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On the Kalendar: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran Pastor, Martyr

April from Les Petites Heures d'Anne de Bretagne

“April”, kalendar page from Les Petites Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Little Hours of Queen Anne of Bretagne), by the Maître des Triomphes de Pétrarque. From Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (France).

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906, the sixth of eight children. At age 24, he was considered still to young for orders, so he traveled to the U.S. to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was unimpressed with the quality of teaching there, but he had a revelation when a black fellow-seminarian took him to a Baptist church in Harlem. Bonhoeffer began to see things “from below”—from the perspective of those who suffer oppression. This led him to become more of an activist, putting the teachings of Christ into action.

Bonhoeffer was ordained in November of 1931, and less than two years later (January 1933), the Nazi party came to power with the installation of Hitler as Chancellor. Bonhoeffer immediately condemned this turn of events, and shortly thereafter he became the first church spokesman to condemn Hitler’s persecution of Jews. He was an early supporter of the Confessing Church (Bekennende Kirche), which instisted that Christ, not the Führer, was the head of the church (like the Anglican Church in England, the German Landeskirche (Protestant historical established churches) were essentially an established church).

Over the next ten years, Bonhoeffer continued to work for the Confessing Church, making trips to the U.S., and to England, where he met Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester, an ally of the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer and his colleagues participated in Abwehr operations to help German Jews escape to Switzerland. On January 13, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested and imprisoned in the Tegel military prison. He continued his outreach while in prison; but after the failed 20 July Plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was accused of association with the conspirators. He was moved successively to a Gestapo high-security prison, and then to Buchenwald, and finally to the Flossenbürg concentration camp. He was condemned to death on April 8, 1945, at a drumhead court-martial, and hanged at dawn on April 9, 1945—two weeks before the camp was liberated by American forces, three weeks before Hitler’s suicide, and a month before the surrender of Nazi Germany.

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