Dietrich Bonhoeffer defied Nazism until his death in 1945

Radical Integrity, The Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by Michael Van Dyke, (Barbour Books), retold the history of Germany’s eminent Lutheran theologian, starting with his birth in Breslau (a city in Lower Silesia, now in Poland) to a well-to-do family.

This remarkable theologian who wrote The Cost of Discipleship – a study on the Sermon on the Mount – refused to assent the requirements of the Nazi regime, even as many German Protestants were swayed by Hitler’s anti-Semitisms and nationalist views – these Christians joined the Reich Church.

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Two months before Hitler’s rise to power in November 1932, the German Protestants were divided between the Old-Prussian Union Evangelical Church, the nationalistic Deutsche Christen movement and the Young Reformers.

Bonhoeffer immediately became a reformer.

The pastor, theologian, writer and spy’s life ended with stark years spent in various prisons under the Nazi regime until Bonhoeffer’s execution.

In a time of political turmoil, Dietrich Bonhoeffer remained a man of integrity, as the Nazis increased their control over the nation’s churches.

Van Dyke wrote: “In the spring of 1933, those in the German Lutheran Church who sided with the Nazis began to try to gain control over the National Church as whole.”  

A member of the German resistance movement, Bonhoeffer was killed in the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, before the Allies arrived to liberate Germany.

Some German Christians were entranced with Hitler’s chauvinistic fervour and racial exceptionalism, but Bonhoeffer had been an outspoken leader in the Confessing Church in the early years of the Nazi regime.

The Bekennende Kirche (Confessing Church), intended to uphold Biblically based Christian beliefs and practices.

The Confessing Church understood that Christ, not the Führer, acted as the head Germany’s church.

Van Dyke wrote “In the early months of resistance (or the Confessing movement, as it would come to be known), Dietrich worked energetically with others to make a break from the German National Church.”

Bonhoeffer produced a radio address two days after the Nazis officially came to power, defying Hitler and cautioning Germany about the developing cult surrounding the Führer, who the theologian, in a sarcastic wordplay, referred to as the Verführer (translated as misleader, or seducer).

Bonhoeffer’s broadcast was cut off in mid-sentence.

Bonhoeffer was also influenced by the ecumenical movement – a vast undertaking seeking to nurture Christian unity across denominations and around the world.

He left Germany in the autumn of 1933, to become a pastor at a German Lutheran Church in London.

While in England, Bonhoeffer hoped to use a network through ecumenical movement to support the Confessing Church in Germany.

Bonhoeffer had been a world-traveller long before he became a lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Berlin in 1931.

Previously, he served as an assistant pastor in Barcelona 1928.

Later, Bonhoeffer travelled to America and took postgraduate studies in New York’s Union Theological Seminary in 1930. But as Bonhoeffer pastored the church in London, he couldn’t stop reflecting on the Christians who were suffering at home under Nazi rule.

“His decision to leave was made on the spur of the moment, and it would soon plague his conscience, making his hiatus not entirely peaceful,” Van Dyke noted.

Bonhoeffer decided to return to Germany in 1935. He became the head at an underground seminary in Finkenwalde for training Confessing Church pastors.

“By the summer of 1936, the Finkenwalde seminary had become known as a spiritual boot camp for the advance guard of the Confessing Church.” (Van Dyke).

A fascinating story about a courageous hero, Michael Van Dyke’s book also explores aspects of Bonhoeffer’s theological beliefs.

In the Cost of Discipleship, published in 1937, Bonhoeffer talked about the differences between cheap grace and costly grace.

Van Dyke discussed Bonhoeffer’s position on the two versions of grace.

“He (Bonhoeffer) characterized costly grace as the grace that leads the recipient into a walk of obedience and true faith.”

Bonhoeffer’s faith was based on Christ’s words and spirit, rather than the church as a weapon of officialdom, representing the absurd and triumphalist will of a far-right dictatorship.

He left Germany again for a brief stay in New York in June 1939, but returned soon after.

After Bonhoeffer resettled in Berlin, he joined the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization – during this time, he worked as a double agent for the resistance.

“He travelled back and forth between Munich and Switzerland, meeting with contacts that had access to foreign leaders.” (Van Dyke).

Bonhoeffer’s links with the resistance deepened and the Nazis grew suspicious of him once more.

His book on ethics remained unfinished, when Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis in April, 1943. Although Bonhoeffer would remain incarcerated for the rest of his life until his death shortly after, his Christian faith remained strong.

In the book’s epilogue, Van Dyke wrote: “Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life can serve as a model for twenty-first-century Christians who are faced with the prospect of newly emerging paganisms and overweening rulers.”