Helmut Gollwitzer grew up in a Bavarian parsonage influenced by National Conservatism. Between 1928 and 1932, he studied Protestant theology at the universities in Munich, Erlangen, Jena and Bonn. As a student, he was influenced primarily by his teacher Karl Barth.
Following his first theological exam, Gollwitzer served as a vicar in Munich and then as the palace chaplain and princely tutor in Ernstbrunn near Vienna. He took the side of the Confessing Church in the Kirchenkampf against the German Christians. He became the head of the Thuringian Council of Brethren’s Department of Evangelization in 1936.
One year later, the University of Basel awarded him his doctorate in theology for his dissertation on “Coena Domini”. At Easter of 1937, Martin Niemöller summoned him from Thuringia, where he had been banned from speaking publicly, to Berlin as a theological staff member of the Council of Brethren of the Evangelical Church of the Old Prussian Union. Gollwitzer substituted for Niemöller at St. Anne’s Church in Berlin-Dahlem after he had been arrested.
Gollwitzer supported aid activities for persecuted Jews in the wake of the November Pogrom in 1938. He also had contact with leading figures of the military resistance. Gollwitzer was arrested briefly and then expelled from Berlin in September 1940 and banned from speaking publicly in the Reich. He served as a medic in World War II
Gollwitzer spent 1945 to 1949 as a prisoner of war of the Soviets. Upon returning home, he became a professor of systematic theology at the University of Bonn. In 1957, he moved to the Freie Universität Berlin’s Department of Protestant Theology where he taught until 1975 and developed a new political theology.
Gollwitzer became an unflagging supporter and promoter of Christian-Jewish dialog in postwar Germany. Politically, he was active in various social movements in the Federal Republic of Germany, especially the peace movement.