Bonhoeffer - A Life in Outline

Published: Wednesday, 05 February 2014

The following is the first chapter in a book by Rev Dr. Keith Clements entitled, ‘The SPCK Introduction to Bonhoeffer’. It was published in London in 2010 and is posted here by gracious permission of the author.

The Rev Dr. Keith Clements was formerly Senior Tutor at Bristol Baptist College, part-time lecturer at the University of Bristol and the General Secretary of the Conference of European Churches. He is a member of the editorial board of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition, is the author of Bonhoeffer and Britain (CTNI, 2006) and is the editor of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: London: 1933-1935 (Fortress Press, 2007).

Keith Clements is visiting Melbourne to teach an intensive Whitley College course on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is preaching at the Ashburton Baptist Church on 9 February 2014. This chapter gives a marvelous outline of Bonhoeffer’s life. It warms the heart and stretches the mind in preparation for hearing the preached word.


BonhoefferBonhoeffer: a life in outline

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine were born on 4 February 1906 in Breslau (present-day Polish Wroclaw), the fourth son and third daughter of Karl and Paula (née Hase) Bonhoeffer. Karl Bonhoeffer was a distinguished psychiatrist and in 1912 the family moved to Berlin on his appointment as director of the Charité Hospital. It was a comfortable and privileged home in which to grow up, permeated by the air of a long tradition of intellectual distinction, high culture and public service to be carried on by the new generation – and of intense mutual loyalty among its members. Although the children were baptized the family rarely went to church. Karl Bonhoeffer was an agnostic, but by no means actively anti-religious and indeed almost reverential in his respect for others’ sincerely held beliefs. Paula, however, was devoutly Lutheran, gave Bible lessons for her children and maintained a pattern of family devotions.

Into this secure life the First World War broke in 1914. On reaching military age the three older sons enlisted in the army. One, Walter, died of wounds on the Western Front in 1918 and the family was devastated, Paula Bonhoeffer being traumatized by grief for several months. Dietrich, 12 years old at the time, carried the memory of her pain, as well as his own, all his days, and it undoubtedly helped to forge his later attitude to war. With the end of the war came the downfall of the monarchy, then revolution, followed in 1919 by the inauguration of the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first real experiment with democracy, which was to last until Hitler’s advent to power in 1933. The Bonhoeffer family shared the widespread German feeling that the terms of the Versailles Treaty were unjust, particularly the imputation to Germany of ‘sole guilt’ for the war. But at the same time they supported the new republic, so unpopular with those conservatives who regarded the 1918 armistice as a ‘stab in the back’ of the army by traitorous socialist and viewed democracy as a dangerously un-German liberal experiment. Weimar, the Bonhoeffers believed, provided the best hope for the true values of the German tradition to flourish again. Despite being beset by one economic crisis after another, it was certainly to prove an astonishingly creative time for German intellectual and cultural life, and especially in the capital Berlin.

It was in these troubled yet hopeful post-war years that Dietrich passed through his teens into young adulthood. His brothers Karl-Friedrich and Klaus had decided for physics and law respectively. Dietrich was showing unusual promise as a musician, but while still a boy had astonished the family with his choice: theology, with the intention of becoming a pastor. There had been several theologians and pastors, some quite notable, on his mother’s side but the Bonhoeffers had never thought of themselves as a ‘clerical’ family. Nevertheless they respected Dietrich’s decision, which may have been motivated partly by a wish, as the youngest son, to choose a way quite independent of his older siblings.

Becoming a theologian

Aged 17, he began his theological studies in 1923 at Tübingen in southern Germany, where he concentrated on philosophy, history of religion and biblical studies. Having completed one semester, in time-honoured German fashion he decided to continue studies elsewhere, in this case his ‘home’ university of Berlin. Before transferring, however, he opted for a quite different experience – three months in Rome. Attracted since schooldays by the history and culture of the Graeco-Roman world, he needed little encouragement to revel in the sites of classical antiquity. What he was not quite prepared for was the impact of Roman Catholicism. During Holy Week he was moved by the ardour with which people of all ages were attending confession, and still more impressed by the Good Friday and Easter liturgies in St Peter’s. Above all, it was the spectacle of people of all colours, nationalities and different religious orders gathered for the festival as one believing community that impressed him. It made Protestantism seem, in his words, ‘like a small sect’, and he was given cause to reflect on whether his native, bourgeois German Protestantism, with its individualistic piety and lackadaisical attitude to Sunday worship, realized what church really meant. Before returning to Germany, with his brother Klaus he journeyed further south, to Sicily and then to Libya. Foreign travel was repeatedly to be deeply formative for Bonhoeffer, and 20 years later, in prison, he would describe Rome as ‘one of my favourite places on earth’.

Bonhoeffer enrolled at Berlin University in the summer of 1924. Its theological faculty was headed by teachers like Adolf von Harnack, renowned historian of the early Church, whose erudition was matched by the huge (and international) popularity of his book, What is Christianity? (1900). Harnack epitomized the ‘liberal Protestantism’ that had come to predominate in the late nineteenth century. Its emphasis was on the study of Christianity as a historical movement, as a form of religious consciousness and an expression of moral refinement. Strictly historical study of the texts of Scripture and of the early Church would enable the original message of Jesus to be recovered, free from the dogmatic overlay of later ages. Study of the historical influence of Christianity in the world would demonstrate its moral effectiveness. Psychological study of religious awareness would show how religion, far from being an obsolete phenomenon in the age of science, played an essential part in the completion and refinement of personality. The simple gospel of Jesus was summed up in the fatherly love of God, the blessedness of the soul united to God, and the brotherhood of all mankind that would be realized by spreading the influence of this message. In an age of ‘progress’ and the worldwide advance of civilization – much of it under Christian influence – it had seemed to liberals like Harnack that this gospel, science and moral endeavour were all marching hand in hand. Harnack was far on in years by the time Bonhoeffer enrolled at Berlin, but his reputation remained high and Bonhoeffer gladly attended his seminar.

The most decisive theological influence on Bonhoeffer, however, came from a quarter quite outside Berlin. A revolution against liberal theology was under way, and the revolt was being led by Karl Barth (1886–1968), a Swiss Reformed theologian. As a young pastor in Switzerland during the First World War, Barth was appalled by how the most eminent academics in Germany, including many of the professors of theology (like Harnack) under whom he had studied, had hailed the Kaiser’s war as a crusade for ‘Christian civilization’. He decided that something was chronically wrong with a Protestantism that could only bless national egotism and cultural pride instead of, like the biblical prophets, bringing it to judgement. ‘Culture-Protestantism’ had identified the kingdom of God with its own idea of human progress, but that progress had simply led to the ghastly bloodletting on the Western Front. Theology was no longer theology but had become study of the all-too-human ‘religious consciousness’ rather than God’s own self. God was being mocked. Barth went back to the nineteenth century existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, to the Reformers and above all to the Bible to rediscover the God who is ‘wholly other’ than the world and all things human (including, and especially, human ‘religion’), who stands in judgement over the world in order to bestow grace upon it. His commentary, The Epistle to the Romans, the first edition of which appeared at the end of the war, had a volcanic effect on the new generation of Protestant theologians. Barth translated Paul’s attack on ‘the law’ as a means of self-justification before God, into a polemic against the modern attention to ‘religion’ as a human phenomenon by which humankind aspires to godlikeness. It is not our devoutness, nor our moral insight, nor our cultural achievements, not even our theology, by which we can be saved or brought nearer to the divine. Only God’s own intervention, coming down like a lightning bolt through the cross and resurrection of Christ, brings salvation, and faith is attachment to that alone: ‘The power of God is not the most exalted of observable forces, nor is it either their sum or their fount. Being completely different, it is the KRISIS of all power, that by which all power is measured . . .’ Barth’s use of the biblical Greek word krisis, meaning judgement, interplaying with the crisis revealed in 1914, led to his early theology and that of his followers being called the ‘theology of crisis’. Barth moved to Germany in 1921 to teach at Göttingen, and by the mid-1920s was searching for a method of reconstructing theology in place of the liberalism he had demolished. This would be a theology of the word of God, God as seen in Jesus Christ, God’s self-revelation.

Bonhoeffer was gripped by Barth. Here was a theology that really took God seriously in all God’s ‘otherness’ and majesty, and that called on all theology – God-talk – to face with utmost intellectual rigour the challenge of conforming itself to that word in which God’s own thought and speech found expression – the incarnate word, Jesus Christ. It was a theology that Bonhoeffer felt worthy of his intellect and inspirational for his soul, and while he was never uncritical of Barth (whom he did not actually meet until 1931), Barth remained his most significant contemporary mentor right to the end. But less usually for an ardent new Barthian, Bonhoeffer did not abandon all that liberal theology had to say. The word of God might indeed come from beyond this world, but its impact was made in concrete human life, in historical forms of community. The human sciences of sociology, psychology and philosophy were not rendered irrelevant by theology. Rather, they had to be understood and used in the light of theology. It was with this two-edged awareness that Bonhoeffer, while sailing through his graduation examinations, chose the Church as the subject for his doctoral dissertation Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints). He completed it and satisfied the examiners in 1927 at the astonishingly early age of 21. It is a study both theological and sociological. In effect Bonhoeffer, with Barth, wished to exclaim ‘Revelation through God’s Word alone!’ but at the same time to ask how this revelation becomes tangible in concrete, humanly accessible form. Does it come only through a series of separate events impacting upon the believing soul? Or if one says that it is in the incarnate Christ that the word becomes concrete, where and how does one find this Christ? Bonhoeffer’s bold answer is to say that revelation has a kind of continuity in the community of the Church. In fact the Church is ‘Christ existing as community’ (SC 121), and by the community of the Church Bonhoeffer means a place of encounter between living persons practising the mutual forgiveness of sins. Sanctorum Communio was published in 1931, attracting little interest at the time. Some 25 years later Karl Barth hailed it as ‘a theological miracle’.

Bonhoeffer was following the normal prescribed courses for ordination, including practical theology, but from early 1928 took a year ‘out’ as assistant pastor to the German congregation in Barcelona. On returning to Berlin he began working as an assistant to Professor Wilhelm Lütgert but, more importantly, also set about writing hisHabilitation thesis, the German requirement for becoming a university teacher. The title of this was to be Act and Being, and it took up again the central issue of Sanctorum Communio, namely how revelation becomes humanly concrete. As in Sanctorum Communio, Christ is met – ‘haveable’ – in the community of the Church, which is ‘Christ existing as community’, because there I meet the brother or sister who is both other from me yet also for me, in forgiveness. This time, however, the treatment was less sociological and more philosophical and, as we shall see in the next chapter, was chiefly concerned with the nature of God’s ‘freedom’ in relation to the world. Bonhoeffer’s thesis was accepted for his Habilitation in July 1930 and published the following year. All now seemed set for an outstanding academic career, but for the moment distant shores once more beckoned. In September 1930 he sailed to the USA, to spend nearly a year at Union Theological Seminary, New York, as an exchange student. This was the most transformative of all his foreign experiences – unexpectedly so since the sophisticated German intellectual was not certain that America had much to teach him, least of all in theology. Liberalism still largely reigned in America’s theological schools, and Barth was as yet scarcely heard of. Much of what Bonhoeffer heard in the lecture halls and seminar rooms at Union did indeed depress him, as it appeared that theology there was more interested in bolstering the insights of psychology than expounding the word of God; more focused on behavioural science than on revelation. But there were notable exceptions, especially the teaching of Reinhold Niebuhr, professor of Applied Christianity, a leader of the Christian Socialist movement and a trenchant critic of sentimental altruism in social affairs. Niebuhr helped open Bonhoeffer’s eyes to a realistic way of translating theological concerns into social realities, together with a deeper appreciation of the social activism of the American churches. A warm personal regard grew up between the two. At the same time, the beginning of an acquaintance with the British theological scene was opened up for Bonhoeffer by the Scottish theologian John Baillie, with whom there developed another long-standing friendship and respect.

Most of the preaching Bonhoeffer heard from New York pulpits also seemed to convey human optimism rather than divine grace. But he was in for another surprise. He became friendly with a black student at Union, Frank Fisher, who introduced him to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer was almost overwhelmed by the intensity of prayer, singing and preaching here and in other black churches, and for much of his time in New York, Abyssinian Baptist became his spiritual home even to the point of his teaching a boys’ Sunday School class. ‘I have heard the gospel preached in the Negro churches’, he wrote to his family, and when he returned home a stack of gramophone records of spirituals was in his baggage. The whole urban black scene of deprivation, struggle and aspiration stirred him deeply (when eating out with Frank Fisher he would ostentatiously walk out of a café that refused to serve his black friend), and he studied in some depth both social surveys and novels by black writers.

There was yet another and perhaps even more unexpected transformation. It came through a French student at Union, Jean Lasserre. After some initial unease – for Bonhoeffer this was his first real encounter with someone from the former enemy nation – a close friendship developed. But Lasserre, a pastor in the French Reformed Church, was also a convinced pacifist, a phenomenon almost unknown to the German Lutheran who, while not militarist or rabidly nationalist, had hitherto taken the assumed line of his Church that prescribed national military service as one’s natural duty, since war was a regret- table but inevitable feature of a fallen world. Bonhoeffer began to look again at the Sermon on the Mount. The standard Lutheran interpretation of Jesus’ commands to repay evil with good and to turn the other cheek was that these were not to be taken literally, but rather as illustrations of the perfection to which we could never attain, being sinful creatures in a sinful world, and therefore as injunctions to repentance and prayer for God’s mercy. But the more he meditated on Jesus’ words the more Bonhoeffer began to query such interpretation as an evasion of what Jesus himself intended: a command to be obeyed quite concretely. He began to reflect on what being a disciple meant, as distinct from just being a theologian. These meditations were bound up with a deeper change going on in Bonhoeffer around this time. A few years later he described to a friend how hitherto, motivated by ambition, he had ‘plunged into work in a very unchristian way’, but that then ‘[S]omething happened, something that has changed and transformed my life to the present day. For the first time I discovered the Bible . . . I had often preached, I had seen a great deal of the church, spoken and preached about it – but I had not yet become a Christian’ (B 205). He began to pray regularly.

Ecumenism, peace and confessing Christ

The Germany to which Bonhoeffer returned in the summer of 1931 was also changing – for the worse, with economic depression, rising unemployment, street fighting between Nazis and Communists and waves of attacks, often physical, on Jews, even in the universities. Almost immediately after arrival home he travelled to Bonn, where Karl Barth was now professor, for his first meeting in the flesh with his chief theological authority. In September he was travelling again, this time to Cambridge, England, as a German youth delegate to the 9th International Conference of the World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches. The World Alliance was one of the earliest international ecumenical organizations, formed in 1914, its name clearly stating its aim. It had promoted reconciliation between the belligerent nations after 1918, and by the early 1930s was focusing on disarmament. In some ways Bonhoeffer’s acceptance of the invitation to attend was surprising. German Lutheran theologians were typically suspicious of such work, which they saw as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ liberal attempts to build the kingdom of God on earth by human effort, whereas that kingdom would come only by God’s own initiative at ‘the end’. But Bonhoeffer, post-America, believed that any Church organization, however suspect theologically, that took peace seriously had itself to be taken seriously. In fact at Cambridge he was appointed one of the honorary youth secretaries for Europe. This was a milestone in his career in at least three important senses. First, it meant his entry into ecumenical peace activity. Second, while the World Alliance was a less ‘official’ body than some of the other ecumenical organizations, its membership being on a voluntary basis rather than made up of officially designated representatives of the churches, it was closely linked with certain of those other organizations, particularly the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work, with which it shared an office in Geneva. Indeed, the executive committees of both bodies frequently held their meetings concurrently. Bonhoeffer was thus brought into circles of the burgeoning ecumenical movement at its highest levels. And third, even in attending the Cambridge conference, let alone committing himself to serve the World Alliance thereafter, Bonhoeffer was already putting his head above the parapet as far as the rising nationalism at home was concerned. Eminent theologians like Paul Althaus and Emanuel Hirsch were already declaring that such international events were poisonous to German honour and interest.

Bonhoeffer was ordained in Berlin in November 1931. For the next two years his life was extraordinarily busy, and it demonstrated how he was capable not only of shouldering a huge burden of work but also of living several kinds of life at the same time. In the university he was a Privatdozent (a teacher offering lectures on a freelance basis), and his classes on the history of systematic theology, creation, sin and Christology were attracting a small but increasingly interested and loyal following of students. With some of these he began experiments in community life, with weekend retreats in a hut in the country. He became student chaplain at the Charlottenburg technical college, and took charge of a boys’ confirmation class in the deprived working-class district of Wedding (choosing to live there in a flat for some time). Not least, he threw himself into his work as a youth secretary for the World Alliance. In addition to gatherings in Germany this meant committee meetings and conferences in England, France, Switzerland and Czechoslovakia. For him the main issue before the World Alliance was theological: how faith in Jesus Christ relativizes all national and racial loyalties, and calls into being the one universal Church that must be a fellowship of peace. No less in his university lectures he was asserting that creation itself can only be understood in the light of Christ, that Jesus Christ is the centre of human existence and therefore the point from which all that is truly human is to be understood and lived.

The tortuous machinery of party-political democracy in the Weimar Republic was grinding to a standstill, leaving Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party the single strongest group in the Reichstag, the German parliament (though not with an overall majority). Hitler came to power as Chancellor on 30 January 1933, to widespread popular acclaim, and very soon the structures of democracy were being demolished. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own first public reaction was a radio talk he gave on 1 March, ‘The Younger Generation’s Altered View of the Concept of Führer[Leader]’, a closely argued warning of the dangers of a leader who panders to the wishes of his followers, and of followers who make him their idol: ‘Leaders or offices which set themselves up as gods mock God’ (B 260). The transmission was broken off before the end of the talk, whether by censorship or accident has never been clear. The Bonhoeffer family as a whole regarded the nationalist revolutionary fervour with disgust, most notably the enforced boycott of Jewish shops already in April 1933. That same month Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote and presented a paper for the Protestant Church authorities in Berlin on ‘The Church and the Jewish Question’ (NRS 217– 25). In it he suggested three possible – and by no means mutually exclusive – lines of action by the churches: first, providing care for the victims of injustice, regardless of whether they belonged to the churches or not; second, questioning the state on the rightness of its actions; third, and if it proved necessary following the first two actions, putting ‘a spoke in the wheel’ of state activity. This was the first hint of Bonhoeffer contemplating some form of political resistance.

Meanwhile the churches themselves were caught up in the ferment, with calls for the Protestant Church to ‘conform’ to the new National Socialist order. The most strident demands were led by the so-called ‘Faith Movement of German Christians’ (Deutsche Christen – German Christians hereafter), effectively a Protestant branch of the Nazi party even to the extent of its members wearing their own uniforms akin to the Brownshirt stormtroopers. The German Christians called for the exclusion of all ‘non-Aryan’ (i.e. of Jewish descent) pastors from Church office and the imposition of the ‘leadership principle’ (Führerprinzip) into church government: a truly German Church for the German people, ‘completing the work of Martin Luther’. There followed a tumultuous summer for the churches. Many Protestants thought it the hour of their destiny, for there had never truly been oneGerman Evangelical (i.e. Protestant) Church as distinct from the many regional (Land) churches, and it seemed to them that with a new national leader uniting all Germans as never before, the moment had arrived for such a united Church also. The question was what the basis of the belief and practice of the one German Evangelical Church should be. Hitler appointed a former naval chaplain, Ludwig Müller, a nonentity but a devoted Nazi, as his plenipotentiary in Church affairs, with the task of bringing about the unification of Protestantism in one Reich Church. The bullying tactics of the German Christians combined with Müller’s political ineptness and vanity provoked huge opposition, much of it grouped around Martin Niemöller, a former U-boat captain and now a lively preacher in Berlin. A campaign of lying, intimidation and rigged Church elections led to the eventual appointment of Müller as ‘Reich Bishop’. In response Niemöller formed the ‘Pastors Emergency league’, which quickly had 6,000 members, a good number of whom soon found themselves in prison.

Bonhoeffer, together with a group of his students, was deeply involved in the opposition to the German Christians. For him the issue was clear: a Church that allowed a racial principle – the ‘Aryan clause’ – to determine its membership, and that introduced political methods of dictatorship into its governance, could no longer claim to be the Evangelical Church of Germany based upon the Scriptures and the Reformation confessions. The German Christians and Müller were promulgating heresy. Bonhoeffer debated the issues in public and in pamphlets (he and a colleague narrowly escaping arrest by the Gestapo at one point), and through the summer worked on a new confession – the ‘Bethel Confession’ – that aimed to meet these challenges but was largely divested of its prophetic content once it reached higher Church circles. But by the autumn Bonhoeffer was wearied and perplexed by the ‘Church Struggle’ so far, and was looking for the opportunity to reflect and recover a sense of direction. This led him, once more, abroad. He accepted an invitation to be pastor of two of the German congregations in London: the German Church in Sydenham and the St Paul’s United Church in Aldgate, East London. This was his base for 18 months, from October 1933 to April 1935.

Karl Barth, who was heading the theological opposition in Germany, was furious with Bonhoeffer for going like Elijah into the wilderness, and demanded that he return to the fray in Germany ‘by the next boat, or at any rate the next but one’. But Bonhoeffer’s London interlude proved far from passive as far as the Church Struggle was concerned. He remained in close touch with events in Berlin and made frequent visits there. He enlisted the support of nearly all the other British-based German pastors and their congregations for the Church opposition. In Germany at the end of May 1934 the ‘Free Synod of Barmen’ met and adopted the famous Barmen Theological Declaration that, largely written under the inspiration of Karl Barth, declared Jesus Christ to be the one Word of God to be heard, trusted and obeyed by the Church in contradistinction to all other powers, events and personalities, and thus launched the Confessing Church, that section of German Protestantism that resisted the Nazification of the Church. Bonhoeffer was not present at Barmen but was vehement in his recognition that nothing less than the Barmen Declaration would suffice to identify the true Church of Christ in Germany. Nearly all the German Congregations and pastors in Britain followed his lead in identifying with the Confessing Church. Most crucially of all for the long term, he communicated to ecumenical figures in Britain the true nature of the struggle in Germany and the urgency for the ecumenical movement to take sides with the Confessing Church. Particularly vital here was the close personal friendship that developed with George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who was president of the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work and thus the most authoritative spokesperson for the ecumenical movement at that time. Bell, both in print and in speech, declared firmly and clearly for the Confessing Church.

Bonhoeffer continued his work for the World Alliance, and it was just over halfway through his London period, in August 1934, that his ecumenical peace activity and his advocacy of the Confessing Church coincided dramatically at an ecumenical conference on the Danish island of Fanø. The council of Life and Work (see above), together with the joint youth commission of the World Alliance and Life and Work, met there concurrently. For Life and Work the crucial issue was the Church Struggle in Germany and the situation of the newly formed Confessing Church. It took the firm decision to be in solidarity with the Confessing Church, and as a sign of that commitment co-opted Bonhoeffer and a leading Confessing Church pastor to the executive of Life and Work. But Bonhoeffer’s own two conspicuous contributions at Fanø were, first, a paper on the need for fundamental theological principles for the World Alliance; and second, a homily on Psalm 85.8: ‘Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful.’ It includes his most striking utterance on peace. Does it, he asks rhetorically, come through financial deals or rearmament? ‘Through none of these, for the simple reason that in all of them peace is confused with safety. There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared. It is the great venture’ (L 308f.). It concludes with an urgent challenge to call ‘the one great Ecumenical Council of the Holy Church of Christ over all the world’ to speak and act ‘so that the peoples will rejoice because the Church of Christ in the name of Christ has taken the weapons from the hands of their sons, forbidden war, and proclaimed the peace of Christ against the raging world’.

Throughout his London time he worked tirelessly for refugees from Germany, and in it all he was an assiduous pastor and preacher to his two flocks. By the spring of 1935 it was clear that he would have to return to Germany, as the Confessing Church was setting up its own (illegal) seminaries for training ordinands and was looking to Bonhoeffer to take charge of one of them. A the same time he was nurturing a long-held wish, unfortunately never fulfilled, to travel to India, in particular to spend some time with Mahatma Gandhi – George Bell had provided an introduction – and study his methods of non-violent resistance. He was feeling increasingly disillusioned with western Christianity’s amalgam of piety and power. His mind was focusing ever more on the concrete living out of the Sermon on the Mount, and he was wondering whether more wisdom might be learned about this from the East than from the ‘Christian’ West – ‘[I]t sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in their “heathenism” than in the whole of our Reich Church’, he wrote to his grandmother in 1934 (L 152). To Erwin Sutz, a Swiss friend, he wrote about the same time of the need for ‘the coming of resistance “to the point of shedding blood” for the finding of people who can suffer it through. Simply suffering is what it will be about . . .’ (L 135). Again to Sutz, as to his brother Karl-Friedrich, he was writing of the need for a ‘new monasticism’ in which the Sermon on the Mount could be lived out, especially for the training of the clergy in the new context where the universities had now been discredited. Given his longstanding interest in the practice as well as theory of community, the prospect of leading a seminary clearly offered him opportunity for experiment. But he was anxious to learn from others’ experiences. He had already visited Methodist and Baptist colleges in the London area, and George Bell made introductions for him to visit several Anglican religious houses and theological colleges. Before leaving for Germany in April 1935, therefore, he and his friend Julius Rieger made a tour and visited the Cowley Fathers in Oxford, the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham and the Community of the Resurrection in Mirfield, Yorkshire. Mirfield’s daily routine of prayer especially impressed him.

Costly discipleship versus cheap grace

The site eventually settled on for the illegal seminary was at Finkenwalde, a small village on the Baltic coast near Stettin (present-day Polish Szczecin). A former school served as seminary buildings. Conditions were primitive, and the routine set up by Bonhoeffer was rigorous. The first group of 23 students who arrived in the summer of 1935 soon found that as well as academic and practical theology lectures there were lengthy morning and evening prayer services and, moreover, periods of silent biblical meditation. Presently an even more surprising element was introduced in the form of mutual confession, each ‘brother’ being free to choose his own confessor. Before long rumours were circulating in the Confessing Church about the ‘catholic’ practices at Finkenwalde. Not all students welcomed the discipline, but for most it proved to be a strengthening exercise that was to prove its worth in the trials ahead. Nor was it all work and no play. There was relaxation – swimming, ball games on the beach, sunbathing on the dunes, impromptu sessions of music-making, birthday parties and the like. Bonhoeffer, scarcely older than many of the students, surprised them by his own athleticism as well as his intellectual mastery. One student who arrived that summer, a little later than the others, was Eberhard Bethge, a country pastor’s son from rural Saxony. Unlike many of the first group who were sophisticated Berliners and had already known Bonhoeffer as university teacher, Bethge at first felt rather out of place. He was surprised when Bonhoeffer paid him high compliments on his first sermon, and even more so when Bonhoeffer – who was always to be known as ‘Brother Bonhoeffer’ not ‘Herr Direktor’ – asked him to be his own confessor. The friendship that developed was to be the closest of Bonhoeffer’s adult life. In due course the communal life at Finkenwalde was consolidated with the establishment of a ‘House of Brethren’ adjoining the seminary, a community of ordained men who among other things could serve Confessing Church congregations where the pastor was imprisoned or ill, or in other emergencies.

The years 1935–7 were extremely fraught, increasing pressure being brought upon the Confessing Church pastors and students to conform and submit to legalization by the Reich Church committees. While several of Bonhoeffer’s students opted for this way in the end, others had to face ostracism or imprison- ment. Bonhoeffer and his loyal circle were dubbed fanatics for their insistence that only the Confessing Church could be recognized as the Church of Jesus Christ in Germany. Bonhoeffer also fought for that recognition by the ecumenical movement – more successfully with Life and Work than with the more doctrinally oriented Faith and Order movement. The leadership of the Confessing Church was itself uncertain and divided over such issues as an oath of allegiance to Hitler required of pastors. Yet this was also the context in which Bonhoeffer gave the lectures that led to two of his most famous books, Discipleship and Life Together. The former, an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, the gospel teachings on discipleship and the Pauline writings on the Church, castigates ‘cheap grace’, Christianity without the cross, a misuse of the Lutheran doctrine of justification ‘by faith alone’ to mean a Christianity without the element of concrete obedience to Christ. The cross, says Bonhoeffer, in some form is laid on every Christian: ‘The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead it stands at the beginning of communion with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death’ (D 87). Discipleship was written as both diagnosis and drastic therapy for the malaise of an easy-going Protestantism that had handed the key to Hitler. Life Together, a much shorter and at first sight simpler book, addresses the nature of Christian community both practically and theologically.

Finkenwalde was closed by the Gestapo in 1937. Ordination training continued in a clandestine way in the remoter regions of Eastern Pomerania, in the form of ‘collective pastorates’ whereby students were attached to country parishes and periodically brought together for more formal classes. But police surveillance was a constant concern. In early 1938 Bonhoeffer was banned from staying in Berlin. Other pressures were mounting. Bonhoeffer’s twin sister Sabine had married Gerhard Leibholz, a professor of law at Göttingen who was a baptized Christian of Jewish parentage and thus classed as ‘non-Aryan’. Leibholz’s teaching position was under severe threat and in September 1938 Bonhoeffer assisted the family’s covert emigration to Switzerland and their reception in England, where they settled until after the Second World War.

Then, on 9 November 1938, Kristallnacht, when in many parts of Germany Jews were terrorized en masse by Nazi gangs, some murdered and thousands arrested, property was destroyed and synagogues were burnt. Bonhoeffer was away in the back-woods of Pomerania at the time and did not learn what had happened until several days later. His anger was matched by his despair at the failure of even the Confessing Church leadership to voice a protest. In his Bible he underlined the line in Psalm 74.8, ‘they burned all the meeting-places of God in the land’, marking it with the date ‘9.11.38’, and placed an exclamation mark against the next verse: ‘there is no longer any prophet’. It was around this time, too, that he was learning of the existence of a political resistance, through Hans von Dohnanyi, husband of his sister Christine. Dohnanyi worked in the Ministry of Justice and, as a ‘mole’ within the Nazi establishment, was in contact with the growing number of high-ranking military figures already considering a putsch. But one pressure in particular was weighing on Bonhoeffer, namely the likelihood of military call-up for his age group. He could not in all conscience see himself in uniform on behalf of Hitler, but neither could he envisage making a lone protest against conscription that could implicate the whole of the Confessing Church in a stance that it did not share. Should he therefore leave Germany, for the time being at any rate? He shared this dilemma with George Bell in April 1939 while visiting England in order to strengthen the ecumenical contacts of the Confessing Church. These would be so important during the war that seemed now so imminent as well as inevitable. Reinhold Niebuhr was also in Britain at the time, and not longer after it was his good offices that seemed to provide the answer to Bonhoeffer’s predicament: an invitation to visit the USA again to lecture and to serve as pastor to German refugees.

Bonhoeffer left Germany for New York early in June. Almost as soon as he arrived he felt that the land of the free was the wrong place for him to be, despite the warm welcome he received from American friends old and new. After several days of homesickness and agonizing he made his decision to return, stating his reasons to Niebuhr:

I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people . . . Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security.

Resistance and imprisonment

Bonhoeffer was back home at the end of July. Little more than a month later Germany was at war. For much of the first year of war the clandestine ordination courses continued in Eastern Pomerania, until even these were closed down by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in public and had to report regularly to the police. Not that he was now in forced inactivity, for the Confessing Church seconded him for ‘theological work’, which meant in effect the book he had so long wanted to write, Ethics. Meanwhile, in the summer of 1940 another course opened up, that of active involvement in the political resistance of which he had been aware for at least two years through Hans von Dohnanyi. There were in fact several ‘resistance’ circles and movements of opposition to the regime. The one that was to culminate in the July Plot of 1944 involved both the army and highly placed civilians, and the co-ordination between the two wings took place largely in Dohnanyi’s office in the Ministry of Justice. On the military side the centre was in the Abwehr, the counter-intelligence agency directed by Admiral Walter-Wilhelm Canaris. The official and ostensible function of the Abwehr was to gather intelligence about the political scene abroad and among Germany’s enemies in particular. Under Canaris, however, it was secretly aiming to make contacts with those abroad who might support an overthrow of Hitler. In the summer of 1940 Hans von Dohnanyi had serious discussions with Bonhoeffer about the possibility of his being taken on by the Abwehr as one of its agents. The fact of his having many ecumenical contacts abroad would serve well as an official justification for his service (intelligence services had after all to use people of many different backgrounds and even dubious political credentials), but more to the point it would serve the even more clandestine task of communicating information about the resistance to circles abroad who could be vital to its success.

Bonhoeffer agreed despite all the moral risks involved in conspiracy, even one that would eventually require an attempt at the assassination of Hitler. At the same time, being taken on as an official agent of the Abwehr would for a while at least provide exemption from the military call-up, the threat of which loomed continually. So Bonhoeffer was taken on as an unpaid agent, attached to the Abwehr Munich office. Other members of the Bonhoeffer family circle who became involved in the conspiracy were his brother Klaus, and brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher, husband of his sister Ursula.

Bonhoeffer from now on was living the shadowy life of a double agent, outwardly a loyal German serving his country, inwardly working against its leadership for the sake of its eventual reconstruction. All the time, meanwhile, he was writing his Ethics (for some of the time in the seclusion of the Benedictine monastery at Ettal in Bavaria), wrestling with the issues of what constitutes responsibility, how one cannot at times avoid guilt in responsible action, and what it means to ‘tell the truth’, all in a context where the traditional rules and guidelines had become useless. It was also at one level a lonely life, since even within the Confessing Church only his closest intimates, notably Eberhard Bethge, knew what he was actually involved in. It was the family circle, itself so bound up with the conspiracy, that now became the most significant ‘community’ for him. An additional element, however, entered during these war years. An earlier relationship with a fellow Berlin student, Elisabeth Zinn, had not survived the demands of the Church Struggle in the Finkenwalde period, during which Bonhoeffer himself was counselling his students that now was not the time to think of marriage. Ironically, it was during these even more perilous war years that he now fell in love with Maria von Wedemeyer, almost half his age and whose confirmation class he had conducted. She was the granddaughter of Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, an aristocratic widow who had been a firm friend of the Finkenwalde seminary and who, after its closure, continued to entertain Bonhoeffer and his colleagues on her family estate at Klein-Krössin in Pomerania. The couple’s engagement was not made public until after Bonhoeffer’s arrest in 1943.

In October 1941 the first mass deportations of Jews eastward from Berlin took place. Hans von Dohnanyi enlisted Bonhoeffer in an Abwehr operation, code-named Operation 7, that enabled a number of Jews, ostensibly recruited as Abwehr agents, to travel to Switzerland with the officially stated purpose of gaining intelligence about enemy thinking and planning, but in fact in order to escape from Germany for good. Bonhoeffer put at their disposal his ecumenical contacts in the neutral country to facilitate their reception. But most of Bonhoeffer’s work within theAbwehr involved his own travels. In all he made six foreign trips during 1941–2, to Norway, Switzerland, Italy and Sweden. The three visits to Switzerland were particularly impor- tant in sharing and receiving information in the secretariat of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, and it was during his third such visit in May 1942 that he learned that Bishop George Bell was at that moment in neutral Sweden. Hastening back to Berlin he obtained a special Abwehr travel permit and was able to find Bell at Sigtuna just outside Stockholm. Bonhoeffer briefed Bell in detail on the resistance, the plans for an overthrow of the regime and the installation of a new, non-Nazi government. The leaders of the resistance were anxious to know if Britain and the other allies would negotiate with such a government. On his return to London Bell met with Anthony Eden, the British foreign secretary, with this information and the question. But no positive answer came and the resistance had to continue in the dark.

Bonhoeffer was arrested at his parents’ home in Berlin on 5 April 1943. He was placed in the Tegel military prison under suspicion of using his Abwehr service as a pretext for evading conscription, and there were questions also about Operation 7. The prison experience was undoubtedly a severe psycho- logical trial for Bonhoeffer though not, for the first year or so, a particularly dangerous one (apart from the intensive RAF bombing of Berlin at the end of 1943). He was able to receive visits from his family, friends and fiancée, receive gifts of food, clothes and books, and to write a certain number of letters. He was anxious for the legal case against him to be resolved, but the investigations proved tediously long and were indefinitely delayed when his papers were lost in the air raids. Secret messages about his and other family members’ interrogations (Hans von Dohnanyi had also been arrested) were exchanged using a system of minute dots pencilled under letters in books sent in and returned. He established a routine of reading and writing as well as maintaining his discipline of Bible reading, meditation and prayer, and he became something of a hero among fellow-prisoners and warders alike for his calmness even during the worst air raids and his readiness to help those injured and troubled in any way. The secret correspondence with Eberhard Bethge, smuggled out by a sympathetic warder, began in the autumn of 1943. As well as letters there were attempts at writing novels, a play and, in a new and remarkable venture for Bonhoeffer, a number of poems.

The ‘radical’ themes in the letters to Bethge appear from the end of April 1944. Bethge had enlisted in the army after Bonhoeffer’s arrest (uniform being the best camouflage for opponents of the regime), and by now was serving in Italy. He had also married Bonhoeffer’s niece Renate Schleicher, and their son, named Dietrich after his great uncle, was born in February 1944. For his baptism in May 1944 Bonhoeffer sent from prison a sermon that, as well as containing many appropriate family references, is also a vehicle for some of his new ideas on the future of the Church and should therefore be considered as belonging to his radical writings.

‘The end, for me the beginning’

The failed attempt of the bomb plot against Hitler on 20 July 1944 drastically increased the danger for Bonhoeffer and anyone else already under suspicion. In late September the Gestapo found files in the Abwehr bunker at Zossen, just outside Berlin, that directly implicated Dohnanyi and his circle. A plan for Bonhoeffer to escape from Tegel was hatched but abandoned for fear of reprisals against the family. Shortly afterwards he was transferred to the Gestapo cellars in the centre of Berlin. His interrogations were verbally repellent though apparently without the use of physical torture, and it was from there that he wrote the new-year poem for Maria von Wedemeyer, ‘By gracious powers, so wonderfully protected’, which has found its way into many hymnbooks. Early in 1945 he was transferred south to Buchenwald concentration camp. Just after Easter, the US army closing in from the west, he was transported with other prisoners into Bavaria. Two British officers in the party, Hugh Falconer and Payne Best, later wrote vivid recollections of ‘Pastor Bonhoeffer’, his faith, serenity, cheerfulness and kindliness: ‘He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him’, said Best.3 In a schoolroom in the village of Schönberg, on the morning of Low Sunday, Bonhoeffer conducted a short service for the prisoners. As it was ending, two Gestapo in plain clothes came in and demanded Bonhoeffer go with them. He had time to tell Best, ‘This is the end, for me the beginning’, and asked him to convey greetings and brotherly solidarity to George Bell if ever he had the chance to do so.

Bonhoeffer was taken by road to Flossenbürg, the notorious execution camp near the Czech border. There, he and six other remaining conspirators, including Admiral Canaris, each faced a summary SS court martial and the next morning, 9 April, were hanged, probably with prolonged barbarity. By then or soon after, in Berlin, Hans von Dohnanyi, Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher had also died under Hitler’s final revenge.