Born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
was the sixth child of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. After
completing his theological studies, he served a German-
speaking congregation in Barcelona, Spain, from 1928–1930.
He studied at Union Theological Seminary in New York from
1930–1931. During that time he attended Abyssinian Baptist
Church in Harlem and became deeply interested in the issue
of racial injustice. He also became active in the
Protestant ecumenical movement, making international
contacts that after 1933 would prove crucial for the
Confessing Church and for his time in the German
The German Evangelical Church under National Socialism
With Hitler's ascent to power, Bonhoeffer's church—the
German Evangelical Church—entered the most difficult
phase in its history. Strongly influenced by nationalism
and unsettled by the chaos of the Weimar years, many
Protestant leaders and church members welcomed the rise
In 1933, a group called the German Christians (Deutsche
Christen) began to promote the nazification of German
Protestantism through the creation of a pro-Nazi
“Reich Church.” The German Christians wanted
Protestantism to conform to Nazi ideology, and they
pushed for the implementation of the state “Aryan laws”
within the churches. The German Christians claimed that
Jews, as a “separate race,” could not become members of
an “Aryan” German Church through baptism.
Despite widespread antisemitism and enthusiasm for
Nazism, most church leaders initially opposed the Aryan
paragraph because it contradicted traditional teachings
about baptism and ordination. Bonhoeffer argued that
its ratification surrendered Christian precepts to
One of Bonhoeffer's most famous texts was his April
1933 essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question.”
Bonhoeffer became informed about different German
resistance plans in 1938 through his brother-in-law,
Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked in the Justice Ministry
and was one of the earliest opponents of the regime.
In October 1940, Dohnanyi used his connections to help
Bonhoeffer avoid military service, obtaining an
assignment for him in the office of Military
Intelligence. Led by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the
Military Intelligence office became the center of
the German military resistance groups that eventually
culminated in the July 20, 1944, attempt to overthrow
the regime. On behalf of the Military Intelligence
office Bonhoeffer made several trips outside the Reich
between 1941 and 1942, informing ecumenical contacts
in Geneva and the Vatican of the resistance plans.
Bonhoeffer was initially charged with conspiring to
rescue Jews, using his foreign travels for
non-intelligence matters, and misusing his intelligence
position to help Confessing Church pastors evade
military service. After the failed July 20, 1944,
coup attempt, his connections to the broader
resistance circles were uncovered and he was moved to
the Gestapo prison in Berlin. In February 1945, he was
taken to Buchenwald and in April moved to the
Flossenbürg concentration camp.
On April 9, 1945, he was hanged with other conspirators.
His brother Klaus Bonhoeffer was also executed for
resistance activities, as were his brothers-in-law Hans
von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher.
Martyrdom then. What is martyrdom now?
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