, the Nazis for­bade Bon­hoeffer to speak in public in 1940 and the next year with­drew his abil­ity to pub­lish. Urged by his con­science to work against the Nazi regime, he joined the Abwehr (German Mili­tary Intel­li­gence), an emerging center of anti-Hitler resis­tance, to avoid being con­scripted into the Wehr­macht (regular armed forces). It was an act that shocked his Chris­tian friends and col­leagues. But his new occu­pation allowed him to travel widely and spy for the Allies under the pro­tec­tion of Abwehr chief and double-agent Adm. Wil­helm Cana­ris, who would share Bon­hoeffer’s fate. Bon­hoeffer there­fore had cru­cial know­ledge of, and roles in, sev­eral attempts on Hitler’s life, including the July 20, 1944, Val­kyrie plot by the anti-Hitler cote­rie of Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, in which Canaris was involved.

Charged initially with relatively innoc­uous of­fenses when he was picked up in April 1943, Bon­hoeffer spent 18 months in Berlin’s mili­tary pri­son in Tegel before being locked up in a deten­tion cell at the Gestapo’s high-security pri­son on Prinz-Al­brecht-Strasse. By then his con­nec­tion with the “officers’ plot” to kill Hitler had come to light. In February 1945 he was secretly trans­ferred to the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp. He was sum­marily tried by an SS drum­head court-mar­tial late on April 8, then hanged with Adm. Cana­ris and several other July 20th plotters at Bava­ria’s Flossen­buerg con­cen­tra­tion camp in the early morning hours of April 9, 1945, two weeks before that camp’s lib­er­ation by the Americans and one month before the war in Europe ended.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945), Lutheran Theologian, Pastor, German Resistance Martyr

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1930s Flossenbuerg concentration camp memorial

Left: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, late 1930s. Picture was taken some time after the Con­fessing Church (Bekennende Kirche) had split off from the German Evan­geli­cal Church (the Nazi-backed Reichs­kirche), which had become a state organ. The Con­fessing Church, in which Bon­hoeffer and Pastor Martin Nie­moeller (1892–1984) were leading voices, repre­sented a major source of Chris­tian oppo­si­tion to the Nazi regime and its eccle­si­as­tical policies and its anti-Semitic social legis­la­tion (Aryan para­graph), which excluded Jews and Chris­tians of Jewish descent from participating in civil society.

Right: Flossenbuerg concentration camp, Arrest­block Court­yard: Memo­rial to mem­bers of the German resis­tance exe­cuted on April 9, 1945. Names on the gra­nite block are Gen. Hans Oster, deputy head of the Abwehr under Wil­helm Cana­ris; Adm. Wil­helm Cana­ris; Dr. Dietrich Bon­hoeffer; Dr. Karl Sack, German jurist slated for the role of Jus­tice Minis­ter in a planned post-coup civil­ian govern­ment; Dr. Theodor Struenck, who worked under Gen. Oster; and Gen. Friedrich von Rabe­nau, a member of the Ger­man resis­tance who was shot on spe­cific orders of Reichs­fuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler on April 15, 1945.

Bonhoeffer Biographer Eric Metaxas on Bonhoeffer’s Role as Anti-Nazi Resister

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