Saturday, 28 September 2013

Book Review - Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Letters and papers from prison : the enlarged edition by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Eberhard Bethge

London : The Folio Society, 2000

This book has taken me some time to read, sitting on my bedside table for well over a month. There are two reasons for this; the first being the time taken to comprehend the depth of some of the writing, with the second being the inability at times to endure the book knowing full well the tragic ending.

There is no doubt that Bonhoeffer was a great figure in the twentieth century Christian world, a great thinker about Christianity in the modern world, and one of the great moral opponents of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.

As the title suggests, Bonhoeffer was eventually imprisoned by the Nazis - he was held in Berlin for nearly two years without trial, and was hanged exactly one month before Germany unconditionally surrendered in 1945. Many of his colleagues in the Church were shot in the weeks that followed, in the final madness of Hitler's reign.

The knowledge of this makes some of the letters in the collection to Bonhoeffer's parents and fiancee particularly hard to read, especially when he writes of hopes of release. The Nazis could only murder people like Bonhoeffer, either way - if the Nazis survived people like him had to be murdered because they stood up for truth in the Nazi world of lies, and if the Nazis were to be destroyed they would bring down everthing in their own death throes.

This collection is edited by one of Bonhoeffer's closest friends and collaborators Eberhard Bethge, and many of the important letters in the book are between these two (mostly smuggled out and into prison by sympathetic guards). In these particular letters Bonhoeffer expounds his thoughts on Christianity, on how modern Christianity needs to move out from the fortress of the "Church" and work directly in modern society - much as Jesus did in his time. He also discusses what it means to have faith in a world of science.

Letters to his family show great fortitude, constantly being concerned for them, and very thankful for the little they could do for him in respect of providing him with extra clothing and food, and not showing them any of the fears he might be holding for himself (to which he occasionally alludes in letters to Bethge).

Other papers in this collection include some schematics for books he was planning to write when he could, and some poems (which have possibly lost something in translation). The reader is never far away from a sense of impending doom, with the delays in his impending trial and continuing interrogation giving Bonhoeffer more hope than anything else.

On the 17th of January 1945 he writes what turns out to be his final letter to his parents - not long after this he was taken to Flossenberg and was hanged on 9th of April 1945. His parents and fiancee did not discover his fate until several months after the end of the War.

This book is the first I've read of Bonhoeffer - and is probably not the place to start with him. I'm sure I will be reading more on my life's journey.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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