Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison: A Biography, published by Princeton University Press © 2011. Posted by permission. Come to the launch of Princeton University Press’s “Lives of Great Religious Books” series on Thursday, March 24, in New York City, hosted by the Institute for Public Knowledge at NYU and the SSRC Program on Religion and the Public Sphere.—ed.
An old photograph provides a glimpse into a dismal cell at a Nazi prison called Tegel. Wan light falls in from a tiny window that is too high for a prisoner to use to take in a landscape, but one who is alert and sensitive might glimpse the upper branches of a high tree or a low hanging cloud, and through that opening, hear a thrush. A standard-issue plank bed with a blanket drawn tight over it takes up most of the small space in the cell and in the picture, and a board to which one could attach notices is on the unadorned wall. Other furnishings are sparse. We know from other sources than the photograph of the presence of a nearby stool and a bucket, positioned for we-all know-what. Guards, who were forbidden to talk to prisoners, could peer in through a slot in the door to view the inmate, who could not see out. Visitors today can still imagine something of what it must have been like for a captive to squirm or pace in its ten-foot by seven-foot floor space.
All the senses can come into play during such imagining. For instance, the odor of the whole third floor in which this cell stood, the prisoner’s pen for a year and a half, was barely endurable. No smell of fresh soap offered a contrast that could render the atmosphere slightly bearable, because there was not any soap available that could have helped make living with one’s own odors less than dreadful.
From that cramped space designed to kill creativity and bury hope, however, there issued letters and papers that became the substance of one of the great testimonial books of the twentieth century. Since there is so little to observe in the shadowed picture of this room, we are left other reminders and, later, his words written there, to fill it in with a human portrait, that of the author. He was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best-known German Protestant pastor, who resisted Hitler and paid for his actions and expressions with his life. He was a man of many paradoxes: a longtime pacifist, something that Lutherans were not supposed to be; an inconsistent pacifist who became a conspirator in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler; a thinker who took citizenship seriously but technically was guilty of treason; a still young world traveler who did his most memorable work in this cramping cell.
Many who view the photo of this enclosure do so knowing in advance from his writing and that of his friends something of what was occurring in his mind and in the cell. His letters tell us, but in any case it is not difficult to conjure up a sense of what his aloneness meant to the confined man, who was a naturally gregarious and friendly sort. For a time he was unspoken to, even by guards. In his first days there they tossed in his meager breakfasts. They were forbidden to recognize the humanity of such a locked-in person. We learn from a letter that succumbing to despair was tempting to the prisoner and that at a low moment suicide was even an option, because he considered himself to be “basically” dead. We learn that, instead of killing himself, he began to write, especially as his material circumstances eventually, if only slightly, improved. Many of his notes, of course, were personal letters, some passed on through authorities and some smuggled out and then transmitted to his best friend, Pastor Eberhard Bethge, who saved them. No publisher would have seen a potentially attractive book in the letters or his other various jottings, musings, and poems written in prison.
During the dark nights of loneliness and in the bleak mornings there cannot have been much incentive for the letter-writer to greet the day from amid the sounds of silence at times and, at others, from the din of noises made by prisoners and guards. Yet, against all odds, a book was being drafted. After World War II, Eberhard Bethge, who had hidden the scraps and scribblings in the days of danger, evaluated and organized them. This meant deciphering scripts and arranging pages to fashion the book that the English speaking world knows as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. Issuing from that seventy square-foot cell, this little work came to be known, read, and used around the world well into a new century. While the physical setting of its letters and papers was a place capable of inducing claustrophobia, spiritually these contents served readers everywhere as a testimony to openness, possibility, and hope.
Many letters and thus many pages of the eventual book dealt with rather ordinary matters. But surrounding the chatty items that make the letters personally attractive were theological reflections that, Bethge was to decide, might appeal to and serve the church, the university, and the traumatized but recovering nation. After Bonhoeffer’s execution as the European war was ending, Bethge did some tentative and exploratory disseminating of some of the writings. The positive reaction, at first from a close circle of friends, turned out to be part of a test that taught Bethge to observe that many readers were welcoming this genre. They were becoming involved at second hand with the life and witness of this different kind of theologian, Bonhoeffer.
The letters and papers from prison reveal much about Bonhoeffer’s spiritual life and vocation, and these served a new generation of collegians and seminarians who were looking for models of witness and courage. They tell of his spiritual life and vocation, as for instance in the first letter, when Bonhoeffer asked his friend, who had served as his pastor back when they were studying theology and pastoral practice together, now, through letters, again to be his pastor, since he had not been allowed to see one in prison. He pleaded to his friend: “After so many long months without worship, confession and the Lord’s Supper and without consolation fratrum—[be] my pastor once more, as you have so often been in the past, and listen to me.” Then came a revelation about Bonhoeffer’s psyche: “You are the only person who knows that ‘acedia,’ ‘tristitia’ [sadness in the face of spiritual good, medievalists called it] with all its ominous consequences, has often haunted me.” But, he resolved, “neither human beings nor the devil” would prevail.