“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German: [ˈdiːtʁɪç ˈboːnhœfɐ]; 4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a German Lutheran pastor, theologian, dissident anti-Nazi, and founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and many have labelled his book The Cost of Discipleship a modern classic. Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer became known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship. He strongly opposed Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was also involved in plans by members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office) to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and executed by hanging in April 1945 while imprisoned at a Nazi concentration camp, just 23 days before the German surrender.
For a year and a half, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Tegel military prison awaiting trial. There he continued his work in religious outreach among his fellow prisoners and guards. Sympathetic guards helped smuggle his letters out of prison to Eberhard Bethge and others, and these uncensored letters were posthumously published in Letters and Papers from Prison. A guard named Corporal Knobloch even offered to help him escape from the prison and “disappear” with him, and plans were made for that end. But Bonhoeffer declined it fearing Nazi retribution on his family, especially his brother Klaus and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi who were also imprisoned.
Flossenbürg concentration camp, Arrestblock-Hof: Memorial to members of German resistance executed on 9 April 1945
After the failure of the 20 July Plot on Hitler’s life in 1944 and the discovery in September 1944 of secret Abwehr documents relating to the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer’s connection with the conspirators was discovered. He was transferred from the military prison Tegel in Berlin, where he had been held for 18 months, to the detention cellar of the house prison of the Reich Security Head Office, the Gestapo’s high-security prison. In February 1945, he was secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenbürg concentration camp.
On 4 April 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators be destroyed.Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner Payne Best to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on 8 April 1945 by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings or a defence in Flossenbürg concentration camp.He was executed there by hanging at dawn on 9 April 1945, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp,three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, where he hanged, along with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’ deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau,businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and his brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher were executed in Berlin the night of 22–23 April as Soviet troops already fought in the capital. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi had been executed in Sachsenhausen concentration camp on 8 or 9 April.
Eberhard Bethge, a student of Bonhoeffer’s, saw the execution: “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 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.”