Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and times

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It sometimes seems to me that there’s more Christianity in India’s ‘heathenism’ than in the whole of our Reich Church. Christianity did in fact come from the East originally, but it has become so westernised and so permeated by civilised thought that, as we can now see, it is almost lost to us. (Bonhoeffer, London, 1933-1935, 152)

Bonhoeffer: Quotes and Sources

“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”

Sermon, 1932. 

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, and straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?”

Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.

“If we look more closely, we see that any violent display of power, whether political or religious, produces an outburst of folly in a large part of mankind; indeed, this seems actually to be a psychological and sociological law: the power of some needs the folly of others. It is not that certain human capacities, intellectual capacities for instance, become stunted of destroyed, but rather that the upsurge of power makes such an overwhelming impression that men are deprived of their independent judgment, and…give up trying to assess the new state of affairs for themselves.” 

Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison.


1906– 4 February, Dietrich Bonhoeffer born in Breslau, Germany

1912 Family moves to Berlin, where Karl Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s father, takes up a position at Berlin University
1913 Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins gymnasium studies
1916 Family moves to the suburb of Grunewald
1918 Walter Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s brother, dies on the western front
1921 Dietrich and twin sister, Sabine, are confirmed
1923 Begins theological studies at Tubingen
1924 Continues theological studies at Berlin; travels to Rome and north Africa with elder brother Klaus
1927 Qualifies for licentiate with his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio
1928 Curate in Barcelona
1929 Summer lectures in systematic theology, Berlin; assistant pastor in Berlin

1930 Completes second dissertation, later published as Act and Being;
Sloane Fellow at Union Theological Seminary, New York

1931 July: first meeting with Karl Barth
August: lecturer in theological faculty, Berlin
September: appointed Youth Secretary of World Alliance for Promoting International Friendship through the Churches
Conference, Cambridge
October: chaplain at Technical College, Berlin
November: takes confirmation class in Berlin-Wedding

1932 Winter lecture course on ‘Creation and Sin’ (later published as Creation and Fall)

1933 January: Hitler becomes Chancellor
February: The Reichstag is burnt
April: Aryan civil-service legislation is passed, dismissing Jews from public office
Ludwig Miiller appointed Reichsbischof
Summer lectures in Berlin, on Christology
September: Pastors’ Emergency League organised, with aid of Martin Niemoller; Brown Synod dominated by German Christians is held
October: Bonhoeffer moves to London to take up pastorate of two German-speaking churches

1934 May: first synod of the Confessing Church is held at Barmen Adoption of Barmen Declaration
August: Ecumenical Conference, Fano

1935 April: becomes director of Preachers’ Seminary, Zingst
June: seminary moves to Finkenwalde
September: Nuremberg Laws are passed
October: family moves to Charlottenburg; Berlin
December: Confessing Church seminaries declared illegal

1936 February: members from Finkenwalde visit Denmark and Sweden
August: authorisation to teach at Berlin University is withdrawn

1937 September: Finkenwalde is closed down by Gestapo
November: The Cost of Discipleship is published
December: begins collective pastorate in Koslin and Gross-Schlonwitz

1938 January: expulsion from Berlin
February: makes first contact with leaders of the resistance movement
April: all pastors required to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler
September: writes Life Together while in Gottingen
November: Crystal Night

1939 June: travels to America for the second time; returns to Berlin in July
August: becomes a civilian agent of the Abwehr (military intelligence)
September: German troops invade Poland; formal Allied Declaration of War

1940 March: illegal seminary in Koslin and Gross-Schlonwitz closeddown by the Gestapo
Begins to write his Ethics
November: becomes member of Abwehr staff in Munich Stays at Benedictine monastery in Ettal; continues work on the

1941 February-March: travels to Switzerland to meet with Karl Barth and Visser’t Hooft
August: second visit to Switzerland
October: the first Jews are deported from Berlin

1942 April: travels to Norway and Sweden
May: visits Switzerland for third visit
May/June: meets Bishop George Bell in Sweden

1943 January: becomes engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer
April: arrested and placed in Tegel Prison; Berlin
December: writes Christmas essay, ‘After Ten Years’

1944 April: first of the ‘theological letters’ from prison
July: assassination attempt on Hitler
September: incriminating evidence on the Abwehr is uncovered by the Gestapo
1945 February: moved to Buchenwald concentration camp
April: moved to Regensburg and then Schonberg and finally to Flossenblirg
8 April: court-martialled
9 April: executed at Flossenbiirg

“The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God” (Letters, 360).

“Not religion, but revelation, not a religious community, but the church: that is what the reality of Jesus Christ means” (Communio 1963, 112).

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