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The Tragedy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi

But on September 22 the Gestapo found some of the Zossen documents Hans had collected. Now his persecutors grasped his role in virtually every attempt since 1938 to overthrow the regime. On October 5 Huppenkothen stormed into Hans’s sickroom and threw some photocopied documents on his bed: “Here we have what we have been seeking for two years!” Gestapo agents had concluded that Dohnanyi was “the spiritual head of the conspiracy” against Hitler.

Hitler was shown some of the Zossen papers and he lusted for revenge. He had probably always distrusted all these superior men and minds, these aristocrats with grand names and manners; now, consumed with rage, he wanted them disgraced, strangled, dead.

On October 8, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was moved from Tegel to the prison cellar at Gestapo headquarters on Berlin’s Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, known as a place of ultimate terror, where in 1933 thousands of Socialists and Communists had been thrown into “protective custody” and tortured. Oster, Canaris, and others arrested after July 20 were among those already suffering for months in this fiendish place. Soon Dietrich’s brother Klaus and another brother-in-law, Rüdiger Schleicher (both lawyers and both resisters), as well as Bethge were arrested and sent to the Lehrterstrasse prison, where Klaus was tortured.

On February 1, 1945, the long spring nightmare began. Dohnanyi, still partially paralyzed, was brought on a stretcher from Sachsenhausen to the Gestapo cellar. In the confusion caused by an air-raid alarm soon after, Dietrich miraculously managed to get to his cell for a brief conversation; Hans, in a letter to Christine smuggled out weeks later, made their resolute intentions clear: “[The prison commandant] is fishing for an anchor to the future…the only solution is to gain time.” He remained adamant in his interrogations. Asked for his motives in opposing National Socialism, he replied, “arbitrariness in matters of law, and National Socialist procedures in Jewish and church questions.” His guards had orders to abandon him, leaving him alone in his soiled bed for weeks, unable to move. Still, nothing broke him.

On February 2, Freisler sentenced Klaus Bonhoeffer and Rüdiger Schleicher to death. On February 3, Berlin endured its heaviest daytime bombardment yet; the People’s Court was in flames and the Central Security Office took a direct hit. Rüdiger Schleicher’s brother Rolf (a doctor), on his way to the People’s Court, was asked to help with a bloodied, possibly dead body in the courtyard: he could see that the person was indeed dead, and it was Freisler. A few days later the Bonhoeffer parents reached Prinz-Albrecht-Straße with a belated birthday present for Dietrich. But he had been taken from Berlin, no one knew where.

On March 8 Hans, utterly depleted, wrote to his wife, “They’ve discovered everything, absolutely everything. I cannot think who has betrayed us…and when all is said and done, I don’t care.” On March 19 he was moved to a prison hospital in Berlin, where Albrecht Tietze, a humane (and anti-Nazi) Wehrmacht doctor, restored some decency to his treatment and befriended him. They had many conversations, which Tietze thought of as Hans’s final legacy (Vermächtnis).

Dohnanyi said that he had realized all along that the regime was moving toward war and disaster and only a revolution could stop it, but “the obtuseness and cowardice of people of property and influence, and the stupidity of most officers, frustrated all efforts”; only intrepid workers and disciplined Socialists of the sort he had met in Sachsenhausen had it in themselves to be effective resisters—“idealists hardened by suffering” who might have given the resistance its ultimate promise for the future.

Dietrich had not wanted the meaning of his and Hans’s experiences to be lost. He had written to a younger friend:

We realize that the world is in God’s wrathful and merciful hands…. We learned too late that it is not the thought but readiness to take responsibility that is the mainspring of action. Your generation will relate thought and action in a new way.

The end was coming in different forms.

On April 5, Hitler was shown more Zossen files; enraged anew, he ordered the liquidation of the Canaris group, and in the chaos of impending defeat the Nazis indulged in a final spasm of murder. Tietze, told to transfer Dohnanyi back to Sachsenhausen, arranged for Christine to see her husband one last time, and then sedated Hans heavily. The next day, when his “trial” took place, Hans was still drugged and only intermittently conscious, thus spared the offense of having to participate in this travesty of justice with its foreordained verdict and sentence. On April 9 he was carried on a stretcher to the place of his execution and hanged.

Buchenwald was where Dietrich and other Gestapo prisoners had been taken. On April 3, as the guards heard the rumble of nearby American cannons, some of them took away a group of prisoners and drove them south to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, where the Gestapo and SS had orders to obey and work to do no matter how close the enemy, how close their own defeat. Survivors of the macabre journey remembered Bonhoeffer’s calm, reassuring presence throughout.

On April 8 Huppenkothen and his wife arrived in Flossenbürg with other officials; a judge made his way by freight train and, for the last twelve miles, by bicycle. Some of the prisoners asked Dietrich for a short Sunday service; his homily was on a text from Isaiah: “With his wounds we are healed.” At the court-martial held that night by the bicyclist judge, Bonhoeffer, Canaris, Oster, and others were condemned to death; they were hanged early the next morning. Dietrich was composed to the last.

One truth we can affirm: Hitler had no greater, more courageous, and more admirable enemies than Hans von Dohnanyi and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Both men and those closest to them deserve to be remembered and honored. Dohnanyi summed up their work and spirit with apt simplicity when he said that they were “on the path that a decent person inevitably takes.” So few traveled that path—anywhere.


Dr. Tietze Was Not a Nazi November 22, 2012

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