Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Christian Witness in Difficult Times

By: Deji Yesufu

The blood of martyrs might once again be demanded but this blood, if we really have the courage and loyalty to shed it, will not be innocent, shining like that of the first witnesses for the faith. On our blood lies heavy guilt, the guilt of the unprofitable servant who is cast into outer darkness.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a 1932 sermon.

On the 11th of November 1918, world war one was officially brought to an end. After more than four year of conflict, an estimated 9 million combatants lay dead and another 7 million civilians had perished. That war is said to be one of the deadliest conflicts in human history and the world was determined that such worldwide catastrophe would not repeat itself. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Germany, which had been at the centre of the conflict, was inflicted with heavy fines. Many historians still hold that the countries in the Allied Powers that won the war drew unnecessary retribution from Germany’s loss. The German people were very unhappy about this.

First as a rebel to the lacklustre government that accepted such heavy fines from countries of the Allied Powers and then rising through the ranks of his own party, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January 30, 1933. In another two years, he had gained complete control of the government of the country – becoming a totalitarian ruler and practising a fascist type of government. Hitler’s Nazi government played on the German people’s nationalistic pride and made them to think that though they were the greatest people living on earth, they stood under the yoke of nation’s around them and this yoke must be cast off. While the rest of Europe watched, Hitler built a magnificent war chest in his country. He also sold anti-Semitic sentiments to the German people and formed the foundation on which the holocaust occurred – an event that saw to the extermination of about six million Jews during world war two.

Germany in the beginning of the 20th Century was a land that had been overrun by liberal theology. The land where Martin Luther lived and preached had been taken over by a theology that sought to adapt itself to modernity. This theology tried to reconstruct many biblical stories. For example, it said that the account of the creation in Genesis 1 was correct but in between those verses where the many years of evolution that Charles Darwin had suggested. It is also discounted with much of the miraculous events of the Bible, including the virgin birth of Christ and the many miracles of Jesus. This theology boasted of practising high criticism of the Bible. At the close of the day, the religion that proceeded out of this theology was one that de-emphasized the miraculous saving works of the Holy Spirit in a sinner and thus led to one that merely upheld morality in ethics. Liberal Theology is the forerunner of modern Prosperity Gospel. When the conflict that Adolf Hitler precipitated hit Europe, Liberal Theology had no answer to it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of few Christian ministers in Germany who had actually been raised in a liberal infested theological system but who by the grace of God had encountered saving religion in Christ. When Hitler rose to power in Germany in January 30, 1933, two days later Bonhoeffer delivered an address on radio denouncing the self proclaimed saviour of the nation of Germany. He warned the nation of Germany to beware of the rising cult around Hitler. His address was so sound and effective on radio, that he was caught off air in the middle of his broadcast.

When Hitler gained absolute control of government two years later, he also moved against the churches. He successfully infiltrated the ranks of the clergy and immediately formed a ministry of religion that saw to the way and manner the churches were run in Germany. This ministry doctored the messages preached by pastors in churches and ensured that no one criticized the government of Adolf Hitler. Hitler popularity was rising in Germany and he understood that only the churches could stand in his way. In response to the continued infiltration of the churches, Bonhoeffer and other dissenting ministers formed the “Confessing Church”. The Confessing Church was not officially recognized in Nazi Germany but it helped the Christians who sought to be committed to New Testament ideals withstand those terrible times. Bruce Shelley writes about the Confessing Church to which Bonhoeffer belonged:

“(The Confessing Church) called the German churches back to the central truths of Christianity and rejected the totalitarian claims of the state. (It) called the church to depend on revelation, especially as revealed in Jesus…” At the core of the Confessing Church, Hitler was rejected as the head of the Church, while Christ was affirmed as the true Head of the German Church. It also encouraged the German people to reject “cheap grace”, as Bonhoeffer would call it, and submit themselves to a costly grace that God might demand of them in times like that.”

Bonhoeffer successfully avoided conscription into the German army. On the surface he used his theological credential to work with a German government sponsored organization called Abwehr. He used the cover of this organization to serve as courier for German resistant movements. Around 1939, his brother-in-law introduced him to a German resistant group – which would later on be accused of planning to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

At the height of the crisis in Germany and as the nation precipitated to war, Bonhoeffer decided to leave Germany for the United States of America. He had been invited to teach theology at a Seminary in New York. A few months after arriving the USA, Bonhoeffer began regretting his action in leaving Germany. In a letter written to his friend Reihold Neibuhr, Bonhoeffer wrote

“I have to come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the 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…” Bonhoeffer travelled back to Germany on the last scheduled streamer to cross the Atlantic before the war began. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo (Hitler’s secret police). He was in detention from that time till 1946.”

On the 4th of April, 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris was discovered. He was the head of the Abwehr, the group that Bonhoeffer worked with as an official of the German government. In the diary, Hitler learnt that Bonhoeffer and others, under the cover of German interest, had been working to bring his government down. In a fit of rage, he commanded that Bonhoeffer and others listed in the diary be executed.

Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on the 8th of April 1945 in a hastily arranged court-martial at the concentration camp where he was. A man who witnessed his execution told Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s friend and biographer, the scene around his last moments:

“I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer… kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of his execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” Bonhoeffer was 39 years old when he was killed by men loyal to Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was never married. He was engaged to his fiancée some three months before his imprisonment. The only book he wrote was titled “The Cost of Discipleship”. However, after his death many books have been written on him testifying to his strong faith in Christ, his solid witness to the gospel and his quest to seek the good of humanity in one of the darkest of hours of human history.


The Lesson in Bonhoeffer’s life is replete for a Nigerian church. The Christian community in Nigeria today is being emasculated by the Prosperity Gospel in the same manner Liberal Theology had left much of Germany vulnerable to the rise of a tyrant. A central message of the gospel of prosperity give Christians the impression that suffering is alien to the Christian life. In the process Christians of today find it difficult to uphold convictions that might lead them to suffer. But history has shown that in places where lasting ideologies would thrive, men and women usually lay down their blood and sweat to establish those ideologies. Those who would uphold the cross of Jesus as the only way to eternal salvation and a way of life that would do the Nigerian nation a lot of good may have to defend these truths with their own blood in the days to come.

(The author of this piece was heavily dependent on information gleaned off the internet in order to write it – particularly the Wikipedia page on Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Posted by Deji Yesufu

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