Berlin’s leading psychiatrist and neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer expected his son to take up a “respectable” profession such as science or the law. Instead, young Dietrich declared he wanted to be a theologian. When his family pointed out flaws in the German church, he replied, “In that case, I’ll reform it.”
He tried, but he came of age during the days of Adolf Hitler, who duped most German churchmen. “It is because of Hitler that Christ has become effective among us,” said one minister. “National Socialism is positive Christianity in action.” Bonhoeffer, opposing the Nazis with all his might, called the church to repentance. His outspokenness put him at risk; every day, every year, the crisis grew, the tension deepened.
On Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”), November 9, 1938, the Nazis unleashed their full fury against Jewish communities in Germany. Windows were shattered, houses stormed, synagogues burned, families brutalized, Jews imprisoned. Bonhoeffer, away from Berlin, raced back to the capital and stood like an intrepid prophet against the violence. He was furious with Christians who justified the violence by saying the Jews were reaping only what they deserved as the crucifiers of Christ. He marked the calamitous date alongside Psalm 74:7,8, which he underlined in his Bible.
He was eventually incarcerated at Telgel Prison outside Berlin. His six-by-nine-foot cell contained cot, shelf, stool, and bucket. Here he lived 18 months, writing letters and poems. Some of them were addressed to Maria von Wedemeyer, his fiancée. They never married, and the letters he wrote her are now at Harvard University, sealed at her request until the year 2002.
Eventually Bonhoeffer was taken to Flossenburg Concentration Camp. As he led a small worship service on April 8, 1945, the Gestapo burst in and dragged him away. He cried, “This is the end—for me, the beginning of life.” Shortly after five o’clock the next morning, he was taken to an execution site in a grove of trees and forced to strip. He knelt naked and prayed, then ascended the gallows to God.
They burned down your temple and badly disgraced it.
They said to themselves, “We’ll crush them!”
Then they burned every one of your meeting places
All over the country. (Psalm 74:7,8)
Robert J. Morgan, On This Day : 265 Amazing and Inspiring Stories About Saints, Martyrs & Heroes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000, c1997). Nov. 9.