April 9: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born February 4, 1906. He studied at the universities of Berlin and Tübingen. His doctoral thesis was published in 1930 as Sanctorum Commuunio.

From the first days of the Nazi accession to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer was involved in protests against the regime. From 1933 to 1935 he was the pastor of two small congregations in London, but nonetheless was a leading spokesman for the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazis. In 1935 Bonhoeffer was appointed to organize and head a new seminary for the Confessing Church at Finkenwald. He described the community in Life Together and later wrote The Cost of Discipleship.

Bonhoeffer became increasingly involved in the political struggle after 1939, when he was introduced to the group seeking Hitler’s overthrow. Bonhoeffer considered refuge in the United States, but he returned to Germany where he was able to continue his resistance. In May 1942 he flew to Sweden to meet Bishop Bell and convey through him to the British government proposals for a negotiated peace. The offer was rejected by the Allies who insisted upon unconditional surrender.

Bonhoeffer was arrested April 5, 1943, and imprisoned in Berlin. After an attempt on Hitler’s life failed April 9, 1944, documents were discovered linking Bonhoeffer to the conspiracy. He was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, then to Schoenberg Prison. On Sunday, April 8, 1945, just as he concluded a service in a school building in Schoenberg, two men came in with the chilling summons, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer … come with us.” He said to another prisoner, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.” Bonhoeffer was hanged the next day, April 9, at Flossenburg Prison.

There is in Bonhoeffer’s life a remarkable unity of faith, prayer, writing and action. The pacifist theologian came to accept the guilt of plotting the death of Hitler because he was convinced that not to do so would be a greater evil. Discipleship was to be had only at great cost.


I    Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, thou gavest grace to thy servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive thy word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II     Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ, and to bear the cost of following him: Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart; through Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Proverbs 3:1-7

Romans 6:3-11

Matthew 5:1-12

Psalm 119:89-96

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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21 thoughts on “April 9: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945

  1. This commemoration is already included in the Calendar. The New Testament reading and Gospel are new.

    • Clarification. The New Testament Reading has been added. The Gospel has been change from Matthew 13: 47-52.

  2. He needs a ‘who he is’ and ‘why he is important’ statement.
    His death date is, unfortunately, very clear. 😦

  3. For further reading, try Denise Giardina’s biographical novel, “Saints and Villains” (Norton, 1997). I read it over Christmas that year and could barely rise up out of the early 20th century to celebrate the holiday — that’s how compelling it was. The book exploits (and I mean that in a good way) the form of fiction while honoring that of biography.

  4. Yet again, a Collect with an allusion that is based on uncommon knowledge ( the Beyond in the midst…).
    What is this about and why are we given annoying references such as this ? Martyr and teacher and theologian : a whole life in the midst of a nasty time, a man who seems to have been as faithful to the
    Gospel as may be possible, a writer who has left a rich heritage for confessing Christians (Jesus IS
    Lord and, therefore, Ceasar IS NOT).

  5. In the second paragraph, Life Together should be italicized. In the third paragraph, a cross-reference to Bishop Bell’s commemoration/biography on October 3rd might be helpful.

  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Theologian and Martyr, 1945
    The write-up seems succinct and to the point. His theological profile is eclipsed by politics, which is understandable historically but doesn’t seem entirely necessary here. A sense of his religious depth would be a plus; e.g., the collect refers to “his teaching and example” and I have to wonder, based on what we have here, what is that supposed to suggest? This bio treats his decision to assassinate Hitler very matter-of-factly, with no comment on whether this was a hard decision for this theologian/preacher to take. He wasn’t James Bond – so how was his story, as a Christian, different? Or is the gospel, in its moral scope, a simple lesson about choosing the lesser evil? Compared to Tutu, for example, Bonhoeffer’s is a very different story.

    Paragraph 2: I don’t get the negation of expected contrast suggested by “but nonetheless.”
    Wouldn’t it be simpler and more straightforward to begin a new sentence with, “He was a leading spokesman…” ?
    Paragraph 4 doesn’t say why he was arrested. The assassination attempt was still a year in the future so, apparently, it wasn’t for that. Was it for espousing views opposed to the Nazi regime?
    The Old Testament selection would equally apply to either the Confessing Lutherans of Nazi Germany, or the State sponsored church of that era. It’s a selection of reassuring but predictable churchtalk. I’d have expected a passage telling of an arch-villain persecuting Jews and something about justice, or God’s intervention, or heroic initiative, going on in the story. (Book of Esther?) The present selection seems placating, tame and insipid for this commemoration.
    Psalm: Again, there is a purposely chosen generality in this selection. With all the “Divine Warrior” material available in the Psalms, it’s probably good judgment not to get carried too far in that direction. I’m surprised the lament theme is not invoked – certainly it would express the motif of turning to God in the darkest of times. Psalm 42 comes to mind as an outstanding possibility here. Or, stay with the fence-straddling of 119 if that’s the position deemed final. (What I have ducked, I have ducked?)
    Romans is a good selection. 2 Corinthians (chapters 4 or 5) offers other possibilities, as do the prison passages. Some passages in Revelation would fit the antichrist situation but choosing one with a beneficial lesson might be less than easy. Regardless, I can see where the Romans selection is entirely satisfactory.
    The Beatitudes, as the gospel selection, came as a surprise – although the emphasis surely falls on the “persecuted” line. “Holy Innocents” comes to mind – the age of the victims presents a different profile, but the systematic and heartless murder of innocent victims by Herod fits the Hitler situation. I suppose I’d also look in the apocalyptic/eschatological passages of the gospels – but none pops to mind immediately. I’m left not enamored with the present selection, yet not ready to suggest a different one without looking further than I have.
    COLLECT: It’s a very calm and generalized collect for its subject matter. It reminds me of my own inability to deal with personal matters for which someone requests help, but with which I’m not prepared, trained, qualified or spiritually mature enough to deal with at that particular point in my life’s experience. Bonhoeffer is a real limit tester of a case, so rather than go where it’s uncomfortable in this collect, we break out the tried-and-true (I originally typed “tired-and-true”) “let’s all follow his teaching and example” line — without really expecting anyone to do it. I’d rather pray something unimpressively small that I mean than to pray something that sounds nice but doesn’t amount to anything realistic.
    GENERAL: I’ve noticed it offends people, which I don’t want to happen, when I question the use of “martyr” as employed in some places in HWHM, but I have a narrow sense of that word, and I’m surprised by its use in some cases. To me, “martyr” is someone killed because she/he is challenged directly to deny that Jesus is Lord, and who, upon refusing, is punished with death for refusing. I see the analogy with that here, but analogy is one thing and the flat-out pattern is what it is. I’m not challenging it. Just admitting a cognitive “hiccup” about that word’s use.

  7. In the first paragraph, Sanctorum Communio should be italicized (it is a published work) and it is misspelled. One might also cite his important ecumenical work in England during his time there and the close relationship with Bishop Bell that developed then. In addition, his theology, especially the work he did that eventually was published as Letters and Papers from Prison, became an important influence on American theology in the second half of the twentieth century.

    • Sanctorum Communio is italicized in the print edition. However, it is misspelled in both places.

  8. I agree with all the criticisms and have one small suggestion: I believe the date of the assassination attempt on Hitler was in the summer of 1944, after D-Day; a clarification is in order. Actually, this makes me wonder about all the dates given. I would also love an explication of the tantalizing reference to the Beyond in our lives. Clearly this is a reference to something Bonhoeffer wrote.

    • The quote is from Letters and Papers Written from Prison. (written April 30, 1944 to Eberhard Berthge)

      God is the beyond in the midst of our lives.The church stands not at the point where human powers fail, at the boundaries, but in the center of the village.

  9. Line 1, first paragraph: add “at Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland)” after “1906”.

    Line 3, second paragraph: add “a newly-formed independent Lutheran denomination, and” after “Church,”–or some such explanation of a name which will be unfamiliar to most readers.

    Line 2, fourth paragraph: add “on” after “failed”.

    Line 4, fifth paragraph: substitute “demanded willingness to be undertaken” (or some such) for ” was to be had only”. (One does not “have” discipleship.)

  10. The bio needs more info about the way Bonhoeffer’s faith enabled his witness. He had plenty to say about that, if I remember correctly, and those statements are more useful to those of us who need encouragement than details about serving churches in London etc.

    In the collect, ‘the Beyond in the midst of our life’ sounds cheesy and pretentious. Even if it’s a quote from his writings, it shouldn’t be in the collect. The meaning of a collect should be crystal clear to everyone present who has a reasonable command of English. Even if the phrase were referred to in the bio, I don’t think it would be suitable for inclusion in a prayer.

  11. My favorite Bonhoeffer quote — maybe could be worked into the Collect if it’s to be redone, but anyway included in the bio: (He’s been talking about “religionless Christianity,” and “speak[ing] in a ‘secular’ way about ‘God””) “In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world.” (Letters & Papers, to E. Bethge, 30 April 1944–earlier in the letter, or perhaps a previous letter of the same date, as the statement “God is beyond in the midst of our life.”

    Yes, the failed attempt on Hitler’s life was on July 20, 1944.

  12. A further, later additional comment — it’s obviously far too much for inclusion in the bio & collect, but there should be a rule: Whoever writes the final version of these must have first read Eric Metaxas’ superb biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. It answers a lot of questions about the relationship of Bonhoeffer’s faith and theology with his political activities, both in the 30s and in the anti-Hitler conspiracy in the 40s. The short answer to “Was he really a Christian martyr?” is, “Yes.” (The long answer is, “What don’t you understand about ‘Yes’?”

  13. 4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a theologian, martyr, a spiritual writer, a musician, a pastor, and an author of poetry and fiction. The integrity of his Christian faith and life, and the international appeal of his writings, have received broad recognition and admiration, all of which has led to a consensus that he is one of the theologians of his time whose theological reflections might lead future generations of Christians into creating a new more spiritual and responsible millennium. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian famous for his stand against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party. His beliefs and convictions ultimately cost him his life in a Nazi concentration camp. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of the most famous theologians and martyrs of the 20th century.

    Kimberley, Thanks for your comment. Next time please include your last name. — Ed.

  14. Reading Bonehoeffer reminds me that I don’t have the “guts” to follow Jesus, so I style for being a “Christian.”

    Rick, Thanks for your comment. Net time please include your last name. — Ed.

  15. I’m a latecomer here; have just started following the blog. I read Eric Metaxas’s superb biography of Bonhoeffer; my reaction is, “What a man!” And, yes, he was most definitely a martyr as it was his faith which led him to stand against Hitler and eventually led to his death. If that isn’t martyrdom, I don’t know what is. He has been added to my very short list of heroes, along with the likes of Bishop Oscar Romero and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to name two.

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