Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

When the night of the party arrived, many of Dietrich’s relatives came to say farewell to Walter. They brought gifts and poems and songs. Dietrich sang his new musical arrangement while accompanying himself on the piano. It was well after midnight when the family went to bed. They were up early the next morning to take Walter to the train station. Dietrich felt envious as he shook his brother’s hand. He hoped that Walter would come back a hero. He noticed tears rolling down his mother’s cheeks as she hugged Walter good-bye on the crowded station platform.

Soon the steam locomotive began belching black smoke, and a whistle sounded. Walter jumped aboard the train and took a seat by the window. As the train slowly chugged away from the station platform, Dietrich’s mother ran alongside and yelled, “Good-bye, Walter. Remember, it’s only space that separates us.”

Two weeks later, Dietrich was getting ready for school when the doorbell rang. Curious to know who it was so early in the morning, he ran downstairs just in time to see a messenger hand a telegram to his father. As Dietrich’s father slipped the telegram from the envelope and read it, his face turned ashen. He walked into his study, closing the heavy wooden door behind him. A few moments later he left his study and laboriously climbed the stairs in silence. Normally Dietrich’s father bounded up the stairs, but it seemed to Dietrich that today he was pulling himself up. His knuckles were white as he gripped the banister tightly for support. Dietrich began to tremble as he watched his father slowly climb the stairs. He knew something terrible had happened.

It was hours before Dietrich’s father appeared from the bedroom where his mother had still been in bed. When he appeared, his face was still ashen. “It was news of your brother Walter,” he told Dietrich and the other children in a halting voice. “He is dead from a shrapnel wound.”

Dietrich stood motionless, trying to comprehend his father’s words. Dead from an exploded bomb? How could it be? Just two weeks before, Walter had climbed onto the train grinning and waving and looking toward the future. Now it was over for him forever. Even though Dietrich knew that other German soldiers, hundreds of thousands of them, had been killed in the fighting, he could not imagine that his older brother was one of them and gone for good.

To make matters more unbearable for the family, a letter soon arrived from Walter, dictated three hours before the time the telegram said he had died. It read:

My dears,

Today I had the second operation, and I must admit that it went far less pleasantly than the first because the splinters that were removed were deeper. Afterwards I had to have two camphor injections with an interval between them, but I hope that this is the end of the matter. I am using my technique of thinking of other things so as not to think of the pain. There are more interesting things in the world just now than my wounds. Mount Kemmel and its possible consequences, and today’s news of the taking of Ypres, give us great cause for hope. I dare not think about my poor regiment, so severely did it suffer in the last few days. How are things going with the other officer cadets? I think of you with longing, my dears, every minute of the long days and nights.

From so far away,

Your Walter

The letter was more than Dietrich’s mother could bear. Paula sobbed until her eyes were swollen shut, and the next morning she did not come down to breakfast. As if the death of her son were not enough, Paula learned that her son Klaus, although only seventeen years old, had been called up to serve in the army.

Dietrich could see that this was an unbearable blow to his mother, who began spending long periods of each day in her bedroom. He would often hear her sobbing. In fact, the children saw little of their mother as she shuttered herself away in her room. Then one night at dinner their father quietly announced, “Your mother needs a break. She has gone to stay with the Schönes. One day soon you’ll be able to visit her.”

Dietrich looked around the table. His siblings looked as confused as he felt. His mother would be living next door with the neighbors, and he would not be able to see her. Despite his confusion, he trusted that his father knew what was best for their mother.

The Bonhoeffer children continued on without their mother around. After a few weeks they were able to visit her for brief periods. Sometimes when Dietrich visited, she would stare blankly at the wall, and at other times she made the effort to talk to him. He knew better than to mention Walter’s name to her, or to his father, for that matter. When someone outside the family spoke of Walter to their father, Karl would quietly get up and leave the room.

Thankfully Klaus wasn’t sent to fight in the thick of the battle on the Western Front. Instead he was assigned as an orderly at German General Headquarters in Spa, Belgium.

Walter’s death and the absence of his two older brothers who were serving in the army left a hole in Dietrich’s life. He had no one with whom he could discuss the war and his feelings about it except Sabine and Susanne.

As summer approached, Paula Bonhoeffer could not bear to think of the children going to Friedrichsbrunn without Walter. Instead, Dietrich, Sabine, and Susanne were sent with Maria and Käthe Horn to vacation in Boltenhagen. Dietrich and his two sisters relaxed at the seaside resort on the Baltic Sea and tried to forget all that had happened to the family in the past few weeks. Dietrich also spent time sitting in a wicker chair on the beach reading, and built elaborate sand castles with his sisters.

While at the beach one day, Dietrich watched two military seaplanes perform maneuvers above the beach. It was a wonderful sight as the planes looped and turned in the air. Then to Dietrich’s horror, one of the seaplanes suddenly nose-dived toward the beach and crashed, sending a plume of black smoke high into the air. Dietrich knew that the force of the crash was so great that the pilot would have been killed. He knew that the pilot wasn’t just a pilot but also someone’s son, as was Walter. It seemed to Dietrich that wherever you went in Germany these days, death followed.

Back in Berlin after the vacation, Dietrich was relieved to learn that his mother was no longer staying with the Schönes. She was back at the Bonhoeffer home. Yet Dietrich could see she was not the same as before Walter’s death. Shadows seemed to blot out her smile. She was unable to run the house as she had and constantly fretted about Karl-Friedrich and Klaus.

Dietrich lived in fear that one of his other brothers would be killed. He didn’t know what would become of his mother if that happened. Despite reports in the newspapers of German successes on the Western Front, the massive military offensive that was launched with the promise of winning the war for Germany had ground to a halt. It seemed to Dietrich that Germany was incapable of winning the war.

As the war dragged on, Berliners were asked to make more sacrifices. Coal was in such short supply that the Bonhoeffers closed off most of the house, keeping only two rooms heated—the kitchen, where they ate and talked, and the living room, where they read and studied.

Things in Germany began changing quickly in October 1918. The German naval commander in the port of Kiel on the Baltic Sea decided to attack the British navy and break their blockade of Germany’s ports that was causing so much hardship in the nation. The British had a formidable naval force blockading Germany, and when the German navy was ordered to put to sea and attack the British, the sailors mutinied. To them, attacking the British navy was suicide, and they wouldn’t take part in the foolhardy plan. Instead of putting to sea, they killed a number of fellow officers and took over their ships. Fearing that soldiers might join the side of the mutineers, the kaiser decided not to send in the army to crush the rebellion.

News of the mutiny spread throughout Germany. Dietrich wondered what it would mean for the country. His father reassured him that it was too early to tell. They would have to wait and see. They didn’t have to wait long. The mutiny set off a wave of pent-up anger across Germany. The kaiser had been right to be concerned about the army because they also began to rebel against their leaders. They’d had enough of the endless fighting that produced nothing but dead and wounded soldiers. It was not just sailors and soldiers who’d had enough of the privations and destruction of war. Demonstrations began taking place all over Germany as workers went on strike. Berlin was a hotbed of such protests, and it wasn’t uncommon for Dietrich to see groups of protestors marching and shouting in the streets. Sometimes the protesters’ anger frightened him.

By the time November arrived, many German cities had been taken over by councils made up of workers and soldiers. Dietrich’s father was concerned about the situation, which was beginning to resemble the situation in Russia the year before when the communists took over the country. Politicians began to fear a communist takeover of Germany.

Dietrich tried keeping up with the fast-changing situation, but he couldn’t understand it all. It seemed that so many different groups were vying for control of Germany.

Early on the morning of November 10, 1918, Dietrich and Sabine heard Maria Horn sobbing in her room. They knocked on the door and entered the chilly bedroom. Maria lay on the bed, a piece of paper in her hand. She looked up at Dietrich and Sabine and cried, “It’s over! The kaiser has abdicated. The war is lost. We are nothing.”

Dietrich couldn’t think of anything to say to comfort Maria and quietly left the room, followed by Sabine.

“So we’ve lost, Dietrich?” Sabine asked hesitantly. “Is it possible?”

“We’ll have to ask Father,” Dietrich replied.

The children found their father at the dining table reading a copy of the Vossische Zeitung newspaper.

“Is it true the kaiser has abdicated?” Dietrich asked.

Karl Bonhoeffer nodded. “Yes, yes, he abdicated yesterday. Already it says in the newspaper he is fleeing to exile in Holland.”

“What does this mean, Papa?” Dietrich asked.

“I wish I could tell you. Friedrich Ebert and the Social Democratic Party have announced that Germany is now a republic, with a government led by a civilian and not by the kaiser, and the Reichstag will run this new republic. I’m not sure what this will mean for Germany. The Spartacists (communists) refuse to accept the new republic. I fear things might get worse in the country before they get better.”

“And the war, Papa?”

“Ah, that is lost now,” Karl sighed.

Sure enough, the following day, November 11, 1918, an armistice was declared with the Allies. The war was indeed over, and Germany had lost.

While the end of the war was a relief, it was also a bitter moment, a hard one for Germans, including Dietrich, to comprehend. In just two months Germany had gone from being a fighting nation to a defeated foe, from a nation led by an emperor—Kaiser Wilhelm II—to one led by a politician. And then there was the staggering casualty count. The four-year-long war had left over two million of Germany’s brightest and bravest young men dead, among them Walter Bonhoeffer. Another four million had been wounded, left without legs or arms, blind, or shell-shocked. The numbers were so large Dietrich could scarcely comprehend them.

Dietrich was eight when the war started. Now he was twelve. He had few memories left of the peaceful Germany before the fighting. The old, genteel Germany his parents and grandparents inhabited had been swept away forever. Once Germany’s future had been assured. Now Dietrich wasn’t so sure. What would Germany be like when he grew up? No one, not even his father, could say.

Chapter 5

By the start of 1919, Germany was in an uproar. The Council of People’s Commissioners, under the leadership of Friedrich Ebert, now ruled the country. However, they didn’t have the support of all German people, despite the fact that they had issued many decrees aimed at improving the lot of the population. As a result, rebellion seemed to be everywhere in Germany’s cities, and Berlin was no exception. While Dietrich didn’t fully understand the political maneuvering going on in the country, he often came across demonstrations and raging street battles as he made his way to and from school.