Today Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, parents learnt of his execution by Nazis at Flossenberg concentration camp through a radio broadcast from London. The news of his death reached the family when the BBC broadcast a memorial service for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, led by Bishop George Bell in the Holy Trinity Church in London. He had actually been hanged on 9 April 1945 (see podcast of April 8th) as the Nazi regime was collapsing. A theologian and pastor, he was accused of being associated with a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was quickly tried along with other plotters, including his brother, a lawyer and former members of the Abwehr. Bonhoeffer has become an icon of Christian resistance to the Nazi’s and was included in the statues of modern Martyrs which stand at the western door of Westminster Abbey in London. Just recently, the autobiography of Susanne Bonhoeffer, the younger sister of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has been rediscovered. This provides excellent insights into her family’s life and reveals new insights about the Bonhoeffer family and the history of her time. She had been sent by her family to visit him every week in prison and support him as far as possible. It also gives a detailed account of his last months.
Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, then Germany now Poland, into a large and notable family. In addition to his other siblings, Dietrich had a twin sister, Sabine Bonhoeffer and they were the sixth and seventh children out of eight in an intellectually curious and vibrant family. His oldest brother Karl Friedrich Bonhoeffer became a chemist, and discovered the spin isomers of hydrogen in 1929, which would become useful later in MRI scans. Walter Bonhoeffer, the second oldest had been killed in action during World War I when the twins were 12. The third, Klaus, was a lawyer and he too was executed for his involvement in the 20 July plot, and both of Bonhoeffer's older sisters, Ursula and Christel, married men who were eventually executed by the Nazis. Christel was imprisoned by the Nazis but survived. Sabine and their youngest sister Susanne each married men who survived Nazism. His cousin would become the German Ambassador to the United Kingdom in the 70’s. His father was a psychiatrist and neurologist, noted for his criticism of Sigmund Freud; and his mother Paula was a teacher and the granddaughter of Protestant theologian Karl von Hase. This environment lead to Dietrich receiving a high level of education and also encouraged his curiosity, which in turn impacted his ability to lead others around him, specifically in the church setting. His book, now considered a classic, The Cost of Discipleship was originally published with the title Nachfolge (literally: "the act of following"). It was published as the Nazi regime was growing in power and it is an exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Bonhoeffer spells out what he believes it means to follow Christ.
The Cost of Discipleship, has become influential because of the distinction that Bonhoeffer makes between “cheap" and "costly" grace. He explains that cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Cheap grace, and to hear the gospel preached as follows: "Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness." It contains no demand for discipleship. In contrast to costly grace, in contrast - costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. It is costly because it compels a man to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: "My yoke is easy and my burden is light." Bonhoeffer exposition of the Christian history relies on a hermeneutic that is strongly Lutheran and quite limited. He claims that obedience to the living Christ was gradually lost beneath formula and ritual, and argues that grace could be sold for monetary gain through the scandal around indulgences. The monastic movement kept a purer and older vision alive but excluded the laity and so the commandments of Jesus were limited to "a restricted group of specialists" He argues that the monastic movement, instead of serving as a pointer for all Christians, became a justification for the status quo which was rectified by Luther at the Reformation, when he brought Christianity "out of the cloister."
It is not a particularly nuanced view of the monastic movement and seems to ignore the reforms that took place in the 12th Century with the Augustinian Rule which Luther had adopted early in his life, and the rise of the mendicant communities such as the Franciscan, Carmelites, Dominicans, Servite and Augustinians living in city convents among the people instead of being secluded in monasteries. However, The Cost of Discipleship remains influential in protestant circles. Bonhoeffer was also writing this at a time when the majority of Evangelical Churches had been co-opted by the Nazi’s under the dubious leadership of Ludwig Muller. As this ‘Nazification’ of the Protestant Church accelerated, the opposition met in a church synod in Barmen lead by Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth who would release the brave Barmen Declaration.
However, 8 years later the Nazi regime was in its last death throes, the Russian Army was advancing on Berlin, the British and Americans were launching devastating bombing raids on German Cities. March and April 1945 would see a terrible vortex of violence, as the Germans rushed to execute prisoners, destroy evidence of the atrocities that had been carried out, with Hitler shooting himself in his bunker on April 30th. In these violent spasms of an evil regime, Bonhoeffers family waited anxiously to hear news of their. Like many German Citizens, waited anxiously for news of relatives, whilst trying to avoid being annihilated by the Allied air raids. Suzannah's diaries give us a first-hand account of the execution of her brother Klaus, who had been arrested alongside Dietrich.
Klaus wrote his moving farewell letters to his parents, wife, and children with his hands tied up. Since this day, we have not heard anything from Dietrich. His prison in Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse had also been hit by bombs and the inmates were untraceable. Maria travelled from one concentration camp to the next, as best as she could, in order to find Dietrich. All in vain. Now it was time for her to follow her family (mother, grandmother, and younger siblings) into the West. Every day, Ursel and Emmi came with cooked food (which those sentenced to death were entitled to receive) to the prison in Lehrter Strasse. Only once in December had they obtained a visiting permit. Every day now, the tension was unbearable: When will we be conquered at last? When will the doors of the prison open up?
Tragically today they learned that the doors of the prison would not open up for Dietrich…. She continues in her first hand account of Klaus’ death
On February 2, 1945, Klaus and Rüdiger were sentenced to death. Klaus rejected the farce of an appointed attorney and defended himself – this means, as we know from his guard, he openly attacked not only the entire Nazi regime but also the unlawful behavior of Freisler – since he knew that he would lose his head anyway. Rüdiger’s guard came to Ursel with tears in his eyes to pass on to her the bad news of his death sentence. Rüdiger had asked him to pass by the same evening and to remind Ursel, as a last farewell, of the Bible verse chosen for his confirmation: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits!” (Psalm 103.2) The guard did not know at which time the sentence would be executed – maybe in the early morning hours, but it could also take some more days.
….. I took my bicycle and cycled up and down between the train stations, hoping to meet either the parents or Ursel. Finally, I met Ursel at her home, lying on a couchette. I sat down at the foot of it and she began to talk. Not only about the inner city of Berlin, which was completely destroyed now, but also of her conversation: “When the advance warning of the bombing raid came in, I said that I would not sit in a bunker with the same people who had sentenced my husband to death. Just when I left, I added: ‘You have convicted innocent people. But I tell you: Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap (Gal 6.7).” Later when Christel came into the room, we told her everything – even what Ursel had said about God who is not mocked. This is how Christel reacted: “Why did the US forces not carry out this air raid yesterday? Then, the sentences would not have been passed, and eventually they would have been able to escape!”
My parents, too, got stuck in this heavy air raid and they wandered long distances through the burning city. They returned, totally blackened by smoke. When my father came into the room, he had washed himself, but his snow-white hair was black from grime. He looked into my surprised face, and with a fine, heart-breaking smile he said to me: “Yes, this is how we become young again.” The dignity and authoritative posture of the parents was a great support for the whole family – children as well as grandchildren. For my mother, who had always tried with all her activities to change things for the better for her children, it was very hard to remain passive.