Bonhoeffer 1: A Man Called to “Come, Follow Me”

By April 1945, World War II was nearing its end. East of Berlin, the Russian Army was beginning its final thrust into the capital of the Third Reich. To the West, Allied armies had crossed the Rhine River were barreling towards the Elbe River, their final strategic objective. At Buchenwald Prison, the thunder of artillery could be heard in the distance. The war could not last much longer. If only the prisoners could hold out a little longer, they would live. [1]

Some time that day, it was announced that certain prisoners, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be leaving the prison camp. Two days later, sixteen people left in a wood-fed van. Smoke filled the back of the van, nearly suffocating those on the journey. In Berlin, the diaries of Admiral Carnaris were discovered on April 4th. These diaries contained information implicating Bonhoeffer and others in the conspiracy of high-ranking German intelligence personnel to kill Hitler and make peace. Hitler was incensed and set in motion the events that resulted in Bonhoeffer’s death.

On April 8th, Bonhoeffer led the little band of prisoners in a worship service from the Isaiah 53, As Bonhoeffer completed the service, a Gestapo officer entered with the words, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us.” These words always meant an execution. He said goodbye to his fellow travelers with a final word, “This is the end. For me, the beginning.” He was executed the next day at Flossenburg Prison at the age of thirty-nine. In the years since his death, he has been recognized as a martyr, a theologian of great ability, and a preacher and leader of note.

Preparation for Public Life

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) did not grow up in a political family. His father was a prominent psychiatrist and not religious. His mother was from an intellectual and religious family and seems to have been the source of his initial religious education and experience. He was a bright child and received the finest possible education. In his teen years, he declared he wanted to be a theologian, a decision from which he never wavered.

In 1927, Bonhoeffer received his doctorate with the highest honors, and his dissertation, Sanctorum Communio or “Sacred Community” was thought to be brilliant. His growing and early theological reputation brought him to the attention of Karl Barth, with whom he became friends. In 1930, he published his second dissertation, Act and Being, which ensured an academic career and his reputation as an emerging great theologian.

Before his death Bonhoeffer wrote a book entitled, The Cost of Discipleship (1937), which has become a Christian classic. In it, he coined the phrases, “Easy Grace” and Costly Grace, and proclaimed, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In April 1945 that last phrase came true for a young man who had returned to Germany years earlier to share the suffering of the German people and work for the overthrow of the evil regime of Adolph Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s life and death are a testimony to the unfortunate truth that the blood of martyrs nurtures the church’s life.

Decision to Suffer

In 1930, Just after writing his dissertation, Bonhoeffer was given the opportunity to study in the United States at Union Seminary in New York City. His first visit to the United States gave him the opportunity to meet prominent American religious figures, including Reinhold Niebuhr. He was able to travel widely and expand his understanding of Christian faith. He often worshiped in Harlem and came to admire the faith of the American Black Church. He wanted to go from the United States to India to meet and learn from Gandhi, but cost and the situation in Germany prevented this meeting. One wonders what difference it would have made had he been able to meet and study under him. In America, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a kind of spiritual awakening.

Returning to Germany. Bonhoeffer immediately visited Karl Barth and became a theological lecturer in Berlin. His theology reflects the influence of Barth, but remains uniquely his. In time, Bonhoeffer became influential church and theological circles of this day, active in the Ecumenical Movement in Europe, and ultimately one of the first churchmen to oppose Hitler. When Hitler was made Chancellor in 1931, Bonhoeffer was immediately in the opposition.

Bonhoeffer was active in the creation of the confessional movement that ultimately produced the Barmen Declaration in 1934. In 1935, he became head of the Confessing Church Seminary, which lead to the publication of his books, Cost of Discipleship and later Life Together (1938). After the seminary was closed by the Nazi regime in 1937, he was given an opportunity to work in churches in England, where he made many contacts with the Ecumenical Movement and leaders in the British Church.

As the persecution of the Confessing Church became more intense, friends of Bonhoeffer made arrangements for him to return to America in 1939, where he would have been safe as a refuge during the war. Shortly after arriving, Bonhoeffer seems to have had a moment of clarity, realizing that be must return to Germany and share the suffering of the German People. He returned. Explaining his decision, he wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, who had helped create a place of safety for him:

“I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” [2]

Once in Germany, he was given a position with the Abwehr (2939), where he became a colleague of those within the German military intelligence community who opposed the Hitler’s Nazi regime and were working to change the leadership of Germany. He was well equipped to be a courier for the Abwehr because of his many ecumenical contacts and invitations to travel to neighboring countries. He acted as a kind of double agent, carrying messages to the allies while gathering information for Germany. Ultimately, he became aware of and participated in the plot to kill Hither. He was arrested in 1943 and spent the remainder of his life in prison.

A Preference for Pacifism

Much ink has been spilled in analyzing Bonhoeffer’s “pacifism and attempting to square it with his participation in the plot to kill and replace Hitler as the head of the German government. One helpful essay has been written that describes Bonhoeffer’s view as a Conditional Pacifism. [3] I do not like theological quibbles over words, but it seems to me that the word Conditional and Preference both reflect the underlying reality that Bonhoeffer embraced pacifism and embodied pacifism, but felt that under the circumstances of Nazi Germany, he was required to support every possible means to replace Hitler and the Nazi Regime, The death camps argue that he was right in his decision, though it cost him his life when it was discovered that he was aware of the plot against Hitler and assisted Admiral Canaris and others by acting as courier of information to the West.

Bonhoeffer’s participation was not necessarily in the actual plot itself. Fundamentally, he used his contacts to spread information about the resistance movement. During various trips to Italy, Switzerland, and Scandinavia in 1941 and 1942, he informed them of resistance activities and tried, in turn, to gain foreign support for the German resistance. In addition, he worked with Canaris and Hans Dohnanyi to save the lives of Jews who were subject to Nazi persecution. The effortresulted in moving fourteen Jews out to Switzerland). Once again, Bonhoeffer used his ecumenical contacts to arrange visas and sponsors for the group. The last of these were rescued in 1942. Unfortunately, the Gestapo traced the vast amounts of money that the conspirators had sent abroad for the emigrants. The arrests of Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer followed in April 1943. [4]

In other words, he was essentially a non-violent participation in the work of the resistance as he used his contacts in the Ecumenical Movement, and particularly British Bishop Bell to inform the West of the fact that there were those in Germany who were actively opposing Hitler. I view this as a non-violent act of faith and patriotism to attempt to prevent the kind of suffering the German people were ultimately subjected to by the way the war ended.

Meaning and Message of his Life

His friends knew Bonhoeffer was more than a brilliant theologian. He was a person of exceptional faith and character who returned to Germany from safety in America to share the suffering of the German people, despite the fact that he had been taken from Germany because he was in danger as a known enemy of the Nazi regime. Had Bonhoeffer not returned to Germany, resisted Hitler, been imprisoned, and died, he would today be remembered as a brilliant, little read, German theologian. His courage and willingness to suffer made him a martyr to the Christian faith and a person of international, intergenerational influence among Christians and others.

In The Cost of Discipleship when Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die,” he means that the cross is the place where we die to ourselves, our agendas, our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our needs, our wants, in order that the world in which we live and work may be given new life. We die to ourselves when we begin to live for others. We are crucified when we begin to sacrifice our own plans, programs, ideas, needs, etc. for the plans, programs, ideas, and needs of others. Bonhoeffer died to himself for the survival of Christian faith in Germany.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a choice whether he would return to Germany. He had a choice as to whether he would continue to speak out against Hitler. He had a choice as to whether he would work for German intelligence carrying messages to the West from the German resistance. Each of those choices entailed an increasing risk of the death he eventually suffered. He chose to bear the Cross of Christ in Nazi Germany. God did not force him to do it. Nor will God force us in our own day and time.

In the end, Bonhoeffer’s enduring legacy is as a human being who, in faith, believed that human beings must face the circumstances in which they find themselves and make responsible decisions before God. Moral rules are important, but beyond moral rules there is faith, a relationship with God, and a willingness to live in relationship of loving service with others. It is his willingness to live before God and act responsibly to confront evil that is his great legacy.


In the next two weeks, we will look at the substance of the political theology of Bonhoeffer as it was worked out by him under the pressure of concrete events in Germany during his lifetime. We will look at his early resistance to Hitler’s regime, his work in the ecumenical movement, where he fought against the Nazi coopted “German Christian” movement, his belief that the Confessing church was the true church in Germany and must fight the neo-paganism of the German Christian leadership, and finally his participation in the plot against Hitler, which resulted in his early and tragic death.

[1] The biographical portion of this blog is based on the biography of his friend, Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography Rev. Ed. (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2000), Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010) and Mary Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1968).

[2] This letter is often quoted. I am using the quote as recorded by Learn Religious, “Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Theologian and Martyr” at (downloaded August 25, 2022)

[3] Clifford J. Green, “Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Peace Ethic” available at (December 1, 2005). Green’s notion of Conditional Pacifism is helpful. Bonhoeffer wanted to be a pacifist and felt that the Sermon on the Mount recommended and even demanded it, but the life of Grace is also the life of responsible action—the evil of Hitler was simply too great to fail to act to end his rule. This is my interpretation of the place in which Bonhoeffer found himself during and before World War II.

  1. Victoria Barnett, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Resistance and Execution” United States Holocaust Museum (downloaded August 29, 2022).