Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Dietrich continued attending school, and from the map in Walter’s room, he regularly kept up with the events on the battlefield. As 1915 rolled on, it felt to Dietrich as though the war had been going on forever. More cousins and family friends were wounded or killed in the fighting, and despite Dietrich’s best efforts, food was getting harder to find. And there was one word in Germany that everyone was beginning to tire of hearing—ersatz (substitute). Germany had three allies in the war: the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. Apart from the border Germany shared with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the country’s other six borders were all shared with declared enemies. This made it difficult to bring food and clothing into the country from the north, east, or west.

Dietrich knew that coffee was certainly not coming into Germany. His father loved a strong, black cup of coffee each morning, but before long Karl resorted to drinking ersatz coffee made of roasted barley and oats and chemicals extracted from coal tar. When the government found a more pressing use for the barley, ersatz coffee was made from roasted acorns and beechnuts. When the acorns began to be in short supply, carrots and turnips were used. This was a long way from tasting anything like real coffee, but Dietrich’s father still drank a cup of it every morning while reading the newspaper.

The end of 1915 brought more shortages besides food. Posters appeared all over Berlin with the words Sparsamkeit, Erhaltung, Wiederverwerten—Thrift, Conservation, Recycling. Germans were urged to drop off old woolen garments to be cut up, dyed, and made into uniforms for the troops. Animal pelts, even rabbit pelts, were requested for the lining of coats, and housewives were asked to give up their copper and brass pots to make ammunition. Church bells were taken out of steeples and melted down to make cannons. Nickel coins were melted and replaced with iron ones.

The war dragged on into 1916, and Dietrich could see from Walter’s map that neither side was moving much. The German army and the Allies (Great Britain, Russia, France, Serbia, and Belgium) seemed to be stalled along a line from Switzerland through eastern France and Belgium to the North Sea. In mid-February 1916, German forces mounted a massive attack at Verdun in France. Walter explained to Dietrich that the German plan was to break through Allied lines and once and for all gain the advantage on the Western Front, as the battle line in France and Belgium was called. And while there was a Western Front, from Walter’s map Dietrich could see that there was also an Eastern Front where German forces were fighting.

In March 1916, Dietrich’s parents moved from the house on Brückenalle to 14 Wangenheimstrasse in the suburb of Grunewald, near the Halensee railroad station. Although the large new house was in a well-to-do area of town, its main attraction was the acre of land surrounding it, which the family plowed and gardened. The family also kept a goat for milk. Dietrich loved the new location and enjoyed milking the goat. He saved his pocket money and bought a hen for the family. He felt a surge of pride when he collected eggs from the henhouse.

As July 1916 rolled around, the German victory and breakthrough of the Allied lines at Verdun had not occurred. The pins still had not moved on Walter’s map. Instead, after five months of fighting, the battle ground was in a stalemate, with three hundred thousand German soldiers dead. Dietrich was glad to leave Berlin and all the bad news behind and head with the rest of the family to the summerhouse at Friedrichsbrunn. With the sun shining and crystal-clear water bubbling over the rocks in the stream, it was easy to forget that Europe was in turmoil.

While at Friedrichsbrunn, Dietrich and Sabine spent hours walking through the woods and across the mountain meadows gathering wild mushrooms and strawberries, which the cook dried and packed into bags to take back to Berlin for the winter ahead.

Before long, the shadows across the Harz Mountains were getting longer and the days shorter. Dietrich knew it was time to pack up everything and head back to Berlin. He hated to leave. In the peace and quiet of the mountains, he’d almost forgotten that Germany was at war.

Chapter 4

Back in Berlin, Dietrich returned to school. Things were getting grimmer. Dietrich’s father explained this was because of the number of casualties Germany was suffering on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. Everyone seemed to know someone whose relative or friend had been killed or severely wounded.

To make matters worse, food was in even shorter supply. Even ersatz commodities were hard to come by. The British navy was blockading German ports on the Baltic Sea, stopping supplies of food and other necessities from being imported. With so many young men away fighting, fewer people were available to farm the land and harvest the crops. What food was available was usually directed toward the troops. Dietrich tried to rustle up as much to eat as he could, but some days it was impossible, even on the black market, at any price. He was thankful for the garden and the goat and hen at home. They might not be much, but they provided the family with something to eat.

As winter approached, things got even worse. The German potato supply was exhausted, and turnips were substituted for potatoes. Dietrich, like most Germans, found this hard to accept. Turnips were feed for horses, cows, and pigs, and now people were supposed to eat them. This was outrageous, but gnawing hunger trumped the outrage of the people. Even Dietrich found himself looking forward to boiled turnips.

Hunger grew in Germany, and as Dietrich moved about the city, he noticed that soup kitchens were opening everywhere to feed the starving. Dietrich watched as emaciated, bedraggled people lined up in the cold to wait for a ladleful of soup that appeared to him to be more water than anything else. He listened as the people complained that farmers were keeping the food they grew on their farms for themselves.

Hunger and flagging morale among Germans caused Dietrich to confront another side effect of the war—suicide. On his way to and from school he had to cross a bridge, and almost every morning as he crossed, Dietrich would look down and see a group of men on the riverbank. He soon learned the men were trying to retrieve the body of someone who had jumped from the bridge to his death. No matter how many times he saw the scene, each time Dietrich felt a shiver run down his spine.

Despite the difficulties Germany faced, spirits remained high in the Bonhoeffer household as 1917 arrived. Dietrich continued to study hard at school and practice the piano. He even began experimenting with writing his own compositions. Family music nights remained one of his favorite times. Another highlight occurred on his and Sabine’s birthday on February 4, when they turned eleven. As a birthday present, Dietrich was given an egg, which the cook had beaten with sugar for him to drink. Dietrich savored every drop of the whipped liquid.

Nineteen seventeen was also the year that both of his older brothers, Karl-Friedrich and Walter, turned eighteen, old enough to be drafted into the army. Karl-Friedrich, who was eleven months older than Walter, was the first to be called up. He chose to join the Fifth Regiment of the Guards at Spandau and underwent military training. Because he had been planning to attend university to study physics, he slipped his physics textbook into his knapsack before leaving for the Western Front. Dietrich could tell that his parents were sad to see Karl-Friedrich leave. Walter could hardly wait his turn to enlist in the army. He prepared himself for combat by taking long hikes carrying a heavy backpack.

Meanwhile, news reached Berlin of happenings to the east in Russia. As Karl Bonhoeffer read the newspaper, he explained to Dietrich that Russia was in political turmoil. On March 17 news came that because of the turmoil, Tsar Nicholas II of Russia had abdicated the throne. Dietrich and his father hoped this would mean good news for Germany and the war with Russia.

Less than a month later, however, on April 6, there was some bad news. The United States had declared war on Germany and would be sending troops to fight alongside the Allies on the Western Front. Walter explained to Dietrich that while this was bad news, the United States had a fairly small army, and it would take months for them to train enough soldiers to send to fight in France and Belgium. Walter was sure that by the time the soldiers arrived, the war would be over, with a victory for Germany. He only hoped it would last long enough for him to go and fight.

Once again the Bonhoeffer family headed to the summerhouse at Friedrichsbrunn, even taking the goat with them on the train so they would have fresh milk over the summer. Again Dietrich basked in the peace and quiet of the Harz Mountains. But while Berlin and the war seemed far off, he did not forget food scavenging. Mushrooms were plentiful in the mountains, and Dietrich spent his days, usually with Sabine, gathering as many mushrooms as possible for the cook to dry and take back to Berlin at the end of summer. He and Sabine also gathered wild strawberries that were made into thick jam and packed in jars, also to be taken back to Berlin.

As usual, summer seemed to race by too fast for Dietrich, who soon was on the train back to Berlin. Dietrich returned to school and excelled in all his subjects except handwriting, which his teachers deemed to be messy and in need of improvement.

In November, Germany received good news. In Russia a revolution had occurred, and now the Communist Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, ruled the country and wanted an armistice (an agreement to pause fighting) with Germany. There was great excitement. The Germans had beaten the Russians, and now they could turn their full attention to the Western Front and crush France, Great Britain, and the Allies.

There was excitement in the Bonhoeffer home as well. The war was still being fought when Walter turned eighteen on December 10. He would get his chance to go and fight for his country after all. Like Karl-Friedrich, Walter chose to join the Fifth Regiment of the Guards at Spandau and went off to train as a soldier.

On February 4, 1918, while Walter was still away training to fight, Dietrich celebrated his twelfth birthday. He marveled at how things had changed from his previous birthday. Then, things had been grim and German morale low. Now, with a signed armistice with Russia, there was optimism in the air; five hundred thousand German soldiers who had fought the Russians were now being transferred to the Western Front to strengthen German forces there. With these reinforcements, everyone expected General Luderndorf, the German chief of staff, to mount a massive attack on the Allies and win the war for Germany. Victory seemed at hand. At least Dietrich hoped so, because he’d grown tired of the war and the effect it had on everyday life.

Sure enough, on March 21, 1918, General Luderndorf launched the German attack. So successful were the first days of the attack that on March 24, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered a national holiday to celebrate. Dietrich, like most Germans, assumed the war was all but over. His father, however, was not so sure. How many times had Germans been told victory in the war was at hand, only to be disappointed? Even Dietrich conceded that his father had a point. But not Walter, who arrived home to spend time with the family after finishing military training and before heading to the Western Front. He saw things differently. Momentum in the war now favored Germany, especially with the reinforcements sent from the Eastern Front. These extra soldiers were more than enough to counteract the effect of the American soldiers who had begun arriving in France to fight.

It was only two weeks before Walter was to depart for the Western Front, and in early April the entire Bonhoeffer family made plans for a big send-off party. For his part, Dietrich composed an arrangement for the popular song, “Now, at last, we say Godspeed you on your journey.”