One year before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis on the morning of April 9, 1945, he wrote from prison to his friend Eberhard Bethge: “What keeps gnawing at me is the question, ‘What is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?’” To that question we must now pose one of our own: “Who exactly is Dietrich Bonhoeffer for us today?” The answers are as various as the interpreters, and the literature on Bonhoeffer continues to grow with every passing year. Bonhoeffer faced the issue of his own personal identity with unblinkered realism in the poem he wrote in August 1944, “Who Am I?” Although he appeared to his captors, he said, as “calm and cheerful and poised, like a squire from his manor,” in reality he knew himself to be “restless, yearning, sick, like a caged bird. . . . too tired and empty to pray, to think, to work, weary and ready to take my leave of it all.”
Bonhoeffer was many things of course—preacher, professor, theologian, ecumenist, pianist, activist in the church struggle, educator, conspirator, and at the end a martyr. But from the day he was ordained to the Lutheran ministry on November 13, 1931, he was first and foremost a pastor. Bonhoeffer began his ministry by leading a confirmation class of forty-two rowdy boys in a working class neighborhood in Berlin, and he ended it by giving solace and spiritual counsel to those who shared his life behind prison walls. His last act before his summary court-martial and execution at Flossenbürg was to lead his fellow prisoners in a service of worship. His texts were taken from the Moravian Losungen, a devotional guide he had followed throughout his life: Isaiah 53:5 (“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed”) and 1 Peter 1:3 (“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”). It was the second Sunday of Easter.
The home in which Bonhoeffer grew up was formally religious but not overtly pious. Going to church as a weekly habit was not generally done. But at Advent and Christmastide, the mystery of the Christmas faith was allowed to shine through in the warm-hearted Gemütlichkeit of a traditional German family: pageantry, feasting, music, Christmas trees, wreaths, mistletoe, and gathering to hear the reading of the Christmas story.
Of all the seasons of the Christian year, Bonhoeffer was drawn especially to Advent, a holy season of waiting and hope which he saw as a metaphor for the entire Christian life. “We simply have to wait and wait,” he wrote. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
Before his imprisonment, Bonhoeffer had bought a stock of Advent cards with a nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511. It shows the Holy Family huddled together in a dilapidated house which looks for all the world like a modern bomb shelter. In a letter to his parents from Tegel Prison on November 28, 1943, Bonhoeffer referred to this painting:
Although I am not at all clear about whether, or, how, letters get to you, I want to write on this afternoon of Advent Sunday: Remember the Altdorfer Christmas scene, in which the Holy Family is depicted with the manger amidst the ruins of a broken down house? It is really contemporary. We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us. I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all the Advent decorations—as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively, because we do not know how much longer we have.
During that first Advent behind bars, Bonhoeffer found solace in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt and in daily readings from the Bible, especially the Old Testament. He also relished a prison visit with his parents and his 19-year-old fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. On Christmas Day, he was cheered by the gifts they had brought to his cell: a sweater knitted by Maria, a cigar sent by Karl Barth, and a slice of smoked goose from the family holiday meal. Touches of Gemütlichkeit in the precincts of hell.
Advent 1944, though, would find Bonhoeffer in a different place and in more straightened circumstances. With the failure of the Stauffenberg plot against the regime on July 20, 1944, Hitler unleashed a campaign of reprisals that resulted in thousands of deaths. The noose around Bonhoeffer’s neck grew tighter as his own role in the conspiracy became more difficult to hide. On Sunday, October 8, 1944, Bonhoeffer was removed from Tegel Prison, where he had spent the last eighteen months, and taken to the cellar prison of the Reich SS Headquarters in Prince Albrecht Street. Family visits were no longer permitted, the writing of letters was restricted, and most contact with the outside world eliminated. The two spiritual artifacts he had relied on in Tegel—his hymnal and his precious copy of the Luther Bible—were both taken away. Bonhoeffer’s biographers differ as to whether he was physically tortured in the Gestapo prison, though some of his cellmates certainly were. To one of them he described the harsh interrogations he was forced to endure as “simply disgusting.”
What we know about Bonhoeffer during these dark days comes from the witness of several of his fellow prisoners who survived the war. One of these was Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Maria’s first cousin, who later described snippets of conversation with Bonhoeffer in the common washroom under a cold shower and through the slits in the hinges of the door separating their cells. Bonhoeffer shared biblical words of comfort and hope. He also shared pieces of bread, apples, and occasional cigars which had been hidden in the laundry parcel his family was permitted to leave for him each Wednesday. “It delighted him that even in prison you were able to help your neighbor, and let him share in what you had.”
Because several of the guards had developed a soft spot for Maria, Bonhoeffer was able to smuggle out three brief letters from this dark catacomb, all scrabbled in pencil on scraps of paper. The first of these was a Christmas letter for Maria herself, dated December 19, 1944. He does not refer to the awful conditions of the prison but reminds her instead of their love for one another and of the things that have meant so much to him: “your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books—all are invested with life and reality as never before.” In this letter he included a poem he had written during that Advent, Von guten Mächten (“By Gracious Powers”), which later became a hymn still sung today in churches around the world. The final stanza of the hymn reads:
By powers of good so wondrously protected,
we wait with confidence, befall what may.
God is with us at night and in the morning
and oh, most certainly on each new day.
The letter is replete with this practical request: “Also, could you fix up my underpants so they don’t slip down? There aren’t any braces in here.”
A few days later followed a letter to his mother Paula Bonhoeffer, who marked her 68th birthday on December 30. He prays that the New Year “might bring us a glimmer of light, at least here and there,” and declares his belief that “these difficult years have forged an even closer bond between us than ever before.” The final words we have from Bonhoeffer’s hand are in a letter to his parents dated January 17, 1945. He instructs them to dispose of his clothes and other belongings: “Give away whatever anyone might need, without giving it a second thought. . . . after all, in the past two years I’ve learned how little a person needs to get by.” He hopes that Maria will bring him some books he has requested along with some matches, toothpaste, a few coffee beans, and a laxative. When the package finally came, however, Bonhoeffer was already gone. Unbeknownst to Maria and his parents, he had been taken to the concentration camp at Buchenwald, where he would spend two months en route toward the destiny that awaited him at Flossenbürg.
Bonhoeffer once said that he thought he would die at age forty. In fact, he made it to thirty-nine. Bonhoeffer loved the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, especially the magnificent St. Matthew Passion. But Bethge had introduced him to Heinrich Schütz, Bach’s musical predecessor, whose polychoral compositions had enriched the tradition of Lutheran church music. During Advent 1940, Bonhoeffer and Bethge had performed the music of Schütz during a sojourn at Ettal Benedictine Monastery in Bavaria. Among their favorites was “Bone Jesu” from Schütz’s Kleine Geistliche Konzerte: “O good Jesus, Word of the Father/splendor of the Father's glory/on whom the angels long to gaze/teach me to do Your will.” The melody and words of this sacred song were in Bonhoeffer’s mind as his hopes for release from prison dimmed. He had memorized the musical notation to this song and transcribed some of it onto the final letters he wrote. In this way, he continued to share his life and bless the world until the very end.
Earlier, Bonhoeffer had written these words to Eberhard and Renate Bethge:
The world lives by the blessing of God and of the righteous and thus has a future. Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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