On the Road to Freedom: The Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Early Life

   On February 4th, 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany, to Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, ten minutes before his twin sister, Sabine. The sixth of eight children, Dietrich came from a prestigious line of doctors, teachers, pastors, judges, theologians, professors, lawyers, and other noble occupations. 

   Growing up, his twin, Sabine, and younger sister, Susanne were his constant playmates. His childhood was full of happy memories of birthday parties, outdoor adventures at their holiday house in the country, celebrations, reading books, and playing music. 

   His mother presided over his early education at home with the assistance of a governess. Mrs. Bonhoeffer taught the children hymns and prayer, and read the Bible to them, instilling a love for the things of God in Dietrich from a very early age. Mr. Bonhoeffer, a famed psychologist, was not a Christian, but did not stop his wife from sharing her faith with the children. 

   When the “Great War,” later known as World War I came, Dietrich’s three older brothers along with extended family members fought for Germany. Cousins were killed in the war, causing Dietrich to ponder death and eternity. Then his brother Walter was killed, a great blow to the family.

The Theologian 

   Shortly after Walter’s death, Dietrich began to consider becoming a theologian. Some of his family, particularly his remaining older brothers, mocked his decision. But Dietrich had his mother’s support, and he was undeterred. When he made up his mind to do something, he did not let what anyone else thought stop him, a trait that would come in handy later in his life. 

   When Dietrich was confirmed in the German Lutheran church, his mother gave him Walter’s Bible which he used for his personal devotions for the rest of his life. 

   Life rolled on–school, two weeks of compulsory military training, and college. Other students at his college laughed at how close Dietrich was to his parents. That didn’t stop him from calling them often and asking their advice when making decisions. 

   When Dietrich was eighteen, he had the opportunity to visit Rome with his older brother. That trip was an important event in his life, for it was there, worshiping with Christians of all nationalities, that he believed he began to understand what the church really was. Pondering the question, “What is the church?” was a lifelong pursuit for Dietrich and he wrote his doctoral thesis on the subject. 

   Dietrich continued his studies and service, pastoring a German congregation in Barcelona, Spain, and finally, going to America to study at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He was appalled by the liberal teaching at the university, and the inability of the university students to think for themselves or compare ideas with Scripture, accepting liberal views unhesitatingly. Dietrich could respect an honest liberal, like some of his previous professors, even though he disagreed with them. But these liberals didn’t seem to think things through; they simply rejected any idea they deemed “fundamentalist.” 

   Visiting churches, he was shocked at how little preaching of the gospel of Christ took place. It was at an African-American Baptist church where he finally heard truth proclaimed. He also loved the music there and bought records of African-American spirituals to bring home to Germany. 

   This was when segregation was prevalent in the United States, and Dietrich was horrified, grateful that no such racism was present in Germany, or so he thought. But he saw that the African-American church was thriving and began to understand that suffering actually strengthens the church. 

   About this time Dietrich’s faith deepened considerably. He had been reading and preaching the Word for years, but now it became real to him like never before. 

   He returned home to Germany, began teaching at a university, continued to spend time with his family, formed friendships, enjoyed playing piano at gatherings of family and friends, listened to his African-American spirituals, studied, and wrote. 

   He wrote a book, called in English, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he explained the idea of “costly grace.” We are saved by God’s grace, lavished freely and undeservedly upon us. But it is not a cheap grace that we can accept and then live however we please. It demands something of us. It calls us to walk in the bloody footsteps of our crucified Master, living a devoted life of obedience, faithfulness, and sacrificial love. It is costly

   Dietrich wasn’t afraid to “get political,” and unashamedly approached the Bible as the Word of God. He could be very serious and intense, but had a sense of humor, too. 

Hitler Comes to Power

   On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler became the democratically elected chancellor of Germany. Two days later, Dietrich delivered a speech which turned out to be prophetic in which he warned of the danger of elevating a leader above his God-ordained role. The speech was cut off partway through (it’s unclear exactly what happened). So Dietrich had it duplicated and sent to his influential friends and relatives. 

   Time passed, and Hitler and his National Socialist Party (or Nazis) continued to gain power and began to try to take control of the church.

   Persecution of the Jews began in earnest, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer boldly spoke and wrote against it.

   Despite their varying beliefs, the entire Bonhoeffer family saw through Hitler from the beginning.

   When the Nazis ordered a boycott of Jewish businesses, Dietrich’s ninety-year-old grandmother informed the SA men she was not about to be told where to shop and boldly entered Jewish stores. 

   Dietrich’s twin, Sabine, was married to a Jew (who was a also a baptized Christian), Gerhard Liebholz. When Gerhard’s father died, Dietrich declined to speak at his funeral, following the advice of his church superior, a decision he would later deeply regret.

   The German church was purged of anything deemed “Jewish,” and the “German Christians” began to reject even the most basic biblical doctrines. 

   An opportunity was offered Dietrich to help pastor two German congregations in London, which he accepted. There he met Bishop George Bell, who was also in the British House of Lords, and would become an important contact for Dietrich later. 

   Dietrich kept in close contact with his mother, who had furniture shipped to him and even a piano. He also kept in touch with other friends in Germany and was involved in the church struggle from afar. 

The Confessing Church

   The end of May, 1934, the leaders of a group called the Pastors’ Emergency League, including Dietrich, met. They drafted a statement of their beliefs, called the Barmen Declaration, and the Confessing Church was birthed.

The Barmen Declaration included these words (and much more): 

Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death…
We reject the false doctrine, as though there were areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ, but to other lords–areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him…

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church’s vocation as well…

The Church’s commission, upon which its freedom is founded, consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ’s stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and sacrament.” 

   After a return to London, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went back home to Germany and taught an illegal seminary, training leaders for the Confessing Church. One of his students, only a few years younger than himself, Eberhard Bethge, became Dietrich’s best friend and the one to whom he confessed his sins and shared his deepest struggles. 

   While teaching, Dietrich met an elderly lady named Ruth von Kleist-Retzow. She was a strong-willed, accomplished woman who took a great interest in Dietrich’s ministry, and he taught a confirmation class to some of her grandchildren. 

   One of the seminaries, called Finkenwalde, was shut down by the Gestapo, but Dietrich still continued to teach ordinands. 

   And he continued to speak out against the persecution of the Jews, citing the Scriptures Psalm 74, Zechariah 2:8, Romans 9:4, 11:11-15, as his inspiration. He helped Sabine, her Jewish husband, and their two daughters leave Germany and go first to Switzerland and then to England. 

   Against Hitler from the beginning and friends with powerful people, it was only natural for several members of the Bonhoeffer family to join the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. 

    Dietrich knew war was coming and he knew he could not fight for Hitler. But what should he do? After much agonizing, he accepted an invitation to return to Union Theological Seminary in America and avoid military conscription. But after only 26 days in New York, he boarded a ship to return to Germany, now absolutely certain that God was calling him to stand with his suffering brethren in the Fatherland. 

From Confession to Conspiracy

   The crimes of the Nazis increased. Thousands of those deemed unfit, including small children were secretly killed. Most people would only know of the atrocities after the war. But Dietrich’s brother-in-law, Hans van Dohnanyi, had been gathering information in what he called “The Chronicle of Shame.” Hans was heavily involved in the conspiracy, and at some point, Dietrich became involved, too. 

   Dietrich’s best friend Eberhard knew after Dietrich threw out his arm in the Hitler salute at a cafe when the radio announced that France had surrendered that he’d crossed the line from confession to conspiracy. Dietrich whispered to Eberhard, “Are you crazy? Raise your arm! We’ll have to take risks for many things, but this silly salute is not one of them!” 

  Eberhard wrote later,

We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers.” 

   Dietrich Bonhoeffer could no longer teach ordinands; the Gestapo had finally put a complete end to it. Soon, he was a double agent in the Abwehr (the German military intelligence organization) under Admiral Canaris, who was secretly against Hitler. It was unlikely he would be called up for military service now. 

   Many of his fellow Christians did not understand his deception, and he didn’t ask them to. But for Dietrich, he was convinced that being a conspirator was how God wanted him to serve the truth. 

   The conspiracy began to plan for the assassination of Adolf Hitler, and in September of 1941 at the Dohnanyis’ home, Dietrich said he would be willing to kill the Fuhrer if necessary. This was not a statement he made lightly; it was an issue he had been pondering for a long time. 

   As an agent for the Abwehr, Dietrich assisted in Operation 7–helping what was first seven and then fourteen Jews escape to Switzerland. The Swiss said they must bring foreign currency, a crime under the Nazi regime. He took a few trips internationally, seemingly for official Abwehr business in service to the Nazis, but really to gain support for the conspiracy. English Bishop George Bell was one of his most important international contacts.   

   On a visit to his friend Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, something happened that would change his life. Ruth’s granddaughter Maria was there. When Dietrich had seen her before, she’d been a girl, too young for the confirmation class Dietrich taught to her older brother and cousins. Now she was a beautiful young woman. Maria’s father and brother both died fighting, and soon Dietrich was more than just a pastor offering comfort. They became engaged. 

   As for the conspiracy, they had spent enough time planning. It was time to act. They launched Operation Flash–planting a bomb on Hitler’s plane. The bomb didn’t go off, but thankfully, it wasn’t discovered either. The conspirators would try again. 

   Major Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff volunteered for a suicide bombing mission. He would lead Hitler and his entourage through a display of captured weaponry, with a ticking-time bomb in his coat pocket. However Hitler left early, before the bomb exploded. Gersdorff ripped the fuses from the bomb, and ended up living until 1980. Another assassination attempt had failed. 

   Amid all this, Dietrich worked on his new book, Ethics. 

Arrest and Imprisonment

   On April 5, 1943, Dietrich was arrested and locked in Cell 92 at Tegel Prison. At first, he was arrested for minor offenses such as the money involved in Operation 7. Because his uncle Paul von Hase was the military commandant in Berlin, prison conditions improved, but at one point, Dietrich refused the offer to be moved to a more comfortable cell, knowing that someone else would have his then. 

   He counseled condemned prisoners and guards, studied and wrote, and basically acted like a pastor in prison. In November of 1943, he got a surprise visit from the four people he loved most in the world: his fiancée, Maria, his parents, and his best friend, Eberhard Bethge. Maria made him an Advent garland. 

   The prison chaplain asked him to write some prayers for the prisoners to use for Christmas. Dietrich wrote this:

O God,

Early in the morning do I cry unto thee.

Help me to pray,
And to think only of thee.
I cannot pray alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with thee there is light.
I am lonely, but thou leavest me not.

I am restless, but with thee there is peace.

In me there is bitterness, but with thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but
Thou knowest the way for me.” 

   Dietrich wrote lots of letters to Maria, his parents, and Eberhard, and continued to work on Ethics. Through secret messages passed onto him from his family in books or inside the lid of a jar of food, Dietrich stayed informed of what was happening in the conspiracy. 

   On his birthday, Maria visited Dietrich and gave him a book with a coded message from his parents. Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr had been deposed from office. A new leader in the conspiracy would now arise: Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. 

   Stauffenberg was a devout Catholic who was motivated by what he had seen of the SS’s treatment of Polish POWs and the murder of the Jews.  In his words,

“It’s time for something to be done. He who has the courage to act must know that he will probably go down in German history as a traitor. But if he fails to act, he will be a traitor to his own conscience.” 

   Stauffenberg was ordered to be at Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia on July 20th. This was the perfect opportunity to attempt another assassination. He planted the bomb, and hastily made his escape. It exploded, but did not kill Hitler, because of the design of the table at which he sat. The huge plinth used as a support instead of regular table legs shielded the Fuhrer from the blast. 

   Anyone remotely involved in the conspiracy was arrested and interrogated.   

   When Dietrich heard of the plot’s failure, he knew the ramifications but told Eberhard he had taken pleasure in the day’s Bible readings and hymns. The readings for July 20th were: Psalm 20:7 and Romans 8:31 and for July 21st: Psalm 23:1 and John 10:14. 

   Stauffenberg died bravely, shouting out just before his execution, “Long live sacred Germany!” Many of the other men also spoke boldly before their deaths. One, Von de Schulenberg, said,

“We resolved to take this deed upon ourselves in order to save Germany from indescribable misery. I realize that I shall be hanged for my part in it, but I do not regret what I did and only hope someone else will succeed in luckier circumstances.”

Hitler soon forbade further reporting on the conspirators’ trials. 

   The Chronicle of Shame was discovered–with Dietrich’s name in it.

   Dietrich declined an opportunity to escape, partly because he knew the Gestapo could go after his parents and Maria. He spent four months in another prison, a Gestapo prison in Berlin. He couldn’t write or see Maria, who some time earlier had moved in with his parents. 

   The war was nearing its end. Americans bombed Germany, including the prison Dietrich was in. 

Final Days

   In February of 1945, Dietrich was taken to the Nazi center of death, Buchenwald. We get most of our information about Dietrich’s last two months from the account written by his fellow prisoner, British Intelligence Officer, Captain S. Payne Best. 

   On Easter, April 1st, American guns could be heard in the distance. Liberation would surely come very soon. But late in the evening of April 3rd, sixteen prisoners were loaded into a van fueled by a wood generator.

   They were an odd assortment–Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Payne Best, a Russian air force officer, a Catholic lawyer, a diplomat and his wife, a woman of questionable reputation, a concentration camp “doctor” (in other words, one of Hitler’s sadistic torturers), among others. 

   It was a long journey. At one point they were stopped by police. Two prisoners were herded out. It’s unclear whether it was a man by the name of Gehre or Bonhoeffer called as the third one, but at any rate, it was Gehre who got out and was taken to Flossenburg.

    The van continued south until it broke down and one of the prisoners who was an engineer, Hugh Falconer, pronounced it irreparable. Eventually a bus picked them up, carrying what appeared to be S. D. guards, but who told a group of girls they picked up that they were a film crew out to shoot a propaganda film. 

   At last they ended up at a school in the village of Schonberg. 

   The next day, April 8th, was the first Sunday after Easter. Dietrich was asked to hold a service and preached on Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 1:3. He had barely finished the final prayer when two “evil looking men” (Payne Best’s words) came and ordered Dietrich to come with them. Before he left, Dietrich told Payne Best, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

   It was his last full day on earth. Dietrich was taken back to Flossenburg concentration camp, and the next morning he was hanged. A concentration camp doctor who witnessed his death said, “In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a person die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” 

    Admiral Canaris was also hanged at Flossenburg that day. 

   Dietrich’s parents lost two sons, Dietrich and Klaus, and two sons-in-law, Hans van Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher, all executed for their roles in the conspiracy. Upon hearing the news of their deaths, Dietrich’s father, Karl Bonhoeffer said, “We are sad, but also proud.” 

    Only a few weeks after Dietrich’s death, history has recorded that Hitler committed suicide, and the Allies liberated Germany. 

   But for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, true freedom had finally begun.

“Stations On the Way to Freedom” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer


“If you set out to seek freedom, you must learn before all things
Mastery over sense and soul, lest your wayward desirings,

Lest your undisciplined members lead you now this way, now that way.

Chaste be your mind and your body, and subject to you and obedient,

Serving solely to seek their appointed goal and objective.

None learns the secret of freedom save only by way of control.


Do and dare what is right, not swayed by the whim of the moment.

Bravely take hold of the real, not dallying now with what might be.

Not in the flight of ideas but only in action is freedom.

Make up your mind and come out into the tempest of living.

God’s command is enough and your faith in him to sustain you.

Then at last freedom will welcome your spirit amid great rejoicing.


See what a transformation! These hands so active and powerful

Now are tied, and alone and fainting, you see where your work ends.

Yet you are confident still, and gladly commit what is rightful

Into a stronger hand, and say that you are contented.

You were free from a moment of bliss, then you yielded your freedom

Into the hand of God, that he might perfect it in glory.


Come now, highest of feasts on the way to freedom eternal,

Death, strike off the fetters, break down the walls that oppress us,

Our bedazzled soul and our ephemeral body,

That we may see at last the sight which here was not vouchsafed us.

Freedom, we sought you long in discipline, action, suffering.

Now as we die we see you and know you at last, face to face.”

The end.  

P. S. For a great movie on the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I highly recommend Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace. Read the MovieGuide review here.  


Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness by Janet and Geoff Benge

The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Ethics by Dietrich Bonhoeffer


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