Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Chapter 1
Everything Had Changed

Eleven-year-old Dietrich Bonhoeffer groaned. It had been impossible to find food in Berlin that day, for any price, even on the black market. For days now it had been like this, and as his family’s food forager, he was discouraged. Even ersatz (substitute food commodities) could not be found. No matter how hard Dietrich tried, he often came home empty-handed.

From the talk he heard on the streets, it was the British navy’s fault. They were blockading Germany’s ports on the Baltic Sea, cutting off the supply of food coming from abroad. On top of that, with so many young men away fighting, there were fewer people to farm the land and harvest crops in the country. And what food was available was usually used to feed the troops. As winter approached, the situation was getting even worse. The German potato supply was exhausted, and people were supposed to substitute turnips for potatoes. Dietrich could hardly believe it. In Germany turnips were used to feed horses and cows and pigs, and now people were expected to eat them. How could it be? The war wasn’t supposed to have gone on this long. He thought it was only going to last a few months at most. Three years later, they were still fighting.

The war had changed everything. The once prosperous streets of Berlin were filled with soup kitchens where emaciated and bedraggled people lined up in the cold to await a ladleful of soup that seemed to be more water than anything else. And that wasn’t the only change Dietrich had to confront. As he crossed the bridge on his way to school, almost every morning he would look down and see men on the riverbank trying to retrieve the body of some desperate person who had jumped from the bridge to their death. Just thinking about it sent a shiver down Dietrich’s spine.

More than anything, Dietrich wanted things to be normal again. He wanted Berlin to be the happy, magical place it had been when his family moved to the city from Breslau.

Chapter 2

We’re leaving Breslau today,” six-year-old Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as he ran through the nursery and joined Sabine, his twin sister, who was peering out the window at the commotion below.

Sabine grinned. “I know. Just think, tomorrow we’ll wake up in Berlin!”

Dietrich was not sure whether or not that was a good thing.

As the children stared out the nursery window, their nanny, Maria Horn, walked briskly into the room. Three-year-old Susanne trotted along behind her. “Children, dress quickly and come downstairs for breakfast and prayers,” Maria said. “There is a lot going on today, so look out for each other and mind what you are told.”

Dietrich nodded as he donned his blue silk undershirt and white frock. He hoped that when he got to Berlin his mother would let him wear lederhosen like his three older brothers, Karl-Friedrich, Walter, and Klaus.

“Let me do your hair,” Maria said. “Sabine, you first.”

Dietrich stood quietly and watched as Maria braided his sister’s thick black hair. Even though he and Sabine were twins, they did not look the least bit alike. Like the rest of the Bonhoeffer children, Sabine had dark hair and flashing brown eyes. Dietrich was the odd one out. He had the same bright blue eyes and white-blond hair as his mother. Often when they were on family outings, strangers assumed Dietrich was a friend and not even a member of the family.

Soon the entire family was seated in the dining room for breakfast. The heavy wooden table was arrayed with a loaf of rye bread, butter, cheese, wild raspberry jam, and Dietrich’s favorite, hot cocoa.

Even though it was going to be a busy day, Dietrich’s mother, Paula, insisted on starting the day with a Bible story, family prayers, and the singing of a hymn. This was the way each day in Dietrich’s life had begun so far, and he loved the way his mother could make Old Testament stories come alive. Today was no exception. All eight Bonhoeffer children sat mesmerized as their mother told of David’s slingshot whirling above his head as he faced Goliath.

When breakfast and prayers were over, Dietrich and Sabine wandered around the grounds of their home one last time. Dietrich knew that the family was moving two hundred miles northwest to Berlin, Germany’s capital, where his father, Karl Bonhoeffer, had a new job as head of Psychiatry and Neurology at the University of Berlin. Taking each other’s hand, the twins walked down to the creek, where they had often gathered raspberries for the cook, and past the spot where they could count on seeing a dragonfly or two. They walked past the tennis court, where their favorite memories were not of tennis but of watching their older brothers and sisters ice-skate during the long winter months. It had been their father’s suggestion to pour water on the tennis court and wait for it to freeze like an ice rink. Dietrich’s two older sisters, Ursula and Christine, loved figure skating on the smooth, frozen surface.

Dietrich and Sabine walked into the wooded area where Dietrich and his older brothers had built forts and dug caves into the clay bank.

“I wish all the animals could come with us,” Dietrich said wistfully as they climbed over the fence into the cook’s garden.

“Me too,” Sabine agreed. “But Mama says the family that’s moving in wants to look after them for us.”

As he thought about the room of the house where their mother allowed them to keep animals, Dietrich hoped this was the case. The room was filled with lively rabbits, guinea pigs, birds, lizards, and snakes, all kept in neat cages. Sometimes one of the creatures would escape, causing great excitement in the house.

Dietrich wondered what the new house in Berlin would be like. His mother had said that living in a big city would be quite different, but Fräulein Käthe Horn would still teach him and Sabine, so he had no need to be concerned about going off to school just yet.

A succession of horse-drawn carriages pulled up to the front of the Bonhoeffer house. Dietrich and Sabine headed toward them. Soon the whole family was seated in the carriages, and moments later they were off to the station to catch the train to Berlin. As the carriages pulled away, Dietrich took one last look at the only home he’d ever lived in. He would miss the rambling three-story house and the wonderful grounds with their beckoning adventures. He hoped his mother was right when she said that living in Berlin would be just as much fun.

The train trip was wonderful for Dietrich. He stuck his head out the window as the huge steam engine huffed its way out of the station. He watched as they left the buildings of Breslau behind and headed into the German countryside. It was late March, and signs of spring were everywhere. New leaves clung to the boughs of trees, flowers dotted pastures in which cows grazed, and the air rushing in through the window seemed to have a hint of sweet fragrance. When the train stopped at stations along the way, Dietrich watched as men and women climbed aboard. As the train began to fill with people, he listened to the adults’ conversations. Some talked about the weather or what they intended to do in Berlin, while others talked about things happening in the German Republic and about Kaiser Wilhelm II.

Eventually the train puffed to a halt in Berlin. Trains were pulled up at platforms everywhere; Dietrich had never seen so many people coming and going. As he climbed down to the station platform, Dietrich was amazed by all the activity. But he wasn’t sure whether he would like the city that lay beyond the railway station.

Dietrich need not have been concerned. He loved Berlin from the moment he arrived. With three million inhabitants, Berlin was the largest city he’d ever seen. The city had so many modern marvels: Europe’s only open-air swimming pool for families and a cinema showing silent movies. It also had wide boulevards that converged at public squares with flower gardens, fountains, and statues.

The Bonhoeffer family settled into a home on Brückenalle, a wide, tree-lined street on the main route to Bellevue Train Station. The new house had three stories, just like the Breslau house, but it was much smaller and didn’t have the spacious grounds of the family’s previous residence. It had no space where Dietrich could roam and build forts. However, the new house did back up to a huge park that surrounded Bellevue Castle, home of the kaiser and his family. Dietrich and Sabine would peer through the railings at the young princes taking their morning walk. One day one of the little princes came right up to the fence and tried to poke Sabine with a stick. Sabine and Dietrich ran for cover.

The house on Brückenalle was not far from Friedrich-Werder Grammar School, where Dietrich’s older brothers and sisters were enrolled. Dietrich was grateful he did not yet have to attend school. His parents had an unusual view of education. His mother would say, “I will not send my boys to school until I have to. Germany breaks the back of a young man twice, first at school, then in the military.” In fact, Dietrich’s mother had taught all five of the older children at home until they moved to Berlin. Even though she was from a wealthy family, as a young woman she had insisted on attending college to become a qualified schoolteacher.

While the five older children—Karl-Friedrich and Walter, both age thirteen; eleven-year-old Klaus; ten-year-old Ursula; and nine-year-old Christine—went off to school, the three youngest children, including Dietrich, continued to be taught at home by the Horn sisters. Both Käthe and Maria Horn had attended the Moravian school in Herrnhut that Dietrich’s mother had attended. Count Zinzendorf, whom Dietrich heard a lot about from all three women, had founded the village in the mid-eighteenth century and used it as a place to preach that Christianity was about a personal relationship with God. That message caught fire in the hearts of the Moravians who migrated to live at Herrnhut and who became fearless missionaries, spreading the gospel from India to Jamaica.

Although Dietrich’s father did not call himself a Christian, he supported the Christian atmosphere that surrounded the home. In Berlin, Dietrich’s mother continued her practice of reading the Bible aloud and leading the family in prayer and hymn singing each morning. She also liked to talk about her father, who was once a chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor and King of Prussia and her brother, who was a local Lutheran pastor. Yet the Bonhoeffer family rarely attended church, and each of the children had been baptized at home.

Always curious, Dietrich found a lot to explore in Berlin. One of his favorite spots was the Berlin Zoo, which was only a short distance from the Brückenalle house. The zoo was the grandest in Europe, filled with all sorts of exotic animals: elephants, lions, giraffes, zebras, and other animals from Africa; tigers from Asia; kangaroos from Australia; and monkeys, baboons, gorillas, chimpanzees, and strange birds with colorful plumage from all over the world. Dietrich loved watching the animals in their cages. He also loved the zoo buildings: the Antelope House with its four minarets, the enormous Indian-inspired Elephant House, the Egyptian Ostrich House, the Japanese Wader House, the Chinese-inspired Elephant Gate, and the Arabian-style houses for the solipeds. Surrounding the zoo were numerous music pavilions and large restaurants with expansive terraces. Dietrich explored it all.

The remainder of 1912 passed quickly, and on February 4, 1913, Dietrich and Sabine celebrated their seventh birthday. It was the beginning of an eventful year. Dietrich’s parents bought a summerhouse at Friedrichsbrunn, 120 miles southwest of Berlin in the Harz Mountains. Only Dietrich’s father had visited the place when the younger children, the Horn sisters, two housemaids, and governess Fräulein Lenchen went off to prepare the new house for the family’s summer vacation.

The group caught the train from Berlin to the town of Thale, where two horse-drawn carriages were waiting for them. Their baggage was loaded into one of the carriages, and everyone piled into the other for the four-mile trip to the summerhouse at Friedrichsbrunn.