Chapter 7: The Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Biji C. Markos

Martyrs in the History of Christianity
by Franklyn J. Balasundaram (ed.)

Chapter 7: The Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Biji C. Markos


We must not be surprised if once again times return for our church when the blood of martyrs will be required. But even if we have the courage and faith to spill it this blood will not be as innocent or as clear as that of the first martyrs. Much of our own guilt will lie in our blood. The guilt of the useless servant who is thrown into the darkness. (Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer: Exile and Martyr, London: Collins St. James Place, 1975, p. 155.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer uttered these words in a sermon in the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church in Berlin on June 15, 1932. Today he is incontestably called a martyr theologian. His death was the ultimate witness to a life of faith. (Georges Casales "Theology under the sign of martyrdom: Dietrich Bonhoeffer", Concilium 163, March 1983, T & T Clark, p. 8.) Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, a theologian and a great realist. He appeared as one who steadfastly opposed Nazi inhumanity and who offered a possibility of moving in the direction of Christian humanism inspired by the vision of Jesus as "the man for others" (D.H. Hopper, A Dissent on Bonhoeffer, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975, p. 17.) Today he is at the focal point of all important theological issues. His valued contributions in the fields of religion, church, community, anthropology like ‘cheap grace’, ‘world come of age’. ‘religionless Christianity’ and ‘man for others’ stand out in the theological realm. His contributions in the field of ecumenism also are remarkable. He still exercises a considerable influence in the contemporary protestant theology. Finally, he was truly committed to the cause for which he stood and fought unto death.

His Life and Martyrdom

Dietrich Bonhoeffer along with a twin sister was born in Breslau on Feb. 4, 1906 as one of the 8 children of Karl Ludwig and Paula Bonhoeffer. His father was a university professor and a scholar on psychiatry and neurology. Lutheran in background, Bonhoeffer was a member of the Prussian church in which Lutheran and Reformed elements had interfused during 19th century. He inherited self control, ability and nobility from his father and sound human understanding, compassion, empathy, concern for the oppressed and consistent will power for the cause of the marginalized from his mother. In 1921 the family moved to Berlin to live m the residential districts of Grunewald. "He loved the mountains, the flowers, the animals, the greatest and simplest things of life. His geniality and inborn chivalry, his love of music, art and literature, and firmness of his character, the personal charm and openness to listen to others made him friends everywhere. He was always ready to take any risk." (Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, U.S. Macmillan, 1969 [revised edition], p.9.)

To the astonishment of his family, he took the decision to study theology at the age of 14. His father was of opinion that traditional ministry was an out of date and redundant profession though he had to change his view later. (Eberhard Bethge, op. cit. "Bonhoeffer Exile…", p. 43.) When he was 17, he entered Tubingen university and sat at the feet of Adolf Von Harnak, R. Seeberg, Lietzmann and others. In 1927, when only 21 years old, he completed his doctoral dissertation entitled "Santorum Communio", which was a perspective theological enquiry into the Sociology of the church. By 1930 after his one year internship, his second dissertation "Act and Being" won him the privilege of lecturing in the field of systematic theology at the university of Berlin. (Ibid.) Before beginning the task, he took advantage of an opportunity to spend the 1930-31 academic year in the U.S. at the Union Theological Seminary.

In Berlin he was also a chaplain to student leaders of a confirmation class for slum boys and Secretary of the Youth commission of the World Alliance for International Friendship through the churches and of the universal Christian Council for Life and Work. In 1932 he experienced a conversion. Often when he preached the gospel, he had the impression of discovering it anew. He realized the demands of an authentic Christian life. Christianity is not only to be thought about but also to be lived. (Bruno Chenu, The Book of Christian Martyrs, London: SCM Press, 1990, p. 179.)

During 1930s events came to a head in Germany. On February 1 Bonhoeffer took a stand against Hitler in an address which was broadcast by Berlin Radio and was cut off. In it, he criticized the people’s aspiration to find a ‘Fuehrer’ i.e., a leader. There was a risk that this Fuehrer would turn to be a Verfuehrer -- a misleader, an idol Bonhoeffer had chosen to be on the side of the opposition and he took part in all struggles of the confessing church at Finkenwalde. (Ibid., p. 180) And, he was noted for his activities.

His book Creation and Fall was published in 1933. He left Berlin in October 1933 for London and ministered to the congregations there and tried to explain the true character of German church struggle against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. In 1935 the leaders of the Confessing Church who took a firm stand against the Nazi influenced Reich church asked him to return to Germany for establishing a seminary for their ministerial candidates. This seminary was first closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, but managed to continue on a makeshift basis until its final disruption in 1940. He published two of his important books, The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Life Together (1939) during this time.

With the outbreak of war, he took on clandestine political responsibilities. "Treason had become the true love of country and the new love of the country (as exhibited by Hitler) had become treason". (Ibid.) His friends abroad forced him to leave the country to save his life. He did not like to serve in the army in an aggressive war. In June 1939 his close friends got him out of the country. But he felt that it was not right for him to stay out of his own country. His heart was throbbing for the oppressed and persecuted fellow Christians in Germany. He was not willing to take his choice in security. He never regretted his decision, not even in prison, from where he wrote:

I am sure of God’s hand and guidance .... You must never doubt that I am thankful and glad to go the way which I’m being led. My past life is abundantly full of God’s mercy and above all sin stands the forgiving love of the crucified. (Bonhoeffer, op.cit. Cost of, p. 13.)

On the 17th of March 1940. the Seminary for preachers was finally and definitely forbidden by the Gestapo. On 9th September, Bonhoeffer was forbidden to publish or speak in Germany. 25 young pastors were killed at the front. On 5th April 1943 he was arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion that he was involved in the attempt on the life of Hitler at Smolensk. On 23 July he was indicted on the charge of subversion by the armed forces. (Andre Dumas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality,. London: SCM Press. 1971, p. 67.)

He spent 18 months in prison, till 8th October 1944. This is where he wrote his famous Letters from Prison. In them, he dealt with great themes which were to bring him theological fame: ‘The world came of age’, ‘non-religious Christianity’ and ‘God as weak and powerless in the world’. (Bruno Chenu, op.cit., p. 81.) Later he was transferred to the Gestapo prisons at Berlin and Buchenwald. He was finally taken to the concentration camp at Flossenburg, and was hanged on the morning of 9 April 1945.

The only account of his death has been given by the prison doctor who wrote that after the sentence had been read out to Bonhoeffer and those to be hanged with him, he saw pastor Bonhoeffer before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. "I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed. So devout and so certain that God heard his prayer". He added.

At the place of execution he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps of the gallows, brave and composed ... In the almost 50 years that I worked as a doctor I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God. (G.B. Kelly, Liberating Faith,, Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1984, p. 31.)

The day before, it seems, Bonhoeffer had confided: "This is the end for me, the beginning of life".

His Context and Concepts

For a better understanding of the worth of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom we need to have a glance at the Germany of his time and his concepts. On Jan 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was installed as Chancellor of the Third German Reich. The Jews were severely accused for the degraded and chaotic situation in Germany Hitler introduced "Aryan clause" which demanded liquidation of all Jews from Germany. When the war broke out, Bonhoeffer decided to involve himself and returned from America immediately. He wanted to participate fully in the national struggle as a dedicated son of the German soil in protesting against Hitler’s policies and oppression.

During Hitler’s reign the Church was divided. He wanted to interfere in the affairs of the Church and influence the leaders. Bonhoeffer was deeply related to the whole German liberal tradition. The great liberal atmosphere gave young Bonhoeffer freedom of life. He was also influenced by Karl Barth. He and his confessing Church well used the opportunity of Berlin Olympics to inform the maximum number of people about the situation of the Church in Germany. He was the first one to denounce on the radio the fatal consequences of the cult of the Fuehrer. He was also the first to take a stand against the anti-Semitic laws from April 1933 to 3 April. (Casailis Casdes, op. cit., Concilium, p.33.)

In 1933’s Church elections Hitler tried to pack the German Church with the Nazi followers. The resistance of German pastors reached its climax in the two synods of Barman and Dablem in 1934 to the membership of the Ecumenical Christian Council in Denmark marks the beginning of his career in the ecumenical circles. "Bonhoeffer was a liaison between the resistance movement and the free world, particularly Britain. Those in the Abwehr, the German military, and intelligence service, went forward in their plan to eliminate Hitler." (Roark Dallas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Texas 76703, Word incorporated, Waco, 1973, p. 22.) He cooperated with them without ever losing the sense of his specific Christian identity. Rather it was because he was profoundly and totally mated in Christ who identified fully with him, that he could himself effect the same renunciation, join in total solidarity with others in their distress, without losing what is the very heart of the existence of the disciple following the steps of and in imitation of his master. (Georges Casales, op.cit. p. 33.) He criticized the metaphysical aspects of religion and introduced a "secular God who is against all religions". Thus, the political ecclesiastical and theological aspects of the time greatly influenced the life and thought of Bonhoeffer.

His Significance for Today: Some reflections

The significance of Bonhoeffer and his concepts are much debated even today. Bonhoeffer’s ideas evident in his life, his participation in the political resistance and Church struggles, his prison life, his theology especially his christology, ecclesiology and his understanding of the world as such are reactions to peculiar situations. It is these reactions that made him significant. He deserves to be enrolled among the greater adventurers of faith. From the beginning itself he set his face against the tyranny in Germany. He was the first to raise his voice against the monstrous persecution of the Jews when they were forbidden to hold public office or to enter in the ministry of the Church. (Roark Dallas. op.cit., Dietrich... p. 123.) Unlike other theologians of his Church, he did not do it against the prohibition placed on Judeo-Christians to remain members of the Christian community, but against the marginalization and degradation of the Jewish minority within the national community. (George Casales, op.cit., Concilium. p. 33.)

Protestantism does not have its roll of saints. But Bonhoeffer deserves to be enrolled in the memory as a hero of faith. "Awareness of the price of Jesus, prophetic reading of the contemporary corresponding in daily practice to the least details of theological conviction, such are the characteristics of the given life of Bonhoeffer... he was one of those saints whose whole existence consists of communicating around them the overflowing of eternal life already manifested in them today." (George Casales, op.cit., p .83.) Other great theologians of his time -- Karl Barth, Emil Brunner and Rudolf Bultmann are interesting for their theologies. But Bonhoeffer was a rare soul who had many interests, a rare being who came to grips with theology and the kind of person who would die for his convictions.

Bonhoeffer recalls the Church to discipleship. He defines the Church as Christ "existing as a commentary" and he understood it to be "a community and fellowship of faithful persons who live according to the principle of vicarious actions, i.e., an active "being for one another". Bonhoeffer says that the Church will be true when it stands for the humanity. He is concerned about the recovery of the Church by its true being and the message it has to proclaim to the world today.. (Godsey John, op.cit., "preface" p. 17.)

The most important thing regarding Bonhoeffer is that his life gave power to his words. William Hamilton says: "Bonhoeffer is forcing us to shift our center of attention from theology to apologetics, criticism of culture, the problem of communication, and even from hermeneutics to shape and qualify our lives." (Lockley Harold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Thinker and Man of Action,, The Church quarterly, p. 292.) Hamilton suggests the intimate connection between Bonhoeffer’s life and thought. Bonhoeffer lived his theology. It is a truth that the respect paid to Bonhoeffer’s words is due to the overall witness of his life.

Finally he represents the shift in the emphasis of martyrdom over the centuries. Formerly martyrdom was the result of bearing testimony to the name of Jesus Christ in a hostile world. But Bonhoeffer projects a martyrdom that is the result of bearing testimony on behalf of a threatened humanity. Martyrdom which is a sacrifice for the sake of humanity. It is not for the sake of an idea or idol but for the sake of a justified humanity. (Eberhard Bethge, op.cit., Bonhoeffer, p. 162.)

He joined the conspiracy because he felt that "It is not only my task to look after the victims of madmen who drive a motorcar in a crowded street, but to do all in my power to stop their driving at all". (D. Bonhoeffer, op.cit., Cost of Discipleship, p. 22.) The martyrdom of Bonhoeffer and others who died like him came to pass in the twilight of political conspiracy and with the shifting feeling that their effort had come too late. Certainly it did not lead to a public confession in the market place or the coliseum nor any obviously heroic notion. Everything took place in the silent incognito of concentration camps and dark cellars. (Eberhard Bethge, op cit., p. 163.)

Bonhoeffer is not the holy heroic martyr but one who is a dishonored witness on behalf of humanity. He does not distance himself from the world as an example of purity, but stays and shares with those who are involved in the hopes and wrong doings of this world.

Today’s martyrs like Bonhoeffer need to be honored for the sake of their new life. And new life in Christ’s name as they have shown is possible today in new humanity, interpreting Christ’s presence as a crying out and acting on behalf of the humanity of men and women. Their death reminds the Church that the resurrected Lord in agony, is in the world and lives for it. It is for the Christian community to receive the testimony of blood and to give glory because it is living, surrounded by such a great host of witnesses. (George Casales, op.cit., in Concilium, p. 83.)



Dumas, Andre Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian of Reality, London, SCM Press, 1971.

Chenu, Bruno The Book of Christian Martyrs. London: SCM Press, 1990

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich The Cost of Discipleship, U.S. Macmillan, 1969.

Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer Exile and Martyr, London: Collins St. James Place, 1975.

Casales George, "Theology under the sign of martyrdom Dietrich Bonhoeffer" in Concilium 163 Edinburgh: March 1983, T&T Clark.

Godfrey John O, Preface to Bonhoeffer, Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1960.

Hopper D.H., A dissent on Bonhoeffer, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975.

Kelley G.B., Liberating Faith, Minneapolis: Augsbuxg Pub. House, 1984.

Lockley Harold, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "Thinker and man of action", The Church Quarterly Vol.2 (April 1970) London: SPCK, Epworth Press.

Roark Dallas M., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Texas: Word Incorporated Waco, 1972.