Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Dietrich Bonhoeffer . German Lutheran theologian. He is one of the most brilliant and suggestive figures in the recent history of the Church. He repeatedly spoke out against Adolf Hitler , the Nazi regime and the church’s reaction to the atrocities committed, insisting on its unconditional duty to the victims of society, whether they were Christian or not. His theological evolution led him to have a “view from below” of the world, from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. He has left his mark in many ways: as a theologian, as a Christian and as a contemporary.


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  • 1 Biographical Synthesis
    • 1 The family
    • 2 His big theme
    • 3 Social situation in Germany
    • 4 Important stages of your life
    • 5 University Studies
    • 6 Heading to America
    • 7 Know the opposite side
    • 8 Battle against National Socialism
    • 9 Hitler in power
    • 10 Attack the Nazis in radio broadcasts
    • 11 “In order to stop the wheel, its spokes must be locked”
    • 12 Death
  • 2 Outstanding works
  • 3 Sources

Biographical Synthesis

He was born on 4 February as as 1906 in Breslau , Poland , when everything seemed to be in order. His childhood coincides with a time that would later be known as “the good old days.” In Germany the kaiser still reigned, the nobility and the army were still “the pillars of society”, but factories and commerce have long been in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The dangers behind the façade of William II’s reign were barely perceptible. And only a few were aware of the emerging political and social conflicts.

The family

Dietrich was the sixth of eight siblings. His father, Karl Bonhoeffer, held the chair of Psychiatry and Neurology at Breslau. He came from a family of goldsmiths, clergymen, doctors and councilmen, settled in Schwäbisch Hall since the 16th century. Dietrich highly appreciated his grandmother, Julie Bonhoeffer, for her direct and determined character. The 1 of April of 1933 , at 91 years, even dared to ignore much value chain watchers SA, who wanted to prevent people enter to buy in a shop judía.La mother of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paula, he descended from a noble family, the von Hase. His father was a professor of Theology, besides exerting sometimes of preacher of the court of the emperor Guillermo II. His mother’s family stood out for their musical and artistic gifts.

Dietrich surely inherited his love of music from his maternal family, the family, in which the young Bonhoeffer is formed, belongs to the cultural elite of the German Empire. His mother, a teacher by profession, takes charge of the primary education of her children, who do not go to public school until they start their high school studies. A family in which tolerance reigns, although the patriarchal structure is still maintained. They instill in their children a sense of responsibility and self-discipline, as well as a feeling of solidarity and an open mind. ”

In Bonhoeffer’s case, the family exerted a great influence. “This large family knew how to stay together and the paternal home, always open and hospitable, was and continued to be a decisive meeting point, both for the closest relatives and for the further afield, as well as for the many like-minded friends.

His big theme

The great subject of the theologian Bonhoeffer was the Church. It contributed greatly to a more conscious self-awareness on the part of the Church; for the first time, at the age of 21, with his doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio” – a dogmatic investigation about the sociology of the Church “and, for the last time, with his letters from prison (” Resistance and surrender “) , in which he speaks of a “Church for all”, just as Jesus Christ became “man for all”.

Bonhoeffer’s faith was deeply rooted in the idea of ​​succession, in keeping with the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount. Hence his pacifist attitude, which led him to make the decision to be part of the resistance against the National Socialist terror, first committing himself from within the Confessional Church and, later, collaborating with the conspirators around Admiral Canaris. A personality as multifaceted as that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer leads not only to isolate his different aspects and traits, but also to oppose them. Some people only see Bonhoeffer as the theologian, others recognize only the “spiritual Bonhoeffer”, that is, the author of the “Succession” and “Life in community”. However, both views neglect their militancy in the resistance and their political activity.

Social situation in Germany

The 24 of June of 1922 students of the Institute of Berlin Grunewald heard shots coming from a nearby street, the Königsallee. Shortly after, news reached them that a group of ultra-rightists had just assassinated Walther Rathenau , Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Weimar Republic. One of those students is Dietrich Bonhoeffer; He is 16 years old. A classmate describes Bonhoeffer’s reaction:

“I remember very well the infuriating dismay of my friend Bonhoeffer … I remember him asking where Germany was going, if their best politicians were assassinated. And I remember, because I was impressed by his keen perception of the political situation at the time.” .

The defeat suffered in the First World War had substantially changed the situation in Germany . After the 1918 revolutionEmperor Wilhelm II is exiled and the Weimar Republic is proclaimed. However, this first democratic German state lacks any stability. In the army, in the administration and in the justice the sympathizers of the monarchy remain; together with the new ultra-rightist groups they want to recover the previous situation. Meanwhile, in the streets and in the companies a large number of unionized workers demand the social revolution. Faced with these radical positions of the right and the left, the Social Democrats and the bourgeois parties only manage to maintain themselves with great difficulty. To this must be added that the majority of the German population considered the Treaty of Peace of Versailles ( 1919) an injustice. Walther Rathenau was one of the politicians who had accepted this Treaty – for the extreme right it was a “politician of compliance”, who they had to eliminate.

Important stages of your life

In 1912 the Bonhoeffer family moved to Berlin . The father is in charge of the most important Chair of Psychiatry and Neurology in Germany and, at the same time, of the management of the Charité, the famous university clinic of neurology of the Prussian Crown. Since 1916 the family lives in the Grunewald neighborhood, an elegant neighborhood, where many teachers and intellectuals reside. Here live, among others, the well-known liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack and the one who will later be named Nobel Prize in Physics, Max Planck. Also for the Bonhoeffers the First World Warit means a radical change. The eldest son, Walter, dies, after sustaining serious injuries, the last year of the war. The Bonhoeffer family tries to assimilate the new political situation after the war: they reject, like the majority, the Treaty of Versailles , however they respect the new democratic regime.

University studies

Dietrich began his university studies, just turned 17, in 1923, coinciding with the high point of the deep economic crisis in Germany. Repairs and other expenses resulting from the lost war are financed by the massive printing of paper money, which causes inflation out of all control. Unemployment increases. Finally, the German mark is stabilized thanks to a monetary reform. However, the economic recovery is made mainly at the expense of the middle class that loses a large part of its fortune, as well as at the cost of social benefits, such as the pension fund. The career means for Dietrich Bonhoeffer the encounter with himself The same period in which he relegated the economic and political crises of the Weimar Republic to the background. His decision to study theology surprises the family. Although there are many theologians in his mother’s family,Natural Sciences and Law . Dietrich began his career in Tübingen and then continued in Berlin , which in those years was becoming a metropolis and a European center of culture.The theology professors, Adolf Schlatter, Professor of the New Testament in Tübingen, and Adolf von Harnack, are those who greater influence they exert on the young university student. The reformist theologian Karl Barth , who after the First World War had caused a scandal among theologians with his “Dialectical Theology”, Bonhoeffer did not get to know him until later.

Heading to America

The 5 as September as 1930 Dietrich Bonhoeffer embarked for America . Since at 24 he is still too young to be ordained a Protestant pastor, the scholarship to study at the famous Union Theological Seminary in New York comes at the right time. And like a few years before in Rome , the encounter with a different world and Church will mark him ideologically for the future. Dietrich is impressed by New York. However, it will not take long to realize the opposite side: unemployment scares people. The great crash of the banks in 1929It has caused a great depression, the greatest catastrophe – to date – of the industrial system. Union Theological Seminary is a theological institute, in which people of different faiths, from the United States and other countries, study. Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the most distinguished professors at this Seminar. The theology that he and his colleagues defend, has its orientation in the so-called “social gospel”, in which the gospel acquires a social and political dimension. At present, “Liberation Theology” is the one that follows the tradition of “social gospel”.

Meet the opposite side

Near Union Theological Seminary is the Harlem neighborhood. Dietrich Bonhoeffer will learn about the situation of the black population in the ghettos through his friends, especially through his black partner Frank Fisher. He will also visit the shops-churches in the suburbs of the city, which today are still spaces to celebrate Mass, as well as self-help centers.Dietrich will also have a great friendship with another of his colleagues: the French pastor Jean Lasserre, who is a pacifist. He bases this attitude of his on the Sermon on the Mount, on the beatitude of all those who seek peace and on the demand for love towards the enemy. The extent to which you are impressed by these views of your friend will show the direction Bonhoeffer’s life will take. Some years later, in a letter to his older brother Karl-Friedrich,

“It has been a wonderful day, for the first time I have managed to understand something of the depth of Catholicism, it has nothing to do with romanticism, etc., but I think I am beginning to understand the concept ‘Church’. “I believe I am certain that I will not achieve inner clairvoyance and sincerity unless I begin to act consistently with the Sermon on the Mount … And there are things that are worth committing fully to. And it seems to me that peace and social justice, that is Christ at heart, deserve it. ”

Battle against National Socialism

After returning from New York to Berlin , Bonhoeffer is also confronted in Germany with social problems of hitherto unknown dimensions. As a consequence of the global economic crisis, unemployment had increased dramatically. Reductions in wages and working hours are the order of the day. Many believe that the Weimar Republic is incapable of solving economic problems and effectively combating social misery. Under these circumstances, the party led by Adolf Hitler , the NSDAP, gains many followers. Under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels, “Gauleiter” (head of the territorial district) of Berlinand propaganda leader of the Reich, National Socialism, with its parades and its propaganda talk about order, discipline and national sentiment as well as racism, managed to become a mass movement, reaching all social classes. While in New York, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with his philosophical-religious work “Action and Being”, had qualified in the specialty of “Systematic Theology” at the Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Berlin. He is the youngest non-tenured professor at the University. His classes and seminars are noted for an unconventional approach when it comes to questions of Christian faith.

A series of meetings and excursions organized outside the university environment contribute to the creation of a circle of students around Bonhoeffer, from which a group of close collaborators in the internal confrontations of the Church after 1933 will be formed. Bonhoeffer also practices pastor for students of the Charlottenburg College of Technology, which has just been built by General Superintendent Otto Dibelius. It is then that he is commissioned by the ecclesiastical authority to prepare, in a workers’ neighborhood, a group of “undisciplined” adolescents for confirmation. Bonhoeffer’s “new parish” in the Church of Zion breaks the social barrier of the bourgeois Church. Bonhoeffer rents a room north of Alexanderplatz so he can live close to his wards. After celebrating their confirmation, they are taken to their parents’ summer residence. At the same time, they are developing with their friends and students the project of a youth center for unemployed youth at the suggestion of the initiative of the “East Berlin Social Work Association. “. The project will not be carried out due to the rise to power of the National Socialists: One of the collaborators, Anneliese Schnurmann, is Jewish; other young collaborators will begin to be persecuted for being communists.

Hitler in power

The 30 of January of 1933 , the president of the Reich, von Hindenburg appointed Adolf Hitler chancellor of the German Reich. Two days later Hitler delivered his first radio speech to the German people. It coincides that that same day a Bonhoeffer conference is also scheduled on the radio. The theme: “The Führer and individuality in the young generation”. Bonhoeffer can’t finish his talk on the radio; the broadcast is interrupted by the management. On February 27 the Reichstag (= Parliament) in Berlin burns. The following day the “decree-law for the protection of the people and the State” is published, which will remain in force for the next twelve years. It constitutes the “legal” basis of the incipient National Socialist terror, which is characterized by the restrictions of fundamental rights, such as, for example, the violation of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and assembly, as well as by the violation of the epistolary, postal, telegraphic and telephone secrecy. In addition, the trespassing is legitimized, as well as the confiscation and deprivation of property.While an agreement is reached with the Catholic Church, on July 20 , 1933, the National Socialist State, with the help of the “German Christians”, a group linked to the NSDAP, tries to assimilate to the Protestant Church. Under the influence of the “German Christians” the different regional churches, until then independent, were unified into a centralized Reich Church. In the ecclesiastical elections, which are called immediately, the “German Christians” sweep. In the “Brown Synod” of the Prussian regional Church the “Aryan law” is decreed for the ecclesiastical community. On 27 September as as 1933, the German National Synod in Wittenberg appoints Naval Pastor Ludwig Müller as bishop of the German Reich. Due to this interventionism in the internal affairs of the Church, as well as to the almost total acceptance of the National Socialist ideology by the “German Christians”, an opposition is formed within the Church, to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer also belongs. .

Attack the Nazis on radio broadcasts

In 1933Before Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer, a minister in the Lutheran church, was already attacking the Nazis on radio broadcasts. He joined, along with Karl Barth, the confessional Church, which was opposed to the Nazi attempt to impose anti-Semitism in the church and in society. He in turn denounced the reaction of the church to the atrocities committed and insisted on the unconditional duty of the Church towards the victims of society, whether they were Christian or not. While many theologians and church people showed an attitude of servitude to authority, Dietrich wrote the essay entitled The Church and the Jewish Question, in which he established different levels of responsibility of the Church towards the State, even going so far as to demand that the Church , “He will not only worry about the victims of the torture machine, but the machine will stop. ” In fact, their motto became:

“ Only he who raises his voice in favor of the Jews can sing Gregorian. 

He became the leader of an underground seminary with more than twenty young seminarians. That seminary is often seen as a kind of Protestant monastery, and it is responsible for many of its considerations about the Christian life as it relates to the community. Later the seminar was closed by the Secret Police.

His theological evolution led him to have a “view from below” of the world, from the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. This explains its influence also on liberation theology, from which so many lessons remain to be learned. It also said, “Jesus called us, not to a new religion, but to a new life.” Bonhoeffer is important for his ecumenism, and his efforts for world peace. In 1934 , at the World Council for Christian Praxis, he said:

How can peace be established? Who will call for peace, so that the whole world is forced to listen to his voice and the peoples feel happy about his message? … Only a great ecumenical council of the Holy Church of Christ of all the earth can proclaim that the The whole world must listen, even reluctantly, to the word of peace, and that all peoples must feel happy that this church, in the name of Christ, takes their weapons from their hands, prohibits war and proclaims the peace of Christ over such an exacerbated world. ”

“In order to stop the wheel, you have to lock its spokes”

In 1939 , thanks to arrangements made by Reinhold Niebuhr, he fled to the United States, but returned to Germany after a brief stay. He believed that it was necessary to suffer with his people if he wanted to be an effective minister after the war. In 1940 the Gestapo had forbidden him to speak and write, as his articles were considered subversive against the regime. The 5 of April of 1943 he was arrested along with other colleagues for conspiracy and treason against the state and locked in Tegel prison in Berlin. In October 1944he was transferred to the dungeons of the State Security in Munich. The deepest and most tense thoughts were written by him while he was imprisoned, as when he wrote that he felt ‘groundless underfoot.’


On 9 April as as 1945He was hanged on a long nail in the wall. According to witnesses, before his execution he had been on his knees and praying fervently, thus demonstrating how deep his personal relationship with God had become. His body was burned. His Philosophy During the time that Bonhoeffer was in prison he wrote a book called Letters and Writings from Prison. The manuscript was smuggled out of jail and published. These letters contain Bonhoeffer’s consideration of the secularization of the world and the departure from religion in the twentieth century. According to Bonhoeffer, dependence on organized religion had undermined authentic faith. Bonhoeffer called for a new Christianity without religion, free from individualism and metaphysical supernaturalism. God, Bonhoeffer argued, it must be known in this world while operating and interacting with man in everyday life. The abstract God of philosophical and theological speculation is useless to the average man on the street, and he is one of the majority of those who need to hear the gospel.

Outstanding works

His works translated into Spanish include:

  • Ethics, Believe and live
  • The price of grace
  • Redeemed by the human
  • Resistance and submission
  • Community life

It is very difficult to be able to understand clearly why all this was allowed to happen, since Nazism was really a monstrous crime against humanity. And although it might be asked where God was then, it seems that the most sensible question would be: where was man?


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