Prison Writings in a World Come of Age
The Special Vision of Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, 1944, Christian Kaiser Verlag

by Martin E. Marty

Only a zealous and informed scavenger could have found and assembled scribbled fragments which eventually became the published prison letters by the best-remembered German cleric who gave his life in the anti-Nazi cause. There was no manuscript of the book which later appeared in many languages around the world. The gallows took its author, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, before he had a chance to shape a book.

The scavenger hunt would have left the searcher thoroughly puzzled. Here is a book by a German theologian, a member of a caste which had and has a global reputation for being ponderous, meticulous, and provident about the possible fate of his writings. The appearance of the collection in book form, Letters and Papers from Prison, seems entirely accidental. No archivist or library was collecting the letters before the author’s death at the hands of Adolf Hitler’s executioners on April 9, 1945. Having them visibly in one’s possession would have been a clue possibly leading the Nazis to fellow-conspirators of Professor Bonhoeffer and, of course, to their death. Such recipients of letters might have been seen to have connections to this professor who looked up from his study desk in 1933 and embarked on a twelve-year course of dissent that included participation in the plot to assassinate Hitler.

Since the letters were so necessarily secret and dangerous, they were dispersed among their diverse recipients. These included members of the prisoner’s family, including Professor Karl Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s father, who was as noted and respected a psychiatrist as any in Germany and his mother, whose last name had been von Hase. That ‘von’ gave a clue that she was from a landed and aristocratic family. There were letters, some smuggled, from and to young Maria von Wedemeyer. These were later published in English translation as Love Letters from Cell 92. They were learned love letters, including as they did some arguments about the value of poetry by Rilke.

Beyond these clusters of letters were many more to the recipient who had most to do with the collecting, editing, and publishing the letters and papers. He was the budding theologian Eberhard Bethge, who married into the Bonhoeffer clan during the years (1943-1945) when Dietrich was imprisoned at Tegel in Berlin. All the letters trail off before the final months, when the theologian was condemned before he was moved to and executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp weeks before the war ended.

Those letters survived in various hard-to-find locales, including in gas-mask canisters hidden in the garden of Dietrich’s mother; while others were tucked into scattered books and files. Bethge was farseeing enough to recognize that though his friend was writing sometimes casual notes, there were also more formal little treatises which might be cherished by scholars and others who were left behind. Many of them who wanted to know through an intimate source some angle on how and why Germany turned into a totalitarian and murderous state. So Bethge saved all that he could, even though he had to report regretfully in the book he edited that in panic. In order to protect some people mentioned in the letters, he had no choice but in haste to burn some of them. So the trail of letters ended abruptly, a fact that contributed further to the apparently random character of the book.

Readers now comment on how remarkable it is that seventy years after they were written, these letters and papers are available in dozens of languages in many nations. I have bought copies in Cape Town and Bogota, and could purchase translations in Serbo- Croatian, Czech, Polish, Korean, and in unlikely places far from Tegel Prison or Western European and North American universities. Early on, some may have read the book out of curiosity, as they wanted to imagine what resistance in Germany and the march to death might have been like. Their curiosity satisfied after they had in effect read a good story, they would then likely have shelved the book and moved on. Yet now, four and more generations after Bonhoeffer wrote them, they remain influential. This means that the substance of the letters had to satisfy both intellectual and other interests, and not merely be a reflection of daring and steadfastness.

As readers encounter the rich substance of the book, they are quite naturally curious about what kind of person could have produced it. The story of Bonhoeffer’s life before he was imprisoned is astonishing. I compare his output to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., who also was killed at age thirty-nine and whose writings appear in numerous volumes. Bonhoeffer’s in translation appear in sixteen large volumes. In his three-dozen years before his imprisonment, after a sheltered childhood, he had already studied in America, visited Spain and Mexico, ministered in London—where his twin sister, who was married to a Jewish lawyer had taken refuge—and ridden the circuit as a young leader in the international ecumenical movements. In America in 1930-31, he had chosen to worship in Harlem, at Abyssinian Baptist Church–not in the protected and fashionable sanctuaries which would have welcomed him. And through the 1930s he wrote what are coming to be regarded as classics, The Cost of Discipleship most prominently.

Letters and Papers from Prison may look tacked on to this body of work, a mere post script. Yet for many thousands, it has become the main “script.” From the first, young people have been drawn to it, not to take lessons on how to endure prison, though they could get some counsel from this collection. Nor was it because the topics were arranged in good order. In the end, serious religious themes predominated. And it is there that controversies, which have enlivened discussions of the book, came into play. It is easy to pick some of them out, since many books and articles have been written about them and planners of conferences or people at spiritual retreats program them.

First, he gave lessons on following conscience and showing courage as he faced the Nazi evil. He also used prison time to ask the basic question: “Who is Jesus Christ really for us?” He took nothing for granted, but forced himself and his correspondents to deal with the basics. The prisoner did not try to address all the historical doctrinal questions, but did take up the practical ones. Reaching into the treasures of the faith, he came up with the word that Jesus is “the man for others.” The Gospel stories make that posture clear, but the affirmation of it needed rediscovery.

Third, and more controversially, he spoke of the “world that is coming of age,” reaching adulthood. He thought that followers of Jesus Christ did not need to be treated as spiritual adolescents. Most modern people had outgrown many myths and obstructive bad habits. They could be at home in the world, in arts and sciences, rather than looking for another time and place in which to be pious. Then he moved on to speak of “religionless Christianity.” “Religious Christianity,” he claimed, had depended on piety and ritual—both of which he had admired—but now people should freely plunge into the world as it was coming to be. One did not need to parade spiritual achievements, but to live a full human life.

Some studied these motifs and thought Bonhoeffer had lost faith, or given it away, as if he’d been done in by prison existence and fear of his almost certain death. In the Communist post-War period, in the then anti-religious “East Germany,” some universities allowed for religious studies departments, and some of these featured Bonhoeffer’s themes. In Great Britain and then in the United States some thought that all this meant “Christianity lite,” suggesting that the profound and mysterious dimensions of faith were to give place only to ethical actions. The most radical theologians lifted out some themes from the final letters and played down the idea and reality of God as they called themselves “Christian atheists.”

These radical notions challenged believers and often helped them sharpen their own faith and focus their strategies in “the world come of age.” Yet, as years passed, across the spectrum of readers, the majority found that from his prison cell he had a special vision of how to respond to Jesus Christ, “the man for others,” and to find community in a trimmed down but especially potent Christian witness. Theirs was not “Christianity light” but rather it was Christians “traveling light,” so that they could be more free to serve God in a world which they were supposed to accept as a gift—and enjoy.

Read an excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”: A Biography here

About the Author:

Martin E. Marty is professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago. He is the winner of the National Book Award and the author of more than fifty books. His recent books include Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Letters and Papers from Prison”: A Biography , Martin Luther: A Life and The Christian World: A Global History.