Today in Literary History – April 9, 1945 – theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is executed by the Nazis

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, spy and anti-Nazi dissident, was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, just weeks before the collapse of the Nazi regime. He was condemned for his part in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

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Bonhoeffer is best known for two influential books, The Cost of Discipleship first published in German in 1937 and the posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison. In Discipleship Bonhoeffer outlines his principle belief that Christians are bound to follow Jesus’ teachings in The Sermon on the Mount no matter how difficult they may appear.

He makes a distinction between “cheap grace” which is outwardly penitent but makes no spiritual demands (that is it stresses forgiveness over repentance) and “costly grace” which “is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him” in a meaningful way.

True Christianity for Bonhoeffer meant “giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God.”

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Bonhoeffer came from an intellectual upper class family (his father was a well-known psychiatrist). He earned a PhD in theology from the University of Berlin and was later ordained as a Lutheran minister. He was an early opponent of Hitler and the Nazi movement and spoke out against the persecution of Jews long before the Holocaust. He was also deeply involved in the dissident Christian movement — The Confessing Church — which worked to subvert the Nazi’s takeover of key church positions.

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During the war Bonhoeffer was a spy for the Allied forces. He joined the Abwehr, the secret German intelligence agency, and became a double agent. On secret foreign trips Bonhoeffer conveyed crucial information to the British army, at enormous risk. He was also able to smuggle many Jews out of Germany to neutral Switzerland.

He was a pacifist but he believed that some violent acts were occasionally necessary to prevent greater evil, although he believed that they still incurred personal guilt. Thus, he was part of the conspiracy among German generals to kill Hitler (the nearly successful “von Stauffenberg plot”) even though he knew he was taking on a great burden of  personal guilt for a greater good.

Bonhoeffer’s ideals influenced Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights campaigners as well as anti-communist dissidents in Eastern Europe. He is commemorated on April 9th as a martyr in many Protestant denominations.

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