Home‎ > ‎Specific Individuals‎ > ‎

The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Theologian, and Agent of the Abwehr (Fall 2012)

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the sixth of eight children born to Karl Bonhoeffer and Paula Von Hase. His father was a prominent neurologist, who later became a professor of neurology and psychiatry along with being the director of a psychiatric clinic in Berlin. His mother was a teacher who schooled her children in academics and religious teaching until the age of six or seven when they started attending primary schools. Dietrich was born in 1906 shortly before his twin sister Sabine. He was expected to follow in his fathers footsteps and become a psychiatrist, however at the age of fifteen he veered from this future by announcing he intended to become a theologian and pastor; claiming that he would reform the church from the “bourgeoisie institution” that it was. This declaration shocked and dismayed his very academic family, however did not stop their support for Dietrich’s future. In fact later in Dietrich’s life as he faced persecution and hatred to the highest extent from Nazi rule his family stood by his side every step of the way.
            Dietrich completed his university education in Tübingen and Berlin. He then served as vicar for a congregation in Barcelona before he made the trek to America to attend Union Seminary in New York. During this period of his life he spent much time working on his writing and his ideas for the “Confessing Church”- his creation based on the theology that he clung to and the ideas of the Bible. He believed that church and religion should be strictly based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and it was through this a person was saved from eternal damnation- not through a religion based on rules and laws. This was a very controversial and radical idea for many in that time; and as Hitler rose to power; association with the confessing church was very dangerous. While the confessing church itself did not participate in any political resistance; participation did mean that you were a German Christian, which was enough for Hitler to offer persecution. Dietrich’s life quickly became intertwined with what was happening in Germany at the time of Nazi reign. His life was a constant contradiction of what he personally believed as far as faith and spirituality and what was happening politically in Germany. He was nothing if not against everything that Hitler was doing and this is seen in the course of his life from this time on. 
            While the time period of the Holocaust is a specific defined period of time, it includes much more than that. Anti-Semitism ideology started long before Hitler’s rule- he was simply the catalyst that led to the persecution and death of millions. Anti- Semitism was a term coined in 1879 and set the foundations for the Nazi anti-Semitism and the formation of the NSDAP. Hitler along with the NSDAP believed that Jews should not be considered citizens of Germany. As the NSDAP rose to power and as Hitler used his commanding presence and voice for to influence the German people; the persecution of not only German Jews but also any outcasts of society; such as the gay population, gypsies, Christians, etc… grew. In this time we see the influence that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had in this time period. While not Jewish himself; because he was a professed Christian and founder of the Confessing Church Bonheoffer was convicted and felt the calling to defend the outcasts of society and fight against Hitler in whatever means necessary- even if it meant personally killing Hitler himself. 

            There were many steps in Nazi persecution of Jews that eventually led to the “Final Solution”. The first was simply persecution and boycott for the Jewish people. Jews were treated incredibly poorly, and slowly were losing the rights, and ability to feel safe. Soon after, Jews started to be excluded from their own specific occupations, and then in 1935 there was the declaration of Nuremberg’s Laws; which stated the definition of a Jew. All of this was executed in hopes that the Jewish people would leave, and Germany could be what it defined as a “pure Germanic nation”. However the Jews did not leave, then on one night in 1938 an event known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of the Broken Glass) occurred, overnight many Jewish businesses were damaged by bombings and Jews were further disenfranchised. Soon after all outcasts of society were sent to ghettos and eventually concentration camps where the “Final Solution” was being carried out. Life in the ghettos was horrid; they were crowded, dirty, and starvation was all around. 

            During this time Dietrich and the Confessing Church faced similar persecution and hardship. Many prominent members faced arrests and Bonhoeffer spent nearly two years traveling through German countryside not only supporting underground churches, teaching on his latest book The Cost of Discipleship, but also hiding out in hopes that he could continue working towards the growth of the Confessing Church. Along with this he also hosted a secret Seminary at the home of a friend and benefactor named Finkenwalde. The surrounding town supported this by housing the students as well as providing them with jobs as vicars in the local congregations. However with knowledge of what was happening in 1938 the Gestapo (Hitler’s police) banned Bonhoeffer from the city of Berlin, and soon following in 1940 proceeded to close the Seminary down entirely with the outbreak of World War II. Shortly after with his ban from Berlin, and the closing of Finkenwalde Seminary Bonhoeffer decided to return to the United States because he did not want to ever swear an oath to Hitler’s army and serve for him as World War II was erupting, and an opportunity at Union Seminary in New York was exactly what he needed. In the United States less than five months though he came to the conclusion that he had made a grand mistake and immediately set plans to return to Germany and with strength stand alongside his family, friends, and country in defeating Hitler. His convictions led him to believe that he needed to be with the other people of Germany in this time of suffering if he was going to truly live out his beliefs. Bonhoeffer stated that he believed that if he wanted any right or authority in helping rebuild Christian life in Germany after the war; he needed to be with his people suffering exactly as they were in the time of Nazi reign. With this decided he returned to Germany only to understand exactly what this persecution would entail. Upon his return he was forbidden to speak in public, or publish any work. He also was required to regularly report his daily activities to the police.

            It was in this time also that he joined the center of Anti-Hitler resistance, the Abwehr; a German military intelligence organization. By joining the organization with the help of his friend Dohnanyi he was able to avoid having to serve with the German army. As he worked undercover for the Abwehr he worked specifically as a courier educating other in Germany of Abwehr existence and intention in defeating Hitler in hopes of garnering more anti-Hitler support and trying to secure peace allies for a post-Hitler government. Along with his courier position he also along with his friend Dohnanyi worked with helping German Jews escape to Switzerland for safety. While still unable to be published Bonhoeffer continued to work on his writing; it was during this time that he created his still unfinished work of Ethics. 
            On April 5, 1943 Bonhoeffer was arrested along with Dohnanyi; however not because of the Abwehr plans to assassinate Hitler but because of much rivalry between the SS and the Abwehr. However as the Gestapo then spent much time looking at the activities of the Abwehr; suspicion was starting to be raised on the actions of Bonhoeffer and fellow members. After two years if imprisonment, in which time Bonhoeffer spent working on his writings, and religious outreach with the guards at Tegel prison the Gestapo found letters and evidence associated with attempts at Hitler’s life and ordered anyone associated with the conspiracy to be destroyed.  Knowing the end had come upon him Bonhoeffer finished his last Sunday sermon at the prison stating; “This is the end- for me the beginning of life;” his hope was still rooted in the fact that he knew death meant seeing his savior of whom he had spent his entire life endorsing. 
            On April 8, 1945 SS judge Otto Thorbeck condemned Bonhoeffer to death and he was executed by hanging at dawn the following morning; April 9, 1945. This was three weeks shy of the United States liberating the concentration camp in which he was executed; Flossenbürg. Bonhoeffer was hung alongside six fellow conspirators, and not two weeks later three of his brothers were also executed for actions taken against Hitler. Reports of those who saw the execution exclaim of Bonheoffer’s dedication to God, his Saving Father. In everything he did he was “entirely submissive to God’s will” exclaimed a doctor at the concentration camp. He was brave, composed, and not the least bit disheartened about what was going to happen. He did everything in service knowing that it was for the greater good of the kingdom he felt God was building, and that would come in post-Hitler Germany. 
            Bonhoeffer lived at an incredible time, where history was being set in stone with every action and event. World War II changed the world, and while the Holocaust did not directly affect every continent and country, it is a significant time in which many study, and hope to learn from. This time period, and Bonheoffer’s’ life is living proof that there are specific themes that affect history in many ways; big or small. 
            The biggest forces of history that affected Bonheoffer’s life would be politics and religion. Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to his faith and his belief in God. He made it a point that no matter what he was doing he was going to act to glorify God. In this personally; religion was a very important factor that affected what was going to happen in his life. Along with personally though- religion was a major factor of history during the holocaust because it was originally religious persecution that was started with the persecution of Jews. While the persecution eventually led to result in much more than just religion, it was an enormous starting factor. 
            Along with religion, politics was a huge factor in what was happening during the war and the holocaust. Politics and how different governments were handling situations resulting in the beginning of World War II and Nazi rule was the main force of history affecting the Holocaust and what was happening under Hitler’s reign. The Abwehr and the Gestapo were key players in what was happening in this period of time. The influence that Hitler had on the entire nation, and the political power that he established allowed all of this to happen, and the government agency of the Abwehr were just another political sub sect that in this case were working towards a Nazi and Hitler free Germany. Without the actions the Abwehr took; the demise of Hitler may never of happened. 
            While Bonheoffer’s life was cut short at 39 years; he led a life that is truly remarkable. He was brave, smart, kind, and lived in the hope and knowledge that he was taking each step of his life in the will of God. The church would not be the same if it weren’t for him, and along with that his work as a spy in hope of defeating Hitler made him a Martyr.  


  1. "Abwehr." Wikipedia n.pag. Web. 3 Dec 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abwehr>.
  2. Arendale, D. Holocaust (PDF Document). Retrieved from lecture notes online.  https://moodle2.umn.edu/course/view.php?id=5896
  3. Bard, M. (n.d.). Jewish virtual library. Retrieved from  http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Abwehr.html
  4. Bible Discernment Ministries. (1996, March). Dietrich bonhoeffer general teachings/activities. Retrieved from http://www.rapidnet.com/~jbeard/bdm/exposes/bonhoeffer/general.htm
  5. Braun, E. (n.d.). Jewish virtual library. Retrieved from  http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Bonhoeffer.html
  6. D. bonhoeffer. (2000). Retrieved from http://www.dbonhoeffer.org/
  7. "Dietrich Bonhoeffer." Wikipedia n.pag. Web. 3 Dec 2012.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dietrich_Bonhoeffer 
  8. Metaxas, E. (2010). Bonhoeffer: Pastor, martyr, prophet, spy. Nashville, TN: Thomas  Nelson.