Plough Logo

Shopping Cart

  View Cart


 A photograph of Bonhoeffer's gravestone.

A Man of Conscience

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Malcolm Muggeridge


This piece, excerpted from the book A Third Testament, is based on a 1974 CBC television series by the same name.

In April, 1943, a Lutheran pastor was imprisoned on charges of helping to plot a murder. A bourgeois German and erudite theologian who found fulfillment among the lowest of the low, he experienced the stupendous simplification of dying on a scaffold like his Master.

The formalities of admission were correctly completed. For the first night I was locked up in a holding cell. The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell; I had to pick it up from the floor. The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the men who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time; since then, I have heard it every day from morning to night. The first night I could sleep very little because a prisoner in the next cell wept loudly for several hours. Nobody took any notice. In those first days of complete isolation I did not see anything of the actual life of the prison; I only formed a picture of what was going on from the almost uninterrupted shouting of the warders. After twelve days the authorities got to know of my family connections.

While this was, of course, a great relief for me personally, from an objective point of view it was most embarrassing to see how everything changed from that moment. I was put into a more spacious cell which was cleaned for me daily by one of the men. When the food came round I was offered larger rations. I always refused, since they would have been at the expense of other prisoners.

Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer described his arrival in Tegel Prison, in Berlin, where he was to spend the months from April 5, 1943, to October 8, 1944. It was during this period that he wrote the Letters and Papers from Prison, which I, in common with many others, have found so helpful in confronting the spiritual dilemmas of our time. Bonhoeffer had been arrested and imprisoned for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler – an involvement deliberately chosen, and arguably misguided. In prison, in the course of his voluminous correspondence, he sorted out his theological views, views which his closest associates consider to have been subsequently misinterpreted.

Bonhoeffer saw that the intensifying persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime was a deliberate attack on Christ Himself.

However, it was neither as a conspirator nor as a theologian that his memory was honored on July 27, 1945 by a congregation gathered in Holy Trinity Church, in war-scarred London, but rather as a Christian martyr whose steadfast faith was a bright light in a dark time.

“Let us pray. We are gathered here in the presence of God, to make thankful remembrance of the life and work of his servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer…”

It was these words, broadcast by the BBC in a memorial service for Bonhoeffer, that brought to his family in Berlin the first news of his death at the hands of the Nazis. Among the congregation at the memorial service were members of the Lutheran church in Sydenham, London, where for a time Bonhoeffer had served as pastor.

Bonhoeffer’s pastorate in London enabled him to make personal contacts which served him well in his work for the resistance movement in Germany. When he was recruited into the Abwehr, or German intelligence service, he had occasion to travel to Switzerland and Stockholm, and to meet Christian leaders from enemy countries. Among them was Bishop Bell of Chichester, who delivered the address at Bonhoeffer’s memorial service:

In this church, hallowed by many memories of Christian fellowship in wartime, we gather now in memory of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, our most dear brother and martyr of the church.

He was born in Breslau on February 4, 1906, the son of a famous physician, and belonged to a family which claimed not a few eminent divines, judges, and artists in its ranks in previous generations.

Bonhoeffer’s ancestors came from Schwäbisch-Hall, once a free city of Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire, in the State of Wurtemberg. In the middle of the town there is a church full of memorials to the Bonhoeffer family, which for three centuries was prominent in its affairs. Free cities such as this one were doggedly tenacious of their independence, and it would not be fanciful to suggest that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s instinctive resistance to Nazi totalitarianism derived partly from his ancestry.

Bonhoeffer grew up in a comfortable middle-class family and moved in what now seems a protected, privileged environment, with all the qualities, prejudices and values such an upbringing bestows.

When Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Bonhoeffer understood at once the threat this posed to all the decencies of life. He saw that the intensifying persecution of the Jews under the Nazi regime was not just abhorrent in human terms, but a deliberate attack on Christ Himself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, standing and smoking a pipe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Photograph from the German National Archives
Do you have a comment? Join the conversation. 0 Comments
Related Article Was Bonhoeffer Willing to Kill? – by Charles E. Moore Read

In 1933 Bonhoeffer visited Bethel, a famous settlement for the afflicted, near the Westphalian town of Bielefeld. His mind was greatly troubled by what he considered to be the indecision and confused thinking of many of his fellow pastors about the Nazi regime. Indeed, he had come to Bethel with a view to preparing a definitive confession of faith, which was in due course drafted, though not to his satisfaction. Friedrich von Bodelschwingh, the youngest son of Bethel’s founder, was in charge and showed Bonhoeffer around. Von Bodelschwingh was himself closely associated with the Confessional Church – the breakaway Lutherans who refused to fall in with the requirements of the Nazi regime.

The experience comforted and reassured Bonhoeffer. It brought him into firsthand contact with the central fact of suffering in the world, and the question of how a Christian should respond to it – something of more fundamental importance to his life even than the abominations of National Socialism, or the equivocations and timidities of the Lutheran Church in the face of them.

Here were these broken, stumbling bodies, these wandering, vacant minds. Yet under loving care and guidance, they were capable of making a life together and worshiping together, perhaps with an enhanced sense of God’s loving kindness, and of the joy of participating in His Creation. Bonhoeffer recalled that the Buddha is said to have been converted by contact with a sick person. Maybe in their total defenselessness, the afflicted of Bethel had a clearer sense of the essential defenselessness of our human condition than many who were whole and healthy – just as those who looked after them were brought nearer to God through the experience.

While he was in Bethel, Bonhoeffer’s mind naturally turned towards the infamous Nazi euthanasia laws, which legalized the elimination of what were considered to be useless lives. After all, the projected victims were all around him; he could watch them at work, and hear their songs. It was quite clear to him that a mindset whereby the sick and infirm could be disposed of was far more barbarous a sickness than any they had to deal with at Bethel.

As it happened, Hitler’s euthanasia laws never were applied at Bethel – the single exception in the whole Reich. Von Bodelschwingh resolutely refused to provide the requisite information, and, when challenged, demonstrated conclusively that at Bethel there were no useless lives. The most stricken inmates could still communicate, if not in words, then in God’s language of love. The body and the mind might be maimed, but the soul remained intact. Bonhoeffer was able to invoke the help of his father, who as an eminent neurologist, provided expert support for von Bodelschwingh’s contention.

How ironic that now, after defeating the Nazis at so heavy a cost, similar euthanasia laws are being ardently recommended in the victor nations – on “humanitarian” grounds. If this should truly come to pass, then the darkness will indeed have fallen on Christendom’s two thousand years.

The Nuremberg stadium, now derelict and deserted, remaining full of sinister memories for people of my generation, was Hitler’s favorite set for mounting celebrations of Nazi power. As his position grew stronger the rallies developed into mere assertions of a collective will, with no other justification, no other coherent purpose, than its own glorification. It was a sort of crazy revivalist meeting, with all the familiar accompaniments of mass hysteria and shouting in unison – not to the glory of God, but of the Prince of Darkness.

This was what Bonhoeffer had to face. And as he said, it was not a case just of a deluded, vainglorious Germany. A sick man was in charge of a sick nation in a sick world.

“I shall 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.”

From the beginning it was perfectly clear to Bonhoeffer that the Lutheran Church, as such, could have no lot or part in rendering what was claimed to be due to such a Caesar as this. Never for one moment did he, as a Lutheran pastor, countenance the notion of coming to terms with Nazi power.

His own position was the classic pacifist one. As late as 1934, at the Fanö ecumenical conference, he delivered a powerful address in the course of which he said, “Which of us can say he knows what it might mean to the world if one nation should meet the aggressor not with weapons in hand, but defenseless, praying, and for that very reason protected by a ‘bulwark never failing’?”

Now he had to ask himself whether this Gandhi-like position could be seriously and honorably maintained, not just against an already crumbling British raj, but against the Great Beast which is unleashed when men turn inexorably away from God and surrender themselves to the darkest impulses of their human wills.

It always seems to me that it falls to some men to act out inside themselves the drama of the collectivity. They are not necessarily the most subtle or perceptive, or intelligent, but they have this special destiny. Bonhoeffer, with his somewhat ponderous, theologically oriented mind, with his full equipment of the inborn values and loyalties of his class and upbringing, was being edged, inch by inch, into such a position: into becoming an authentic hero of his time.

In Bethel the doctors and nurses and the Christian helpers would go on tending the epileptics and the sick. For Bonhoeffer now this was not enough.

Before the mounting hysterical ferocity of that terrible voice, and of the even more terrible regimented roar which answered, sounding out from the Nuremburg stadium through Germany and through the world, he felt it was not enough just to pray, just to fulfill his Christian duty to care for the afflicted. With increasing insistence, it was being pressed upon him that he would have to act.

Naturally, his chief concern was for his church, whose clergy were dangerously split between those who were prepared to make their terms with the Nazi regime, and the others, like Bonhoeffer, who refused to accept any doctrinal or other concessions to Hitler’s Nietzschean ideology. For that reason, Bonhoeffer instituted clandestine seminaries at Zingst and Finkenwalde, where pastors could be trained capable of preaching and upholding the true gospel of Christ without reference to the moral and spiritual degradation which had befallen their country. It was the first step in his involvement in active opposition to Hitler, an involvement which was to make of him first a conspirator and then a martyr.

An artist’s depiction of Friedrich von Bodelschwingh
(Wikimedia Commons)

At this time Bonhoeffer became friendly with Eberhard Bethge, one of his seminarians, who was later to marry his niece Renate Schleicher and become his most intimate associate, confidante, and his definitive biographer. Without Bethge we would be without much essential information about Bonhoeffer, as well as the bulk of the Letters from Prison, which were addressed to Bethge.

Despite Bonhoeffer’s work with his seminarians, family ties remained strong. Next door to the Bonhoeffers’ house in Berlin lived Renate’s parents, and whenever an opportunity offered they all met as of old. Another link was soon to manifest itself – their joint participation in a growing resistance movement against the Nazi regime. Here the leading figures were Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Rüdiger Schleicher, his brother Klaus, and another brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi. Like Bonhoeffer, all would be executed by the Nazis.

In 1939, just before the outbreak of war, Bonhoeffer spent time in New York City. He was strongly pressed to stay there, but all his own inclinations were the other way. “I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany,” he wrote. “I shall 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.” So he returned. Had he stayed, America might have gained a theologian, but the world would have lost a martyr.

In conversations with me, Eberhard Bethge pointed out that there were three times in Bonhoeffer’s life when he wanted to extricate himself from a particular situation, only to discover that thereby he would have lost, not gained, his freedom, and that the only way to keep his freedom was to stifle the impulse to make off. The first occasion was in 1933, when he went to a parish in London, but decided that his presence was needed with his theological students in Germany; the second was in 1939, when he made the dramatic decision to return from America to be with his own people in the tragic times he saw ahead. The last was when he could have escaped from prison with the connivance of the guards, but refrained because it would have endangered his brother and uncle, who were also in prison. In short, he was a man with a strong desire to escape, but in order to keep his freedom, he deliberately chose to stay put.

We went on to discuss the question of Bethge’s and Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler. This must have been a difficult decision for them both to make, I said. Bethge replied that curiously enough it wasn’t. They didn’t even discuss the matter, but just assumed as a matter of course that as followers of Christ, they could not possibly allow themselves to become accomplices in the slaughter of Jews and all the other horrible things that were going on in Germany. As Bethge put it, they had to make a stand, and they could not say, “You, Hans Dohnanyi, and you, Oster, you generals…do the really dirty work, and [we, as Christians], will do something just a little bit dirty.” No, there had to be total commitment, total solidarity and true loyalty to their comrades who were not in a position to plead that, being ministers, they really did not engage in such practices. Thus, even in prison, Bonhoeffer had to continue with the double life which had begun while he was ostensibly working for the Abwehr and actually furthering the conspiracy. In order to safeguard friends outside prison who were keeping the conspiracy going, Bonhoeffer had to purport to be a good Nazi and true patriot, though it meant betraying his own earlier sayings to the contrary.

Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the assassination plot against Hitler developed while he was staying at a Benedictine monastery at Ettal, whose monks and way of life were very dear to him. The next step was for him to be taken into the Abwehr, ostensibly to be a courier whose job would be to find out about the ecumenical movement. This enabled him to meet Bishop Bell who, in his memorial service described what happened when he and Bonhoeffer met in Stockholm:

It was in May 1942 that I had my last sight of him in Stockholm, when, altogether unexpectedly, he came from Berlin at the risk of his life to give me much information of the utmost importance about the movement of the opposition in Germany to eliminate Hitler and all his chief colleagues, and to set up a new government which should repeal the Nuremberg Laws, undo Hitler’s deeds so far as they could be undone, and seek peace with the Allies. Of those solemn last talks I had with Dietrich I will say nothing further but this: deeply committed as he was to the plan for elimination, he was not altogether at ease as a Christian about such a solution. “There must be punishment by God,” he said. “We do not want to escape repentance. The elimination itself,” he urged, “must be understood as an act of repentance. Oh, we have to be punished, Christians do not wish to escape repentance or chaos, if God wills to bring it on us. We must endure this judgement as Christians.” Very moving was our talk; very moving our farewell. And the last letter I had from him, just before he returned to Berlin, knowing what might well await him there, I shall treasure for the whole of my life.

Not many months after his return he was arrested.

It is an awesome thought that the eighteen months or so that Bonhoeffer spent as a prisoner in Tegel Prison was spiritually the richest, and intellectually and artistically the most fertile, period of his life. All his circumstances prior to his imprisonment were conducive to him becoming a useful and enlightened citizen. Indeed, he had already become a pillar of the Confessional Church – a teacher, preacher and scholar of growing renown, inside Germany and abroad. All this (and I do not mean it disparagingly at all) was to be expected from so honorable and honest a product of a God-fearing, cultivated, upper-middle-class home.

In his cell, however, the theologian became a mystic, the pastor became a martyr, and the teacher produced, in his Letters and Papers from Prison, one of the great contemporary classics of Christian literature. It is very difficult indeed for a twentieth-century mind to accept, or even grasp, the notion of the blessedness of affliction. Bonhoeffer provides us with a perfect object lesson. His greatness grew directly out of his affliction, and through the very hopelessness of his earthly state, he was able to generate hope at a dark moment in history, when it was most sorely needed, comforting and heartening many.

When Bonhoeffer heard in prison that the plot of July 1944 had failed, he realized that Hitler, having miraculously survived the assassination attempt, would be merciless in liquidating the conspirators. Now he knew that, in human terms, their cause was lost. God had overruled their earthly purpose, and nothing remained for him but to come to terms, once and for all, with the Cross. In the plot’s failure lay his triumph, as in losing his life he would gain it. This is beautifully conveyed in his last writings in prison.

I have never regretted my decision in the summer of 1939 to return to Germany, for I’m firmly convinced – however strange it may seem – that my life has followed a straight and unbroken course, at any rate in its outward conduct. It has been an uninterrupted enrichment of experience, for which I can only be thankful. If I were to end my life here in these conditions, that would have a meaning that I think I could understand.

Another thought he wrote down when he was in prison, one that I like very much, is this: “Death is the supreme festival on the road to freedom.”

Despite the many things he says about himself in his Letters, Bonhoeffer was an extremely reticent person and rarely disclosed his profoundest feelings. But in this letter of August 1944, the last one he wrote to Bethge, he said:

Please don’t ever get anxious or worried about me, but don’t forget to pray for me – I’m sure you don’t. I am so sure of God’s guiding hand that I hope I shall always be kept in that certainty. You must never doubt that I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I’m being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified. Forgive my writing this. Don’t let it grieve or upset you for a moment, but let it make you happy. But I did want to say it for once, and I could not think of anyone else who I could be sure would take it aright.

A photograph of the Bonhoeffer Bonhoeffer house in Berlin
Photograph by Axel Mauruszat

Later in the same letter he goes on to refer to his young and very beautiful fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. “Maria,” he wrote, “was here today, so fresh and at the same time steadfast and tranquil in a way I’ve rarely seen.”

In October, 1944, when further details of Bonhoeffer’s conspiratorial activities were discovered, he was moved from Tegel to the Gestapo prison in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. The following February he was transferred to Buchenwald. Maria was somehow guided by instinct to follow him there, and then on to Flossenbürg. The last letter she got from him was for Christmas, 1944.

These will be quiet days in our homes, but I have had the experience over and over again that the quieter it is around me, the clearer do I feel the connection to you. It is as though in solitude the soul develops senses which we hardly know in everyday life. Therefore I have not felt lonely or abandoned for one moment. You must not think that I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little on the circumstances. It depends really only on that which happens inside a person. I am grateful every day that I have you, and that makes me happy.

So, in bodily terms, their love ended. Owing to the war, and Bonhoeffer’s arrest so soon after their engagement, they never were alone together as lovers. Yet, as the English poet John Donne wrote, love’s mysteries in souls do grow, and without any doubt theirs continued to grow despite their cruel, and now final, separation.

I talked to Maria, and she told me that there were times she could be happy about the engagement and times when it was very hard to take because

I was getting closer and closer to a man whom I was not really getting closer to.

I went first to Flossenbürg. You could take a train to something like seven kilometers from the camp. ... I walked to Flossenbürg with a ... rucksack full of clothing for Bonhoeffer. I knocked on the door and said I had been told by the Gestapo in Berlin that Bonhoeffer had been transferred to this concentration camp, that I had brought clothing and would they please deliver the clothing to him and return the old, so I could take care of it and wash it. I was met with great politeness. Of course, it didn’t happen very often at the concentration camp that an eighteen-year-old girl walked up there for some errand ... [so the guards] went through a believable effort in looking up his name.

At that point I didn’t realize it but there were different lists. In one office they looked through one list, and since he wasn’t on it, they said, “Why don’t you go there?” And I went [to another office] and they looked through another long list. At that point I thought of list A or list B, or I don’t know what, only later did I realize [that one of the lists was of those who had been executed.] But I was quite convinced when I was through – I would say I was a good two hours in that concentration camp – that they had made an honest effort to find him and that he wasn’t there. ... And he wasn’t, not yet, but eventually that is where he was executed.

I asked Maria what effect – if it is possible to express such a thing – Bonhoeffer’s death had had on her and her life. She described the stages through which she had passed:

At first, of course, it was very hard to accept the fact that he was dead, especially since I had never really been so close to him, and had had these long periods of not seeing him. It seemed like another big period of not seeing him. It was very hard to come to grips with the fact that this was indeed finished. I have continued to live my life looking at this as a great, great gift, a great ... addition, a great enrichment of my life. Yet, on the other hand, it had its hard parts and it has been difficult, even to this very day it is sometimes difficult to accept that it is no longer there. Nothing else has really quite replaced it.

Maria von Wedemeyer, 1942 Maria von Wedemeyer in 1942

After the transfer to the Gestapo prison in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse, Bonhoeffer was taken away from Berlin with a party of international prisoners. Perhaps it was just as well that he never came back. What, we may ask ourselves, would he have made of the city as it was resurrected after the war, with a macabre wall, dividing, not just two Berlins and two Germanys, but two worlds?

In taking his decision to return to Germany from America in the summer of 1939, Bonhoeffer had said: “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternatives of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation, and thereby destroying our civilization.” In the event, no such alternatives have arisen; their nation and Christian civilization have both been submerged.

This was the end, but also the beginning of life.

Berlin today – what a sad outcome of the defeat of Hitler, an end towards which Bonhoeffer had chosen to associate himself with such devious and violent purposes! In any case, he was spared the spectacle. From Buchenwald he was taken with a party of prisoners to Regensburg, and thence to Schönberg, traveling in a preposterous vehicle fueled with wood, and in the custody of guards who seemed no less bewildered than the prisoners themselves. At one point, when some village girls asked for a lift, the guards told them they were transporting a camera crew engaged in making a propaganda film. They spoke truer than they knew; in a sense the drama of Bohoeffer’s life and death, now approaching its climax, was to be for others.

Bonhoeffer and the other prisoners arrived at Schönberg on Saturday, April 7, 1945, and were lodged in the village school. Then on the Sunday morning, all the prisoners, including Vassili Kokorin, said to be Molotov’s nephew, pressed Bonhoeffer to conduct a service. After some hesitation, he agreed, taking as his text: “With his stripes we are healed,” and “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Together they sang Luther’s Eine feste Burg. An English survivor, Hugh Falconer, has said that it was an incomparable experience, which carried them all to great heights of spirituality.

Scarcely was the service over than two men appeared, and there was a shout: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready and come with us!” He knew what it meant and asked an Englishman who was present, Payne Best, to take a message from him to Bishop Bell of Chichester, to tell the Bishop that this was the end, but for him also the beginning of life, and that the ultimate victory of their cause – a universal Christian brotherhood rising above all national interest – was certain. Then Bonhoeffer was taken away.

Bishop Bell concluded his address at Bonhoeffer’s memorial service in London:

So now Dietrich has gone. Our debt to him, and to all others similarly murdered, is immense. He made the sacrifice of human prospects, of home, friends and career because he believed in God’s vocation for his country, and refused to follow those false leaders who were the servants of the devil.

Our Lord said, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone; but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it, and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” To our earthly view Dietrich is dead. Deep and unfathomable as our sorrow seems, let us comfort one another with these words. For him and Klaus, and for the countless multitudes of their fellow victims through these terrible years of war, there is the resurrection from the dead; for Germany redemption and resurrection, if God pleases to lead the nation through men animated by his spirit, holy and humble and brave like him; for the church, not only in that Germany which he loved, but the Church Universal, which was greater to him than nations, the hope of a new life. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.

Photograph by Roehrensee

Bonhoeffer arrived at the Flossenbürg prison camp on a Sunday evening and was at once summarily tried and condemned to death. His serene demeanor made a great impression on the prison doctor, who thus describes what happened:

Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his 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 steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

As Bonhoeffer went to his death in Flossenbürg, five years of the monstrous buffooneries of war were drawing to a close. Hitler’s Third Reich, which was to last for a thousand years, was soon to reach its ignominious and ruinous end. The liberators were moving in from the East and the West with bombs and tanks and guns and cigarettes and spam; the air was thick with rhetoric and cant.

Looking back now across the years, I ask myself where in that murky darkness any light shines. Not among the Nazis, certainly, nor among the liberators, who, as we now know, were to liberate no one and nothing. The rhetoric and the cant have mercifully been forgotten. What lives on is the memory of a man who died, not on behalf of freedom or democracy or a steadily rising Gross National Product, nor for any of the twentieth century’s counterfeit hopes and desires, but on behalf of a Cross on which another man died two thousand years before. As on that previous occasion on Golgotha, so amidst the rubble and desolation of “liberated” Europe, the only victor is the man who died, as the only hope for the future lies in his triumph over death. There never can be any other victory or any other hope.

The Bonhoeffer family grave. Bonhoeffer's grave
Photograph by X-Weinzar