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 descen­dant 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 Army 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 1944 “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, 1930sDietrich Bonhoeffer: 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