As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, I remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German clergyman and son of a physician.
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, I remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German clergyman and son of a physician. He lived in Germany during the Nazi era, and tried to save lives by following his conscience.
For that, he was executed and is considered to be a martyr for his faith.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have passed his life quietly in Christian service and scholarly pursuits had it not been for the rise of Nazism in Germany and the resulting second world war.
I feel an instant connection whenever I meet another physician or someone related to a physician. You will recognize it as the way you feel when you meet someone from your hometown, or high school, or previous job, after being away a long time.
People who share a common bond with you best understand where you’re coming from, what you’ve been through, and what it’s like being you .
My patients who have physician relatives tend to be the most respectful of my knowledge, time, and privacy. Anytime a physician’s relative asks me a medical question in a social setting, I know it’s something important.
Many well-known people, past and present, come from physician families and I discovered one in my reading recently. About that time my son returned from a trip to Germany and posted beautiful photos online. Those two discoveries provided the idea for this blog post.
Dr. Bonhoeffer, psychiatrist
Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer started a medical practice in 1893 in what is now Wroclaw Poland, where he met and married his wife Paula Von Hase. He was a neurologist/psychiatrist at a time when both of those specialties were young. They had 8 children, including a set of boy/girl twins.
In 1912 they moved to Berlin where he was appointed head of psychiatry at Charite Hospital. There he taught and conducted research in brain disease; he worked with Dr. Carl Wernicke who became famous himself, having a disorder named after him- Wernicke encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency, usually due to long term alcoholism. His name is also assigned to an area of the brain which helps us understand and produce meaningful speech, Wernicke center.
Dr. Bonhoeffer had two other famous physician colleagues- Dr.Sigmund Freud and Dr. Carl Jung.
One of the Bonhoeffers’ sons became a physicist, another a linguist (before dying in military service in the war), another entered law school. But the fourth son, brother to the twin girl, chose a different path, one his family did not heartily approve of. That son, Dietrich, pursued theology, a choice that would ultimately determine his unfortunate fate.
Reverend Bonhoeffer, theologian and pastor
Dietrich Bonhoeffer first attended Tubingen University and finished at Humboldt University. He traveled extensively abroad, including the United States and India and returned to Germany to serve the Church as pastor and preacher. He may have passed his life quietly in Christian service and scholarly pursuits had it not been for the rise of Nazism in Germany and the resulting second world war.
Bonhoeffer believed that Germany’s political and military goals were not compatible with Christian beliefs, so he clandestinely entered the resistance movement, including working as a confidential agent of military intelligence. He helped Jews escape Germany. He also was aware of and possibly involved in plots to assassinate Hitler.
Reverend Bonhoeffer, the martyr
Unfortunately, he eventually came under suspicion and was arrested. After 18 months in a prison, he was transferred to a concentration camp where he was sentenced to death.
On April 9, 1945 he was executed by hanging, and his body was cremated. He was 39 years old. His brother Klaus and two brothers-in-law were also executed by the Nazis for their involvement in the resistance. Their father, Dr. Bonhoeffer, died in Berlin in 1948.
Fortunately, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prolific writing survived and inspires us to live the way he did. Writing in Bonhoeffer for Armchair Theologians, the authors quote the concentration camp doctor saying about him,
“I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. In my fifty years …as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
Here are a few quotes from his many books and sermons which were published both before and after his death.
“God wants to lead us. Not all the ways of humans are God’s leading. For a long time we can walk our own paths. On those we are pawns of coincidence, whether they bring good luck or misfortune. Our own ways always lead in a circle back to ourselves. But when God leads our ways, they guide us to him. God’s ways guide us to God. God leads us through happiness and unhappiness always and only towards God. In this we recognize god’s way.”
The mystery of Easter.
“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 among great rejoicing.”
“To go one’s way under the sign of the cross is not misery and desperation, but peace and refreshment for the soul ,it is the highest joy”