Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

From Berlin the vans headed in a southwesterly direction through the countryside. So many things seemed normal: sunshine, green grass in the fields, and open blue sky above. Yet Dietrich dreaded reaching their destination—Buchenwald Concentration Camp, 160 miles away. Even with all he knew, Dietrich was appalled by what he saw when the vans reached Buchenwald. Living skeletons with dark sunken eyes, some of them children as young as three, stared blankly at the new arrivals.

By nightfall the prisoners were incarcerated in a dark, damp prison in the basement of a large building outside the main Buchenwald compound. The basement was divided into cells. Dietrich’s handcuffs were taken off, and he was given the first food he’d had all day—a piece of bread and lard. He was assigned to Cell 1, next to the washroom. He was alone in the cell. Cell 2 housed Dr. Hermann Pünder, a Catholic politician. In the morning Dietrich struck up a conversation with him, and the two of them spent many hours talking about how Protestants and Catholics could work together after the war.

No one was allowed outside the basement prison to exercise. Instead the men were all let out of their cells together and allowed to walk up and down the corridor in a long line. This was comforting to Dietrich, who was able to smile and greet old friends and acquaintances and meet some of the new prisoners.

After Dietrich had been underground for two weeks, General Friedrich von Rabenau joined him as his cellmate. Sixty-year-old General von Rabenau was a Berliner who had been Chief of the Army Archives before earning a degree in theology at the University of Berlin. He had been arrested after the last attempt to assassinate Hitler. Friedrich was a dedicated Christian, and Dietrich was delighted to have him as a cellmate. The two of them had many things in common.

Since Cell 1 was next to the bathroom, Dietrich and the general could time their requests to be escorted there to coincide with the visits of other prisoners. As soon as possible, Friedrich arranged to introduce Dietrich to Payne Best, an English intelligence officer captured by the Nazis in Holland at the end of 1939. Payne had been placed at several different concentration camps since then. He and Friedrich and several others had just been transferred to Buchenwald.

Payne was a larger-than-life character, and Dietrich enjoyed speaking with him in English. Payne gave Dietrich a chess set, and Dietrich and Friedrich passed the hours together in their cell playing chess.

For seven weeks there was little news from above ground. However, on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, Dietrich felt his cell shaking. It could mean only one thing—the Allies were bombing close by. Dietrich’s hopes rose. Perhaps the war was nearly over.

Two days later Dietrich and fifteen other prisoners (both men and women) were marched upstairs and ordered into the back of a large, enclosed truck. Dietrich climbed into the back and squeezed his body around a large pile of split wood. As the truck rolled away from Buchenwald, he realized it had been adapted to run off power provided by a generator, which was in turn powered by a small furnace that burned wood, hence the wood in the back. It was already dark when they set out, making it difficult to get a bearing on where they were headed. Someone estimated they were traveling at about twenty miles an hour. At dawn a prisoner caught a glimpse of a village he recognized and yelled back that they were headed southeast. Dietrich’s heart sank. It could only mean they were headed for Flossenbürg Concentration Camp.

The truck lurched along, stopping every hour so the guards could refuel the furnace and clean the flue. Each time wood was loaded into the furnace, the men and women in back had just a little more room.

Early on Wednesday afternoon the truck reached Weiden, the turnoff to Flossenbürg. The truck halted, and a conversation ensued between their guard and another man. In the course of the conversation Dietrich heard the other man say, “Drive on, we can’t take you . . . too full.” With that, the truck moved on. Dietrich and the other prisoners breathed a deep sigh of relief. They would not be going to Flossenbürg after all.

After about two hours of driving, the truck stopped outside a Bavarian farm and everyone was allowed out. The farmer’s wife welcomed the group and offered them milk and dark rye bread. It was the best food Dietrich had eaten in months, and he was grateful for it.

The truck continued its journey southward, and the guards, who seemed to Dietrich to be a little confused about their destination, became friendlier after the stop at the farm. They left the cover over the window in the truck’s back door open so the prisoners could see blue sky. The sky looked wonderful to Dietrich after so long in a dark basement cell. At dusk they stopped in Regensburg. Dietrich could hear the guards negotiating with various officials, but no one had room for them or their prisoners. Eventually a deal was struck. The prisoners could stay in five cells in the basement of the jail attached to the courthouse. The prisoners were crammed five to a cell, but they were treated well. That night Dietrich enjoyed a good night’s sleep on a mattress of straw.

The following morning, when the cell doors opened so the prisoners could wash, a huge surprise awaited them. The corridor was filled with men, women, and children, all relatives of the people who had been killed for their part in the von Stauffenberg assassination attempt on Hitler. They were being held in the cells on the first and second floors of the prison. Dietrich recognized some of the men from the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse and was able to pass information to them about their relatives’ last words and deeds.

Despite the somber topic, there were many joyful reunions. The guards found it difficult to control the prisoners and in the end gave up, allowing the prisoners to spend much of the day together. At five in the afternoon, the Buchenwald guards showed up and ordered Dietrich and the other Buchenwald prisoners back into the truck. This time Dietrich climbed aboard with a light heart. How wonderful it was to reunite with the families of old friends and acquaintances.

Not far outside of Regensburg, the truck broke an axle. Everyone spent a cold night waiting for help to arrive. At eleven the next morning, a bus with padded seats arrived to pick up the prisoners. Dietrich climbed aboard, sank into a seat, and stared out the plate-glass window. It felt so civilized.

As the bus rumbled through the countryside, Dietrich could see how much damage the Allied bombing had caused. Craters pockmarked the earth, and burned-out cars littered the side of the road. At one in the afternoon, the bus pulled up outside a school in the village of Schönberg. The school was now a makeshift prison, and Dietrich and the others were marched to the first floor, into a classroom being used as a dormitory. What they encountered seemed like a dream to Dietrich—feather beds, bright-colored bedspreads, and large windows overlooking a beautiful valley. Food was scarce, but a meal of potatoes and coffee was provided. Once again Dietrich slept soundly.

The following day, Saturday, was beautiful, and the prisoners relaxed at Schönberg. Payne Best produced a razor, and all the men shaved and washed. More family members of men involved in the resistance were housed in the makeshift prison, and once again Dietrich was able to make acquaintances and pass on information.

April 8 was the first Sunday after Easter—Quasimodo Sunday—and the prisoners asked Dietrich to lead them in a church service. Dietrich chose 1 Peter 1:3 as his text: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By His great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Just as Dietrich finished his short sermon, the door burst open and two men in civilian clothes pointed to him. “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, get ready to come with us,” one of the men snapped.

Everyone in the room stood silently as Dietrich gathered his few belongings. He had a moment to say his farewells. On his way out, Dietrich stopped beside the Englishman Payne Best and said, “Please tell Bishop Bell from me, this is the end, but also the beginning. Like him, I believe in the principle of our Universal Christian Brotherhood, which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain.” Then he turned and left with the two men.

Outside, Dietrich was loaded into the back of a van that sped off. Before long he was certain they were headed toward Flossenbürg. Sure enough, after several hours of driving on clogged roads, the van pulled into Flossenbürg Concentration Camp.

Dietrich was immediately taken to an area set up as a courtroom. He learned that earlier that day Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, General Hans Oster, Judge Karl Sack, and two other men from Abwehr had been tried for treason. Now, late on Sunday night, it was Dietrich’s turn. The proceedings were quick and one-sided, after which Dietrich was taken to a solitary cell. He knew his only hope of living was for the Allies to arrive during the night. They did not.

At dawn the next day, Monday, April 9, 1945, two years and four days after his arrest, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was marched from his cell for the last time. He joined the five other men as the guilty verdict was read and their death sentence handed down. Dietrich knelt in prayer. Then, like the others, he was told to strip naked and step outside. It was a damp, foggy morning. The gallows awaited. Dietrich bowed his head, said a brief prayer, and climbed the steps to the gallows. His death was mercifully fast. Afterward his body was burned, along with his few possessions.

Who can comprehend how those whom God takes so early are chosen? Does not the early death of young Christians always appear to us as if God were plundering his own best instruments in a time in which they are most needed? Yet the Lord makes no mistakes. Might God need our brothers for some hidden service on our behalf in the heavenly world? We should put an end to our human thoughts, which always wish to know more than they can, and cling to that which is certain. Whomever God calls home is someone God has loved. “For their souls were pleasing to the Lord, therefore he took them quickly from the midst of wickedness” (Wisdom of Solomon 4).

—Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Letter to the Confessing Churches, August 1941


Two weeks after Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenbürg, American troops liberated the concentration camp on April 23, 1945. Payne Best survived his capture and was able to recount the events of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last week.

At a meeting on Thursday, April 5, Adolf Hitler had declared that Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi were not to survive, and an order was issued for their execution.

On the morning of Friday, April 6, a sick and frail Dohnanyi was transferred from the hospital in Berlin to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. On the morning of Monday, April 9, as Dietrich was being executed at Flossenbürg, Dohnanyi was court-martialed and executed at Sachsenhausen.

Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher had been sentenced to death on February 2, 1945. On the night of April 22, they were both taken from their cells at the Gestapo prison on Lehrter Strasse in Berlin and shot. Eight days later, on April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide.

On May 8, the surrender of Germany to the Allies was announced. The war in Europe was over. Dietrich’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, was still awaiting trial for his involvement in the resistance when Soviet troops liberated the prison where he was being held.