Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in theliberal academic household of psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer and his wife Paula in Breslau and Berlin. He began pursuing a degree in theology at the University of Tübingen in 1923 and continued at the University of Berlin where he earned his doctorate in 1927, passed his first theological exam in 1928 and, after a vicarage in Barcelona, his second and earned his habilitation degree in 1930. Still too young for ordination despite his meteoric academic career, he took advantage of a fellowship in New York where he acquired lasting impressions of the social dimensions of Christian existence. This period has been described as a turning point from theologian to Christian (Bethge). Bonhoeffer became involved in ecumenical youth work, additionally taught at Berlin’s Humboldt University and, after his ordination, was also a student chaplain and a dedicated vicar in a working class neighborhood of Berlin. Atypical of mainstream Protestantism, his family took a negative view of National Socialism from the outset. Bonhoeffer criticized the concept of a “Führer” in February of 1933 and openly enumerated the church’s options for action soon after the first violent measures against Jews. He took advantage of his ecumenical contacts early on in order to spread word about affairs in Germany. In his opinion, the church’s implementation of anti-Semitic policies would clearly imperil Christian faith as a whole. Before and after the church elections of 1933, he was actively involved at the head of the “Young Reformation movement” against the “German Christians” loyal to Hitler. Along with Martin Niemöller, he was one of the founders of the “Pastor’s Emergency League”. Disappointed by the Confessing Church’s irresolute resistance, he withdrew to London in 1933-34 as a pastor of German congregations in England and managed to insulate them from the German Reich Church. In 1935, Bonhoeffer became the director of one of the Confessing Church’s theological seminaries. In this post, he was an influential proponent of the Confessing Church’s resistance. He managed to continue clandestinely offering courses until 1940. Severely restricted by the regime’s sanctions and, as a pacifist, in danger of being called up for military service at any moment, he decided to travel to New York in 1939 for a teaching position, which would have kept him safe for a longer period. He soon returned to his homeland, however. This can be considered the second turning point in his life from a Christian to a man for his times (Bethge). Taking advantage of family contacts to the resistance, Bonhoeffer had himself assigned to military intelligence, under the pretext of espionage essential to the war effort, in order to keep his ecumenical friends apprised of the resistance movement and the planned putsch. This shift to political conspiracy precipitated his arrest in 1943 and ultimately his murder in Flossenbürg concentration camp shortly before the war’s end. His correspondence during his two years of imprisonment (“Letters and Papers from Prison” and “Love Letters from Cell 92”), during which he carried on his theological work until the very end, is famous.

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