Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To introduce Dietrich Bonhoeffer and what he stood for.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a leader and two volunteers to be a narrator and the voice of the prison doctor.
- Have available an image of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the means to display it during the assembly.
- If possible, have music from Terezin – another concentration camp – on the double CD Terezin – The Music 1941–44 (Romantic Robot RR 1941) available and the means to play it at the end of the assembly. This extraordinary CD contains music written by inmates of the camp who maintained their cultural life throughout their imprisonment until their death. A suitable piece might be the Sonata for Piano: I, 'Allegro con fuoco' from Gideon Klein's piano sonata.
Narrator It is the 9 April 1945, Flossenburg Prison.
On this day, the controversial theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer – along with other members of Admiral Canaris’ resistance group – was to be executed by hanging.
Bonhoeffer went calmly to his death. As he was led out of his cell, he was observed by the prison doctor, who said . . .
Doctor Through the half-open door I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer still in his prison clothes, kneeling in fervent prayer to the Lord his God. The devotion and evident conviction of being heard that I saw in the prayer of this intensely captivating man moved me to the depths.
Narrator The prisoners were ordered to strip. Naked under the scaffold, Bonhoeffer knelt for one last time to pray. Five minutes later, he was dead.
Leader Twenty-one days later, on 30 April, Hitler committed suicide. Germany surrendered.
Leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many people have never heard of him, but then who had heard of Schindler until the film Schindler’s List?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was 39 years old when he died, but what else do we know about him? Well, he went to the USA and failed his driving test three times – refusing to bribe the examiner. He loved his girlfriend and was engaged to be married.
He was also one of the first people to realize, way back in the early 1930s, what Hitler's policies would really mean for Germany. He was also one of the first people to do anything about it.
Bonhoeffer knew that the Nazi Party was keen to maintain its links with the Christian Church on the basis of ignoring the entire Old Testament – the Jewish Bible. The Nazis wanted everyone to accept that Germans had a special, superior relationship with God. As far as Bonhoeffer was concerned, that meant the writing was already on the wall – the Jews were in danger. By 1934, he and a small group of other Christians started an opposition that became known as the Confessing Church.
By 1939, Bonhoeffer was exiled in America, but, when war began, he immediately returned to Germany because, he said:
I have made a mistake in coming to America. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I did not share in the trials of this time with my people.
Once he was back home, he believed that Hitler was like a madman 'driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders'. Joining the resistance, he helped Jews to safety, for which he was arrested. At this point it was discovered that Bonhoeffer had been part of a plot to kill the Führer.
Hardly any other Christian thinker has done what Bonhoeffer did. He spoke up with a faith that truly confronted evil – not just after the event but as a challenge to the Third Reich while it still had power.
On 7 February 1945, Bonhoeffer was sent to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. Although he was on his way to death, he was also on his way to peace. His writings show that he had lived out his belief, feeling 'free to become the child of God'.
Time for reflection
The following poem – ‘Who am I?’ – was written by Bonhoeffer in prison shortly before he was executed.
Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell's confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country house.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.
Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.
Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I myself know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotisms and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making,
faint and ready to say farewell to it all?
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am,tThou knowest, O God, I am thine.
- Find out more about Bonhoeffer. The following are useful websites for this:
- Ask the students to think about what a brave person is like. Then ask them to think about whether or not they are brave – or how brave they are.
Do they think Bonhoeffer was brave?
Reread the poem written by him in prison, in the ‘Time for reflection' part of the assembly. Look especially at the section beginning, 'Am I then really all that which other men tell of? Or am I only what I myself know of myself'. Then, invite the students to think about situations they are in or might be in and find very difficult. What are their own ambivalent feelings about them? How does Bonhoeffer resolve his feelings? How might the students resolve theirs?
- I have made a mistake in coming to America. I shall have no right to participate in the reconstruction of the Christian life in Germany after the war if I did not share in the trials of this time with my people.
Bonhoeffer's words reflect a dilemma that has faced many people through history. Do the students believe that people who have not been directly involved in crises and difficult, dangerous situations have a right to return or a role to play in those situations after the danger has past? Think of some modern examples of this dilemma.
Music from Terezin, such as the 'Allegro con Fuoco' from Gideon Klein's piano sonata