Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Message of a Life

by Albrecht Schoenherr

Dr. Schoenherr is bishop emeritus of the Regional Church of Berlin-Brandenburg in the German Democratic Republic.

This article was written for the 40th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945. It was translated by Barbara G. Green, public-policy coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program. This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 27, 1985, pp. 1090-1094. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Christ is the person for others. And his divinity lies precisely in that, and not in the glory of total power.

People my age have recently been encountering this question: How did you experience May 8, 1945 (the day the war ended in Europe)? The question is not about our health that day, or whether we were on the front or already prisoners of war. The question is whether we experienced that day as a liberation or as a catastrophe.

For me, May 8, 1945, was not especially dramatic. I was a prisoner of war in a field hospital in Italy, where capitulation had taken place a week before. My feeling was one of relief: finally there would be an end to the senseless murdering, the terror and the lying. The possibility of going home was in sight; there was a chance for a new beginning.

Only gradually did I begin to sort out what happened. I wondered in what ways and how much I had complied with that terrible business which ended on that day in May. I was not a Nazi. I gave the Nazis a little bit of resistance in the Confessing Church. I had heard nothing of Auschwitz, though I did, indeed, know of the terrible conditions in the concentration camps. Yet it became clearer to me that I had not achieved any kind of moral victory. My conscience was not clear. I knew that when God asks me, "Where is your Jewish, your communist, your Polish, your Soviet, your Dutch brother Abel?" I would have nothing to say.

So I agreed with the confession of guilt that representatives of the Evangelical Church in Germany formulated in Stuttgart in September 1945. I especially agreed with the sentence: "Through us, infinite suffering was brought over many peoples and countries." I tried then to make this fact clear to my fellow prisoners of war. But even today not everyone has accepted this confession of guilt.

The past must be "dealt with" -- as much as it is ever possible to do so. We must make clear to ourselves what happened, what share we had in it, how we are responsible for that before God and what we must, therefore, do differently in the future; Without such work there is no future, no new beginning. Without such work we will encounter again and again the same temptations, perhaps with different names.

That I could respond to the past in this way is something I owe to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Without his influence, I do not know what would have become of me. I met Bonhoeffer for the first time in 1932, when he was an instructor in Berlin and I was in my sixth semester of university studies. His thoughts and especially his attitudes have accompanied me ever since in my training of young pastors and my work in the leadership of the church. I regard it as one of my chief responsibilities to pass on to others what I learned from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I am convinced that he can still be of help to many.

Bonhoeffer came from a professor’s family; his father was a well-known psychiatrist. Thus, Bonhoeffer belonged to the upper-middle class. In such circles, it "didn’t do" to study theology. Bonhoeffer, who was very close to his family, defended his theological work to his brother Karl-Friedrich, a natural scientist and agnostic, in this way: "There are things for which an uncompromising stand is worthwhile. And it seems to me that peace and social justice, or Christ himself, are such things" (quoted in Bethge, p. 155). With the Words "peace and justice" he hoped to make himself understandable to his brother, a social democrat. But then came these words -- "or Christ himself." It is notable that he could see all this together: the political, the ethical and the religious. For him, Christ stood behind the longing for peace and justice.

The Christ Bonhoeffer talks about is not the Christ of the idealists, who transmits the meaning of life or a harmonious world view. It is not the Christ of the individualists, who guarantees strength for life, happiness and eternal salvation. Bonhoeffer means the biblical Christ who is faithful to the earth, who lives among people and brings them together. He brings salvation and healing from suffering and death, liberation from guilt and sin, liberation from the forces which are destroying the earth, among which war and injustice are the most terrible. Uncompromisingly to advocate this Christ is the motive that drove Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Life for him consisted not of different compartments, but of a single reality. This earth could not be considered apart from Christ’s footsteps, which are impressed in it. Christ’s manger stands on the earth, his cross is rammed into the earth, his grave is dug into the earth. Because God became human in Christ, there is only the one reality, which includes God, world and human persons. Bonhoeffer’s thought was not like ours, divided among different realities: employment and family, economy and politics. One does not find in Bonhoeffer any sneaked-in simplicity, in which a part of reality is ignored, or the kind of piety that only lives in and for the life beyond and lets things on this earth go as they will. Nor did he live in the kind of immediacy that knows no genuine obligations and only seeks personal wealth.

From his father, Bonhoeffer received his great capacity for disciplined thought and speech. His mother was full of undemanding, understanding love. His family instilled in him a certain upper-middle-class reserve. He was not at all fond of camaraderie, and before he worked in the preachers’ seminary he had only one really close friend outside of his family. This reserve, however, sprang not from arrogance but from tact and consideration. He was always afraid of binding people to himself. When there was genuine need, he never spared himself. He was, for example, one of the very few people who in April 1933, after the first Jewish pogroms, publicly intervened on behalf of Jews. At the time, most people thought the measures against the Jews were merely "childhood diseases" of National Socialism. Even in 1941, when the "final solution" was being implemented, he was able on the strength of his contacts to get Jewish people out of the country.

"Simplicity" would be an apt term for Bonhoeffer’s life, at least in the sense in which the poet Matthias Claudius, whom he greatly loved, used it:

Let us become simple

and be before You here on earth

like children pious and joyous.

This is a simplicity that came from thinking what one believes, wanting what one thinks, doing what one wants. For him the great human burden was indecisiveness. The problem was presaged by the tempting question of the serpent in paradise: "Would God have said . . .? Humans fell for this question. They wanted to know what was good and evil in order to be able to decide what was good and evil. They did not simply accept God’s word and will, but tried to discredit them.

Bonhoeffer’s simplicity was not the kind that relies on ready-made principles. His speech at the ecumenical conference in Fano in 1934 has recently become well known, for in it he rejected all human means of security and called for a Christian council of all churches to reject war. But five years later, after the war had begun, I cannot remember him saying to us, who were his confidants, that we should not become soldiers. He himself joined the military counterintelligence unit, not really to do its work but to keep in contact with the churches in enemy countries. He was not fundamentally a pacifist, and though he was obedient to the peace commandment of the Lord, his concern was not to be faithful to a principle but to answer the concrete question: "How can war be prevented?" And once the war came the pressing question was: "How can the mass murdering and the tyranny, which have started and sustain this war, be stopped?" This was why Bonhoeffer could pray for Germany to be defeated, despite the terrible conditions which a defeat would bring. The most important political, humanistic, ethical and Christian goal for him was getting rid of the tyranny of Hitler. He once explained his participation in the resistance by this analogy: if a drunken driver drives into a crowd, what is the task of the Christian and the church? To run along behind to bury the dead and bind up the wounded? Or isn’t it, if possible, to get the driver out of the driver’s seat?

For Bonhoeffer, faith was a matter not of taking a stance but of being a follower of Christ. His main question was always: Who is and where is Christ for us today? Christ is not under the protection of the church; it does not "take care" of him. He is the Lord of the earth -- but not in triumphing power; rather, as the crucified, the one who suffers by us and with us. Expressed another way: Christ is the person for others. And his divinity lies precisely in that, and not in the glory of total power.

This is the Christ "for whom an uncompromising stand is worthwhile." This Christ is the direction, measure and content of the church. The church’s right to exist comes only from the fact that Christ is in it and works through it.

This is why the highest demands are placed on the church. This is why it was impossible for Bonhoeffer to give even the smallest space in the church to the German Christians who wanted to make the Lord of the church secondary to the laws of the German race, as the National Socialists understood them. This is why he suffered so from the indecisiveness of many Christians, pastors and parishes in a time when Christ expected a confession from everyone. The Confessing Church was for him the church of Jesus Christ in Germany. No one could separate themselves from it without also separating themselves from Christ.

In holding this conviction, he was not concerned about being right in the sense of being orthodox. His concern was for the presence of the crucified, the burden-bearing Christ in and through the church. For if Christ is the person for others, then his people must form the church for others. They must live without privileges, without the power derived or demanded from others. The church for others also includes the church with others. Its relationship to the "others" is not that of knowing everything better, or speaking with others arrogantly from a position of moral superiority. The "others" are partners in its mission. This point is particularly important for us in the German Democratic Republic. When the Federation of Protestant Churches was founded in 1969, the theme "church for others" was mentioned again and again. "Church for others": that is an open church, and it must remain so despite our continuing minority position. When the center is clear, then the boundaries can be open. The church for others must participate in the human life of the community, not as a master, but as a servant.


If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all to discipline your senses and your soul, that your passions and your drives do not lead you astray.

Chaste be your mind and your body, both subject to you, and obedient to seek the goal set before them.

No one learns the secret of freedom, except through discipline.

One hardly dares to use a word like "discipline" anymore. Discipline, however, does not refer to a foul-tempered denial of the finer things in life. Bonhoeffer certainly did not deny himself those. Discipline is a part of the freedom that means responsibility, not free rein, not the claim to do anything one wants and take everything for oneself at others’ expense -- the way we Europeans do. Discipline means putting body and mind into service as instruments of a will which has set for itself the one goal: "to enable Christ to take form within us."

Bonhoeffer once explained the discipline of a common life under the Word of God this way: "The goal is innermost concentration for service to the outside." This goal was the reason that we sought, under Bonhoeffer’s leadership, a common life under the Word of God in the preachers’ seminary in Finkenwalde. It was not an aescetic game -- we did not feel it as a psychological repression -- but training for a life in which one’s powers of body and soul were placed entirely in the service of Christ. It was training for a life of deeds.


To dare and do not what one wills, but what is right,

To not float in what would be possible, but valiantly grasping what is real,

freedom is not in the flight of thoughts, but only in deeds.

Step out of fearful hesitancy into the storm of action, supported only by God’s commandment and your faith, and freedom will receive jubilantly your spirit.

Freedom is not wanting everything possible or having one’s thoughts in the clouds. Freedom is seizing what is possible. It is not right thoughts, good will, conviction or intention which matter; it is deeds. But not just any deeds. "To dare and do not what one wills, but what is right." What is right? Deeds which preserve life and foster justice and peace. Deeds which fit one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite sayings from the Gospel of John: "Whoever does the truth comes to the light" (3:21). Bonhoeffer did not think much of truths that remained only thoughts.

Nor did he think much of theology produced in an ivory tower, away from the concrete needs of the community. This was why he left London, which was ecumenically so rich, to be called to the impoverished seminary in Finkenwalde. This was why he returned to Germany in July 1939 from an American lecture tour which friends had sponsored in order to protect him. Bonhoeffer said: I belong to the brothers and sisters in the Confessing Church in Germany. How could I meet their eyes later, how could they take my words seriously, if I have not shared their fears and oppressions? The issue of credibility played a considerable role in his thought.

Returning to Germany meant being threatened and spied upon. But it meant, above all, making contact with the resistance. The situation had become as bad as he had suggested might be possible in April 1933. The time had come to "grab the wheel by the spokes." It has been reported that in a secret meeting an officer who had access to Hitler urgently and repeatedly asked: ‘‘Shall I shoot . . .?" Bonhoeffer answered: "Shooting doesn’t yet mean anything. A change in the situation must be achieved, a change in the leadership of the state. We must think about what comes after the tyrant is disposed of." This was why resistance was so difficult. Resistance did not mean playing irresponsible games. Acting responsibly meant assuming guilt in freedom. There was no guiltless way out of this situation, Bonhoeffer knew. But he also knew that if we believe the cross, then our guilt is already borne.

When Bonhoeffer was severely reproached for leaving the safety of America, he responded. "I know what I have chosen." This is what he chose:


Wondrous transformation. Your strong active hands

have been bound. Powerless, lonely, you see the end

of your action. Yet you sigh in relief and put your right hand quietly and comforted into a stronger hand, and are content. Only for a moment did you blissfully touch freedom,

Then you gave it back to God, that He might complete it

in glory.

Whoever works for others, to help bear their burdens, will also suffer with them. Whoever receives their task from the hand of God and orients their action to God, will find suffering to be not failure, not the end, but a "transformation" of their task and their action. Suffering is also a deed.

In a letter of February 21, 1944, there is the reference to "resistance and submission" that gave the volume of letters from the Tegel prison its name. (The German title of Letters and Papers from Prison is Resistance and Submission.) "I’ve often wondered here where we are to draw the line between necessary resistance to ‘fate,’ and equally necessary submission" (Letters and Papers from Prison [Macmillan, 1971], p. 217). Don Quixote’s struggle is for him an example of senseless resistance.

I think we must rise to the great demands that are made on us personally, and yet at the same time fulfil the commonplace and necessary tasks of daily life. We must confront fate -- to me the neuter gender of the word "fate" (Schicksal) is significant -- as resolutely as we submit to it at the right time. One can speak of "guidance" only on the other side of that twofold process, with God meeting us no longer as "Thou", but also as "disguised" in the "It"; . . . It is therefore impossible to define the boundary between resistance and submission on abstract principles; but both of them must exist, and both must be practiced. Faith demands this elasticity of behaviour (Letters. p. 217-18).

This passage allows us to understand Bonhoeffer’s almost frightening calmness in prison. It is the calmness of someone who has passed through the struggle between resistance and submission. A person who knew him during his imprisonment in Prinz-Albrecht Street wrote that the threat of torture. He was always friendly to his guards. Once when the bunker in which the "prominent" prisoners were kept was hit directly during a heavy bombing raid, the prisoners began to scream wildly, but Bonhoeffer stood quietly. This was not the calmness of the Greek philosophers. Bonhoeffer knew in whose hand he was held, and therefore he could wait calmly, come what may.


Come now, highest feast on the road to eternal freedom,

Death, lay down the burdensome chains and walls

of our temporal body and our blinded soul,

that we may finally view what we have been unable to see


Freedom, long we sought you in discipline, in deeds, and

in suffering.

Dying, now we recognize you yourself in the face of God.

On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer held a last morning service for his fellow prisoners in Schoenberg, near the primary court at Flossenbürg. There he was hanged in the early morning of April 9.

The camp doctor gave witness that he had seen Bonhoeffer kneeling in fervent prayer just before his execution. To whomever God is "real and ever close," death is, indeed, a "station on the road to freedom," even ‘‘the highest feast," because one who acted responsibly may now step from the twilight of all our actions into the light of God. Anyone who is not gratified with successes and recognition and is not sure of having always taken the right path, longs for the time in which everything will become clear. This is how we should understand Bonhoeffer’s final words to his fellow prisoners: "This is the end -- for me the beginning of life." This is no devaluation of earthly life. Bonhoeffer knew that this life is protected and judged by him who gives life. He longed for the face of God, in which freedom lights up in its final perfection as the freedom of God, a gift in love to us and to the service of His creatures.