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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 441

In April, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a distinguished young German theologian, was executed by the Gestapo for implication in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. During his imprisonment he had corresponded with Eberhard Bethge, who was a fellow theologian, the husband of his niece, and a close personal friend. In 1951, Bethge published extracts from these letters in a volume which was issued in English under the title Prisoner for God in 1953. The success of the book led Bethge to issue a revised and expanded edition in German (1964), which was translated and published in English in 1967 with the title Letters and Papers from Prison. An enlarged edition which added items of personal and family interest was published in West Germany in 1970 and in an English translation in 1971.

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When Hitler took power in Germany in January, 1933, he established a dictatorship which brought the major institutions of German society, including the churches, under the control of the Nazi state. Bonhoeffer was a leader among those Protestant clergy who refused to accept Hitler’s control. When World War II broke out in 1939, Bonhoeffer used his contacts through the ecumenical movement to encourage opposition to the war.

In 1942, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the counterintelligence service of the German military forces, began plotting to overthrow Hitler and negotiate peace. He recruited Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and Hans von Dohnanyi, a distinguished jurist who was married to Bonhoeffer’s sister, giving them positions in his agency as a cover. In 1943, Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested and confined to a military prison while their activities were investigated. The Commandant of Berlin was Bonhoeffer’s mother’s cousin, and for this reason his confinement was comparatively comfortable and he was allowed to write most of the letters which make up Letters and Papers from Prison.

In July, 1944, a plot by another group of German officers to assassinate Hitler failed. In the investigation that followed, the Gestapo discovered Dohnanyi’s documents, which also implicated Canaris, Bonhoeffer, his brother Klaus, and another brother-in-law. All were executed in April, 1945, shortly before the Allied victory.

Letters and Papers from Prison is written in an informal, unsystematic style which leaves many questions for theologians but is part of the pieces’ appeal to most readers. Some of the letters are written to his family members to reassure them; they reveal a thoughtful son and brother who appreciates their concern for him and their efforts to help. The most important letters are those to Bethge, who was at that time serving in the German army in Italy. In these letters Bonhoeffer is thinking aloud as he tries out his ideas on a sympathetic and understanding friend.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

In this book, published posthumously after being smuggled out of prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer tries to reconcile sociological ideas concerning the church as a human organization with the theological idea of the church as a divine society on earth. In so doing, he follows both his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum Communio (1930; The Communion of Saints, 1963), which first introduced the theme, and Akt und Sein (1931; Act and Being , 1962), which was chiefly concerned with philosophical postulates of theology. Bonhoeffer, who in 1933 helped found the Confessing Church, which battled against National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany, focused on the earthly dimension of the church and its political responsibility. Influenced by philosophers such as Immanuel Kant, Martin Heidegger, Karl Barth, and Søren Kierkegaard, Bonhoeffer, who was one of the leading Lutheran theologians during the Nazi period,...

(The entire section contains 2649 words.)

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