Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

The next assassination attempt occurred eight days later and was more direct. It was a suicide mission in which a Major Rudolf-Christoph von Gersdorff would meet Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Hermann Göring at the Heroes’ Memorial Day ceremony in Berlin. The major would carry two bombs in his overcoat and detonate them when he was close to all three Nazi leaders. This time the fuses would detonate in ten minutes.

While the assassination attempt was under way, Dietrich, Rüdiger Schleicher, and Hans were all assembled at the Schleicher home. They were rehearsing a musical performance for Dietrich’s father’s seventy-fifth birthday in ten days. As they practiced, they glanced nervously at each other. Dietrich knew what the others were thinking. At any moment now the führer and two of his worst henchmen would be dead. The Third Reich would at last be over.

The minutes ticked by. Dietrich played piano while Rüdiger accompanied on the violin and Hans sang. With each note he sounded on the piano, Dietrich waited anxiously for the phone to ring, but no call came. By the end of the rehearsal, it was clear that something had gone wrong again. Hitler appeared to have more lives than a cat.

Later Dietrich learned that Hitler had stayed at the ceremony for only a few minutes, even though he was scheduled to be there for a half hour. There was not enough time to activate the bomb. As the war progressed, Hitler had become deliberately more unpredictable about his movements.

In the meantime, the Bonhoeffer clan gathered for Karl Bonhoeffer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Everyone was there except Sabine, Gerhard, and their two girls. Eberhard and Dietrich’s niece Renate were particularly happy. Renate’s parents, Ursula and Rüdiger, had granted permission for the two to marry the following month.

For one happy day, the Bonhoeffer family tried to forget about the war. There was food, wine, music, and poetry, just as there had been at so many other wonderful family gatherings. What no one knew was that this would be the last time they were all together.

Chapter 17
Cell 92

At noon on April 5, 1943, Dietrich was at his parents’ house and decided to call the Dohnanyis. He dialed the number and waited for Christine to pick up the phone. Instead a clipped male voice answered. Dietrich knew it wasn’t Hans’s voice and immediately put down the receiver. He took a deep breath. So the time has come, he thought. I will be next. He was sure that the voice on the phone belonged to a Gestapo agent and that the Dohnanyis’ house was being searched. Not wanting to alarm his parents, Dietrich calmly walked next door to where Ursula and Rüdiger lived. Eberhard was visiting his future in-laws at the time.

Dietrich explained the situation to the three of them, and then Ursula prepared a meal for them all. Dietrich heartily ate the food put in front of him, not knowing when he might eat this well again. As they sat around the table, they discussed Hitler’s first big defeat. It had happened just two months before in Stalingrad. The German army had fought through the winter for control of the city, but weak, hungry, and without hope of reinforcements, Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus had surrendered to the Soviets. It was the first time Hitler had acknowledged a defeat to the German people. And in January, the Americans had flown a bombing raid over Wilhelmshaven, a coastal town in northern Germany. Everyone in the room hoped that the war would end soon.

Dietrich stayed at the Schleichers’ home until just after four in the afternoon, when his father came to tell him two men were waiting for him back at the house. Dietrich hugged Ursula, shook hands with Rüdiger and Eberhard, and walked quietly next door with his father. The two men were standing in the hallway. Dietrich immediately recognized one of them, Colonel Manfred Roeder, a senior military prosecutor. He greeted the prosecutor cordially, and the two men escorted him upstairs to his room. Dietrich was told to stand still while the men proceeded to tear his room apart. They pulled out drawers and turned them upside down and poked at the ceiling panels. Dietrich grabbed his Bible as the men loaded papers into a large cardboard box. Finally the two men took Dietrich by the arm and escorted him downstairs and out the front door of the house to a waiting black Mercedes-Benz. Dietrich was pushed into the back seat. He gripped his Bible and gazed back at the house. His parents stood silently in front of the gate.

The Mercedes sped north through the streets of Berlin. There was little traffic, as gasoline was now severely rationed for everyone except Nazis on government business. Soon Dietrich was led into Tegel Military Prison with its whitewashed walls and red tiled roof.

Night was falling by the time Dietrich was escorted through the doors and shoved into a receiving cell. A guard took his Bible and threw a blanket at him before the cell door clanged shut. Dietrich recoiled at the foul-smelling blanket, which he couldn’t even bear to cover himself with. He spent a long night curled up on a hard cot, trying to block out the sound of other prisoners weeping and groaning. Early the next morning a guard opened the door and threw a piece of bread onto the floor. Dietrich bent down and picked it up.

Later Dietrich was taken up to the fourth floor and locked in a cell. The room was seven feet wide by ten feet long and held a wooden bed, a stool, a bucket, and a bench along the wall. Above the bench a previous prisoner had scratched the words, “In a hundred years it will all be over.” Dietrich soon learned from the guards that it would probably be over for him long before that. The fourth floor was where prisoners condemned to death were housed. About twenty men each week were marched from their cells, never to return, presumably executed. The cells they left behind were never empty for more than an hour as more men were marched upstairs to take their place. The noise of prisoners wailing and cursing as they awaited their fate kept Dietrich awake at night.

On Dietrich’s third day of incarceration in Tegel, a guard returned his Bible. By now Dietrich had adjusted to the shock of being arrested and devised a plan to keep himself focused on God and others. He began each day with Bible reading, hymn singing, meditation, Scripture memorization, and physical exercises.

Most times Dietrich stayed calm and focused, but a week into his imprisonment he was handcuffed and driven into the heart of Berlin to be interrogated. He knew the interrogations with Colonel Roeder would be his biggest challenge. Dietrich didn’t want to draw attention to anyone else or divulge any information that would endanger his friends. Being up against a brilliant man like Roeder, who was intent on getting to the bottom of what had been going on in Abwehr, was nerve-racking. Dietrich was unsure of what accusations had been made against him and what Roeder knew. This made it difficult for Dietrich to gauge what to say. Dietrich remembered Hans’s instruction to plead ignorance and shift the responsibility to Hans as much as possible. Hans had explained that he was familiar with the legal process and questioning and would do a better job of deflecting questions. Dietrich tried hard to follow the advice, though it was difficult, knowing that he was probably making life harder for his brother-in-law. Thankfully, after several interrogation sessions, Colonel Roeder seemed to accept that Dietrich was a pastor with limited knowledge of the inner workings of Abwehr.

Dietrich was allowed to write a single, one-page letter every ten days. He wrote to his parents first. He couldn’t imagine the burden his arrest had placed on them. He wrote, “I am now learning daily how good my life with you has always been, and besides, I now have to practice myself what I have told others in my sermons and books.”

Dietrich knew that the letters he sent and those he received were censored, but the first letter he received from his parents still contained plenty of information—none of it hopeful. On the day Dietrich was arrested, Hans and Christine von Dohnanyi, along with Joseph Müller, an operative from Abwehr’s Munich office, and his wife had also been arrested. The two men were taken to a military prison for ranking officers, while their wives went to a women’s prison. None of them were allowed visitors, and Dietrich’s parents were concerned about them all.

Not long after receiving the letter from his parents, Dietrich was transferred to cell 92 on the third floor of Tegel Prison. From the cell’s window Dietrich could see out over the prison yard and beyond to a pine forest. It reminded him of his childhood, playing in the forest in the Harz Mountains. How far away that time seemed from his damp, smelly cell.

Dietrich soon began making friends with his guards. Most knew he was a pastor, and slowly they began confiding in him. Some wanted prayer, others advice. Dietrich realized many of the guards were trapped in their roles. They despised Hitler as much as he did, but if they spoke out or refused to do their duty, they would end up on the inside of a cell instead of guarding the cells from the outside. Dietrich felt compassion for their plight and prayed for the guards regularly.

Even with his strict, self-imposed discipline, there were times when the days dragged and Dietrich wondered how his family and Maria were doing. He was relieved when a letter from Maria arrived, explaining that she had moved to Berlin. Dietrich’s parents had invited her to stay with them. Karl Bonhoeffer had even secured the necessary paperwork so that Maria could be his secretary. Even at seventy-five years of age he still saw a few patients at home. It was a good solution, and Dietrich hoped that Maria would somehow gain permission to visit him in prison.

Another letter from his parents told Dietrich that his sister Christine had been released from prison but was now quite ill. Dietrich added Christine’s condition to his prayer list.

Dietrich was finally allowed a visit from his parents. It disturbed him to see how much they had aged. His father looked frail. Dietrich tried to assure his father that he was being treated well, but his mother asked specific questions about his circumstances, and he did not lie. When she heard Dietrich’s answers, she became indignant that her son was not allowed out of his cell to exercise and that he hadn’t been able to receive any of the food parcels she had sent.

A week later, Dietrich’s situation at Tegel Prison improved dramatically. Captain Maetz, the prison commandant, unlocked Dietrich’s cell door and invited him outside for a walk in the prison yard. The sun on his back and a breeze in his face felt wonderful to Dietrich. As they walked together, Captain Maetz told Dietrich how surprised they had all been to learn that he was related to General Paul von Hase, the city commander of Berlin, including Tegel Prison. The captain apologized for any ill treatment Dietrich had endured and assured him he would now receive any parcels sent to him. Dietrich later learned that a well-placed phone call from his mother to her first cousin, Paul von Hase, had led to Captain Maetz’s being alerted to the relationship between Dietrich, his prisoner, and the city commander, his boss.

On June 24, 1943, Dietrich was escorted down to the visitors’ area. He stood waiting. When the door opened, Maria was standing in front of him. Dietrich was stunned to see his fiancée. He wanted to talk to her about deep issues, but as always, the guards were nearby, and they contented themselves with talk about their families and making plans for their wedding. Maria was able to give Dietrich a book he’d asked for. When he got back to his cell, he realized his name on the flyleaf in the back of the book was underlined—the book contained a message in the code the family had agreed upon before any family members had been arrested. He quickly looked for the dot under a letter on every tenth page going backward. From the message in that book and many other books that followed, Dietrich was able to learn what Hans was being interrogated about so that he could coordinate his story with that of his brother-in-law.