Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A historiographical note on Bonhoeffer's death

In light of my post late last night on the martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, especially given that I cited the well-known and oft-quoted testimony of the SS doctor at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, one H. Fischer-Hüllstrung, I feel it is important to take note of something that came to my attention today. Steve Perisho, who blogs over at Libe Locorum Communium, in a March 2011 post entitled "Cost of Discipleship," produces a quote from a review by Keith Clements of Ferdinand Schlingensiepen's biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance, which appeared in Theology 114, no. 2 (March/April 2011). I will let you drive over to Perisho's blog to read the quote and look at the footnote from which it was derived. The executive summary is that at least one source asserts that Fischer-Hüllstrung's testimony "is apparently a lie."

Of course, dying in a slower, more painful manner than previously believed does nothing to diminish the witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or to enhance it- a martyr's death cannot be quantified in that way. It is well attested by his fellow prisoners that right up until the time he was removed from the school in Schönberg, where they were being kept after their arduous and bizarre odyssey over the back roads of parts of rural Germany, even as he was being led away, that Pastor Bonhoeffer was composed and serene, even leading services on the Sunday, 8 April, the Sunday following Easter.

It bears noting that the footnote cited by Clements appeared in a work published twenty years ago and has not resulted in a serious revision of Bonhoeffer's last moments. Just taking the footnote at face value, it cites a Danish prisoner being held at the Flossenbürg camp, "L. F. Mogenson," as the source for the fact that "the executions of Admiral Canaris and his group were drawn out from 6 a.m. until almost noon." The assertion that the doctor, whose job sounded utterly evil, even more evil than that of the executioners, "could not have seen Bonhoeffer kneeling in his cell, neither could Bonhoeffer have said a prayer before his execution and then climbed the steps to the gallows. There were no steps" is not, at least not in the footnote (I have no idea what the main text relays), well-attested.

It does seem that the dubious nature of the testimony surrounding Bonhoeffer's last moments was taken into account by Schlingensiepen, who cites none of these when writing about Bonhoeffer's execution:
During the morning hours of 9 April, Wilhelm Canaris, Hans Oster, his colleagues, Theodor Strünck and Ludwig Gehre, Karl Sack, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer were hanged and cremated. Friedrich von Rabenau was to follow them a few days later. Their ashes, together with those of many thousands of other victims of Hitler's regime, form the now grass grown pyramid in the middle of the former concentration camp at Flossenbürg
Here is something that is authentically from Bonhoeffer, a short commentary on Romans 13:1-7, which applies to governments: "No authority can legitimately interpret Paul's words as a divine justification of its existence... Those in authority... could never interpret it as a divine authorization of their conduct in office."


  1. Bonhoffer is special to me for many reasons but one in particular. Some years back, I was a part of a ecumenical (Lutheran-Catholic) pilgrimage to sites important to both traditions.

    On Sunday afternoon, October 21, 2007, our group visited Flossenburg, the Concentration/Work Camp where Bonhoffer was held. Most of the participants (whether Lutheran or Catholic) went up to the parade ground/courtyard where Bonhoffer was executed. There were a lot of tears and prayers.

    This was the first visit of most of our participants to any Concentration Camp and the presence of death was obvious to all. I had visited Auschwitz a few years prior and knew what to expect but most of my Lutheran colleagues were clueless.

    Bottom line, you cannot visit any of these camps without being profoundly affected.

    Dcn Norb in Ohio

  2. Dear Deacon Scott:

    I am delighted to discover (only today!) that someone found this entry in my little commonplace book thought-provoking, and wish only that I knew more about the subject (e.g. the impact of Schlingensiepen and, behind him, Mogenson, on the scholarly consensus). Indeed, only now do I note that the comments of Mogenson are not free-standing, but must be contained within the contribution entitled "Zwei neue Zeugnisse von der Ermordung Dietrich Bonhoeffers", by Jørgen Glenthøj ( I'll request that and take a look.

    Blessings on your work.

  3. Steve:

    I appreciate both your original post and the additional information. I am interested in any thing further you find out.

    Please continue your good, valuable work.

  4. I've now added my own translation of testimony of Mogenson:

  5. I should probably note that the editors of Dietrich Bonhoeffer — Mensch hinter Mauern. Theologie und Spiritualität in den Gefängnisjahren (the book in which the testimony of Mogensen appears) consider Mogensen's testimony "confirmed [(bestätigt)]" by Captain S. Payne Best's The Venlo incident (1950), which (on pp. 109-111) they quote as follows: "Neither [Müller nor Liedig] could understand why they had not been executed, for on the 9th April there had been a regular holocaust among the more important political prisoners at Flossenberg; our old companions Captain Gehre, General von Rabenau, and Pastor Bonhoeffer had all three been killed, and Admiral Canaris and General Oster, the two chiefs of the Army Intelligence Service, had been put to death by strangling in the cruellest possible way; besides these, hundreds of others had been liquidated" (110-111, citing "Müller and Liedig who had just arrived from Flossenberg"). Now, that would appear to distinguish between the deaths of Canaris and Oster and the death of Bonhoeffer (in terms of the manner of them), but that's just what is being questioned here. Do we really have good grounds for assuming that Bonhoeffer was treated any better, or just the "incoherent [(verdrehten)] details" provided by a Nazi doctor?
    But again, I am very far indeed from being a master of the sources. You've read much more in this area than I have, whereas I am in no position to speak for the impact of the testimony of Mogensen on the scholarly consensus generally.