DIETRICH BONHOEFFER was executed at dawn on 9 April 1945 - less
than a month before the end of the Second World War - after Hitler
had been told the extent of his involvement in the plot to
Bonhoeffer had been one of the most outspoken members of the
Confessing Church since 1933, campaigning tirelessly against the
pro-Nazi leadership of the German Evangelical Church. He attempted
to rally his fellow-Lutherans against the expulsion of
"non-Aryans", first from the Church, and then from the country.
From 1939, he was part of the (mainly Christian) political
resistance to the Nazi regime which was ruthlessly expunged after
the failure of the Stauffenberg plot in July 1944 .
That Bonhoeffer should be seen, therefore, as "one of the noble
company of martyrs" was recognised by the then Bishop of
Chichester, George Bell, at a memorial service in Holy Trinity,
Kingsway, in July 1945.
While Germans remained suspicious of Bonhoeffer's "treasonous"
activity - his decision to pray and work for the defeat of their
country - Bell, who had known of Bonhoeffer's commitment to peace
from the ecumenical movement in the early 1930s, was in no doubt
about the Christian inspiration and heroism of his resistance to
evil. His murder was a clear example of odium fidei.
A likeness of Bonhoeffer, complete with limestone spectacles,
has stood over the western entrance to Westminster Abbey since
1998, as one of the ten 20th-century martyrs celebrated there.
BONHOEFFER has something to offer to all strands of Anglicanism.
Evangelicals love him because he set such store by the Bible, which
he read every day, even in prison, and because he experienced a
(sort of) conversion in his mid-twenties, turning him from an
ambitious young theologian to a "hero of faith".
Liberals can applaud his open-minded engagement with the modern
world, and his preparedness to ask awkward questions of traditional
forms of religious language and practice. Anglo-Catholics can
appreciate his awareness of the relative liturgical poverty of his
native Lutheranism, pointing to the way he developed Catholic
practices such as confession and meditation in his own seminary at
Finkenwalde, having witnessed them at the religious communities at
Mirfield and Kelham, which he visited in 1935.
He went beyond the ecumenism of his day, which was largely
intra-Protestant, in admiring the Roman Catholic liturgy he
encountered in Rome in Easter 1924, aged 18, and in Barcelona,
where he spent a year from 1928.
He surprised his affluent, upper-middle-class and prodigiously
talented family (his father was Professor of Psychology at the
University of Berlin) by opting, at the age of 13, to become a
theologian. He studied in the notoriously liberal Department of
Theology at Berlin, before coming under the spell of the
neo-orthodox Karl Barth.
His first two books, completed by the age of 24, display the
richness and complexity of his ecclesiology. Sanctorum
Communio turns to contemporary sociology for an understanding
of the Church as transcending Ferdinand Tönnies's distinction
between a "community" (Gemeinschaft, rooted in history and
shared traditions), and a "society" (Gesellschaft, an
organisation of like-minded people with shared goals).
The former was in danger of being closed to "outsiders" (such as
"non-Aryan" Christians in the German Evangelical Church), and the
latter lacked organic unity.
Bonhoeffer looked for a Church that transcended both these
models. He called for a relationship between the Church and the
world which "does not consist in a senseless hostility to culture",
but in the "sanctification of all human life through the word of
God and the Holy Spirit".
Bonhoeffer's second book, Act and Being, has been
called "one of the great theological achievements of the 20th
century". It explores how we can continue to talk about God without
resorting to outdated metaphysics or pious platitudes. This time,
the opposition that Bonhoeffer attempts to overcome is between
German idealism in the Hegelian tradition, and phenomenology, as
represented by Husserl and Heidegger.
The problem of the former is that it makes "God" the "object of
its own system of thought", while the latter focuses on the
experience of the subject, bracketing the question of the existence
of any religious object. The solution, Bonhoeffer says, lies in
revelation as understood and practised within the concreteness of
the Church, which is "Christ existing as community".
These brilliant books would have given Bonhoeffer a key position
in German theology had not the Third Reich intervened. Instead, at
the beginning of his career as a lecturer in Berlin in January
1933, he was thrust into the forefront of the struggle against the
Nazification of the German Evangelical Church.
HIS campaigning in the church elections that summer brought his
first encounter with the Gestapo. Far more radical than other
members of the Confessing Church, who seemed more intent on
preserving their own doctrinal purity than opposing Hitler's plans
for Germany as a whole, Bonhoeffer quickly saw the need to put a
"spoke in the wheel" of government policy.
His primary concern at this stage was with the treatment of
Jewish Christians - ethnic non-Aryans who had been baptised, but
were threatened with exclusion from the national Church.
Charged with "incitement against the Fatherland", and warned
against "high treason", Bonhoeffer fled to London, where he
continued to help lead the rebellion against the church leadership,
and forged a close friendship with Bishop Bell.
He also learnt, from one of his fellow-pastors of the Lutheran
Church in England - encountered on a bus from Bradford to York -
that, at times of crisis, it was better to write and speak more
simply, in terms that ordinary people could understand.
He returned to Germany in 1935, at the request of the leadership
of the Confessing Church, to take up the direction of a seminary at
Finkenwalde, in the north-eastern corner of Germany, now Poland.
Here, he saw himself as building a community of Christian pastors
with the strength and discipline to resist persecution, and
establish the new Germany that would follow the overthrow of
BONHOEFFER's teaching during this time can be seen in what became
a "devotional classic" when it was translated from the German
Nachfolge, of 1937, into the English Cost of
Discipleship, in 1948. Here he argues, in simpler terms than
in his first two books, for a Christianity based upon "the pure
word of Jesus", without all the "human ballast" of doctrine and
regulation accumulated over the centuries.
He sets "costly grace" (obedience to the call to a life of
service) against the "cheap grace" sold on the market as adherence
to a set of propositions. Bonhoeffer inveighs against the "false
Protestant ethic" that had diluted Christian love into a religion
of hard work and patriotism. In the immediate context of Nazi
Germany, to follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount meant
resisting oppression and speaking up for the downtrodden.
The second of the "devotional classics" emerging from his time
at Finkenwalde, and written in four weeks in 1938, after his
seminary had been shut down, was Life Together.
Christians, Bonhoeffer had come to realise, now lived like Christ
"in the midst of enemies", and needed "the physical presence of
other Christians" to survive.
They also needed the discipline of Bible reading, and the
sacraments, especially confession and the Lord's Supper, to build
up sufficient strength to resist the evils with which they were
surrounded. "Only those who cry out for the Jews", as he said at
this time, "may also sing Gregorian chant."
BY 1938, Bonhoeffer had grasped the extent of Nazi intentions
towards the Jews and the need for political resistance. Exactly
when he joined the group of about 50 people working to overthrow
the Nazis from within military intelligence is unclear. But from
late 1939 he was undergoing journeys for them, ostensibly gathering
information for military intelligence but actually using his
ecumenical connections to make the Allies aware of the activities
and extent of the resistance.
From February 1941, after spending four months at the
Benedictine monastery in Ettal, working on his Ethics and
liaising with Roman Catholic as well as Protestant members of the
resistance, he was officially appointed a "sub-agent" of the
Abwehr in Munich.
He compiled reports - sent on to London by the World Council of
Churches - of the deportation of Jews from Berlin at the end of
1941. He also played a small part in the smuggling of Jews into
Switzerland later that year; visited Norway to encourage Lutheran
resistance there in April 1942; and met Bishop Bell in Sweden that
July, providing him with full details of resistance activity, in
the forlorn hope that the British Government would work with
The Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, however, dismissed Bell as
a "pestilent priest". And Churchill refused to believe in the
existence of a German resistance unless it actually "did
BONHOEFFER was arrested in April 1943, and spent the remainder of
his life in prison: first in the relative comfort of Tegel, where
he was allowed access to books and writing material; but from
October 1944 in the Gestapo cellar in Prinz-Albrechtstrasse.
Finally, in February 1945, he was transferred to the camp at
It was in Tegel that he produced his final fragmentary thoughts
on the future of Christianity, the Letters and Papers from
Prison which so excited Bishop John Robinson and the "Death of
God" theologians in the 1960s.
These have to be read carefully, however, in the context of his
prison reading. Those paradoxical phrases about "religionless
Christianity" for a "world come of age", for example, are
Bonhoeffer's response to Wilhelm Dilthey's account of the
historical development of Christianity through a range of phases,
from patristic and medieval metaphysics, through Protestant
"inwardness", to scientific modernity.
We should not identify Christianity with any of these stages,
Bonhoeffer argues; they are all historically contingent expressions
of faith. In particular, we should abandon the "other-worldly" and
individualistic interpretation of salvation in favour of a
"this-worldly" realisation of God's Kingdom. "Christ takes hold of
human beings in the midst of their lives," he says, while God is to
be found not at the "boundaries" of the world - where science does
not reach - but at its centre.
Bonhoeffer's reputation, carefully tended by his friend and
biographer Eberhard Bethge, grew exponentially after the war,
especially among Evangelicals in the United States, where there is
something of a cult of this "hero of faith". There have been
several novels and films of his life, the most recent available on
DVD as Bonhoeffer: Agent of Faith, cashing in on the
glamour of his life as prophet and spy (as well as lover).
There are organised pilgrimages to Pomerania and other key sites
of importance in his personal journey. All these are part of what
Stephen Haynes calls "the Bonhoeffer Phenomenon". But the starting
point for a full appreciation of the courage and complexity of the
man should be his own writings, now available in the newly
completed 17 volumes of the Fortress edition of his works in
Terry Wright is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at
Newcastle University. He is currently writing a novel about