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Thielicke grew up in Wuppertal, where he went to a humanistic Gymnasium and took his Abitur in 1928. After this he began to study philosophy and theology in Erlangen, but soon had to undergo an operation on his thyroid. Despite the negative outcome of this operation (pulmonary embolism, tetanus), which were still causing complications 4 years later, he finished his studies and in 1932 he got his doctorate in philosophy with "Das Verhältnis zwischen dem Ethischen und dem Ästethischen" (The relationship between the ethical and the aesthetic).
After his health improved, Thielicke listened to Karl Barth in Bonn, whom he criticized, mainly because of Barth's exclusion of natural anthropology. Eventually he did his doctor's degree in theology in 1934 with a work under the supervision of Paul Althaus in Erlangen. He took his postdoctoral lecture qualification with "Offenbarung, Vernunft und Existenz. Studien zur Religionsphilosophie Lessings" (Revelation, reason and existence; studies in Lessing's religious philosophy) in 1935 under the growing pressure of the Nazi-Regime, which refused him an appointment to Erlangen in view of his activity within the "Confessing Church". In 1936 he obtained a professorship in systematic theology in Heidelberg, where he met Marie-Luise Herrmann, to whom he was married in 1937. They had four children.
After repeated interrogations by the Gestapo from the mid-1930s onwards, he was finally dismissed in 1940. Thielicke was conscripted, but nine months later he was able to take over a church in Ravensburg with the help of regional bishop Theophil Wurm. In 1942 he assumed theological office in Stuttgart, from where he delivered numerous sermons and went on lecture tours, continually made difficult by the government by means of bans on travel, publication and preaching. Thielicke published a critique of Bultmann's composition about the demythologisation of the New Testament, which gave rise to a respectful, but inconclusive correspondence between the two. He also contacted the resistance group Freiburger Kreis, but without working actively in their plans for a revolution. Hoping to promote Christian democracy in postwar Germany, he proposed a plan in 1942 that led to the establishment of the first Evangelical Academy in Bad Boll in 1945.
The bombing of Stuttgart in 1944 forced Thielicke and his family to go to Korntal, where he continued his lecture tours and preaching services in the following years; these were anonymously translated into many languages in Switzerland and read on various fronts of the war. Immediately after the end of the war Thielicke traveled with a group of delegates to Frankfurt, where he was invited by the government to participate in talks regarding the resumption of academic work to fill the political and academic vacuum of the postwar period. As a consequence, he took over a professorship at the newly reopened theological faculty in Tübingen in 1947, being made administrative head of the university and President of the Chancellor's Conference in 1951. In 1954, continuing his postwar efforts to revive Germany's academic and spiritual heritage, he accepted a call to Hamburg to found a new theological faculty, where he acted as both dean and professor while also pastoring the main church of Hamburg, St. Michaelis.
He met with Billy Graham and was received by President Jimmy Carter during lecture tours in the United States in 1977. Thielicke also traveled to Asia, South Africa, Latin America, Australia and New Zealand in the 1960s and 1970s.