By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 in Breslau, son of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer. Karl was a prominent psychiatrist in Berlin, and Paula home schooled their eight children. Dietrich was a precocious child who excelled at academics. His parents expected him to follow his father into psychiatry, but Dietrich was more interested in theology.
He attended the Universities of Tubingen and Berlin, and was awarded a doctorate in theology at age 21.
Because church regulations did not allow him to be ordained before age 25, he traveled to the United States where he studied for a year at Union Theological Seminary in New York. While he was there he made frequent trips to Harlem to visit the Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he learned many African-American spirituals. He took a collection of these back to Germany.
In 1931, Bonhoeffer was ordained as a Lutheran pastor.
Only two years later, Adolf Hitler came to power.
Bonhoeffer became concerned by the Nazis' attempts to infiltrate church leadership, and by the failure of many Christians to take a stand against them.
Bonhoeffer joined a small, committed group that included theologians Karl Barth and Martin Niemoller, in establishing the Confessing Church.
Bonhoeffer realized that he had two roles to play, that his pastoral care and his work as a resistance leader were both important.
He studied the writings of Mohandas Gandhi, and for a time publicly advocated nonviolent resistance. But the fact that he spoke of resistance at all drew the attention of the Nazis. He was banned, first from preaching, then from teaching, then from all public speaking.
Bonhoeffer became convinced that nonviolent resistance would not work, that the only way to stop Hitler was to kill him.
He became involved with resistance leaders who were plotting Operation Valkyrie, an attempt to assassinate Hitler.
Bonhoeffer was arrested in April, 1943, after it was discovered that he had helped fund the escape of Jews to Switzerland.
On July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg carried out Operation Valkyrie by detonating a bomb in a briefcase during a conference between Hitler and his top military leaders. The bomb killed four men and injured many others, but Hitler survived.
The Nazis arrested 7,000 people associated with the plot. From secret documents uncovered in September of that year, the Nazis learned of Bonhoeffer's association with the conspirators. He was transferred first to a maximum-security prison, and ultimately to Flossenburg concentration camp.
On April 8, 1945, Bonhoeffer was sentenced to be hanged.
The following morning at daybreak, Bonhoeffer and other conspirators were stripped naked, ridiculed, and led to the gallows.
Lacking proper equipment for hanging, the Nazis improvised by using nooses of piano wire attached to meat hooks.
Two weeks later, U.S. troops arrived at Flossenburg and liberated the camp.