Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Small glimmers of hope kept Dietrich going. He was heartened by the Norwegian church’s response after the takeover of their country by the Nazis. When the Nazi-backed Norwegian prime minister, Vidkun Quisling, decided to crack down hard on the church, all of the bishops and pastors in the country severed their ties with the government and the state church. The organizer of the church resistance in Norway, Bishop Eivind Berggrav, declared boldly to Norwegian pastors, “Take your wives and children along and travel the roads with a handcart. Hold a parish meeting every evening. I am sure that if Norway’s thousand pastors set out that way, the men in Berlin will understand fast enough how foolish this whole business is.” Shortly afterward, Bishop Berggrav was arrested, but his arrest only strengthened church resistance.

Naturally these upstart Norwegian clergymen disturbed the Nazis, who wanted to know who was leading the rebellion with the bishop in jail. Abwehr was given the task of finding out. As a result, Dietrich and another member of the conspiracy, Count Helmuth von Moltke, were sent to Norway. The count was a year younger than Dietrich and came from a long line of distinguished military men. His father had been the head of Germany’s armed forces at the beginning of World War I, and his great-uncle had been a famous field marshal in the Franco-Prussian war. The count was a dedicated Christian who led a group of conspirators called the Kreisau Circle.

Unlike Dietrich, those involved in the Kreisau Circle did not believe it was wise to kill Adolf Hitler. They argued that if Hitler were assassinated, he would be hailed as a martyr, and if they failed in the assassination attempt, thousands of resistance members would be hunted down and executed. Neither outcome was acceptable to the Kreisau Circle. Dietrich understood their point, but he felt it was worth the risk. Hitler had to go, and the sooner the better.

Dietrich and Helmuth became friends during their assignment in Norway. Because of his family’s long and illustrious military history, the count was able to meet with many German officers commanding the occupation force in Norway, while Dietrich worked behind the scenes encouraging the Norwegian church leaders in their resistance.

The real purpose of Dietrich and Helmuth’s visit to Norway was to try to save the life of Bishop Berggrav, who would almost certainly be tried and executed for his part in the resistance. The plan worked. Based on the information Dietrich and Helmuth reported to Abwehr, a short time later an order for Bishop Berggrav’s release was sent to Norway from Berlin. Keeping the bishop in jail was only aggravating the resistance in Norway.

Upon his return from Norway, Dietrich learned that Bishop George Bell was visiting Sweden for three weeks. When Hans and Admiral Canaris learned this, they quickly organized a trip to Sweden for Dietrich, securing a courier pass for him through the Foreign Ministry. As soon as the paperwork was in order, Dietrich flew from Berlin to Stockholm, Sweden. He arrived in Stockholm on May 31, 1942, and learned that Bishop Bell was at the Nordic Ecumenical Institute in Sigtuna, to the north. Dietrich quickly made his way there, surprising the bishop when he appeared unannounced at the institute. Dietrich and Bishop Bell had not seen each other since 1939, just before Dietrich left for the United States. The two men enjoyed a warm reunion and talked for several hours, catching each other up on what they had been doing. Bishop Bell also reported that Dietrich’s sister Sabine and her husband, Gerhard, were doing well. They were still in Oxford, and Gerhard was a helpful adviser to the bishop on matters related to Germany.

Dietrich then filled Bishop Bell in on what was happening with the conspiracy. He gave the bishop the names of current generals involved and new details on how they planned to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the Nazis. He also told him who would most likely lead a new German government after that. Again he put out feelers for the kind of peace terms the British government might be willing to negotiate.

Bishop Bell promised Dietrich he would do all in his power to get the information to the right people in the British government. However, he sounded a note of caution. The British had entered into an alliance with the Soviet Union. Given the carnage and death the Germans had wrought in Russia, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was even less inclined to make any distinction between Nazis and other Germans, even those wanting to overthrow Hitler. Still, Bishop Bell hoped the specific information and names Dietrich had provided would help change some minds in the government when they saw that there was a real conspiracy with real and well-placed people behind it. Dietrich hoped that would be the case.

When he arrived back in Germany, Dietrich learned that Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Final Solution—the plan to exterminate the Jews in Europe—had been assassinated by two resistance fighters in Prague, Czechoslovakia. Learning that such an evil man had been done away with was encouraging to Dietrich, but the Nazi reprisals against the Czechs that followed were not. As usual, the Nazis were thorough, ordering the execution of hundreds of men, women, and children whom they believed came from the same town as the assassins. Dietrich hoped all the madness and killing would soon be over.

Chapter 16

A week after his return from Sweden, Dietrich sat in the dining room at Ruth von Kleist-Retzow’s estate at Klein-Krössin in Pomerania, talking with Ruth and her eighteen-year-old granddaughter, Maria. Maria had just graduated from high school and was preparing for a year of national service. She explained to Dietrich that she hoped to be assigned to a hospital as a nursing assistant. Dietrich asked about her long-term plans, and Maria told him she would like to be a mathematician.

Dietrich was impressed by Maria’s intelligence and confidence. He thought of the other times he’d met her—when she came to open meetings at the Finkenwalde seminary with her grandmother, when he baptized her older brother Max, and when he was introduced to her parents, Hans and Ruth von Wedemeyer, who were both outstanding Christian leaders in their community.

After lunch Dietrich and Maria took a stroll in the garden. It was a warm summer day, and Ruth’s roses were in full bloom. Maria told Dietrich that her father was now commanding an infantry battalion near Stalingrad in the Soviet Union and how he hated the fact that he was fighting to keep a man as evil as Adolf Hitler in power. Dietrich tried to comfort Maria. He knew just how nerve-racking it was to have family members in the military.

Maria left early the next morning. As Dietrich continued his writing, he found his mind wandering back to the conversations he’d had with her. She really is quite extraordinary for such a young woman, he thought. After a refreshing week at Klein-Krössin, Dietrich caught the train back to Munich.

His next assignment with Abwehr was to accompany Hans to Venice and Rome on official business. As Dietrich was being driven around Rome, he couldn’t help thinking of the wonderful times he and Klaus had had there when they visited eighteen years before. How different things were now.

Dietrich arrived back in Germany in mid-August to learn that Maria and Max von Wedemeyer’s father had been killed in the fighting in the Soviet Union. Dietrich wrote to the family, encouraging them to remain strong in their faith. As soon as he could, he visited Ruth at Klein-Krössin to pay his respects on the death of her son-in-law. Dietrich noticed that Ruth was having increasing difficulty reading as her eyesight began to fail. When Dietrich returned to Berlin to visit his parents, he arranged for Ruth to come to Berlin for eye surgery at the Franciscan Hospital.

Maria, who had not yet been assigned to a hospital as part of her national service, came along to assist her grandmother. Dietrich met her at the hospital several times and used the opportunity to talk with her about her father’s death. Dietrich also told her about some of his work in the resistance. He knew she would be sympathetic, given her father’s opposition to the Nazis, and because her uncle, Major General Henning von Tresckow, was heavily involved in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

The following week Dietrich invited Maria to meet his family at a gathering in honor of one of his nephews going off to fight in the war. Even though she was much younger than he, Dietrich felt an attraction to Maria. As difficult as it was for him to believe, he knew he was in love with her.

Just two months after Maria’s father’s death, Maria’s brother Max was killed in the war. Dietrich was deeply disturbed when he learned this and wrote to Maria offering his condolences. It was a setback for Dietrich’s romantic plans, since Maria was now mourning the loss of both her father and her brother.

Strangely, as Dietrich wrestled with his feelings toward Maria, his close friend Eberhard confided that he also was in love with a young woman. The woman he had fallen in love with was someone Dietrich knew well—eighteen-year-old Renate Schleicher, the daughter of his older sister Ursula and her husband, Rüdiger. Dietrich and Eberhard found themselves in quite a quandary. Maria’s family was in disarray, and Ursula and Rüdiger thought Renate too young to marry.

Dietrich began writing to Maria, explaining how he felt. At first she was astonished but agreed to continue corresponding. Gradually, as they continued to write letters back and forth, she fell in love with Dietrich. On January 17, 1943, Maria wrote to Dietrich responding to his proposal in a previous letter. She said, “Today I can say yes to you from my entire, joyful heart.” With that, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer were officially engaged to be married.

The couple didn’t set a marriage date. Because so many things were up in the air in Germany and in their lives, Dietrich did not want to make Maria his wife until things had settled down. In particular, two very different events were on the horizon, and the order in which they occurred could change everything. The first was Operation Flash, another attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Operation Flash called for a bomb to be placed on Hitler’s airplane while he visited German troops in Smolensk in the Soviet Union in March. If all went according to plan, the bomb would explode while Hitler was flying back to East Prussia, killing him and all aboard the plane.

The second event was Dietrich’s probable arrest. Hans had told Dietrich that he was now certain the Gestapo was tailing them. Hans explained he believed the Gestapo had uncovered the money trail he had used to acquire the foreign currency the Swiss government demanded before allowing the fourteen Jews of Operation 7 to flee to freedom. And since Dietrich had been involved in Operation 7, the Gestapo was also on his trail. At some stage, Hans was certain, they would both be arrested. The question looming over Dietrich was, which would happen first, his arrest or Hitler’s death?

Tension mounted as Operation Flash grew near. Hans had recruited Eberhard into Abwehr to keep him from being drafted into the army, and on the evening of March 12, 1943, he had Eberhard drive him to the railway station. The package Hans carried on the night train east contained the bomb to be used to kill Hitler.

Hans was to take the bomb to Smolensk, where he would hand it over to Maria’s uncle, Major General Henning von Tresckow, and his aide, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, who happened to be married to Maria’s cousin. It was the job of these two to get the bomb onto the airplane Hitler would be flying in and then detonate the chemical fuse before the plane took off. If all went as planned, the bomb would explode approximately thirty minutes later, just as Adolf Hitler was flying over Minsk.

On March 13, Dietrich and the other conspirators waited nervously for news that the plane had exploded, but none came. Instead, Hitler’s plane landed safely in East Prussia. Now they were sick with worry. Had the bomb been found? With incredible coolness, Major General von Tresckow called to find out what had happened to the “package.” He learned that the bomb hadn’t been discovered on the airplane but had failed to detonate during the flight. It was a relief to all in the conspiracy that Hitler didn’t realize how close he had come to dying. They would try again.