Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo on April 5, 1943. Never again was he to know freedom in the traditional sense of the word. To his own way of thinking, however, it’d take more than prison walls to curb his liberty. He was faithful to God, “whom to serve” – in St. Augustine’s words – “is perfect freedom”.
Perhaps as a further consequence of his staunch belief, Bonhoeffer stayed calm even in the most harrowing of circumstances. A fellow prisoner Gaetano Latmiral, an Italian radar specialist, reported the recurring scene in an air-raid shelter. “Dietrich remained relaxed, and he often said to us, ‘What shall we talk about today?’ And then he spoke peacefully and serenely, and didn’t interrupt his words even during the heaviest explosions.” (Gremmels, 2004, p. 49)
It was from Latmiral, too, that we learn of what Bonhoeffer considered to be the worst experience in his life. As the Nazis began transporting Jews and people of Jewish descent to the East, Bonhoeffer found himself unable to help those baptized Jews beyond giving them absolution because they wanted to poison themselves rather than be deported. Not that he would have judged their actions as wrong. As Latmiral said, “After the failure of July 20 [i.e., Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt on Hitler’s life],[Bonhoeffer] feared being taken away and tortured in cross-examination. In this case, he considered suicide to be justified. He said that to me clearly.” (Gremmels, 2004, p. 50)
Bombs falling all around, torture, and people taking their own lives rather than suffer an even worse fate – the utterly desperate nature of Bonhoeffer’s times hardly knew any bounds. All the more reason, then, to appreciate the positive effect he had on others in spite of the awfulness of the circumstances. Gaetano Latmiral:
“He was always so interesting and cheerful. He was the best and most gifted person I’ve ever met.” (Bethge, 1994, p. 955)
Bethge, E. (1994). Dietrich Bonhoeffer, eine Biographie (blog author's translation)
Gremmels, C. (2004). Dietrich Bonhoeffer – Der Weg in den Widerstand (blog author's translation)
Photo by Norbert Tóth on Unsplash