Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945)
In an exceptional act in an exceptional time, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran theologian and pastor, joined the conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. The Nazis imprisoned and then executed him shortly before the end of World War II.
During his final months, he developed a daring theological interpretation of his life that his closest friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge, describes as “the relinquishment of a special Christian life and as the acceptance … of an incognito existence.” With this theology, he achieved a breakthrough that reveals “the future normality: ‘being for others’ as sharing in the suffering of Jesus.” His life and work lose their exceptional character and become, as Bethge says, “an example of being Christian today.”1
A statue of Bonhoeffer is one of ten in Westminster Abbey honoring Christian martyrs of the twentieth century. But the greater living tribute lies in the challenging influence of his example beyond Europe, in places as far flung as America, Latin America, South Africa, and Korea—especially among the embattled and those led by Christ to make responsible use of power on their behalf.
Such influence has been unexpected. It could scarcely have been foreseen from the experimental, incomplete nature of Bonhoeffer's late theology and the need to piece it together from the tantalizing fragments that survived the war and his imprisonment. Nor could it have been predicted from his prior life. He was one of eight children of a privileged German family. He was an accomplished pianist, an elegant dancer, and a theologian with the promise of a brilliant career in the academy. He appeared to be far removed from the suffering of outcasts and the dark politics of military conspiracy when he entered upon his academic career in Berlin in 1931 just after a first visit to the United States. Two events intervened to change the person and the career: Bonhoeffer became a practicing believer