In April 1943 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested for being associated with the plot to assassinate Hitler. He was given permission to write to his parents but the letters had to pass through the prison censorship. However, in six months Bonhoeffer had made such good friends among the warders and medical orderlies that he was able to embark upon an extensive correspondence, partly by letter and partly on scraps of paper. The correspondence proceeded without interruption until stringent measures came into place.
April 1943 he writes to his parents:
I have been here three weeks. I spend the time before I get to sleep saying over to myself the hymns I have learnt during the day and when I wake up (about 6am) I like to read a few psalms and hymns, think about you all and remember that you are thinking about me. The day is now over and I hope you are feeling as contented as I am.
May 5th 1943
I have now had four weeks in prison. We are up fourteen hours and I spend three of them walking up and down the cell – several miles a day in addition to the half hour in the courtyard. I’m also reading, meditating and writing. The important thing is – to accept the limits of the situation by not giving way to feelings of resentment and discontent.
When I heard the church bells ringing this morning, I felt how I should have loved to go to church but instead I followed St John’s example on the Isle of Patmos, and held a nice little service of my own. I hardly felt lonely at all. I long for fresh air. If only I could spend an evening in the garden. The flowers here are a great blessing, they bring some colour and life into this dreary cell. Each time I hope this will be my last letter from prison…I am gradually beginning to feel I’ve had enough of it.
The death of the three young pastors is a great personal loss to me…these three were my most promising pupils. It is a sad blow, both for me personally, and for the church. More than thirty of my pupils must have fallen by now and nearly all were among my best. I was given a knife and fork to eat with a week ago – a new concession – and they seemed almost unnecessary, it had become so natural to spread with a spoon. But the state of being in prison, that is impossible to get used to.
September 13, 1943
The turbulent events in the world make me feel how much I should like to be somewhere where I could be useful. But for the time being my job is to stay in prison and what I can do here makes it contribution in the unseen world, though that hardly comes under the category of active service. What will come out of my time here, is too early to say but something is bound to come out of it. Much as I long to be out of here, I don’t believe a single day has been wasted. What will come out of my time here it is too early to say. But something is bound to come out of it.
February 20th, 1944
Even though our lives may be blown to bits by the pressure of events as our houses are by the bombs, yet we should still have a glimpse of the way in which the whole was planned and conceived.
Letters to a friend:
November 20th, 1943
If I should still be here over Christmas, don’t worry about me. A Christian can keep Christmas even in prison. During these heavy air raids, the windows were blown out, all this time I lay in complete darkness on the floor, with little hope of coming through it all safely but it led me back to prayer and to the bible just like a child. I have learned as never before how much comfort and help I get from others…we are in ourselves and what we owe to others makes us a complete whole.
December 18th, 1943
I should have been set free on December 17th but not so. The past weeks have been more of a strain than anything I have been through before but it cannot be altered. When we are forcibly separated from those we love…all we can do is wait patiently, we must suffer the unutterable agony of separation and feel the longing until it makes us sick…above all we must never give way to self-pity. We ought to find God and love Him in the blessings He sends us.
December 22nd, 1943
They seem to have made up their minds that I am not to be with you for Christmas, though nobody dares tell me. I am not really bothered about whether I shall be home for Christmas, for that is only a childish question. Don’t worry if something worse befalls me, several of the other brethren have already been through that. I must be able to know for certain that I am in the hands of God and not in men’s.
February 14th, 1944
It looks as if during the next week or so my fate will be decided one way or the other. I hope it will. I am not in the least bit worried about my personal fate. It does not look I shall be out before Easter. I am going through another spell of finding it difficult to read the Bible. I never know quite what to make of it…I know it won’t be long before I return to it again with renewed zest.
April 30th, 1944
Such tremendous events are taking place in the world which will have a profound effect on the course of our lives. During the coming weeks we shall have to be brave. I feel curious as to how God intends to resolve these apparently insoluble issues. I am sure God is about to do something which we can only accept with wonder and amazement…the thing that keeps coming back to me is, what is Christianity and indeed what is Christ for us today?
May 30th, 1944
I am sitting upstairs by myself. All is quiet, outside a few birds are still singing and I can even hear the cuckoo in the distance. I find these long warm evenings rather trying – it’s the second time I have had to live through them here. I long to be outside and if I weren’t such a rational person I might do something foolish. So I seek diversion in thinking and writing letters.
June 6th, 1944 (The Normandy Landings referred to as D Day)
Let us face the weeks ahead in faith and assurance, so far as the general future is concerned and let us entrust your way and all our ways to God.
I am enclosing the outline of a book I have planned. I only hope I will be given the peace and strength to finish it. God does not give us everything we want but He does fulfil His promises i.e. He still remains Lord of the earth and still preserves His church, constantly renewing our faith and not laying on us more than we can bear, gladdening us with His nearness and help, hearing our prayers and leading us through the best and straightest road to Himself. In this way God creates in us praise for Himself. This day of loneliness need not be a lost day if it helps you see more clearly the convictions on which you are going to build your life in time to come. I am so sure of God’s guiding hand and I hope I shall never lose that certainty…I am travelling my appointed road with gratitude and cheerfulness…my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.
To his mother on December 28th, 1944
I am so glad I just got permission to write to you a birthday letter. I thank God for all you have been to me and the rest of the family. Thank you for all the love you have brought into my cell during the past year, it has made every day easier to bear. I believe these years, hard as they have been, will have bound us more closely together.
January 17th, 1945
The last two years have taught me how little we can get along with. But every day thousands are losing all they have and when we remember that we know we have no right to call anything our own…once more thank you for everything.
It was late in the evening on April 3rd 1945 when Dietrich and fifteen other prisoners were piled into a truck and taken to Flossenbürg concentration camp (they didn’t know this until arrival) but they were turned away as it was too full. They were taken to Regensburg, also overcrowded but the gate was opened and the men were ordered into the prison. The next evening they were told to get into the truck and off they went but did not know where. They arrived at their destination, Schönberg the next afternoon which was a school. They had open windows and their new surroundings were much more beautiful but there was a lack of food.
On Sunday April 8th, 1945 Bonhoeffer was implored by the prisoners to conduct a morning service. He was reluctant at first but gave in as so many were in favour of it. He read ‘and with his stripes we are healed’ Isaiah 53:7. While Bonhoeffer was speaking the door flung open and someone shouted: “Prisoner Bonhoeffer get ready to come with us.” Before he hurried down the stairs he said: “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.” The journey on that Sunday must have taken until late evening. The members of the court martial met and cross examined each prisoner. In the grey dawn of Monday 9th April, 1945, Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbürg.
(Taken from ‘Letters and papers from prison’ Fontana Books)