Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5, 1943, for his role in the resistance efforts in Germany and the attempted assassination plot against Hitler. He was imprisoned in a Gestapo prison in Berlin until February 1945. Then he was transferred to Buchenwald concentration camp. In April he was transferred to Flossenburg where he was hanged on April 9, 1945, days before the camp was liberated by the Allies. He was executed under the direct order of Hitler through Himmler.
Bonhoeffer, the man and his faith in Christ, during his imprisonment and leading up to his execution, is portrayed in the newest biography of Bonhoeffer, Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. The following relies on this biography.
Payne Best, a British Secret Intelligence Service agent who had been captured by the Nazi SS, met Bonhoeffer at Buchenwald concentration camp. Of the prisoners at Buchenwald Best wrote, “We were all far too hardened to surroundings where sudden death was the order of the day. At any moment an order might come for some or all of us to be gassed, shot, or hung [sic], and subconsciously we were all so much engaged in the struggle for survival that no one had the energy to expend in sympathy for the sufferings of unknown and anonymous people who, after all, were already dead” (514).
In contrast Best described Bonhoeffer as “all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive….He was one of the very few men that I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him” (514).
In 1951 Best wrote to Bonhoeffer’s sister Sabine. He described her brother as “different; just quite calm and normal, seemingly perfectly at his ease…his soul really shone in the dark desperation of our prison.” Especially important to what I am wanting to express in this series of posts is Best telling Sabine that Bonhoeffer “had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid” (515). How often have I asked myself will I be strong enough to stand the tests life gives me? Will I be strong enough when I know my life is nearing its end? Though I will encourage the reader to know that in Christ there is nothing in life of which you need ever be afraid, will my faith overcome my fear?
April 8, 1945, was the first Sunday after Easter. Bonhoeffer led his fellow prisoners in worship. He prayed. The Scripture readings he shared were Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 1:3. From these texts Bonhoeffer spoke words of encouragement. No sooner had he finished a final prayer then he was taken to be transferred to Flossenburg. He was hanged the next day. His parting words to Payne Best, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life” (528).
At Flossenburg the camp doctor was H. Fischer-Hullstrung. He did not know the background of Bonhoeffer. Years later he wrote of seeing Bonhoeffer minutes before being led to be hanged. The doctor wrote Bonhoeffer was “kneeling on the floor praying fervently to his God…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…(he died) so entirely submissive to the will of God” (531-532).
So much about Dietrich Bonhoeffer humbles me. I noted above Payne Best’s observations of Bonhoeffer which Best shared with Bonhoeffer’s sister Sabine. Bonhoeffer “had always been afraid that he would not be strong enough to stand such a test but now he knew there was nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid” (515).
Like almost every age in history ours has become for many a time of fear. Fear of the enemies of our nation, especially radical Islamists. Christians voice fear of politicians, atheists, and humanists, who are perceived as bent on a moral shift in the nation’s religious and moral foundations. They fear the destruction of the nation, of freedoms, of what is good. They fear the destruction of Christianity. There is the fear of various forms of evil which oppress and seek to destroy–illness, broken marriages, financial struggles, life changing and life destroying accidents and criminal acts. Fear, in many forms, grips the hearts and lives of Christians.
Is the reality of evil reason for fear within the disciple of Christ? Are evil’s oppression and seeming victories reason for fear within those whose faith is in Jesus Christ? Is there ever reason for hopelessness within followers of Christ? Or as Bonhoeffer learned in prison, the concentration camps of the Nazi SS, and as he stood before the gallows, is there “nothing in life of which one need ever be afraid”?