Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Dietrich loved the new summerhouse. The two-story house had once been a foresters’ lodge and was large and rambling. The housemaids set to work airing it out and getting a fire started in the fireplace while the children unpacked their bags. As darkness descended across the Harz Mountains, candles were lit in the rooms. After dinner, Maria Horn tucked the children into bed. Dietrich could hardly sleep. He was eager for morning to arrive so he could explore the surrounding forest and meadows.

The next morning Dietrich felt like he was visiting a fairy tale land, and for good reason. Many German fairy tales, including “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Little Red Riding Hood,” were all local folk stories. Dietrich delighted in seeing the steep-roofed houses with their tiny crisscrossed windows and rounded wooden doors. Everything was enchanting: the narrow cobblestone streets, the dark forest, the silver mines. It was easy to imagine Snow White happening upon seven hardworking dwarfs or Hansel and Gretel finding themselves in front of a witch’s door deep in the forest.

When the rest of the Bonhoeffer family arrived at Friedrichsbrunn, Dietrich and Sabine were waiting for them at the train station in Thale with all sorts of stories to tell their parents and older brothers and sisters.

After a wonderful time together at the summerhouse, the family headed back to Berlin. Reluctantly Dietrich boarded the train for the journey home, leaving Friedrichsbrunn behind.

Back in Berlin, Dietrich’s parents had some special news. Dietrich would be going to school the following week. His heart sank. Dietrich had been perfectly happy studying at home with Sabine and Susanne, and now he had to leave them behind and go off to school. For the first time in his life, he would be doing something by himself.

At first Dietrich hated school. Sitting at a desk all day was too restrictive, and he longed to be at home roaming around the house or playing in the yard. However, after a few months, he began looking forward to school each morning. Dietrich met new friends and managed to get top marks in all his subjects with little effort. Whenever he felt bored, he would think about the summer he had to look forward to in Friedrichsbrunn. He made plans for the games he would play there but had no idea how different that summer would be.

Chapter 3
At War

Look over there!” Dietrich exclaimed as he eyed a table laden with chocolate delicacies. The three youngest Bonhoeffer children ran to it.

“I love them all!” Susanne said as she examined the wonderful array of chocolate animals.

“Can we choose one each?” Dietrich asked Fräulein Lenchen.

“I think so,” the governess said with a smile.

Soon Dietrich and his two sisters were nibbling on chocolate rabbits as they wandered among the stalls at the village fair. There was so much to see: rows of finches in cages, men clad in traditional lederhosen strolling by with quivers slung across their backs, pretty young girls and old women looking like characters in one of Friedrichsbrunn’s many folk tales.

Dietrich and his sisters’ favorite attraction was the merry-go-round, a large wooden wheel with seats at the end of each spoke. Eight children could sit on it at once while a white horse pulled it around and around. Dietrich helped Susanne climb into one of the seats. Once all three children were in place, off they went. The merry-go-round circled while the local band played music in the background. Every so often Dietrich would catch a glance of Fräulein Lenchen and Maria Horn, who were conversing with an older man. When the merry-go-round came to a stop, Fräulein Lenchen beckoned the children over. Dietrich noticed that the band had abruptly stopped playing.

“Quickly, children, we must go home,” the governess exclaimed, tugging at Dietrich’s shirt.

“But why? We’re having so much fun,” Dietrich queried.

Fräulein Lenchen shook her head. Her voice was low. “We cannot stay. Today Germany has declared war on Russia. Your parents will want you back in Berlin, where they know you’re safe. We must pack immediately. When you are old, you’ll never forget this day—August 1, 1914.”

A thousand questions raced through Dietrich’s head. He dared not ask one of them aloud. Why Russia? Would the war last long? The only wars he knew about were the Napoleonic wars and the Franco-Prussian War, which he had studied in school. Would this new war be like them? Would his father have to fight? What would all of this mean for the Bonhoeffers?

Twenty-four hours after leaving the fair, Dietrich, Sabine, and Susanne, along with their nanny and governess, were sitting on the train headed back to Berlin. The train was filled with young men traveling to Berlin to sign up for military service to fight for their country. At station after station as more young men boarded, girls threw flowers to them.

As the train rolled toward Berlin, Dietrich listened to the conversations around him. It sounded like Germany had declared war on both Russia and Serbia because an Austro-Hungarian prince had been assassinated on a visit to Sarajevo in Serbia one month before. As a result, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had declared war on Serbia and Russia, and since Kaiser Wilhelm II had promised to support the Austro-Hungarians, Germany also declared war on Russia and Serbia.

When the train pulled into the next station, the stationmaster walked the length of the train yelling the latest news. “We have invaded Luxembourg. Long live the kaiser!” Dietrich’s heart beat fast with excitement, though he was also a little confused. He thought Germany was at war with Russia and Serbia, so why had they invaded Luxembourg? Luxembourg was nowhere near Russia. Still, Dietrich hoped the war would go on for a long time, long enough for him to grow up and join the fighting.

As the group made their way to the Bonhoeffer house on Brückenalle, they passed the kaiser’s palace, where a crowd had gathered to sing patriotic songs and wave flags. The scene reminded Dietrich of the village fair the day before.

By the time Dietrich got home, he was excited. So was Sabine, who burst into the house and yelled excitedly, “Hurrah! There’s a war!”

Paula Bonhoeffer swept into the entrance hall. “Don’t ever celebrate war,” she snapped. “Many good men will die before it is over.”

Dietrich crept up to his bedroom. This was not the homecoming he’d expected. He looked out the window and could see groups of men continuing to sing patriotic songs as they walked arm in arm down the street.

While his parents maintained a cautious view of the war, Dietrich’s three older brothers were caught up in the excitement. Karl-Friedrich, Walter, and Klaus already had a map up on the wall in Walter’s room on which they kept track of the German army’s advance, using colored pins to represent the various battalions of troops. The map already had pins in Luxembourg, and the next day Germany declared war on France. By the following day, August 4, 1914, German troops had entered Belgium. Walter, who was particularly patient with Dietrich’s questions about what was happening, explained that German troops were on a rapid advance through Belgium on their way to outflank the French army and capture Paris. When he finished his explanation, he pressed several pins into Belgium on the map. Germany was at war not only with Russia and Serbia but now also with France. According to Dietrich’s brothers, the war would be over in a matter of weeks, with a great victory for Germany.

By the end of the day on August 4, Dietrich learned that things had taken a turn. Belgium was a neutral country, and because Germany had violated its neutrality, Great Britain had declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary. Walter explained that this turn of events was a surprise. After all, Kaiser Wilhelm II and King George V of England were cousins, though another cousin of the kaiser’s, Alix, was married to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, and Germany had declared war on Russia.

Within a week of the family’s return to Berlin, Europe was in an uproar. British soldiers were already confronting German troops in Belgium and northern France, and Dietrich learned that far away in North America, Canada was preparing to send troops to fight alongside the British and the French. It seemed to Dietrich that everyone breathed a sigh of relief when President Woodrow Wilson of the United States vowed that his country would not enter the war.

The Bonhoeffer boys read accounts of battles and continued to mark German progress with pins on the map, though they grumbled to each other that this was nowhere as exciting as being in the middle of those battles. They longed to go and fight, but that seemed unlikely, since Karl-Friedrich, the oldest, was only fifteen years old. He told his brothers that the war would not drag on for three years until he was old enough to put on a uniform and fight.

Apart from the newspaper headlines and the soldiers marching through the streets of Berlin on their way to fight, the Bonhoeffer household was not disrupted much. Dietrich started piano lessons and soon became an excellent pianist. He loved hearing how his grandmother, his mother’s mother, Countess Kalckreuth, had been a wonderful pianist. She had taken lessons from Clara Schumann, one of Germany’s most distinguished pianists and the wife of composer Robert Schumann.

The entire Bonhoeffer family was musical and often had family musical evenings during which everyone played an instrument or sang. Like Dietrich, Karl-Friedrich played the piano. Walter played the violin and Klaus the cello, while Christine, Ursula, and Mrs. Bonhoeffer sang arias.

Conversation at the dinner table normally centered on music and sometimes schoolwork. Occasionally, but not often, the war encroached on the family’s dinner conversation. On one occasion Fräulein Lenchen brought Sabine a brooch with the words “Now we’ll thrash them!” engraved on it. At dinner Karl Bonhoeffer saw the ornamental pin his daughter was wearing and said, “What have we here? Take it off and give it to me, please.” Sabine took it off and handed it over. Dietrich watched as their father dropped the jewelry into his pocket. Sabine opened her mouth to protest and then closed it. Dietrich understood; it was not wise to argue with Papa.

“Don’t worry about it,” Paula reassured her daughter. “I’ll find you a prettier brooch to wear.”

It didn’t take long for Dietrich and Sabine to begin to appreciate their parents’ point of view. War was not fun and was not something to celebrate. Within weeks of the start of fighting, one of Dietrich’s cousins was killed, then another, and then a third had his eye shot out and his leg crushed. As the casualty count from the war continued to rise, the Bonhoeffer household, like many others in Berlin, became quiet. Everyone had a lot of time for thinking and reflecting. Dietrich and Sabine felt it too. They shared a bedroom, and at night when the light was turned off, they often talked about how scary war was. They also discussed questions about dying and God, and for months the two of them made a pact to drift off to sleep thinking about the word eternity and nothing else.

Apart from soldiers in the streets and news of increasing casualties, the first signs of the war in Berlin were small things. Regular wheat bread was replaced with kriegsbrot, war bread, which had potato meal added to make the rye and wheat go farther. Dietrich didn’t mind the taste, and the bread lasted for a week without getting stale. Meat, eggs, and butter began to get scarce as the German government began to control the food production of the country. Special laws were passed that limited how farmers could produce and slaughter animals.

Although Dietrich was too young to fight, everything happening around him made him restless. He longed for an adventure of his own, and so he appointed himself the family scavenger. Even though he was only nine years old, he often slipped out of the house to look for food to buy on the black market. Sometimes he came home with mutton fat and watched as the cook deftly created “lamb chops” using it. The cook would boil rice that she then formed into shapes like a chop. A wooden skewer was stuck into the chop-shaped rice to serve as a bone. The aroma of mutton wafted through the house as the rice chops were fried in mutton fat. To Dietrich’s surprise, the end result tasted quite like the lamb chops the family had enjoyed before the war. The chops were served with green peas and a sprig of watercress, and Karl declared it impossible to tell the difference. However, the cook’s attempts at vegetable “beef steaks” did not go so well. The steaks had a lot of spinach in them, and Dietrich could not get past the green color once he cut into the “steak.”