Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (#NovNov22 and #GermanLitMonth)

I’m rounding out our nonfiction week of Novellas in November with a review that also counts towards German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy Siddal.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was hanged at a Nazi concentration camp in 1945 for his role in the Resistance and in planning a failed 1944 assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler.

The version I read (a 1959 Fontana reprint of the 1953 SCM Press edition) is certainly only a selection, as Bonhoeffer’s papers from prison in his Collected Works now run to 800 pages. After some letters to his parents, the largest section here is made up of “Letters to a Friend,” who I take it was the book’s editor, Eberhard Bethge, a seminary student of Bonhoeffer’s and his literary executor as well as his nephew by marriage.

Bonhoeffer comes across as steadfast and cheerful. He is grateful for his parents’ care packages, which included his latest philosophy and theology book requests as well as edible treats, and for news of family and acquaintances. To Bethge he expresses concern over the latter’s military service in Italy and delight at his marriage and the birth of a son named Dietrich in his honour. (Among the miscellaneous papers included at the end of this volume are a wedding sermon and thoughts on baptism to tie into those occasions.)

Maintaining a vigorous life of the mind sustained Bonhoeffer through his two years in prison. He downplays the physical challenges of his imprisonment, such as poor food and stifling heat during the summer, acknowledging that the mental toll is more difficult. The rhythm of the Church year is a constant support for him. In his first November there he writes that prison life is like Advent: all one can do is wait and hope. I noted many lines about endurance through suffering and striking a balance between defiance and acceptance:

Resistance and submission are both equally necessary at different times.

It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world.

not only action, but also suffering is a way to freedom.

Bonhoeffer won over wardens who were happy to smuggle out his letters and papers, most of which have survived apart from a small, late selection that were burned so as not to be incriminating. Any references to the Resistance and the plot to kill Hitler were in code; there are footnotes here to identify them.

The additional non-epistolary material – aphorisms, poems and the abovementioned sermons – is a bit harder going. Although there is plenty of theological content in the letters to Bethge, much of it is comprehensible in context and one could always skip the couple of passages where he goes into more depth.

Reading the foreword and some additional information online gave me an even greater appreciation for Bonhoeffer’s bravery. After a lecture tour of the States in 1939, American friends urged him to stay in the country and not return to Germany. He didn’t take that easier path, nor did he allow a prison guard to help him escape. For as often as he states in his letters the hope that he will be reunited with his parents and friends, he must have known what was coming for him as a vocal opponent of the regime, and he faced it courageously. It blows my mind to think that he died at 39 (my age), and left so much written material behind. His posthumous legacy has been immense.

[Translated from the German by Reginald H. Fuller]

(Free from a fellow church member)

[187 pages]


10 responses

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a bit rammed down our throats when I was at school (a CE school), but your review has made me realise this is someone I now need to read more of. He’s going very far up the TBR now!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that’s interesting; my sense is that he’s not much read now, though I once had a colleague who wrote his doctoral thesis on Bonhoeffer.


  2. Indeed. Disappointingly, there’s little available in our library. I’ve just checked. And not much read NOW. Remember I’m nearly twice your age!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. He pops up in academic editing for me but not much elsewhere. Such a towering presence and brave person shouldn’t be forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know he’s been an inspiration to many political dissidents. It’s controversial that he started off as a pacifist but then joined in the plot to kill Hitler. One has to wonder how the course of history would have been different.


  4. His letters are fascinating to read, I’ll have to take a look for a volume that has some of his other writing too. You might also be interested (if you haven’t already read them), in letters exchanged between Helmuth James von Moltke and his wife Freya. He took a different route against the Nazi regime, but shared the same fate as Bonhoeffer. (Letters to Freya and Last Letters.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d not heard of von Moltke; thanks for the recommendation!


  5. I read part of The Cost of Discipleship for a project last year. I’d like to read more. Amazing that he was able to write that much in prison that has been preserved.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That must be his most famous work. I’d like to read that and/or a biography of him.

      Liked by 1 person

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