Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Unsaintly and Treasonous Theologian

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, a key founding member of the Confessing Church, and a staunch resister of the National Socialist dictatorship. Bonhoeffer was executed on Adolf Hitler’s orders for the crime of high treason in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945. Bonhoeffer has since become one of the most widely read and influential religious thinkers of our time.[1]

      This article examines Bonhoeffer’s career and resistance activities, as well as why Hitler ordered his execution near the end of World War II.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) (photo enhanced)

Early Years

      Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany into a large family of eight children, including his twin sister Sabine. His father was a professor of psychiatry in Berlin where the family lived in a large house in an upper-class neighborhood. Bonhoeffer’s family was the center of his early life. However, the First World War shattered the idyllic environment of the Bonhoeffer family when Walter, one of the children, was killed in battle.[2]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with his mother and siblings.

      Bonhoeffer was a brilliant student. He graduated two years early from high school, completed his doctoral studies in theology at the age of 21, and became a teacher of theology in Berlin. Because he was too young to be ordained into the pastorate, Bonhoeffer served as a curate to a German-speaking church in Barcelona, Spain.[3] 

      Bonhoeffer attended the Union Theological Seminary in New York on scholarship for the academic year 1930-31. It was here that he was introduced to the social gospel, African American spirituals, and pacifism. Bonhoeffer was ordained as a Lutheran pastor upon his return to Germany. He taught at the University of Berlin from 1931 to 1933. Also, he held confirmation classes in a poor section of Berlin, coauthored a new book for his students, and founded a gathering place for unemployed youth and young adults.[4]

      Bonhoeffer bought a cottage in 1932 near Berlin so that students could meet there for religious discourse. As his reputation spread, considerable numbers of people came to hear him preach. From this group emerged people who would later become his allies in the resistance movement.[5]

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1923

Resisting Hitler  

      Bonhoeffer was critical of Adolf Hitler from the very beginning of Hitler’s regime. In an address in 1933, Bonhoeffer defended Weimar’s democratic constitution and civil liberties, and criticized Hitler for using religious rhetoric in his speeches. Bonhoeffer warned Germans that “everyone who misappropriates the eternal law and concedes responsibility to a Superman will in the end be destroyed by him.” Bonhoeffer began speaking of Hitler as the Antichrist.[6]

      When Hitler’s government passed an amendment to the constitution preventing Jews from holding government jobs, Bonhoeffer took a stand against what he regarded as a blatant injustice. Bonhoeffer declared that the church “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community.” Everyone knew that Bonhoeffer was talking about Jews, including Jews who were not baptized Christians. Bonhoeffer further stated that the church might have to take action if the state forces the “exclusion of baptized Jews from our Christian congregations or in the prohibition of our mission to the Jews.”[7]  

      Bonhoeffer also resisted Hitler’s plan to unite the clergy under one national church—the Reichskirche. Bonhoeffer and other dissenters of Hitler’s plan didn’t want to create a schism. Instead, they wanted to form a wing of the church that would put allegiance to God first and reject Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws. More than 6,000 ministers signed a protest letter written by Bonhoeffer and others that formed the Pastors’ Emergency League.[8]

      Frustrated with his inability to rally the clergy against Hitler, Bonhoeffer accepted a post at a German parish in London. Bonhoeffer made secret contact with a powerful member of the House of Lords, Archbishop George Bell, and asked Bell to use his position as a member of Parliament to speak out. Bell wrote a letter to the Times of London, and to numerous religious leaders in other countries, asking them to denounce Hitler’s religious policies. Bonhoeffer returned to Berlin at the urgent request of his bishop. When asked to sign a document pledging to refrain from any speech critical of Hitler’s regime, Bonhoeffer refused to sign it.[9]      

      With meager funds from the Pastors’ Emergency League, Bonhoeffer and a handful of idealistic young students created a seminary in Germany for the new Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer was the leader of the community, and during this time wrote his famous religious text titled The Cost of Discipleship. Bonhoeffer, however, failed in his efforts to have the new Confessing Church adopt a mission statement declaring its opposition to Hitler’s National Socialist regime. He also failed in his efforts to have church leaders in Italy, France and Switzerland intervene in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s seminary was shut down, and he was banned first from preaching, then teaching, and finally any kind of public speaking.[10]  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1932

Conspiracy Begins

      Family members and church leaders arranged for Bonhoeffer to go back to the United States in June 1939. His friends urged him to stay there to avoid having to fight in the German military. Bonhoeffer refused to stay in the United States, however, because he felt “that a Christian must accept his responsibility as a citizen of this world where God has placed him.” Upon his return to Germany in July, he joined the military office of the Abwehr, where a small group was considering killing Hitler to overthrow his regime.[11]                                     

      Bonhoeffer’s job as a counterintelligence officer with the Abwehr not only permitted him to avoid the draft, but also gave him a cover story for his travel outside of Germany. It would appear as if Bonhoeffer was collecting information valuable to the German government. However, his real purpose was to smuggle damaging information out of the country, and to enlist the help of foreign contacts in a coup against Hitler. Bonhoeffer, while traveling abroad, would also be in a position to overhear information about military plans and pass it on to the conspirators.[12]

      The Abwehr sent Bonhoeffer to Geneva, Switzerland on February 24, 1941. Undercover as a pastor, his main purpose was to make contact with Protestant leaders outside Germany and let them know about the conspiracy against Hitler. Bonhoeffer was also assigned to put out feelers about peace terms with the German government that would take over once Hitler was assassinated.[13]               

Dietrich Bonhoeffer with members of Abwehr

      Bonhoeffer returned to Switzerland for the Abwehr in September. He met with Archbishop Bell’s contacts hoping that Winston Churchill would be sympathetic to their cause. Bell sent word to Bonhoeffer that Churchill wasn’t interested in helping the conspirators. Bonhoeffer next naively took the bold move of writing a long memorandum that described the conspiracy in detail. He thought that he might receive some words of encouragement from the British government after this memorandum was circulated in the proper circles, but none came.[14]

      Bonhoeffer traveled to Norway in April 1942, ostensibly on a mission for the Abwehr. In reality, he came to Norway to convince foreign officials that the plot to assassinate Hitler was real. Bonhoeffer also talked to Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, a wealthy German landowner and military man, and argued that the conspirators needed to take up arms. A few weeks later, Moltke brought Bonhoeffer’s ideas to a gathering of military and civilian leaders at his country estate in Kreisau. The Kreisau Circle was formed at this meeting, and members of this group found the soldiers needed to carry out the assassination attempts.[15]

Participants in the July 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler and members of the “Kreisau Circle” resistance group on trial before the People’s Court. Pictured are Dr. Franz Reisert, Dr. Theodor Haubach, Graf von Moltke, Theodor Steltzer, and Dr. Eugen Gerstenmeier. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Library of Congress

Assassination Attempts

      In November 1942, Werner von Haeften, a staff lieutenant of the army high command, told Bonhoeffer at a dinner party that he had the ability to get inside Hitler’s headquarters and shoot him. Haeften asked Bonhoeffer if he would be morally justified in killing Hitler. After a lengthy discussion, Bonhoeffer said he could not make the decision for him. Haeften would have to make the decision himself. As an aid-de-camp to Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, Haeften later played a key role in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of Hitler.[16]

Hans von Dohnanyi

      In March 1943, Hans von Dohnanyi, Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, raced to catch a train on the German border where Hitler was visiting to survey the war effort. Inside Dohnanyi’s suitcase was a special fuse, a silent detonator, which he delivered to Fabian von Schlabrendorff. Schlabrendorff rigged the fuse to a bomb disguised as a bottle of cognac. The next day he sneaked the “cognac” onto Hitler’s plane. The conspirators planned that after the bomb exploded and Hitler’s plane crashed, generals connected to the resistance movement would stage a coup.[17]                  

      Dohnanyi hurried back home and sat by the radio with Bonhoeffer waiting for news of the explosion. Two hours later, however, they heard what they considered to be bad news: The bomb had failed to go off. Bonhoeffer and the other conspirators were devastated, but relieved that they had not been discovered. They soon came up with another plan to assassinate Hitler.[18]

      Hitler was coming to Maj. Rudolph-Christoph von Gersdorff’s barracks to review some captured weaponry. Gersdorff, who had strapped two bombs inside his overcoat, broke a tiny vial of acid that would light the fuse to the bombs that would kill Hitler. He hit the button releasing the acid as soon as Hitler arrived, but Hitler left before the bombs exploded. Gersdorff ran into a restroom and tore the bombs apart. The conspirators had once again failed to assassinate Hitler.[19]

Final Years

      The Gestapo thought that the Abwehr was a bastion of conspiracy against the Reich, and in their thorough way, the Gestapo uncovered the information they needed to make their arrests. On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and taken to Tegel military prison. Bonhoeffer later wrote of the miserable conditions of his first days in this prison:

      The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell; I had to pick it up from the floor. A quarter of the coffee consisted of grounds. The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time; since then, I have heard it every day from morning until night. When I had to parade with the other new arrivals, we were addressed by one of the jailers as “scoundrels,” etc. etc.[20]

      Bonhoeffer’s captors soon realized that he was from a prominent family, so they allowed his family to send him food, clothing, books and other small gifts. Bonhoeffer quickly ingratiated himself with many of the guards, who allowed him to write numerous lengthy letters in excess of the few “official” letters he was allowed to write on a 10-day cycle. Over a nine-month period, Bonhoeffer wrote 200 pages alone to his friend Eberhard Bethge.[21]

Eberhard Bethge and Dietrich Bonhoeffer

      The Gestapo was unaware of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the assassination conspiracy against Hitler. Bonhoeffer had been jailed for sending money out of the country to Switzerland, which the Gestapo suspected was some kind of money-laundering scheme. When Dohnanyi, who was interrogated relentlessly, realized the Gestapo was unaware of his involvement in the assassination attempts, he sent Bonhoeffer coded messages inside a book, telling him the good news. Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi and the other conspirators continued their planning for another assassination attempt.[22]

      The conspirators next assassination attempt occurred on July 20, 1944. Lt. Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg left a suitcase with a bomb inside of Hitler’s bunker six feet from where Hitler was sitting. Stauffenberg excused himself from the room just three minutes before the bomb went off. Shortly after Hitler’s bunker erupted in flames, Hitler went on the radio to let the German people know he was fine. The Gestapo went on a massive raid, rounding up anyone they thought was connected to the conspiracy. Stauffenberg and Werner von Haeften were executed by a firing squad a little after midnight the next day.[23]

      On September 20, 1944, a search party found documents inside a crate that tied Dohnanyi directly to the July 20 bombing. Inside one file were three handwritten notes from Bonhoeffer that implicated him as an Abwehr spy. On October 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer was taken from his prison cell in Tegel to an underground Gestapo prison in Berlin. He was later transferred to the Buchenwald Camp on February 3, 1945, and then, on April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer was sent to Flössenburg Camp. Bonhoeffer and several other conspirators were hanged to death the next day.[24]


      Dietrich Bonhoeffer became world famous after the war. Diane Reynolds writes:

      Yet God did keep promises: Bonhoeffer may have initially died alone, but later his death was honored by millions. In his own lifetime, he only touched a handful—many of them killed in the war—but in his death he influenced the course of 20th-century theology and made his mark, as he would have loved, in the here and now on people across the political spectrum from evangelicals to liberation theologians.

      After the failure of the July 20th plot, Bonhoeffer achieved a sainthood of sorts.[25]

      It is this author’s opinion that Dietrich Bonhoeffer always acted in what he considered to be the best interests of Germany. Bonhoeffer abhorred the Third Reich’s policies, including its discrimination against Jews, control of free speech and religion, euthanasia program, and crimes during its war with Poland. However, Bonhoeffer’s decision to end these policies by cooperating in a campaign to assassinate Hitler was not appropriate. Bonhoeffer was clearly guilty of treason, and is not deserving of the aura of sainthood that many people attribute to him. 


[1] Haynes, Stephen R., The Battle for Bonhoeffer, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018, p. ix.

[2] Stroud, Dean G., Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013, p. 51.

[3] Kidder, Annemarie S., Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2012, p. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marsh, Charles, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 159-160.

[7] Metaxas, Eric, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2010, pp. 153-154.

[8] McCormick, Patricia, The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pp. 69-70.

[9] Ibid., pp. 72-75.

[10] Ibid., pp. 79-82, 88.

[11] Kidder, Annemarie S., Ultimate Price: Testimonies of Christians Who Resisted the Third Reich, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2012, p. 3.

[12] McCormick, Patricia, The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pp. 96-97.

[13] Metaxas, Eric, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2010, p. 376.

[14] Ibid., pp. 386-387.

[15][15] McCormick, Patricia, The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pp. 109-110.

[16] Marsh, Charles, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, pp. 338-340.

[17] McCormick, Patricia, The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, pp. 118-119.

[18] Ibid., p. 119.

[19] Ibid., pp. 119-120.

[20] Metaxas, Eric, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2010, p. 437. 

[21] Ibid., pp. 438-439.

[22] McCormick, Patricia, The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2016, p. 124.

[23] Ibid. pp. 126-127.

[24] Ibid., pp. 129, 131, 137.

[25] Reynolds, Diane, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany, Eugene, Ore.: Cascade Books, 2016, p. 420.

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2 Responses

  1. ChasMark says:

    (The late) Prof. Rufus Fears opens a series of lectures on Books that have made history with a discussion of Bonhoeffer, whom Fears considers saintly for having had the “courage to do the right thing, even at the cost of his life.” Fears emphasized Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the “evil” of Hitler.

    Fears recited that a judge sentenced Bonhoeffer to death, but Fears neglected to mention that the pastor actively participated in plots to assassinate the leader of a government.

    Fears was a popular and influential teacher who influenced many, many young people. The authority he conveyed cannot be denied.

    And that is the problem: young people as well as those non-traditional students who listen to his recorded lectures are, by dogmatic assertions such as those that Fears made, come to believe it is the final reality.

    In addition to the continuing propaganda narrative about the world wars, there is a great deal of information that has been concealed, perhaps even destroyed: those who profit most from the false narratives about Germany in the war have almost total control over the “German Archive” in the U.S. National Archives and also exert hiring control over lead archivist at the National Archives: “the adversary” thus holds the power to shape historical knowledge for generations.

    One more reason why the work John Wear does is so important.

    Thanks John.

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