An Armful of Nettles

Toward the end of his life, it almost seems as if Bonhoeffer couldn’t help but make a good impression on the people he happened to come into contact with. There follows two independent accounts written by British POWs who journeyed with Bonhoeffer and a number of other hostages through the Bavarian countryside en route to Italy. They were all to be held ransom in a valley in the Dolomites in exchange for the lives of the Nazi elite. Bonhoeffer didn’t reach the end of that particular road. However, the two POWs did. As a result, we have their accounts:

First, Captain S. Payne Best:

“Bonhoeffer […] was all humility and sweetness; he always seemed to me to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and of deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive. There was something dog-like in the look of fidelity in his eyes and his gladness if you showed that you liked him. He was one of the very few men that I have met to whom his God was real and ever close to him.” (Payne Best, 1950, p. 180)

This corresponds almost exactly with the impression Bonhoeffer made on the other British POW, Squadron Leader Hugh Falconer:

“Bonhoeffer was a charming person who always seemed to be full of joy. His faith was everything to him and through it he was at peace. Without being a saint he was a saintly man and he had the same look of serene happiness in his eyes as the Jehovah’s Witnesses [who refused to obey call-up orders when Hitler introduced conscription] I had known in Sachsenhausen [concentration camp].” (Falconer, 2018, p.107 [and p. 44])

However, despite this positive appraisal of Bonhoeffer, the hardened British military man wasn’t blind to what he saw as the German pastor’s “failings”:

“He was also naive, as so many total Christians can be and, while he would not admit that he could possibly be of any interest to anyone as a hostage, he did most firmly believe […] that he would have a fair trial and survive to pursue his mission in a post-war Germany which would have certainly needed it. His presence was, I am certain, a great comfort to us all for so long as he was with us.” (Falconer, 2018, pp. 107-8)

It’s from Falconer, too, that we get a charming, little anecdote which is behind the title of this blog post.

Due to the breakdown of supply lines toward the end of the war, the hostages were kept on decidedly meager rations. Starving, they decided to gather their own food. “Next day we set off. Frau Heberlein [who had gone into voluntary captivity to look after her ailing husband] and [Bonhoeffer] pointed out to us what edible herbs they could find – mostly sorrel and nettles – and we started to forage. In a surprisingly short time, considering our feeble condition, we had collected an impressive heap of rather revolting looking verdure […] It was typical of [Bonhoeffer] that, adding to the heap an armful of nettles which must have caused him some pain in the gathering, he remarked with his beaming smile and the usual twinkle in his eyes, ‘You see, however bad things may seem to be, God can always help!’” (Falconer, 2018, pp. 123-4)



Falconer, H. M. (2018). The Gestapo’s Most Improbable Hostage

Payne Best, S. (1950). The Venlo Incident


Photo by Matthew Feeney on Unsplash