The death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Mary Bosanquet

Meanwhile, in the schoolhouse at Schonberg, Low Sunday had dawned. It occurred to Piinder to ask Bonhoeffer to hold a small service. Bonhoeffer hesitated; most of his companions were Roman Catholic, and there was Kokorin from Communist Russia. But Kokorin himself begged for it, and under general pressure Bonhoeffer yielded. He gave an exposition of the Scripture passages for the day: ‘Through his stripes we are healed’ [Isaiah 53.5] and ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again into a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ [1 Peter 1.3].

‘He reached the hearts of all,’ Payne Best remembers, ‘finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment, and the thoughts and resolutions which it had brought.’ Together with Bonhoeffer, all looked forward thankfully and hopefully into the future. The little service ended. Then, during the moment of stillness that succeeded it, the door was flung open and two men stood in the doorway. ‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer, take your things and come with us.’

Bonhoeffer gathered his few belongings. In a copy of Plutarch that he had received for his birthday he wrote his name in large letters and left it on the table. His last words to Payne Best were a message to his trusted English friend Bishop Bell. ‘Tell him,’ he said, ‘that for me this is the end, but also the beginning. With him I believe in the principle of our universal Christian brotherhood which rises above all national interests, and that our victory is certain. Tell him too that I have never forgotten his words at our last meeting.’

It must have been evening before Bonhoeffer reached Flossenbürg. The ‘trial’ went on throughout the night. The prisoners were interrogated once more and confronted with one another. All were condemned.

The last picture that we have of Bonhoeffer comes from the prison doctor, who wrote many years later: ‘On the morning of the day, some time between five and six o’clock, the prisoners, among them Admiral Canaris, General Oster and Sack the Judge Advocate General, were led out of their cells and the verdicts read to them. Through the half-open door of a room in one of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths.’

So the morning came. Now the prisoners were ordered to strip. They were led down a little flight of steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. There was a pause. For the men about to die, time hung a moment suspended. Naked under the scaffold in the sweet spring woods, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Five minutes later, his life was ended.

From The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoffer ND