• Abigail Gilbart-Smith

Cover image: Jan Fidler (licence)

On the 5th of April 1943, under the arrest of the Gestapo, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was thrown into a cramped prison cell, where he would be forced to accept the unexpected. His life quickly moved from wedding planning and writing in the comfort of his home to utter isolation in harsh new surroundings. Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor in Nazi-Germany, was arrested on suspicion of minor offences and was taken to Tegel prison in Berlin where he spent the next eighteen months. After further investigation, which exposed him to be part of an elite group within the Abwehr focussed on opposing the Third Reich and plotting Hitler’s assassination, he was transferred to the Gestapo prison. 

Finally, he was hanged in Flossenburg prison camp on the 9th of April 1945, just five months before the war ended. Despite never being granted freedom from his cell, Bonhoeffer’s story is one of hope in the face of uncertainty, reconciling grief with gratitude. Today we are in mandatory isolation, to stop the spread of the virus that has upended our lives, protecting our families and the vulnerable. Bonhoeffer, however, chose the path that led to his isolation, imprisonment, and ultimately death; yet in the midst of great suffering his thankfulness was deep and his hope long-sighted.

Eight months into his confinement Bonhoeffer wrote to his parents, 

Although it passes my comprehension that they may possibly still keep me here over Christmas, I’ve learnt in the past eight and a half months that the unexpected often happens, and what can’t be changed must be accepted...” 

His feeling of disbelief, as plans and presumptions concerning the future crumbled, is something many of us can relate to. We are forced, like Bonhoeffer, to accept the unexpected and learn to adapt to this new way of living. Throughout his letters Bonhoeffer describes ways in which he has sought to make the most of his isolation, writing that, 

the greatest thing is to stick to what one still has and can do – there is still plenty left – and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontentment… I can experience pleasures of one kind or another… I keep my spirits up – and I’m so thankful every day.’ 

This somewhat simple call, to do what one can and not resent what one cannot, was not intended to be an attempt to forget the pleasures no longer available, but a fresh chance to appreciate them anew. In his Nazi cell, Bonhoeffer was taken back to the simple life, with all he took for granted stripped back and torn away. Yet, he saw such times of deprivation as creating an opening both to look back at memories with thankfulness and also to go forward in life with renewed gratefulness: ‘it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich’. 

However, Bonhoeffer was not unrealistic about the struggle that separation from normal life can bring; his writing came from agonising raw experience, being not only cut off from his family and friends, but also from his fiancee, whom he would never get to marry. In an intimate letter to his best friend Eberhard Bethge he wrote: 

when we are forcibly separated for any considerable time from those whom we love, we simply cannot… get some cheap substitute… we simply have to wait and wait; we have to suffer unspeakably from the separation and feel the longing till it almost makes us ill. This is the only way, although it is a very painful one, in which we can preserve unimpaired our relationship with our loved ones.’ 

Whether in lock-down, or in prison, it is undeniably painful to be unable to see dear friends, significant others, and family members. Although he was separated for prolonged periods of time from his loved ones his writing is saturated with hope as he declares: ‘gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy… In this way the past gives us lasting joy and strength’. For him the solution was never to attempt to ‘fill the gap’ left by loved ones but to acknowledge it, even using separation as a fresh source of gratitude by finding peace and assurance in the pain which evidences the genuine love on which they are founded.

Nevertheless, for Bonhoeffer, this wasn't a naive or hollow positivity. Bonhoeffer was thinking about 'other things far beyond our own personal fate, about the meaning of all life, suffering, and events; and [he] lay hold of a great hope’. Following Jesus had led him to prison and he knew that Jesus was with him in his cell, and even if he didn't survive the war, he would be with Jesus forever*. This meant that he could have peace in the midst of extreme uncertainty, distress, mistreatment, and oppression, and it was because of this that he was able to write ‘I... know for certain that I am in God’s hands, not in men’s’. 

This faith was no psychological crutch: following Jesus meant following him even to suffering, yet it also led him to the hope of eternal life. He believed in a God who was not indifferent to his struggles, yet not bound by them; this is what strengthened him to accept the unexpected. The external forces of the current pandemic on our lives have forced us to become aware of the great uncertainty and instability all around us. During this season, like Bonhoeffer, we must ask ourselves: what is it that enables us to face the future?  

If we are to learn what God promises, what he fulfils, we must keep reposing very long and very peacefully on the life, sayings, deeds, sufferings, and death of Jesus… You must never doubt that I’m travelling with gratitude and cheerfulness along the road where I am being led. My past life is brim-full of God’s goodness, and my sins are covered by the forgiving love of Christ crucified.’

 [Bonhoeffer’s last letter to his best friend Bethge] 

*You can read of the call to follow Jesus that Bonhoeffer accepted here

Image: unknown (licence)

Accepting the Unexpected: Hope from a WW2 Prison Cell

  • Facebook
Sign up to get new articles in your inbox