Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Theologian and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s execution by the Nazis challenged the political conformism of a conventional Christianity and modeled a costly discipleship of active resistance to radical evil. He had encouraged the forming of a Christian community built on a mature sense of personal responsibility and a courageous commitment to social justice. He is considered a martyr for his faith.

Summary of Event

On April 9, 1945, the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenbürg Flossenbürg concentration camp Concentration camps in southeastern Germany. The previous night, a hastily assembled court-martial, probably on direct orders of Adolf Hitler, had convicted Bonhoeffer of treason for his role in the German Resistance. The camp doctor, who witnessed the execution, later marveled at the manner in which Bonhoeffer went to his death “so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Executions;Dietrich Bonhoeffer[Bonhoeffer] Treason;Germany German Resistance Capital punishment [kw]Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis (Apr. 9, 1945) [kw]Nazis, Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the (Apr. 9, 1945) Executions;Dietrich Bonhoeffer[Bonhoeffer] Treason;Germany German Resistance Capital punishment [g]Europe;Apr. 9, 1945: Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis[01450] [g]Germany;Apr. 9, 1945: Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis[01450] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Apr. 9, 1945: Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis[01450] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Apr. 9, 1945: Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis[01450] [c]World War II;Apr. 9, 1945: Bonhoeffer Is Executed by the Nazis[01450] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Canaris, Wilhelm Oster, Hans Dohnanyi, Hans von Hitler, Adolf [p]Hitler, Adolf;Nazism

Bonhoeffer had long been a leading figure in the German opposition to National Socialism. Nazism;German opposition In 1932, in lectures at the University of Berlin and sermons at Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, Bonhoeffer likened the electoral successes of the National Socialists to the history of the pagan destruction of Jerusalem and warned that, unless “the mortal illness of Germany” be “the death of the church,” Christians, too, must recognize when the times call for the “blood of martyrs.” In the months after Hitler came to power in January, 1933, and began to construct the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer tried in vain to block the “coordination” or Nazification of the German Protestant churches. Frustrated in these efforts, Bonhoeffer agreed in early 1935 to become a seminary director for the Confessing Church, which had been formed during 1934 by dissident pastors as an alternative to the new Reich Church. In September, 1937, however, police raids closed Bonhoeffer’s seminary at Finkenwalde near Stettin in eastern Prussia. The previous August his authorization to teach at the University of Berlin had been revoked and, in January, 1938, he was banned entirely from working in the German capital.

These events deprived Bonhoeffer of any public audience and set the stage for the decision that would eventually call him to martyrdom at Flossenbürg. Bonhoeffer belonged to a prominent family with extensive connections with the German elites. It was through these connections—in particular, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, a former Reich supreme court justice who had recently become a special deputy to the Office of Military Counter-Intelligence Office of Military Counter-Intelligence, German[Office of Military Counterintelligence, German] —that Bonhoeffer made contact with leaders of the conservative and military resistance. These leaders included Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Office of Military Counter-Intelligence, or Abwehr; General Hans Oster, head of the Abwehr central office and Canaris’s chief of staff; and General Ludwig Beck, former chief of the army general staff.

In “The Church and the Jewish Question” "Church and the Jewish Question, The" (Bonhoeffer)[Church and the Jewish Question] (April, 1933), Bonhoeffer wrote that the unconditional obligation to aid even non-Christian victims of oppression may require the church “to jam a spoke in the wheel [of state] itself.” Until February, 1938, however, Bonhoeffer had conceived of this obligation in terms of nonviolent resistance. Now he chose to become aware of, and tacitly approve, efforts to overthrow and even assassinate Hitler.

The willingness of many even in the Confessing Church to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler in April, 1938, encouraged this shift in Bonhoeffer’s thinking. So, too, did the Kristallnacht pogrom in November. Bonhoeffer struggled with his decision, however. In March, 1939, he left Germany for London and in June accepted an invitation to go to the United States. Bonhoeffer decided, however, that leaving Germany was a mistake and that “to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life” he must “share the trials of this time.” In July, in a supreme act of moral courage, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany. In August, he became a civilian agent for the Abwehr, and by the spring of 1940, Bonhoeffer had gone a step further in his support for the Resistance. He began to utilize his own extensive ecumenical connections to smuggle Jews out of Germany and to establish contact between the German Resistance and Allied leaders.

Bonhoeffer’s activities eventually aroused Nazi suspicions. On April 5, 1943, he was arrested and imprisoned in Berlin’s Tegel prison. In repeated interrogations over the next fifteen months, Bonhoeffer skillfully covered up the role of the Abwehr in the resistance. Nazi investigations of the resistance acquired a new urgency, however, after July 20, 1944, when Claus von Stauffenberg Stauffenberg, Claus von nearly succeeded in assassinating Hitler. In late September, police uncovered the Zossen file. This report on Nazi war crimes that Dohnanyi had compiled to justify a coup now provided evidence incriminating the Abwehr leadership. Together, the July 20 plot and the discovery of the Zossen file transformed Bonhoeffer’s situation. Early in October, he was transferred to the Reich central security office in Berlin. Four months later, he was transferred to the notorious Buchenwald Buchenwald concentration camp concentration camp near Weimar.

By the first days of April, 1945, gunfire from the U.S. army’s advance into central Germany could be heard in Buchenwald. Special prisoners like Bonhoeffer were loaded onto trucks for transport to sites in southern Germany. For a time, it seemed that the confusion of the disintegrating Third Reich might save Bonhoeffer. He was not among the prisoners originally sent to Flossenbürg; instead, he was diverted south to Regensburg and then Schönberg. On April 8, the first Sunday after Easter, officials of the Reich security office caught up with him. That morning, Bonhoeffer had consoled his fellow prisoners with the text of 1 Peter 1:3: “We have been born anew to a living hope.” As he was led away, Bonhoeffer reaffirmed this hope. “This is the end,” he proclaimed, “for me the beginning of life.”

Significance

Dietrich Bonhoeffer played a critical role in the German Resistance, providing not only considerable moral authority but also a valuable line of communication with Allied leaders. The significance of Bonhoeffer’s contribution to the resistance was clear to the Nazis. They hanged him alongside Canaris and Oster.

Bonhoeffer’s experience in the resistance played a critical role in the elaboration of his theology as well. The letters and papers that Bonhoeffer composed during his fifteen months at Tegel prison were sketches of the reconstruction of Christian life of which Bonhoeffer would write in 1939. The traditional church, Bonhoeffer argued, had made institutional authority its priority, and the spiritual dependence it encouraged fed the culture that sustained Nazism. By contrast, Bonhoeffer imagined a new, more open, Christian community of persons with a mature sense of personal responsibility and a commitment to social justice—what he called a nonreligious Christianity for a world come of age.

Bonhoeffer’s last major work, the unfinished Ethik Ethics (Bonhoeffer) (1949; Ethics, 1955), which Bonhoeffer drafted during the years of his participation in the resistance, made the Christological question—what would Jesus do?—the center of a reconstructed Christianity. This question, in turn, lay behind a distinction that Bonhoeffer made at the moment when he chose to enter the political realm. Cheap grace, Bonhoeffer had written in Nachfolge Cost of Discipleship, The (Bonhoeffer) (1937; The Cost of Discipleship, 1948), took the promise of redemption in the Christian scriptures as cause for self-satisfaction. Costly grace followed Christ’s example of serving others even to point of self-sacrifice. Living out this understanding of costly grace, Bonhoeffer provided an example that motivated generations of postwar Christians to challenge racial segregation in the United States, apartheid in South Africa, social injustice in South America, and the imposition of Soviet communism in eastern Europe. Executions;Dietrich Bonhoeffer[Bonhoeffer] Treason;Germany German Resistance Capital punishment

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Best, S. Payne. The Venlo Incident. London: Hutchinson, 1950. Chapter eight of this memoir by an English prisoner of war offers an eyewitness account of Bonhoeffer’s time in Buchenwald and his last days.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2000. A magisterial survey of Bonhoeffer’s life and work by his closest friend and associate.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1971. A poignant document of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and one of the most influential works of twentieth century Christian theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">De Gruchy, John W., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Leading scholars examine Bonhoeffer’s historical and intellectual contexts and the major themes of his theology.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klemperer, Klemens von. German Resistance Against Hitler: The Search for Allies Abroad, 1938-1945. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A detailed and reliable account of the conservative and military opposition to the Third Reich.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pejsa, Jane. Matriarch of Conspiracy: Ruth von Kleist, 1867-1945. Cleveland, Ohio: Pilgrim Press, 1991. A well-researched popular biography of the Prussian aristocrat Ruth von Kleist. A personal friend of Bonhoeffer and patron of the Finkenwalde seminary, von Kleist was also the grandmother of Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer’s fiancé before his arrest.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schlabrendorff, Fabian von. “In Prison with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” In I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann and Ronald Gregor Smith. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. Another eyewitness account of Bonhoeffer’s final months by one of the few conspirators to assassinate Hitler to survive World War II.

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