The death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern of The New York Review of Books offer an in-depth account of the last days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. These two excerpts touch on the influence that his involvement in the plots against Adolph Hitler had on Bonhoeffer's theology.

Dietrich used the solitude of his cell to study more deeply the many diverse texts he treasured; letters to his parents were filled with requests for books. In April 1944, he noted how different the jail experience felt to him after a year; he was working to grasp its inner sense and to use it for building strength and hope. He wrote more often to Eberhard Bethge, a former student and friend with whom he could share his theological reflections:

What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?

This fundamental question was at the heart of Dietrich’s musings. After experiencing the capitulation of German churches to Nazi demands, he might well have wanted to think about the Christian religion apart from its institutionalized presence in society, to explore what he called “religionless Christianity.”


Dietrich had not wanted the meaning of his and Hans’s experiences to be lost. He had written to a younger friend:

We realize that the world is in God’s wrathful and merciful hands…. We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Your generation will relate thought and action in a new way.

What do you suppose he meant by the passage I have italicized?

Comments (1)

This article is an absolute must read. I have been captivated by Dietrich Bonhoeffer since I first studied his life and works in college more than 35 years ago. He is the embodiment of what it means to be a Christian - following Christ by living for others. Twice Dr. Bonhoeffer gave up the comfortable life - first to become a church pastor instead of a prestigious professor. But his courageous decision to leave the comforts of New York to return to Germany and fight the Nazis elevates his life to the highest level. I suspect his statement concerning thought vs. readiness to take respsonsiblity as the mainspring of action has to do with his disappointment at the institutional Church's tepid or nonexistent opposition to National Socialism while the "non-Christians" lead the resistance. Bonhoeffer once mused about feeling more comfortable with his fellow conspirators than with those in the Church. Bonhoeffer's life shows us as Christians how to live, how to engage with the world, and how to die. As he was being lead away to his death by the Gestapo, he turned to his cellmates and said, "Though I know this is the end, for me it is the beginning of life". Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer remains a true modern Christian martyr whose life and death should be studied and pondered by us all.

Bob Button

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