Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An unlikely hero

Dietrich BonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer: an unlikely hero.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German theologian who rejected theology, was an unlikely hero. Murdered by the Nazis for his participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler, one would never have guessed his ending from his beginning. 

His father was the most important neurologist in the most important hospital in Germany.  His twin sister Sabine was tutored by the daughter of Thedor Mommsen, Nobel prizewinner and classicist.  As a student he commuted to the Humboldt University of Berlin with his neighbor, Adolf von Harnack, the most distinguished scholar of the German Protestant Church.  Put simply, Bonhoeffer belonged to the Protestant elite. (p 45)

Bonhoeffer was financially dependent on his family almost his entire life.  When he wasn’t traveling, he generally lived at home.  Throughout his life he would mail his dirty laundry home, to be washed by servants, and returned by Deutsch Post.  When he was running an underground seminary during the Hitler era, his parents gave him an Audi convertible so he could more easily come home on weekends.  Not your average revolutionary. 

He would never disown the advantages of birth or pretend to have surpassed them. It was an aristocratic confidence, he would insist, that helped him see through propaganda and resist mediocrity. (p 74)

The statement is, I believe, absolutely correct.

A theologian at 15

At the age of 15 he read a two-volume book on the beginnings of Christianity, and began signing his name “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theol.” (p 17)  By the end of his life he would reject both theology and the university.  He was blessed with a large family and many friends, but never had a girlfriend.  Finally, at the age of 36, he became engaged to his 17-year-old niece, whose mother insisted they wait.  They never married; three months after his engagement he was jailed.  He met Eberhard Bethge, his first real friend, when he was twenty-nine, ten years before his death.  They were exceptionally close.  Bethge married another of Bonhoeffer’s nieces while Bonhoeffer was in prison.  Their first child was named after Dietrich. 

In the midst of Germany’s hyperinflation, Bonhoeffer was worried about which summer suit to buy.  While on vacation in Italy he called his mother asking her to send him new studs for his dress shirt.  How did such an indulged and cosseted young man come to care so deeply for the poor and marginalized?

Union Seminary, the Black church, and a road trip through the Southern States

One might imagine that his year at Union Seminary in New York influenced his theology.  In reality, he thought both the students and faculty shallow.  Coming from the rigor of German theology, he was probably right, at least if one regards theology as the close study of Biblical texts. 

Yet his signal transformation in the course of that year—as he made his “turning from the phraseological to the real“—would always be linked to what he saw while at Union, both inside the classroom and out. There was for Bonhoeffer no longer an escape from this awareness: “something … was missing from German theology,” as his cousin Hans-Christoph von Hase would later put it, “the grounding of theology in reality.” (p 125)*

The teachers and students at Union may have been intellectually sloppy, but they were convinced that theology must speak to the reality of everyday life.  Liberal Christianity it was called, and it influenced Bonhoeffer. 

More transformative were the Sundays he would spend at Black churches.  He visited many during his year at Union, which was located next door to Harlem. 

The scholar Ruth Zerner once astutely observed “that black worship, particularly in song, was so overwhelming and personal for Bonhoeffer that he found it difficult to analyze in writing.” Indeed, it left him simply, joyously, at a loss for words. (p 119)

A 5,000 mile trip across the South left him both shocked and inspired.  He wrote of blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations, and land seizures. He lamented a world “darker than [a] thousand midnights,” and Scottsboro’s “terrible miscarriage of justice.” (pp 132-133) 

At the same time, he was inspired by a Sunday spent at a rural Black church, where the gospel was preached and received with “an enormous intensity of feeling.”  It demonstrated that “one really could still hear someone talk … about sin and grace and the love of God and ultimate hope.” (p 133, Marsh quoting Bonhoeffer)

Beyond the preaching, Bonhoeffer felt the “strange mixture of reserved melancholy” and the ecstatic joy “in the soul of the Negro.” It was as if the church of the downtrodden and the marginal had unearthed emotion, intensity, and feeling in the sorrowful joy of Jesus. Bonhoeffer was inspired by what he called “the church of the outcasts of America.” (p 133, Marsh quoting Bonhoeffer)

Bonhoeffer’s great gift was his openness to new experiences.  But who would have imagined that the religious experience that transformed an elite German theologian was his experience of racial segregation and the Black church in America?

Return to Germany and collapse of the Protestant Church

Bonhoeffer returned to Germany in 1935 to lead the Confessing Church, the alternative to the state sponsored Evangelical (Lutheran) Church, whose bishop was appointed by    Hitler.  No other noted theologian returned from a safe exile in America.  Evidently Bonhoeffer believed his elite status would protect him.  It did, until he joined the plot to kill Hitler.

If his experience of the Black church renewed and deepened Bonhoeffer’s faith, the complete collapse of the Protestant church in Germany led him to lose all faith in the church. By the end of 1933, more than 90 percent of the student body of the Berlin theology department had joined the National Socialist Party (p 165).  The Evangelical (state) church was led by a bishop appointed by Hitler.  All pastors were required to take an oath of loyalty to Hitler, and almost all did.  In doing so they rejected the basic precept of Christianity: that God, not the state, is the highest authority. 

Even more disappointing, not merely the state church, but almost all the pastors of the Confessing Church, which by this time had been shuttered by Hitler, took the loyalty oath to the Führer.  Originally established to preserve the autonomy of the church, the Confessing Church failed to object to the Aryan paragraph, as it was called, which claimed that converted Jews were not Christians. 

In accepting the Aryan paragraph, the church rejected the basis of Christianity itself: that it is a universal religion, belonging to no ethnic group, and available to all who accept Christ as their savior.  Instead of fighting against the Aryan paragraph, the Confessing Church became involved in endless debates over small differences, the triumph of the phraseological over the real.  

When ministers of the Confessing Church met on June 11, 1938, for their final disputation on “the Jewish question,” Bonhoeffer was discouraged to learn that the vast majority had taken the oath of allegiance to Hitler.

It would be giving the dissenting clergy the benefit of the doubt to say that they had retreated into the insularity of theological debates. . . . For the sake of confessional peace, they were even prepared to subscribe to the view of Hanns Kerrl [minister of church affairs, and member of Hitler’s cabinet], who characterized the Führer “as the bearer of a new Revelation,” in fact as “Germany’s Jesus Christ.” (p 271)

“Germany’s Jesus Christ”

Not merely revolting, the designation of the Führer as Germany’s Jesus says something about the void filled by Hitler.  “Hitler’s rhetoric was religious,” Bonhoeffer recognized.  “He dissolved politics in a religious aura, and all the theological terms which had been previously secularized” had now become “the great standards of his appeal.” Hitler promised deliverance and redemption, rebirth and salvation.  (Marsh quoting Bonhoeffer, p 160)

Usually, this redemption is seen as the restoration of German autonomy in the face of the Treaty of Versailles, which sought to disarm Germany, as well as demanding  repayment of debts.  What Bonhoeffer grasped was that the Versailles Treaty, along with the terrible human losses of World War 1, resulted in a wound to the German soul, or—since nations don’t have souls—the souls of many Germans.  It was not mere hypocrisy that the belt buckles of the German Wehrmacht (armed forces, in contrast to the Waffen SS) read “Gott Mit Uns” (God with Us), a phrase from Matthew 1:23.  Hitler transformed the religious longing for redemption into a military-industrial ideal. 

Religionless Christianity

Why, asked Bonhoeffer, were there more humanists and atheists (like his brother Klaus or his cousin Hans) than Christians in the ranks of the resistance?  (p 313)  What’s wrong with Christianity?  While Bonhoeffer never had time to develop an answer, he sketched its outline in a series of letters written from jail.  The problem was religion itself.  The solution was religionless Christianity as he called it.

How is it, asked Bonhoeffer, that a person could confess doctrinally correct beliefs, observe its moral codes, and follow the accepted behaviors and practices of the Church, while simultaneously committing unspeakable horrors?

How is it possible that the practice of Christianity came to be divorced from loving our neighbors?  How is it that religious practice—including word and sacrament—can leave a person ultimately unchanged at the core of his or her being? Bonhoeffer blamed the institutional church (Struckmeyer). 

The church is hostile to Christianity, for it takes away the absolute claim that Christ makes on my life.  The church tries to institutionalize what cannot fit in an institution, the grace of God.  (Metaxas, quoting Bonhoeffer, p 84)

Religionless Christianity would be Christianity absent the typical attributes of religion, such as ministers, rites, and doctrine.  Bonhoeffer never had time to develop the concept, but a letter that he wrote to his godson, Dietrich Wilhelm Bethge, in May, 1944, suggests how radically different it would be.  It also conveys how terribly the German church had failed.

By the time you have grown up, the church’s form will have changed greatly.  Religionless Christianity will [speak] a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom . . . . Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time. (Letters, p 300)


Bonhoeffer grew up.  He was drawn to new experiences, and could imagine lives remarkably different from his own.  He is the most radical Protestant theologian of the twentieth-century, though this claim rests as much on where he was heading when he was murdered as it does on where his work ended, just days before his death.** 


The statement, “I turned from phraseology to reality,” is from Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison (p 275).

**  I’m assuming Bonhoeffer’s work ended with his collected letters from prison.  Ethics is a collection of Bonhoeffer’s work on this topic arranged and edited by Eberhard Bethge after Bonhoeffer’s death. 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethik. Arranged and edited by Eberhard Bethge.  Christian Kaiser Verlag, 1949.  Translated by Neville H. Smith as Ethics.  Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge.  Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1987. 

Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  Knopf, 2014.   [Page references without an author refer to Marsh, upon whom I rely  heavily.]

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy.  Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010.


Ruth Zerner, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s American Experiences: People, Letters, and Papers from Union Seminary.” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 31, no. 4 (1976): 261–82.


One thought on “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An unlikely hero”

  1. I think he could not have lived with himself if he had not done what he could to defeat Hitler,given all his experience and practice.

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