Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Letters & Papers from Prison (SCM Press, 1953)

As the title suggests, the book has two sections: firstly, a collection of letters written either to his parents or to a close friend and, secondly, miscellaneous writings smuggled out of prison, or composed shortly before, as well as a description of his final days. The two parts give very different impressions of his time. The letters are tenderly written to reassure his family and friends, and in them he understates any difficulties. But his ‘Report of Prison Life’ is a shocking reminder of the injustice of the system and the abusive treatment of prisoners. In his letters, he can come across as simply pious, polite and bookish; it is really not until the essays that you get a sense for his purposefulness and zeal.

Of course, this difference was in part due to the strict prison censorship, which also ensures the letters are consistently apolitical. Bonhoeffer is constantly requesting books to read, but never asks for any of a political nature and never makes reference to Nazism. However, the editor, who is also the addressee of most of the letters, notes a few occasions where Bonhoeffer makes clandestine reference to the future attempt to assassinate Hitler or the German resistance movement (‘I am glad K. is getting on so well. For a long time he was so depressed.’).

A major theme of the papers is identifying the virtues needed to live in such a time and the vices which led to the circumstance. Interestingly, he does not see the need to try and explain the evil of Nazism. The greatest problem he sees in the world around him is not violent extremism or hatred, but weakness. He writes,
Is not the weakness of men often more dangerous than deliberate malice? I mean, such things as stupidity, lack of independence, forgetfulness, laziness, idleness, corruption, being easily led astray etc. Christ does not only make men good: he makes them strong too. The sins of weakness are the real human sins, the deliberate sins are diabolical, and no doubt strong as well! (p. 131)
In witnessing the rise of the Third Reich, what concerns Bonhoeffer most is not Hitler, but the man sitting quietly in the pew. To follow passively, he seems to suggest, requires relinquishing one’s humanity to such a degree that the ability to discern between good and evil is eventually lost. All that remains are the regurgitated political slogans.

A contrast emerges in his papers between the manner in which the people followed Hitler, and what it looks like to follow Christ. The latter following is not weak or self-protecting, but strong in the face of danger. ‘Christ,’ he says, ‘avoided suffering until his hour had come, but when it did come he seized it with both hands as a free man and mastered it’. He continues,
We are not Christs, but if we want to be Christians we must show something of Christ’s breadth of sympathy by acting responsibly, by grasping our “hour”, by facing danger like free men, by displaying a real sympathy which springs not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. (p. 145)
This sympathy and strength is also clear in Bonhoeffer’s actions. Even in the worst moments, he reaffirms his decision to return to Nazi Germany from the safety of the USA. Although he does not suffer lightly, he accepts it as part of the cost of discipleship to the Christ who suffered.

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