There are prisoners and there are hostages. Bonhoeffer was both. From his arrest on April 5, 1943, till February 6, 1945, he was held prisoner in not only Tegel military prison, Berlin, but also the Gestapo's very own high-security facility on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse – one of the most feared addresses in the country. However, on February 7, Bonhoeffer was taken in secret to Buchenwald concentration camp. Here he began his life as a hostage.
As the Second World War drew to its inevitable close – certain defeat for Germany – the less nihilistic of the Nazi elite stopped thinking about the Thousand-Year Reich and started looking around for ways to save their own skins. One of the solutions they arrived at was to “bargain for their freedom with the hostages they would hold.” (Falconer, 2018, p. 60) Air-force Commander-in-Chief Hermann Göring certainly knew about this plan. Furthermore, it’s probable that the Head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, did, too. After all, it was his “Protection Squadron” which was responsible for the organization. However, it’s unlikely that Hitler himself or his Minster of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels, knew. It seems they still believed in the “Endsieg” (ultimate victory) right up until they either shot (Hitler) or poisoned (Goebbels) themselves in the Führer’s bunker on April 30, 1945.
In order to make the hostage-holding plan work, a location would have to be prepared where the hostages could actually be held. The Puster Valley on the Italian-Austrian border was chosen, and “trenches, fortifications and tank traps were built” (Falconer, 2018, p.60) to guard the rather grandly-named Southern Redoubt.
As for the hostages themselves, anyone the Nazis considered prominent enough to be used as a bargaining chip was eligible. There were members of the petite noblesse, foreign politicians, and two POWs with the surname Churchill (rather than determine which – if either – was related to Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, the Nazis decided to take both). In addition, the relatives of those who’d been implicated in Claus Schenck Graf von Stauffenberg’s July 20, 1944, assassination attempt on Hitler’s life joined the caravan, and Bonhoeffer, as a well-known pastor and theologian, was picked up in Buchenwald.
SS guards shepherded their flock as far as 550 miles from Sachsenhausen concentration camp, just north of Berlin, to the stronghold in the Dolomite Mountains. In the end, the hostages numbered 136 men, women, and children. However, Bonhoeffer wasn’t among them.
His life as a hostage ended on April 8, 1945 when his own involvement in the July 20 assassination attempt caught up with him. He was taken out of the southward-bound convoy to stand trial in Flossenbürg concentration camp the same day. He was hanged the following morning.
Those hostages who did make it to the Southern Redoubt also stared death in the face. With the hostage-for-Nazi-elite exchange program in ruins, the SS would very likely rather liquidate the hostages than have them be freed by the advancing American army. As a result, as one of the hostages Squadron Leader Hugh Falconer described it “we had decided that our best hope was to try and enlist the help of a Wehrmacht unit if we could find one in the valley, cashing in on the hatred and contempt of the [German] army for the SS.” (Falconer, 2018, p. 156) Amazingly, the plan worked – and the irony of it wasn’t lost on Falconer: “I remember thinking at the time how remarkably things had changed in a few hours. We […] were now protected by the army of a country with which we were still at war from attack by another armed service of the same country.” (Falconer, 2018, p. 161)
A few days later, the hostages were liberated again – this time for good by the American army.
(For Squadron Leader Hugh Falconer’s view of Bonhoeffer, see “An Armful of Nettles”.)
Falconer, H.M. (2018). The Gestapo’s Most Improbable Hostage
Photo by the author – Cell in the Detention Barrack, Flossenbürg concentration camp.