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 reaction of the church to the atrocities committed, insisting on the unconditional duty of the church towards the victims of society, whether they were Christian or not. His theological evolution led him to have a “vision from below” of the world, in the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. He has left traces 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 great subject
    • 3 Social situation in Germany
    • 4 Important stages of your life
    • 5 University Studies
    • 6 Heading to America
    • 7 Know the opposite face
    • 8 Battle against National Socialism
    • 9 Hitler in power
    • 10 Attack the Nazis on radio broadcasts
    • 11 “In order to stop the wheel you have to lock its spokes”
    • 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 times”. In Germany, the Kaiser still reigned, the nobility and the army still constituted “the pillars of society”, but factories and commerce had long been in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The dangers that were hidden behind the facade of the reign of Guillermo II were hardly perceptible. And only few were aware of the emerging political and social conflicts.

The family

Dietrich was the sixth of eight brothers. Her father, Karl Bonhoeffer, held the chair of Psychiatry and Neurology at Breslau. He came from a family of goldsmiths, clergymen, doctors and regidores, settled in Schwäbisch Hall from the 16th century. Dietrich greatly 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 family of nobles, the von Hase. His father was professor of Theology, in addition to sometimes serving as preacher at the court of Emperor Wilhelm II. His mother’s family stood out for his musical and artistic skills.

Dietrich surely inherited his love of music from his maternal family, and 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 care of the primary education of her children, who do not go to public school until they start high school. A family in which tolerance prevails, although the patriarchal structure continues. 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 had a great influence. “This family – numerous – knew how to stay together and the paternal house, always open and hospitable, was and continued to be a decisive meeting point for both the closest relatives and the further away, in addition to the many like-minded friends.

His big theme

The great subject of the theologian Bonhoeffer was the Church. It contributed greatly to more conscious self-diagnosis by the Church; for the first time, at the age of 21, with his doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio” – a dogmatic inquiry into the sociology of the Church “and, for the last time, with his prison letters (” 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 National Socialist terror, first committing himself from within the Confessional Church and, later, collaborating with the conspirators around Admiral Canaris. Personality as multifaceted as that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer induces not only to isolate its different aspects and traits, but also to oppose them. Some people only see Bonhoeffer as the theologian, others only recognize 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. Soon thereafter comes the news that a group of far-rightists has 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 exasperating consternation of my friend Bonhoeffer … I remember that he asked where Germany was going, if they killed their best politicians. And I remember it, because I had been impressed by their keen perception of the political situation of the moment” .

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. Monarchy sympathizers remain in the army, administration and justice; together with the new far-right 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. In the face of 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 it must be added that most of the German population considered the Versailles Peace Treaty ( 1919) an injustice. Walther Rathenau was one of the politicians who had accepted this Treaty – for the extreme right he was a “compliance politician”, whom 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 neurology clinic of the Prussian Crown. From 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 winner in Physics, Max Planck. Also for the Bonhoeffers the First World Warit means a radical change. The eldest son Walter dies after suffering serious injuries in the last year of the war. The Bonhoeffer family tries to assimilate the new political situation after the war: It rejects, like most, the Treaty of Versailles , yet respects the new democratic regime.

University studies

Dietrich begins 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, causing inflation beyond control. Unemployment increases. Finally, the German mark is stabilized thanks to a monetary reform. However, the economic recovery takes place above all at the expense of the middle class, which loses a large part of its fortune, as well as at the expense of social benefits, such as the pension fund. The race means meeting Dietrich Bonhoeffer same, period in which it relegates 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 begins his career in Tübingen and then continues in Berlin , which in those years is becoming a metropolis and European center of culture. Theology professors, Adolf Schlatter, Professor of the New Testament in Tübingen, and Adolf von Harnack, are the ones who They have a greater influence on the young university student. To the reformist theologian Karl Barth , who after the First World War had caused a scandal among theologians with his “Dialectical Theology”, Bonhoeffer will not know him until later.

Heading to America

The 5 as September as 1930 Dietrich Bonhoeffer embarked for America . Since he is still too young at 24 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 a different Church will ideologically mark you for the future. Dietrich is impressed by New York. However, it will not take him long to realize the opposite side: Unemployment terrifies people. The great crack 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 beliefs, from the United States and other countries, study. Reinhold Niebuhr is one of the most distinguished professors of this Seminary. 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. Today, “Liberation Theology” is the one that follows the tradition of “social gospel”.

Know the opposite face

Near the Union Theological Seminary is the neighborhood of Harlem. 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 get to know the church shops 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 companions: French Shepherd Jean Lasserre, who is a pacifist. He bases this attitude of his on the Sermon on the Mount, on the bliss of all those who pursue peace and on the demand for love towards the enemy. To what extent these views of your friend will impress you, you will see yourself on the path that Bonhoeffer’s life will take. A few years later, in a letter he wrote 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 of ‘Church’.” “I think 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 worth committing to at all. 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 previously unknown dimensions. As a consequence of the global economic crisis, unemployment had increased dramatically. Wage and workday reductions are the order of the day. Many believe that the Weimar Republic is unable to solve economic problems and effectively combat social misery. Under these circumstances, the party led by Adolf Hitler , the NSDAP, is gaining many supporters. Under the direction of Joseph Goebbels, “Gauleiter” (head of the territorial constituency) of Berlinand the 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. 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-numerary teacher at the University. His classes and seminars stand out 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 will form in the internal confrontations of the Church after 1933. Bonhoeffer also exercises of pastor for the students of the Technical School of Charlottenburg, which has just been built by General Superintendent Otto Dibelius. It is then when he receives the commission from the ecclesiastical authority to prepare, in a working class neighborhood, a group of “undisciplined” adolescents for confirmation. Bonhoeffer’s “new parish” in the Church of Zion breaks with the social barrier of the bourgeois Church. Bonhoeffer rents a room north of Alexanderplatz so that he can live close to his pupils. After celebrating the confirmation, he takes them to his parents’ summer residence. At the same time he develops with his 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 delivers his first radio address addressed to the German people. It coincides that a radio conference for Bonhoeffer is also scheduled for the same day. The theme: “The Führer and individuality in the young generation”. Bonhoeffer cannot end his conference on the radio; the broadcast is interrupted by management.February 27 the Reichstag (= Parliament) burns in Berlin. The following day the “decree-law for the protection of the people and the State” is published, which will continue in force for the next twelve years. It constitutes the “legal” basis of the incipient National Socialist terror, which is characterized by restrictions on fundamental rights, such as, for example, the violation of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of the press, to associate and assemble, as well as violation of epistolary, postal, telegraphic and telephone secrecy. In addition, the trespassing is legitimized, as well as the confiscation and deprivation of property. While reaching a concordat with the Catholic Church, on July 20 , 1933The National Socialist State, with the help of the “German Christians”, a group linked to the NSDAP, tries to assimilate the Protestant Church. Under the influence of the “German Christians”, the different regional churches, hitherto independent, were unified into a centralized Reich Church. In the ecclesiastical elections, which are called immediately, the “German Christians” devastate. 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 Navy pastor Ludwig Müller as Bishop of the German Reich. Due to this interventionism in the internal affairs of the Church, as well as the almost total acceptance of the National Socialist ideology by the “German Christians”, an opposition forms within the Church, to which Dietrich Bonhoeffer also belongs. .

Attack the Nazis on radio broadcasts

In 1933Already before Hitler came to power, Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran church minister, was already attacking the Nazis in radio broadcasts. He joined, alongside Karl Barth, the confessing Church, which opposed the Nazi attempt to impose anti-Semitism on the church and on society. He also 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 or not they were Christian. 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 , “Not only cared about the victims of the torture machine, it would stop the machine. ” In fact, his 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. This seminary is often seen as a kind of Protestant monastery, and 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 “vision from below” of the world, in the perspective of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized. This explains its influence also in Liberation Theology, from which there are so many lessons to learn. 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 for his message?… Only a great ecumenical council of the Holy Church of Christ of the whole earth can proclaim that the The whole world must listen, even reluctantly, to the word of peace, and that all peoples should feel happy that this church, in the name of Christ, takes their weapons from their children, prohibits them from 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 short 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 prohibited him from speaking and writing, since 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 State Security dungeons in Munich. The deepest and most tense thoughts were written by him while he was in prison, as when he wrote that he felt ‘without soil underfoot.’


On 9 April as as 1945was hanged on a long nail in the wall. According to witnesses, before his execution he had been on his knees and praying earnestly, thus demonstrating how deep his personal relationship with God had become. Her corpse was burned. His Philosophy During the time Bonhoeffer was in prison he wrote a book called Letters and Writings from Prison. The manuscript was smuggled out of prison and published. These letters contain Bonhoeffer’s consideration of the secularization of the world and the estrangement 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, he must be known in this world while operating and interacting with man in daily life. The abstract God of philosophical and theological speculation is useless to the average man on the street, and he is part 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, because Nazism was really a monstrous crime against humanity. And although you might ask where God was then, it seems that the most sensible question would be: where was the man?

Dietrich Bonhöffer


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