Dietrich Bonhoeffer must have known that he was living on borrowed time as he sat in his cell and wrote letters to his family. Yes, he seemed to be lucky in that he was being held in a military prison to await trial instead of being held in a concentration camp to await certain death. But, Dietrich knew well that martyrdom awaited him at the end of the story. He had been arrested by the Gestapo because of his involvement with the German military intelligence organization Abwehr and the bitter feud between the two agencies. Even though Dietrich knew he had been plotting together with others to assassinate Adolf Hitler, the Gestapo had failed to demonstrate that in their raids upon Abwehr offices. Instead, they had arrested him only on charges of evading conscription, resistance to Nazi decree, and speaking in public although previously forbidden to do so. But, Dietrich had to know that eventually they would find proof of his involvement in plots to assassinate Hitler and that, when they did, their retribution would be swift and brutal. So Dietrich, pastor in the Confessing Church of Germany and enemy of the State, waited in his cell and tried to encourage his brothers and sisters in the faith with the letters he was still allowed to send.
His involvement in the resistance movement to the Nazis must have been a surprise to him upon reflection. He had received an excellent education in theology and philosophy and his doctoral thesis was described by none other than eminent theologian Karl Barth as a “theological miracle.”He could have had an academic career of considerable influence and relative safety had he wanted it. But, he had become gloriously entangled in the struggles and causes of the faithful Church in Germany as Hitler rose to power in the 1930s. So, instead of becoming a pastor or professor of safety and regard, he became a vocal opponent of Nazism in his homeland. Though he had to do it alone at first, Dietrich was more than willing to cry out against the injustices that Hitler and the Nazis were perpetrating against our Jewish brothers and sisters as well as the disenfranchised and undesirables.While other ministers were advocating measured ministry to the downtrodden injured by Nazi fanaticism, Dietrich was being cut off the radio and forbidden to speak in public for uttering lines such as “[We must not simply] bandage the victims under the wheel, but jam the spoke in the wheel itself.”
For a little while he escaped to the United States of America but his heart stayed in Germany. He spent time with Reinhold Niebuhr and developed a particular fondness for African American spirituals. Even though he worked tirelessly to resist Hitler’s advances in Germany from afar he soon realized that he was not called to escape Germany’s struggles but, instead, to be in the midst of them. Before departing, he wrote a letter to Niebuhr that included the following passage:
“I have come to the conclusion that 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… Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative 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 civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.”
So, Dietrich returned and joined with the Abwehr to plot the death of Hitler and, hopefully, the consequent destruction of the Nazi German war machine. Though he was an avowed pacifist, Dietrich felt that there was no other choice but to seek the death of Hitler because of the great evil he was perpetrating. It seems that, although he struggled with the decision, Dietrich had decided to act in a way he felt to be wrong because of the horrible consequences of not doing so. He wrote, “when a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself and no one else. He answers for it…Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace.” In these words, his struggle with the assassination plot is evident–this was no easy decision.
Eventually, Dietrich’s sedition was discovered and he was transferred from the military prison through a series of other prisons before arriving in concentration camps first at Buchenwald and second at Flossenbürg. When the diaries of the head of Abwehr were discovered, on April 4, 1954, and the plot to assassinate Hitler was revealed, Hitler ordered the immediate execution of all those involved in the plot. This included Dietrich Bonhoeffer. An impromptu court-martial was held at Flossenbürg and Dietrich was condemned to die on April 8.At dawn on April 9, he was marched naked to the gallows where he stopped to pray for himself and for his enemies. His captors had decided to engineer his hanging so as not to break his neck but rather to slowly strangle him to death. Dietrich died with a prayer upon his lips and his compete trust placed in the grace and mercy of God. Three weeks later, the Soviet army liberated Berlin and Hitler committed suicide. One week after that, Germany capitulated.