Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Man After God
Demonstrating hope, kindnesss, and courage in the darkest of days
Today, April 9 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; it also happens to be Maundy Thursday. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German Pastor and Theologian who was executed for his role in conspiring against Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. Over Easter we take time to remember the last week of Jesus’ life before he was executed. However, it can be easy to forget that since then, it is estimated, that there have been over 69 million souls killed because of their faith. Bonhoeffer died as Jesus died; completely surrendered to the will of God. So today, on Maundy Thursday and 75 years after Bonhoeffer was executed, I want to tell the story of how a German Pastor lived and died according to God, under Nazi rule.
First, a brief introduction to the man. Bonhoeffer, and his twin sister Sabine, were born on February 4 1906 into an impressive family. Their mother, Paula, was one of the few women in her generation to hold a university degree coming from a family of musicians, artist, teachers, and theologians who had worked with dukes and kings. She was a woman of faith and greatly influence Bonhoeffer in this regard. Karl Bonhoeffer, their father, was a prominent professor of psychiatry and neurology in a long line of doctors, lawyers, and judges. It were as if the two halves of life and understanding: science and art, logic and creativity, physical and spiritual were united in the Bonhoeffer children. Dietrich and Sabine were the youngest but one of eight children.
From a young age, Bonhoeffer new he wanted to study theology but did so as properly and sincerely as one may study the sciences or law. He continued on to complete his doctorate and the German qualification needed to teach. During the 1930s, he spent time studying and pastoring abroad including spells in America, Barcelona, and London. The rise of National Socialism and the Nazis in Germany saw the state putting more are more impositions on the Church; particularly regarding the treatment of Jews. This was unacceptable to Bonhoeffer who fought back, to no avail. Eventually he and some other pastors decided that it had gone too far, that the church was no longer the church, and so split from the Church of German and formed the Confessing Church. Bonhoeffer also spent time training young pastors for the Confessing Church in communities where they lived and studied together.
In 1939, with war and military enlistment imminent, Bonhoeffer’s church contacts arranged for him to have teaching placement in America. He immediately regretted the decision and felt he should return to be with his people and his country during the troubles that lay ahead. He stayed for only 26 days before heading home. On the way, he stopped in England to see Sabine, who had escaped Germany with her Jewish husband, and arrived back in Berlin on August 26. The war started a week later.
Due to the positions of the Bonhoeffer children and spouses, the family were among the first to learn of the horrors being committed by the Nazis. Predominately through Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who had been working as a jurist within the government for over a decade. Making the most of his access to high-level government officials and documents, Dohnanyi kept a record of the criminal activities of the Nazis from 1938 titled the Chronicle of Shame. Shortly before the start of the war, Dohnanyi was recruited by Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, a branch of military intelligence, and ally in the conspiracy against Hitler. The two men secured a job for Bonhoeffer to work as part of the Abwehr. As far as the Nazis were concerned, Bonhoeffer was working for army intelligence undercover as a pastor. But Bonhoeffer was a pastor. So in reality, Bonhoeffer was only pretending to pretend to be be working as a pastor for the eyes of the Gestapo. This allowed him to travel freely, engage in his writing, work as a pastor, and continue his efforts as part of the conspiracy. Bonhoeffer often acted as the conspiracies moral compass, helping guide the discussion regarding the severity of measures employed by the group. Soon enough it became clear that they must make an attempt on Hitler’s life. This coterie was determined to turn their convictions into action regardless of the cost. Bonhoeffer also used his church cover to get information of the conspiracy back to London. In the event that they succeeded, they would need to negotiate Germany’s surrender, restore peace, and need help in rebuilding the country. The British government were not interested.
In 1943, Dohnanyi and associates were involved in a plot to blow up the Führer’s plane. They managed to get the bomb on board but it never detonated. Fortunately they were able to recover the unexploded device before anyone realised that an attempt had been made. They tried again, placing a bomb in the overcoat of an official set to give a presentation of captured weaponry to Hitler. Hitler cut the meeting short and they failed again but again managed to avoid detection. Major Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff who had bravely volunteered for this suicide mission survived that day and lived until 1980.
Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested on April 5 1943. Bonhoeffer was taken to Tegel military prison and Dohnanyi to Wehrmacht, a prison for raking officers. The reason for their arrests, at this point, was largely speculation. The Gestapo knew they were up to something but had little idea as to what. They had been involved in an operation to get a group of jewish families out of Germany after which Dohnanyi had set money to Switzerland for their provision. It is likely the Gestapo mistook this for a money laundering scheme. Bonhoeffer may have been arrested purely on his relationship to Dohnanyi. Whatever the truth, they would spend the last two years of their lives in prison.
Less than three months before his arrest, Bonhoeffer got engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. The two had met the previous summer at Maria’s grandmother’s, who was a large supporter of Bonhoeffer and his work. The pair spent very little time together but their engagement was a great source of strength to Bonhoeffer during his imprisonment. Bonhoeffer came to believe that a yes to God was a yes to the world he created. This belief was the reason he could be so hopeful. The reason he could be engaged and involved in planning a wedding whilst in prison unsure of his future. It was the reason he kept reading and writing, thinking and praying. Letters and Papers from Prison provides a selection of writings preserved form this time, including a wedding sermon for his friend Eberhard Bethge. In it, Bonhoeffer confirms all that is good in God and life, full of hope and faith, despite is own uncertain situation. One of my favourite lines is, ‘It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.’ Maria later gave her sister permission to publish her correspondence with her Dietrich in the book, Love Letters from Cell 92.
Bonhoeffer’s time at Tegel prison was quite respectable. His cell had a window, he was treated fairly, and he largely played ignorant to everything, presenting himself as a simple, confused, pastor. His first letter to his parents begins, ‘I do want you to be quite sure l am all right’. Whilst officially only allowed to send one letter ever ten days, He soon won favour with some of the guards who helped him transport addition correspondence. His parents and Maria were able to visit him and bring books, clothes, writing materials, and cigarettes. During this time, Bonhoeffer maintained his daily disciplines of scriptural meditation and prayer. He was reported to always be a calming presence during air raids, supporting and reassuring the other prisoners. His self-discipline and reliance on God provided him with the peace and courage others saw in him.
On July 20 1944, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg spearheaded operation Valkyrie, a plot to assassinate Hitler in his Prussian bunker and take over the German government. They failed. Hitler was furious and demanded the destruction of everyone involved in conspiracy against him. Stauffenberg was executed in the early hours of the following morning. Bonhoeffer’s uncle, General Paul von Hase, was hanged a few weeks later for his part in the plot. After the failed assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer made plans to escape prison. Just as everything was in place, his brother Klaus was arrested. Escaping prison now would make Klaus look guilty and could put his parents and Maria in danger, so he decided against it. In September, Dohnanyi’s Chronicle of Shame files were discovered sealing the fate of both Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer.
After 18 months at Tegel, Bonhoeffer was moved to the underground Gestapo prison, on October 8 1944. Whilst unlikely that Bonhoeffer was tortured during his interrogations, most others certainly were — including his brother Klaus. Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Maria’s cousin, in his book ‘I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer’ writes, “He was always good-tempered, always of the same kindness and politeness towards everybody, so that to my surprise, within a short time, he had won over his warders, who were not always kindly disposed.” It seemed that Bonhoeffer was always full of hope, kindness and courage. Eventually, and largely due to concerns for Maria and his parents, Bonhoeffer gave up pretending and declared himself an enemy of National Socialism. He was still confident, however, there was no evidence of high treason. During this time, Bonhoeffer still shared all he had with his fellow inmates. His strength and peace along with his food parcels and letters.
Three days after Bonhoeffer had turned 39, he was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp where he met the British intelligence officer Captain Payne Best. In a letter to Sabine after the war Best wrote about Bonhoeffer, ‘His soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison.’ And later to Bonhoeffer’s parents, ‘He was, without exception, the finest and most loveable man I have ever met.’ Another British officer, Hugh Falconer described Bonhoeffer as being, ‘very happy the whole time I knew him’ and doing ‘a great deal to keep some of the weaker brethren from depression and anxiety’. Bonhoeffer was a prisoner at Buchenwald for seven weeks and on April 3, with the sound of allied guns in the distance, he and his fellow ‘high value’ prisoners were bundled into the back of a van and they set off across the country.
They were headed to Flossenbürg concentration camp to the south. After serval mix ups, van trouble, and initially being denied entry to Flossenbürg, Bonhoeffer and the other prisoners found themselves in a small Bavarian village of Schönberg, three days later and 100 miles south of their destination. They were placed in a room in the village school. Upon their arrival some of the villages bought food and the group ate and slept. The next day the villages bought more food for the group.
On April 8 1945, the first Sunday after Easter, Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer lead a service for his fellow captives. He prayed, read Isaiah 53.5 and 1 Peter 1.3 and explained the passages to everyone. Captain Best recalls, ‘[He] spoke to us in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment and the thoughts and resolutions which it had bought.’ After Bonhoeffer had finished the final prayer, two men arrived to take him away.
On Sunday afternoon they escorted him back to Flossenbürg. Sunday evening he was tried and the followed morning, he was executed.
The Gestapo had found the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the chief of the Abwehr. These diaries confirmed both Bonhoeffer’s and Dohnanyi’s involvement in conspiring against the Nazis. After the mix up with Bonhoeffer’s travel, two officers had been sent to the Schönberg school to retrieve Bonhoeffer. Admiral Canaris died alongside Bonhoeffer at Flossenbürg. Dohnanyi had been sentenced to death by Hitler on April 6 and executed a few days later at Sachsenhausen. Two weeks after Bonhoeffer’s death, allied troops arrived at Fossenburg. Around the same time Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus and other brother-in-law Rudiger were executed as soviet troops approached Berlin. A week after that, Adolf Hitler committed suicide.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer died as he lived, ‘entirely submissive to the will of God.’ I believe Bonhoeffer’s life shows us the things that matter: ultimate trust in God, a faith for the future, and the courage for obedience and action without fear. These things bought him a freedom to say yes to God and yes to life and to face death bravely and nobly, serving people until the end. He was, truly, a man after God.
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