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The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi

BPK/Art Resource
Hans von Dohnanyi, circa 1940

Both Hans and Dietrich had helped Jewish and “non-Aryan”4 victims, but in 1941 Nazi policy changed from expulsion to extermination, and only an end to Nazi rule could save people. The Wannsee Conference of January 1942 coordinated the regime’s plans for a “final solution.”

In early March 1943 Dohnanyi and Canaris flew to Smolensk, Hans carrying a British-made bomb that a fellow conspirator, Colonel Henning von Tresckow, was to plant on the plane taking Hitler back from Russia to his East Prussian headquarters. Tresckow got the device on the plane disguised as two gift bottles of Cointreau, and the Führer departed, but the mechanism didn’t work and Hitler arrived at his headquarters unscathed. On March 21 another assassination attempt miscarried because of last-minute changes in Hitler’s plans. (Neither the SS nor the Gestapo knew of these two failed attempts on his life.)

Ten days later, what was to be the last gathering of the Bonhoeffer family occurred in Berlin—a celebration of Dr. Bonhoeffer’s seventy-fifth birthday. Friends and colleagues raised their glasses, including Ferdinand Sauerbruch, Germany’s most renowned surgeon and a colleague from the Charité, and Paula’s cousin General Paul von Hase, now military commander of Berlin. A formal message arrived from Hitler awarding Dr. Bonhoeffer the Goethe Medal for Art and Science—a message that may have jolted the family, but then, they knew that Nazis honored and dishonored with equal abandon.

In truth, the Nazi chieftains’ distrust of the German people had grown as they discovered and crushed various acts of resistance—like the brave effort made in 1942–1943 by the Munich student group called the White Rose—and they knew that the surrender of the decimated German army corps in Stalingrad in February 1943 had shaken morale. At that point they decided to strike at the “traitors” in the Abwehr. On April 3 Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and SS Chief Heinrich Himmler placed the case against Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer in the hands of a military prosecutor, Manfred Roeder (a favorite brute of Göring’s), who on April 5 arrested Hans in his office while others arrested Christine and Dietrich, all on suspicion of treason as well as “currency violations.” They were taken to different prisons in Berlin: Dohnanyi to the prison for officers on Lehrterstrasse, Dietrich to a military interrogation prison in Tegel, and Christine to the women’s prison in Charlottenburg.

On April 23, Good Friday, Hans wrote to Dietrich—not knowing, of course, whether the letter would be delivered. His message was one of soul-searing regret:

That I am responsible for you, Christel, the children, and the parents having to bear this pain, that my beloved wife and you are robbed of freedom—you won’t believe how this depresses me…. If I knew that you all—and you personally—don’t think of me with reproaches, a weight would be lifted from my soul.

Dietrich quickly reassured him:

There is not a grain of reproach or bitterness in me regarding what has happened to you and me. Such things come from God, and only Him. And I know that you and Christel are at one with me, that before Him there is only submission, endurance, patience—and gratitude.

On April 25, Easter Sunday, Christine, still in jail (she was released a week later), wrote a letter to her sons, Klaus and Christoph, which ended:

…Now I want to tell you one more thing. Don’t carry any hate in your heart against the power that has done this to us. Don’t fill your young souls with bitterness; that has its revenge and takes from you the most beautiful thing there is, trust…it is after all only a really small and meager part of the human being that one can put in jail…. I embrace all of you.

At first Dietrich was held in solitary confinement, but he, like Dohnanyi, still managed to stay in touch with family and friends through censored letters, coded or smuggled messages, and visits; the Bonhoeffers periodically brought them food, clean clothes, books, even flowers.

Over the first months, in lengthy interrogations—absent physical torture, but harsh and ugly—Roeder focused on how and why Dietrich had been exempted from an army call-up, the reasons for his many trips outside Germany, and his movements between Pomerania and Berlin—all were considered crimes. Dietrich confessed ignorance of the situations in which Roeder kept trying to place him, and mercifully Roeder paid little heed to his many brave anti-Nazi actions in the Kirchenkampf.

Though Dietrich kept to a strict regimen in order to maintain his energy for the nightmare sessions, he was profoundly depressed by the callous, foul-mouthed guards, the dirt and sweltering heat, the bleak efficiency with which the prison isolated its inmates, and by, as he wrote in a note to himself, his “separation from people, from work, from the past, from the future, from honor, from God…fading of memories…passing time—killing time…smoking and the emptiness of time.” But concentrating on the goal of clearing his name at an early trial and on mitigating the execrable prison routines—cheering up his fellow inmates and talking to the guards (several proved to be quite humane)—restored his inner equilibrium and gave him some kind of peace, as did his daily reading of the Psalter.

For Hans incarceration was a time of unspeakable suffering; he now experienced firsthand everything he had abhorred about the regime for ten dreadful years—the Nazis’ boundless criminality, their sadistic determination to destroy a person before killing him. Once Christine was released, she could give much-needed moral and practical support to him and her brother, but he was alone and without her, in danger, and ill. Yet while there was no let-up in Roeder’s brutal interrogations about Operation 7, Hans outmaneuvered him, leading him into a bog of confusing technical details about currency transfers—all the while enduring streams of abuse, reminders that one of his grandfathers was Jewish, and threats of renewed imprisonment of his wife.

By midsummer 1943 Keitel conceded that the charges of high treason against both men should be dropped. Dietrich and Hans were finally shown their in- dictments—on the lesser charges of currency violations and a new Nazi high crime punishable by death: Wehrkraftzersetzung, “sedition and defeatism.”

They remained steadfast, and gave no names—ever. Yet there was the desolation of being at the mercy of their jailers, the deranging uncertainty of their situation, and the ever-present fear: might they break under torture? Of these inner ordeals we have some record: Dietrich’s famous letters from Tegel poignantly attest to the spiritual travail of incarceration; and there were the secret, coded messages both men composed with incredible ingenuity. Hans was in physical torment, with painful phlebitis, but despite confinement in a stifling cell with barely a glimpse of the outside, his resourcefulness gave him some relief: it was in prison that he taught himself to draw and paint, in prison that he drew the mad, twisted visage of Roeder, his touching portraits of Christine, and a nosegay of flowers for her birthday. He turned frequently to the Bible, his perhaps hitherto unarticulated faith fortifying him.

In November 1943, Allied air raids reached Lehrterstrasse and an incendiary bomb hit Hans’s cell; he suffered a brain embolism. His captors had no choice but to transfer him to the Charité, where he was put under the care of Ferdinand Sauerbruch, who repeatedly foiled Roeder’s efforts to return him to prison. But on January 21, 1944, in Sauerbruch’s absence, an army doctor and two SS men appeared at Hans’s bedside, rearrested him, and removed him to a military hospital. Roeder was taken off the Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer case at this point, but the interrogations continued—now conducted by the only slightly less brutish Walther Huppenkothen, a Rhenish lawyer and SS officer, and F.X. Sonderegger from the Gestapo.

Dietrich used the solitude of his cell to study more deeply the many diverse texts he treasured; letters to his parents were filled with requests for books. In April 1944, he noted how different the jail experience felt to him after a year; he was working to grasp its inner sense and to use it for building strength and hope. He wrote more often to Eberhard Bethge, a former student and friend with whom he could share his theological reflections:

What keeps gnawing at me is the question, what is Christianity, or who is Christ actually for us today?

This fundamental question was at the heart of Dietrich’s musings. After experiencing the capitulation of German churches to Nazi demands, he might well have wanted to think about the Christian religion apart from its institutionalized presence in society, to explore what he called “religionless Christianity.”

In contrast to 1943, when Hans and Dietrich had hoped for a speedy resolution at an early trial, by 1944 a survival strategy required delay: they knew of the ongoing plan to topple the regime and they knew, too, of continued Allied successes, so they wanted to hang on until Hitler’s defeat—and their liberation. As Hans’s health improved he thought that only further illness would save him from the Gestapo; in May he begged his wife to obtain a means to infect him with diphtheria. The unflinching Christine did this, poisoning some food she brought for him on one of her authorized visits. The ghastly ploy worked. Hans was taken to an army hospital for contagious diseases near Potsdam; though Huppenkothen continued his grilling there, he got nowhere.

In mid-July (after the Allied landings in Normandy), the authorities had to acknowledge that they lacked the evidence to bring either man to trial. But everything changed irredeemably on July 20, 1944, when Hitler survived the last and most nearly successful effort to assassinate him.

Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi couldn’t have known right away of the brutal aftermath of its failure—the murder that very night at army headquarters in Berlin of Generals Beck and Olbricht, of Claus von Stauffenberg, Werner von Haeften, and others. Oster was arrested the next day, Canaris on July 23. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Himmler’s deputy, was quickly appointed as head of a commission to hunt down every last suspect. Arrests and fiendish interrogations were followed by demeaning sham trials, many before Judge Roland Freisler in the People’s Court, who screamed and hurled insults at the defendants. (There were moments of great courage, as when Hans-Bernd von Haeften calmly replied to Freisler’s question about his motives, “Hitler was Evil’s great perpetrator.”) As many as six thousand people were rounded up, tried, and most of them executed, including General von Hase.

On August 22 Sonderegger ordered Hans’s removal to the sickbay at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he also contracted scarlet fever, which together with the lingering diphtheria paralyzed his feet and legs. Heroically, he learned to feign that condition even after he improved. During those late-summer weeks, Dietrich and Hans could hope that they were at least safe from being implicated in the July 20 plot; their interrogators had no evidence linking them to it.

  1. 4

    In Nazi terminology, a non-Aryan was a baptized Christian of Jewish descent. 

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