In the early dawn of the day after Quasimodo Sunday, a man bent to his knees in prayer within the wanting walls of a concentration camp cell. Prison guards entered the room between the fifth and sixth hour of the morning, only to remove the praying man and escort him to a splintered gallows. His prison garments removed, he prayed again before climbing the steps of the hangman’s haunt and stood as the noose was placed around his neck.
“In the almost fifty years that I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
It is important to know what brought this man to the German gallows, himself a native of the country which killed him. The year was 1945, just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide and a month before the end of the Second Great War. Why had the Fürher ordered the death of a German Gentile?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was no stranger to theology. Raised by a mother who taught him early to sing the psalms of Scripture and hymns of history, and a father who taught him to speak nothing of that which he knew not of, Dietrich gave himself at a young age to pursuing the knowledge of the Holy. By the time he entered seminary and began pastoral work in his twenties, he had distinguished himself as a rising star of the prestigious German theological scene.
Disinterested in humanistic exaltation and too discerning to swim with the tide of the German church as it raged alongside the ideology of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer spearheaded the Confessing Church and indicted his Lutheran country of apostasy. His students in the underground Confessing Church seminary he founded and led recalled his admonition: “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing the Gregorian chants.”
Though much of his teaching and theology would endanger his life in Nazi Germany, it was Bonhoeffer’s participation in assassination attempts on Hitler’s life which would finally cause the leader of the Third Reich to order his execution. Because he shouted the prophetic word over the drunken stupor of the Nazi-influenced German church, he was arrested. Because he stood with Israel against Hitler, he was brought to the gallows. Because he attempted no retreat from Jacob in his troubles, Bonhoeffer was hanged and his body burnt to ashes in a pile alongside the comrades he had yoked himself to.
“This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”
To live is Christ. To die is gain.
1. The Latin words quasi (“as if”) and modo (“in the manner of”) were joined to refer to the Sunday after Easter in Lutheran Germany, a tradition based on I Peter 2:2. Hugo’s character bearing this name was to have been born on that day and as such bore the name.
2. H. Fischer-Hüllstrong, as quoted by Eric Metaxas. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 532. Thomas Nelson: 2011.
3. Having never been published, this statement was passed by word-of-mouth as his legacy spread. His friends and colleagues would later include it in written records of his life, noting he spoke this in the years before the start of World War II.
4. These were Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last words to his traveling companions as he was escorted to Flossenbürg on Quasimodo Sunday, the day before his death.
5. Philippians 1:21