On this day in 1945, Lutheran pastor, theologian and Nazi-resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hanged at Flossenburg, only days before the American liberation of his concentration camp. Bonhoeffer was focused on ecumenism and his view of Christianity’s role in a secular world, and his involvement in a plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler led to his imprisonment and execution.
Bonhoeffer grew up amid the academic circles of the University of Berlin, where his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, was a professor of psychiatry and neurology; the elder Bonhoeffer was one of the most prominent psychiatrists to oppose the T4 (euthanasia) Program initiated by Hitler in 1939. Dietrich himself studied theology at the universities of Tübingen and Berlin. At Berlin he was influenced by the historical theologians Adolf von Harnack, Reinhold Seeberg, and Karl Holl but also was strongly attracted to the new “theology of revelation” propounded elsewhere by Karl Barth. He was also enthralled by transcendental philosophy and ontology, as well as Kantian and post-Kantian theories of knowledge.
After serving in 1928-29 as a pastor of a German-speaking congregation in Barcelona, Bonhoeffer spent a year as an exchange student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. On his return to Germany in 1931, he became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin. Soon enough, with the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became involved in protests against the regime, especially its anti-Semitism. Bonhoeffer continued professing his philosophies and faith, and in 1935 was appointed to organize and head a new seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwalde (Pomerania), which continued in disguised form until 1940.
In 1939 Bonhoeffer had considered taking refuge in the United States but returned after only two weeks in New York City, writing to his sponsor, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, that “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.” Approximate to this time, Bonhoeffer responded personally by helping Jews flee to neutral Switzerland.
Despite the tightening restrictions imposed on him, Bonhoeffer was able to continue his work for the resistance movement under cover of employment in Germany’s Military Intelligence Department, which in fact was a center of the resistance. In May 1942 he flew to Sweden to convey to the British government, the conspirators’ proposals for a negotiated peace; these hopes were thwarted, however, by the Allies’ “unconditional surrender” policy. Bonhoeffer was soon arrested on April 5, 1943, and imprisoned in Berlin. Following the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, the discovery of documents linking Bonhoeffer directly with the conspiracy led to his further interrogation and eventual execution.
At the penultimate moment, the last words of the brilliant and courageous 39-year-old opponent of Nazism were “This is the end–for me, the beginning of life.”