“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” ~Edmund Burke
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) was born into an aristocratic family. His father was an eminent psychiatrist, who taught at the University of Berlin, worked at the university’s teaching hospital, and sometimes did diagnostic evaluations for the Third Reich. His mother was the daughter of a countess (who had been a pupil of Franz Liszt) and the granddaughter of a distinguished minister to the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II. Mother homeschooled her eight children and, though no one in the immediate household was a Christian (they were proudly agnostic), she taught them the Bible as literature. All the children became, or married, white-collar professionals (chemistry, law, theology), though, strangely, none of the children went in Father’s fields (medicine and psychology). Father was disappointed when Dietrich said he wanted to be a theologian. He had expected more, but at least the boy would be safe, tucked away in some dusty university professorship or cloistered in some musty chapel. Of course, no one would ever hear of him again.
At age seventeen (1923) Dietrich began his theological education at the University of Tübingen, where he spent only one academic year. At eighteen he, with his brother Klaus, visited Rome; there he began to formulate ideas on church and community. He was struck by how Catholicism was not just a part of the people’s lives but was the focus of their existence. In Berlin, by contrast, German Lutherans were so proud of their religiosity that it was hard for them to be Christians. This illustrated for Bonhoeffer the difference between religion and faith. Religion was merely an accessory to life; faith affected a person’s whole existence.
The next schoolyear (1924) Dietrich transferred to the University of Berlin, where, three years later, he graduated summa cum laude, earning a doctorate at age twenty-one (1927). This was followed by a ten-month ministry practicum to a German congregation in Barcelona, Spain, another paper, and a teaching fellowship at Union Theological Seminary, New York City. His sponsor was Reinhold Niebuhr. Bonhoeffer was disappointed with the American seminary, because it was not up to his German standards—”There is no theology here”—but the experience was not all lost. Through a fellow student he was introduced to the lively worship at Abyssinian Baptist Church, Harlem, and the ministry of Adam Clayton Powell Sr. His friend told him, “If you can’t feel the Lord, you haven’t found Him yet.”
During his stay in America, Dietrich learned to drive and visited Cuba and Mexico. Kathe Horn, his childhood governess, was teaching at a German school in Havana, Cuba. Over Christmas holidays he visited her and preached to a German congregation.
When he returned to Berlin (1931), Bonhoeffer taught systematic theology at the University of Berlin and, at age twenty-five, was ordained a minister in the German Lutheran Church. Meanwhile, he was attending conferences, becoming involved in what would later become the World Council of Churches, and formulating his theology.
Bonhoeffer, who could sightread music and play Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, was also an accomplished pianist, flutist, and singer, as well as a lover of literature. Over the years he was to read and re-read the Bible many times, particularly the Old Testament, the part the Nazis most hated because they saw it as a monument to the Jews.
Since the Great War (World War I) Germany had been an economically and politically troubled country, and, as such, ripe for political conquest. That conquest came when the National Socialists (Nazis), and Adolf Hitler, came to power (30 January 1933). Two days later when Bonhoeffer, in a live radio speech that he had written much earlier, said, “The Verführer [mis-leader, seducer] … makes an idol of himself and his office and … thus mocks God,” the air went dead. Within minutes two Nazis walked into the studio and arrested the technician. Bonhoeffer, left to himself, shuddered at the speed at which Germany had fallen into the grip of a cruel dictatorship. There was no power against the terror of this regime.
Swastika flags took their place inside cathedrals, representing the State and the State Church. To resist the swastika was to resist Germany. Bonhoeffer resisted. In his first sermon after Hitler’s seizure of power Bonhoeffer said: “The Church has only one altar, the altar of the Almighty … before which all creatures must kneel … He who seeks anything other than this must keep away; he cannot join us in the house of God … The Church has only one pulpit, and from that pulpit faith in God will be preached, and no other faith, and no other will than the will of God.”
Hitler passed a series of laws (beginning spring 1933) that made it impossible for his power to be challenged. The Reich President’s Edict for the Protection of People and State took away freedom of speech, assembly, and press. The Treachery Act declared that anyone who opposed the Nazi Party was a traitor. The Enabling Act dissolved the authority of Parliament and suspended the German Constitution. These laws, and many more like them (Hitler was continually issuing laws), would last until the end of the war (1945) and seal the fate of dissidents.
Bonhoeffer was one of the first to tackle the issue of “The Church and the Jewish Question” (April 1933). He defended the Jews against the idea that Christianity was the new Israel and that anti-Semitism was, therefore, legitimate. He withstood Deutsche Christen (“German Christians”), who became the voice of Nazi ideology: they advocated removing the Old Testament from the Bible and barring Jews from baptism and ministry as the State had barred non-Aryans from civil service. Bonhoeffer said the Church must resist Hitler’s persecution of Jews; the Church must not “simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice,” but “drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” In other words, stop Hitler.
German Lutheran was a State Church, financed by the Federal government. In July Hitler unconstitutionally imposed new Church elections and, in a rigged election, gave power to the Deutsche Christen. These German Christians—influenced by Nationalism and traditional obedience to State authority—acquiesced to the Nazis. To Bonhoeffer it was inexcusable that any Church would put Nationalism above human rights.
Hitler stripped the church sanctuary of the Bible and had placed on the altar a framed photo of himself and a copy of his own Mein Kampf. He destroyed the images in the iconic churches. In Hitler’s Church, the Führer (Caesar), not God, was to be worshiped. Hitler even had his own theologians: Paul Althaus, Emanuel Hirsch, and Gerhard Kittel. Althaus and Hirsch came up with something called the “orders of creation,” stating that some peoples and races were naturally superior to others. Kittel, worst of the three, made vicious attacks against Jews. It is said that it was Kittel’s ideas pumped into Hitler’s head that led to the extermination of the Jews. Some critics go so far as to say that Kittel was responsible for the whole genocide—the same lexicographer of biblical languages who wrote the multivolume lexicon used by Greek scholars today. Bonhoeffer recognized the idea of Aryan supremacy for the poison it was.
In August, Bonhoeffer was one of those deputized by the dissenting community to draft the Bethel Confession, a statement of faith opposing the Deutsche Christen. Though it affirmed the Jews as God’s chosen people, the confession was not what Bonhoeffer had hoped. Through repeated discussions and revisions, it had become so anemic that Bonhoeffer himself refused to sign it.
In September, at the Brown Synod, Reich Church pastors wore brown, paramilitary uniforms. Non-Aryan pastors and pastors who did not support the Reich Church were barred from attending. The Wittenberg Synod—the same town where Luther had nailed his 95 theses on the castle door—formally excluded Jews from ministry. Anti-semitism was now the official policy of the German Lutheran Church. In response, Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) set up the Pastor’s Emergency League to help Christian pastors of Jewish descent.
In October, rather than accept a pastorate in an apostate church, Bonhoeffer “escaped” to England, for two years, to pastor two churches: the German Evangelical Church, Sydenham, and the Reformed Church of St Paul, London. Karl Barth accused him of running away while the house was on fire. Bonhoeffer, however, found the pastorate a relief from the oppressive intellectual atmosphere of the university. And it gave him distance, so he could think.
In England, Bonhoeffer became a close friend and confidant of the influential Anglican Bishop George Bell of Chichester, a member of the House of Lords, who had the ear of British foreign minister Anthony Eden. Bell suggested Bonhoeffer might be a prophetic voice. God rebuked His prophets when they wavered or feared but not for being reckless in proclamation.
But even in England, because he was ordained in the German Lutheran Church, Bonhoeffer could not shake off Germany. He and other German pastors in England wrote a letter protesting official church policy. Bishop Theodor Heckel, of the Reich Church, came to London (February 1934) to set rebellious German pastors straight. Bonhoeffer was “contentious,” and nothing was resolved. Back in Berlin Heckel told his aide to make a full report of Bonhoeffer’s rebellious behavior and put it in the official record.
Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller began forming what would become the Confessing Church (May 1934): the true church in opposition to the Reich Church. Its statement of faith was the Barmen Declaration, drafted by Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth: Christ, not the Führer, was the head of the Church. Barth mailed this to Hitler personally.
When President Hindenburg died (August 1934) Hitler declared himself Führer and Reich Chancellor. From that summer on he was a dictator with absolute authority. Bonhoeffer in a letter to Bishop Ammundson wrote, “The time is very near when we shall have to decide between national socialism and Christianity.”
In international gatherings, Bonhoeffer rallied people to oppose the Deutsche Christen and the Reich Church attempt to amalgamate Nazi Nationalism with the Christian gospel. That same month the Worldwide Ecumenical Conference in Denmark gave formal recognition to the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer, one of the central speakers at the conference, said, “Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God.”
Sadly, however, the Denmark conference represented the peak of resistance, not the beginning. Moderates, used to a State Church, wanted to return to the Reich Church. They labeled opposition as extremism, as if extreme times did not call for extreme measures. Bonhoeffer, however, was disappointed by this refusal to build on victory.
To him, evil was on the rampage, and no one was resisting it. The State was exercising too much law and order, depriving Christian preachers and Christian faith of their rights. The State had rights only by the consent of the governed. The Church had to reject this encroachment of the State. He criticized the Ecumenical Movement for sitting around, discussing abstract ideas, and passing meaningless resolutions. They liked to run their mouth but put off the hard job of active resistance. He criticized German church leaders who opposed the Reich Church but spoke of reform, as if the devil’s church could be reformed. How do you reform heresy?
A disillusioned Dietrich wrote to his paternal grandmother, Julia Tafel Bonhoeffer, with whom he was close, “Unfortunately, I have hardly any confidence left in the church opposition. I thoroughly dislike their way of going about things, and I really dread the moment when they assume responsibility, and we must once again witness a terrible compromising of Christianity.”
Albert Einstein went to America (1933) and never returned. Paul Tillich immigrated to America (1933) to teach at Union Theological Seminary. Refusing to swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler, Karl Barth retreated to Switzerland (1935). Smart people, intellectuals, were getting out. Despite repeated warnings, Bonhoeffer, on the other hand, was returning to Germany: to share the suffering of his people.
Bonhoeffer’s and Niemöller’s fledgling Confessing Church, non-State-funded, had to come up with its own ministers and its own institutions. In April 1935, Bonhoeffer established a residential school for training Confessing Church pastors, a seminary, at Zingst near the Baltic Coast. Bonhoeffer organized the schoolday around prayer, study, and meditation, making sure the spartan living quarters were clean and establishing a community of faith called “the House of Brethren.”
In June the school moved to Finkenwalde, an estate in Pomerania, isolated from the amenities of German culture and supported by sympathetic landed gentry. The immediate benefactoress was Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, who insisted her grandchildren, including her granddaughter Maria von Wedemeyer, also be catechized. By summer 1936 Finkenwalde seminary was a spiritual boot camp for the Confessing Church. But while Bonhoeffer, now age thirty, was seemingly succeeding on one front, another front was closing. Bishop Theodor Heckel of the Reich Church denounced him as a “pacifist and enemy of the state,” and, in August, he was dismissed by the University of Berlin.
The following year (June 1937) a law was passed that no one could contribute to the Confessing Church. Five days later Gestapo raided and searched the Church’s headquarters. Nazis detained and interrogated Finkenwalde students: twenty-seven students were imprisoned. Within days Nazis were detaining and arresting the top leadership of the Church on charges of disloyalty. Ten weeks later they locked the seminary doors forever, thus signaling the end of the aboveground resistance to the Reich Church.
Among the arrested pastors was Martin Niemöller, known for this passage:
First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Niemöller would spend eight years in a Nazi concentration camp, but he would outlive the war. Paul Schneider (1897-1939), another pastor, was ordered to leave the Rhineland, but he rebelled. In a personal letter to Hitler, Schneider boldly refused. He was then arrested, taken to Buchenwald, and beaten to death.
Bonhoeffer sensed that God’s judgment was falling upon Germany and that nothing would ever be the same again. Out of these experiences emerged two of his books, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, as well as some of his writings on pastoral ministry such as Spiritual Care.
He had long been troubled by the fact that a Christian nation could fall so far so fast into the hands of a corrupt dictator. In The Cost of Discipleship, differentiating between cheap grace and costly grace, he assessed the reasons.
“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church … grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands … Cheap grace is the justification of sin without the justification of the repentant sinner who departs from sin and from whom sin departs … the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.”
“Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field … the pearl of great price … Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: ‘Ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Among Bonhoeffer’s writings were also these words: “The sanctuary of God has to be protected from the world and not thrown to the dogs” …. “Being a Christan is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.” … “When Jesus calls a person, He bids him come and die” …. “If we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the Cross as an everyday ordinary calamity.” The established church, by identifying with the society around it, rather than Christ, had actually become the enemy of Christ.
After Finkenwalde was closed and the Confessing Church was officially suppressed, Bonhoeffer was homeless and pastorateless. Now the seminary really went underground: Bonhoeffer spent the next two years secretly traveling from one village to another, conducting a mobile seminary. Affluent families offered private estates for use as classrooms. Most of the students were living with area pastors and working, uncredentialed, in small parishes. Among the students was Eberhard Bethge, with whom he became fast friends. Later Bethge would not only edit Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison and write his biography, but also marry his niece Renate Schleicher (daughter of Dietrich’s sister Ursula Bonhoeffer and her husband Rüdiger Schleicher).
Bonhoeffer was officially banned from Berlin (1938). Knowing his predicament, the German Resistance contacted him, offering him a job with Abwehr. Officially Abwehr was German military intelligence; unofficially it was the headquarters of the Resistance. In the room that day were Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his brother-in-law Judge Hans von Dohnányi, General Ludwig Beck, General Hans Oster, and Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Canaris commented dryly, “I’m sure you have noticed: we no longer live in a democracy.” Bonhoeffer didn’t agree to join Abwehr; he said he’d think about it.
In a quandary, at the invitation of Union Theological Seminary, Bonhoeffer returned to New York City (June 1939), a decision he soon regretted. Despite strong pressure from friends to stay where it was safe, he told Reinhold Niebuhr: “I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.” Perhaps it never occurred to him that he might not live to see “the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war.” Or considered what good such a wartime sacrifice would be if he died a martyr. He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic (July 1939).
Back in Germany Bonhoeffer, on record as a dissenter, found himself harassed by Nazi officials. Earlier he had resisted the theology of the Reich Church, but now his resistance went well beyond theology. War was imminent, and Bonhoeffer feared conscription. Opposed to the Nazi regime, he could never swear an oath to Hitler and fight in his army; but not to do so was potentially a capital offense. Bonhoeffer concluded that “the ultimate question for a responsible man to ask is not how he is to extricate himself heroically from the affair, but how the coming generation shall continue to live.”
Summer 1940 he organized a Bible Conference for the Confessing Church, but the Gestapo shut it down and officially forbade him to speak in public. Afterward, he was required to make regular reports of his activities to the police.
Autumn 1940, in limbo, he was drawn back to Abwehr, where three members of the Bonhoeffer family were already employed: his brother Attorney Klaus Bonhoeffer, his brother-in-law Judge Hans Von Dohnányi, and his brother-in-law Attorney Rüdiger Schleicher. Dietrich would be the fourth family member working for Abwehr. Dohnányi told his crew that Bonhoeffer (theologian), through his wide network of contacts, would be useful to the organization. Privately Hans was trying to spare Dietrich from conscription.
November 1940 Bonhoeffer became a full counterespionage agent of Abwehr. Traveling to Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, he served as a courier for the Resistance, getting messages to the Allies and trying to negotiate peace terms for a post-war government. He also helped German Jews escape to Switzerland. Among those he helped squire across the border to Switzerland, then to England, were his twin sister, Sabine, her Jewish husband Gerhard Leibholz (1901–1982), an attorney and legal scholar, and their two daughters.
Bonhoeffer also got military deferments for Confessing Church pastors so they too could avoid conscription. Some were assigned to faraway Abwehr offices and given agency titles such as intelligence officer. Though the Gestapo was suspicious, Abwehr made no attempt to curtail its human rights activity.
Because he was banned from Berlin, Bonhoeffer was assigned to Münich. He passed the winter at a Benedictine Abbey in Ettal, Bavaria, while he worked on his book Ethics. Now that Bonhoeffer was actively involved, as Niebuhr had urged, he was becoming more aware of the impotence of the Church. What concerned him was that Nazism could arise in one of the most Christian nations in Europe. If it could happen in Lutheran Germany, seat of the Protestant Reformation, it could happen anywhere. He saw the world disintegrating before his eyes while the Church, strangely, was clueless. How could a Christian be so blind (sheltered) as to ignore what was in front of his face?
Throughout 1941 Bonhoeffer, now thirty-five, served as a counterespionage agent for Abwehr. In February Hans sent him to Switzerland to find people willing to receive expatriated Jews. Hans explained “Operation 7” to Hitler as a PR scheme: the Jews would say good things about the Nazis. In March the Gestapo, aware of his writings, forbade Bonhoeffer to print or publish. In May all remaining Confessing Church leaders were arrested. In September it was decreed that all German Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David stitched to their clothes. In October the first gas chambers were installed at Auschwitz. And in December the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thus bringing America into the war.
In January 1942 the Nazis agreed to the “final solution” (extermination). That May Bonhoeffer traveled to Sweden to talk with his friend Bishop George Bell about the Resistance. He asked Bell to intercede with Churchill. But not only was Churchill not interested in working with civilians, he didn’t trust Germans. The German Resistance, however noble it might be, had no official authority to make national and international decisions about the future of the country, and who knew what they were really up to.
Up to this point Bonhoeffer was unmarried and unattached. Perhaps he’d been too busy with his studies and his work, and too busy running from the Gestapo, to think about marriage. But that spring Dietrich reconnected with an old friend, Maria von Wedemeyer, his former catechumen and the granddaughter of Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, benefactoress of Finkenwalde seminary. Maria was all grown up now. And mature beyond her years. After their seeing one another, though Maria was half his age, they became “engaged.” The widowed mother insisted they not announce the “engagement” until Maria was older. Yet, in time, his letters to Maria would be among those shared with the world and would form a part of his complete works.
Faith was no escape from the power of evil men, Dietrich shared with Maria. Just the opposite: true faith often placed a person directly in the grip of evil, as was the case with whole populations annexed by Hitler. After the fall of Norway, Nazis tried to enforce the Reich Church on Norwegian Lutherans. Norwegian pastors, however, chose to go on strike rather than compromise their beliefs (April 1942). Bonhoeffer applauded their stand.
In July Hans and Dietrich went to Italy to forge ties with the Italian Resistance. The timing was off. Because of recent German victories, the Italians weren’t interested. The agency had to settle for getting an Abwehr man, Josef Müller, permanently assigned to the Vatican.
More than once Abwehr tried to assassinate Hitler. Every time the conspirators failed. Could it be that Hitler was supernaturally protected? By whom—God or the devil?
There is no evidence that Dietrich was directly involved in these plots, but he and his family were aware of them because the Bonhoeffers were so well connected that they knew what was going on in Germany when other people did not. And they didn’t oppose deposing Hitler by whatever means. Psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer was convinced Hitler was mentally ill, and any sane person could see that the Nazis were nothing more than murdering thugs. Getting rid of a mad man (a serial killer) sounded like a good solution to a bad problem.
Soon after the assassination attempts, amid growing suspicions, Hitler and the Gestapo (Abwehr’s rival) had had enough, and Abwehr was targeted. Klaus Bonhoeffer, Hans Von Dohnányi, Rüdiger Schleicher (now Eberhard Bethge’s father-in-law), and Dietrich were arrested (5 April 1943) and taken to Tegel Military Prison, Berlin. The Gestapo had learned that some Jews had been sent to Switzerland as Abwehr agents and reimbursed for the property they were leaving behind. Upon searching the Abwehr office, the Gestapo discovered documents, some of which Abwehr explained away as official coded military intelligence. Still, the arrestees were accused of subverting Nazi policy and using Abwehr for inappropriate purposes. The Gestapo also suspected Bonhoeffer of evading conscription and of using Abwehr to circumvent the Gestapo and to aid the Confessing Church.
Bonhoeffer spent a year and a half at Tegel Military Prison awaiting trial. He passed his time reading and writing. Knowing his smuggled letters might fall into the hands of the wrong persons, he tried to keep them more intellectual than personal, which enriched them for us. They were later published as Letters and Papers from Prison by his friend, and now nephew-in-law, Eberhard Bethge.
Bonhoeffer was increasingly critical of religion as a social and cultural institution. He mused that the Church needed to be radically changed to meet the challenges of an apathetic world. People in Christian lands were susceptible to heresy because of their natural inclination to be religious. Churchgoing, for them, was like bullfighting in Spain: a cultural event. They entered into the spirit of the thing without knowing what they were doing. “We are moving toward a completely religionless time,” Dietrich wrote to Eberhard. He wanted a “religionless Christianity”: one without dead religion but alive with Christian faith. He wrote to Maria: “I fear that Christians who stand with only one leg upon earth also stand with only one leg in heaven.”
Fearing Nazi retribution against the other members of the family if he misbehaved, Dietrich became a model prisoner. And after it was discovered that Dietrich’s uncle, Paul von Hase (1885–1944), was the military commandant of Berlin, prison authorities bent over backward to be conciliatory. Though he knew nothing about the profession, Dietrich assumed nursing duties in the infirmary, praying over each patient, saying standard prayers covering sin and sickness. To patients he was a chaplain.
The Nazi injunction against reading the Old Testament jerked Bonhoeffer there in a flourish. He read it through three times his first year at Tegel. The Old Testament appealed to him because it talked about living by faith in this present world. It was not about holding on until another world appeared. To retreat from life, from this nasty now and now, was to retreat from a full, biblical vision of who God was. Bonhoeffer began to justify not only Resistance but war against a mis-leader. The Christian who failed to get involved placed his own safety above the needs of others.
All the time he was in Tegel, Bonhoeffer thought he’d be getting out, that the Gestapo had nothing on him. But in time his connection with the conspirators was discovered because there were certain files, documenting Nazi atrocities, that Hans had failed to destroy and had hidden at Zossen: they might prove useful after the war. When Hitler learned about the “Chronicles of Shame,” he was livid. Bonhoeffer was transferred from Tegel in Berlin to the detention cellar of the Gestapo’s high-security prison.
While Dietrich was imprisoned, he was joined by Maria’s cousin, attorney, military adjutant, and conspirator Fabian von Schlabrendorff (1907-80). Schlabrendorff had been tortured by the Gestapo, but he refused to talk. The day Dietrich was to be secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp (7 February 1945), he gave Schlabrendorff his only copy of The Cost of Discipleship. When it came his turn to be tried, Schlabrendorff was providentially spared when an Allied bomb went off in the courtroom and killed the judge. After the war, when his estate had been reduced to rubble by Allied planes, Schlabrendorff had only the clothes on his back and his only real possession: Bonhoeffer’s book.
At Buchenwald Bonhoeffer met a fellow conspirator, General Friedrich von Rabenau, who, coincidentally, had a theological degree from Bonn University. Their thoughts rushed in torrents while Captain Sigismund Payne Best of the British Secret Service eavesdropped through the cell walls. Best was known as cynical and atheistic; but as they talked, he was moved. After the war when he wrote of his own experiences, Best said of Bonhoeffer: “He was one of the very few men I ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.”
Then, while they were at Buchenwald (April 1945), the Nazis found Admiral Canaris’ diary, which was even more revealing than the Zossen files. Bonhoeffer and others from Abwehr were moved to Flossenbürg, an extermination camp.
Tragically, so near the war’s end, within earshot of Allied guns, Bonhoeffer was executed (9 April 1945)—almost two years to the day since his arrest—with fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster, General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau, businessman Theodor Strünck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. The four members of the Bonhoeffer family associated with Abwehr had been separated and did not have the comfort of knowing what had happened to the others, but all were executed within days of each other.
Bonhoeffer was led away as he concluded his final Sunday service. He asked Payne Best to remember him to Bishop George Bell of Chichester. “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.”
Before Bonhoeffer was stripped of his clothing and led naked into the execution yard, an eyewitness recorded: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer … kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued.”
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.” ~Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Copyright © 2013 Alexandra Lee