Bonhoeffer’s “Trial”

A drumhead court-martial, a kangaroo court, a juristic farce – call it what you want, Bonhoeffer’s “trial” was a travesty of justice. Not that the Nazis didn’t go out of their way to give their antics at least a semblance of legality – being SEEN to abide by the letter of the law was, after all, inordinately important to them (more on this later). However, when the verdict had effectively been reached in advance, Bonhoeffer stood no chance of receiving anything even remotely resembling due process.

Having passed the death sentence on Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp on April 6, 1945, SS Colonel Walter Huppenkothen and Major Otto Thorbeck traveled south to Flossenbürg Concentration Camp to give a repeat performance of their double-act for Bonhoeffer. However, when death’s emissaries arrived on April 7, Bonhoeffer was nowhere to be found. One by one, cell doors were hastily thrown open and the demand was barked, “Are you Bonhoeffer?” “Are YOU Bonhoeffer?”

Unfortunately for the Nazi legal team, there had been a mix-up. Having been escorted away from the advancing Soviet and Allied fronts (and potential liberation), Bonhoeffer was in a convoy of prominent prisoners 100 miles away. Well, that would never do! In spite of the fact that Hitler’s regime was staring defeat in the face, “justice” still had to be done! From this rather cynical point of view, it was most propitious that the bureaucratic apparatus and telecommunications network still worked. As a result, the message was sent out to bring Bonhoeffer to Flossenbürg ASAP.

Bonhoeffer finally arrived in the late evening on April 8. Together with Camp Commandant Lieutenant Colonel Otto Koegl – the letter of the law dictated that three people were needed – Huppenkothen and Thorbeck tried and passed sentence on Bonhoeffer. Perhaps needless to say, there were no witnesses, no records, and no defense for the accused. Why should there have been? To the venerable Nazi court, it was a clear-cut case.

Bonhoeffer was executed the next morning. And that was the end of that particular “traitor”.

However, it wasn’t the end of the legal aspects of Bonhoeffer’s case entirely. In the Sermon on the Mount, the following can be read: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (Matthew 7:1 NIV) In post-war Germany, there was every chance that those who’d willfully ignored Jesus’ advice should get their comeuppance: those who had judged would now indeed be judged.

The problem was that those who judged in the post-war era had a past during the war. Thus, two of the federal judges who presided over the final judgement in the case against Huppenkothen and Thorbeck had also “left their tracks” as members of drumhead court-martials and the Prosecution Authority in the Third Reich. (Schminck-Gustavus, 1996, pp. 97-98)

As such, the verdict from 1956 against Huppenkothen and Thorbeckshould come as no surprise (in perfect legalese):

“A judge who, in former times, had to pass sentence on a member of the resistance because of his activity in the resistance movement, and who found him guilty in a proper trial, can, today, not be reproached in a criminal regard, when he [the judge], in view of his subservience to the laws at the time […] believed he had to find him [the member of the resistance] guilty of high treason and, because of that, sentence him to death.” (Schminck-Gustavus, 1996, p. 97)

In plain English: Since Huppenkothen and Thorbeck were only “following orders” and gave Bonhoeffer a “fair” trial, they were acquitted of his murder.


Schminck-Gustavus, C.U., 1996, “Der ‘Prozeß’ gegen Dietrich Bonhoeffer” (blog author's translation)


Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash