Book Review: Letters & Papers From Prison

Letters & Papers From Prison, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Given my interest both in the life and thought of anti-Hitler German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer [1] and my general interest in reading the letters of others [2], it was probably no surprise that I would eventually find this book and also find it of great interest.  Having some familiarity with the poetry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but little with his letters or with his other writing, this book was of great interest for a variety of reasons.  For one, this particular correspondence is immensely fascinating in its own right even if the collection does not include the letters Bonhoeffer wrote to his teenaged fiancé, although it does include a short piece of writing from Maria herself which is touching in its graciousness towards Bonhoeffer.  To be sure, the material of this particular book is not particularly pleasant, given that Bonhoeffer wrote all of these letters, poems, and extracts while he was in prison as a political prisoner on a minor charge that somehow never seemed to be resolved so that he could be set free.  There is a sense of doom in reading this book where we know the fate of that brave and complex man even as he has hope in his immanent but never present deliverance from imprisonment to marry his sweetheart and aid in the restoration of the German church.

The contents of this book are given in chronological order and cover over 400 pages of material.  This book is quite substantial, and as Bonhoeffer spent a lot of time in prison, in which he wrote melancholy poetry, read as voraciously as he could, and even bribed some guards so that he could pass letters to and from family and friends, and it is little surprise that the enforced solitude and boredom of his life and being limited only to his own head and heart except for the comfort he drew from the loyalty of his politically active family and largely theologically-inclined friends would lead to some intense letters.  I wonder how he would have felt for his letters, in which he engaged in flights of fancy as well as the occasional delicately discussed political intriguing and personal discussions of his plans for the future and his coping with the present, to become public reading material for others in their native German and in translation.  However he would have felt, the letters show him grateful, patient, thoughtful, and filled neither with unrealistic optimism or succumbing to despair, although he remains fully human in the letters and notes that survive.  Of particular interest are the stories, including one humorous and dark tale about a disfigured and decent German soldier who is sent back to the front because he is unable to give in to the inhumanity of his fellow jailors who delight in cruelty against prisoners, a subject that was likely of considerable interest to the sensitive Bonhoeffer.

In looking at the overall context of this book, which is organized in chronological fashion and which is full of dramatic irony in that we know the end and Bonhoeffer does not until well into his time in prison, there is a lot of great interest for students of Bonhoeffer’s thought and also of the Third Reich.  The distance between laws and the enforcement of those laws is immensely instructive, as is the way that Bonhoeffer was treated with cruelty at first until it was known that he was well-connected, after which his jailors became much more kind, to his great disgust.  If few of us have the experience of being threatened with or suffering from being a political prisoner, it is worthwhile and useful to read such letters in the knowledge that such may be our fate if we are people whose religious and political opinions put us at odds against corrupt and tyrannical rulers.  These letters are full of graciousness, but also full of slyness and even deception where political plots are discussed with a sense of misdirection so as to deceive the wicked Nazi leaders whose censors examined letters and where slip ups could lead people to share Bonhoeffer’s fate of interminable imprisonment and eventual slaughter.  Little about this book is pleasant, except for the author’s faith and his concern for others, which shine through even the darkest circumstances of being a prisoner of conscience under an unconscionably evil regime.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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13 Responses to Book Review: Letters & Papers From Prison

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