Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Timeline

Have a read of our social media post about The Resistance (posted on 17th January). It offers an introduction to three major people from Bonhoeffer’s life who will be mentioned in this timeline.   

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Timeline.  

"We should not be surprised if times return for our church, too, when the blood of martyrs will be called for. But this blood, if we really have the courage and the fidelity to shed it, will not be so innocent and clear as that of the first witnesses. On our blood a great guilt would lie” (1) - Bonhoeffer, June 1932.  

An Overview  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian. One of eight children, the son of a psychiatrist and a teacher and a man very much of God, Bonhoeffer was allegedly involved in the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.  

The 20th July Plot (1944), dramatized in the movie Valkyrie (2008), saw people from across high-ranking military, religious and government circles come together to carefully plan and implement a coup d'état to overthrow the Nazis and kill the Führer. However, the plot failed. The Gestapo’s thorny dragnet swept up every single person connected to the attempt on Hitler’s life, leading to the arrest of over 7000 people. Nearly 5000 of those arrested were executed, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  

Age 39, Bonhoeffer was hung to death at Flossenbürg concentration camp just two weeks before it was liberated, 21 days before Hitler’ suicide, and 28 days prior to the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender by General Alfred Jodl, resulting in the unconditional surrender of all German forces and extinction of the Nazi’s pursuit of conquest, which led to the end of World War Two in Europe.  

The Timeline of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s short yet influential life: 


Well-educated and highly intelligent, in 1923 Bonhoeffer completes his first doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (Communion of the Saints), at the age of 21. He lives a charmed and privileged existence for the first half of his life, his journeys and zest for education only nourished by the rest of his family’s equally inquisitive and intellectual natures.  

By 1930, he is living in New York City where he meets Adam Clayton Powell, an American pastor, who sparks in him an understanding of the importance of social justice and the duty of the church to fight against injustice through faith in action.  

1935 -1937 

Though Hitler is appointed as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, which Bonhoeffer is immediately openly critical of, it is not until he becomes President in 1935 that Bonhoeffer begins to truly fear the ensuing cloud of tyranny falling on his country. In September 1935, the Nuremburg Laws are passed. This denies German Jews of their citizenship.  

In November 1937, Bonhoeffer publishes what would become his most famous work, The Cost of Discipleship, in which he discusses what it means to live an actively Christian life.  

Unlike any other German Protestant academic at the time, it is around 1937 that Bonhoeffer begins to preach “the theological mandate of disobedience”, single-minded disobedience, when society is faced with a fundamentally unjust regime (2). He is one of the first people to forwardly criticise Adolf Hitler and does not cease to do so even after the Austrian-born fanatic turns Germany into a dictatorship.   


This year is a turning point for Bonhoeffer as he makes his first contact with organised resistance.  

Hans von Dohnányi is Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law and close friend. He works at the Abwehr (German military intelligence service) but is secretly a member of the German resistance. Dohnányi introduces Bonhoeffer to General Hans Oster and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (top-ranking members of the Abwehr, also part of the resistance). Knowing that war is imminent, and that Bonhoeffer is a pacifist, Dohnányi requests that he be made an agent of the Abwehr to avoid military conscription. Despite Bonhoeffer’s open opposition to Hitler, Dohnányi explains that they can justify Bonhoeffer’s employment with them due to his vast ecumenical contacts, which may be useful to the intelligence service’s public relations. Canaris and Oster agree, so, Bonhoeffer becomes a covert courier for the German resistance working under the guise of official military business.  

On 12th March, Austria is annexed into Nazi Germany.  

By April, all pastors across Germany are ordered to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler in honour of his 50th birthday. It is unclear if Bonhoeffer took this mandatory oath; he may have done only to avoid disproportionate punishment by the Gestapo (Nazi police force).  

In November, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) leads to the destruction of almost 300 synagogues, the looting of nearly 8,000 Jewish-owned shops and the wrongful arrest of around 30,000 Jewish men across Germany. The pogrom lasts just one day but causes enough terror and devastation to cease all prospect of peace in the country.  

By the end of the year, Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, Sabine, alongside her two daughters and Jewish husband, Gerhard Leibholz, flee to England through Switzerland.  


In 1939, Bonhoeffer returns to America but immediately identifies an error in his judgement and travels back home to Germany.  

It is around this time that Bonhoeffer begins to shift his perspective from that of an idealistic pacifist to a realist, aware not only of the dangerous fantasies of Hitler but many other powerful German figures in the regime with equally jingoistic desires:  

  • January 1939 – Jewish-owned businesses are all liquidated.  
  • March 1939 – Germany invades Czechoslovakia.  
  • September 1939 – German troops invade Poland, causing Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany.  
  • April 1940 – Germany invades Norway and Denmark.  
  • May 1940 – Germany invades Holland, Belgium, Luxenberg and France.  
  • July 1940 – The Battle of Britain begins. 
  • April 1941 – German troops invade Yugoslavia and Greece. 
  • June 1941 – Germany invades the Soviet Union.  
  • September 1941 – All Jewish-Germans are forced to stitch a golden star onto their clothes.  
  • October 1941 – The first gas chambers are installed in Auschwitz.  
  • December 1941 – Japan bomb Pearl Harbour, causing the United States to finally join the war effort.   

During this time, Bonhoeffer is forbidden from speaking publicly, is monitored closely by the police and by 1941 is banned from printing or publishing any work.  

All the while, a plot to assassinate the Führer is continuing behind closed doors guarded by military officers, religious leaders, government and legal officials and other invaluable activists.  

Unable to publish his book Ethics (1955), which Bonhoeffer began writing in 1940, questions about the morality of murder – or, rather, the immorality of arguably justified murder - begin to build. The resistance is not conducting its display of opposition through ecclesial reform but political conspiracy. Turned to “the lure of the political” (3), Bonhoeffer is certainly forever changed by his decision to participate in the assassination plot, in whatever capacity that may have been. It is a matter he is thought to have discussed heavily with Christian pacifistic resistor, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, of the Kreisau Circle while visiting the Stubbenkammer chalk cliffs together.  


On 13th January, Bonhoeffer proposes to Maria von Wedemeyer Weller. Just three months later he is arrested on 5th April 1943 and taken to Tegel prison. Dohnányi is arrested the same day. While at Tegel prison Bonhoeffer writes countless letters to his family, Wedemeyer and close friend Eberhard Bethge, some of which can be read in Letters and Papers from Prison (1962), which is largely considered to be his last will and testament.  

On 19th May 1943, Joseph Goebbels declares Germany Judenfrei (free of Jews).  

In October 1944, after the arrest of his brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, and brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is transferred to the Gestapo prison Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, a move prompted by the failed 20th July plot. Bonhoeffer - along with Klaus Bonhoeffer, Schleicher, Dohnányi, Oster, Canaris and thousands more - becomes directly associated with the attempted takeover of the government and assassination of its leader.  


After a previous transfer away from Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, within the space of a week, starting on 3rd April, Bonhoeffer is moved from Buchenwald concentration camp to Regensburg, and then to Flossenbürg concentration camp overnight.  

At Flossenbürg, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is hung to death early the next morning on 9th April 1945. 

Fellow resistance fighter and military judge, Karl Sack, who postponed Dohnányi’s trial, is executed alongside Bonhoeffer; as are Canaris, Oster, Theodor Strünck and Ludwig Gehre. 

Dohnányi is executed the same day at Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  

Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher are shot by a Nazi firing squad near Lehrter Straße prison, alongside 11 other prisoners, including Hans John, on the night of the 23rd April.  

On 30th April Adolf Hitler kills himself, mere days before the subsequent suicides of Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann and Philipp Bouhler. The Nazi party is now dying from the inside.  

By 2nd May, Berlin has fallen and an unconditional surrender is called on 7th, making 8th May the official day of Victory in Europe.  

On the 6th and 9th August, the United States drop an atomic bomb on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki after Japan refuse to cease fire with the rest of the Axis forces. By 15th August, war has ended.  

On 20th November, the Nuremburg trials begin.  

What does this all mean? 

Consider the opening quote of this blog. In 1932, before he had any involvement in Nazi resistance, Bonhoeffer states that there will come a time that “the blood of martyrs will be called for” by the church. He acknowledges, importantly, that this blood, however godly, will not be “innocent and clear” but guilty and blackened by duty (1).  

Without the teachings of Powell so early on in his career, Bonhoeffer may never have contributed to social action of any kind, let alone a life-endangering participation in anti-Nazi resistance. For 15 years, probably without knowing it, he was developing an understanding of the potential contradictions between morality and justice. This is something we will discuss in a future Bonhoeffer blog, looking closely at how scripture may have influenced his understanding of morality and theology his knowing of duty.  

If you’re interested in learning more about faith in action, download our free Theological Reflection Journal. It will guide you through various exercises to meaningfully engage with the world around you, reflecting on your experiences through the lens of your faith. Combining journaling prompts, ways of praying, bible study suggestions and action planning worksheets, the journal will walk you through the See Judge Act cycle to put your faith into action in every walk of life. 

Also, if you're interested in joining us on our trip to Berlin in August (and/or want to inquire about a bursary), don't hesitate to get in contact with us at


(1) Bethge, E. and Barnett, V. J. (ed.) (1989). Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Revised Edition. United States of America: Fortress Press. Pages 236-237.  

(2) PBS. (2015). ‘Charles Marsh on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, The Public Broadcasting Service. Available at: Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly | Charles Marsh on Dietrich Bonhoeffer | Season 18 | PBS (Accessed 17th January 2022).  

(3) PBS. (2006). ‘Bonhoeffer: Timeline’, The Public Broadcasting Service. Available at: Bonhoeffer . Timeline | PBS (Accessed 17th January 2022).