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March 8, 2011

New book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells about his sad last days

Filed under: Buchenwald, Dachau, Germany — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 12:03 pm

I am currently reading the new best-selling book by Eric Metasas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.  The book is long; life is short.  So I decided to skip ahead to read the ending.

Caution: Spoilers ahead.  If you don’t want to know how the book ends, don’t read any further.

Before I started reading this book, I knew that Dietrich Bonhoeffer had spent some time as a prisoner at the Buchenwald concentration camp, but what I didn’t know was that he had met Dr. Sigmund Rascher who was also a prisoner at Buchenwald.

On page 508, the author mentions that Dr. Waldemar Hoven and Dr. Sigmund Rascher shared the last two months of Bonhoeffer’s life, meaning that Dr. Rascher and Dr. Hoven were prisoners at Buchenwald in the Spring of 1945. I quickly checked the notes for the book and learned that this information had come from the book entitled The Venlo Incident written by Captain Payne-Best.

Dr. Sigmund Rascher was the SS doctor who had conducted medical experiments for the Luftwaffe at Dachau, starting in May 1942, with the consent and approval of Himmler. Then in May 1944, Dr. Rascher and his wife were arrested because they had registered, as their own, a child that was not their’s.  This information comes from an affidavit signed by Dr. Friedrich Karl Rascher, the uncle of Dr. Sigmund Rascher, which was entered into the proceedings of the Nuremberg IMT.

The following quote is from the book entitled The SS, Alibi of a Nation, 1922 – 1945 by Gerald Reitlinger:

Rascher remained at work in Dachau til May 1944, when Freiherr von Eberstein, higher SS and police leader for Munich, came to arrest him — but not for his experiments. It had been discovered that the children whom Frau Rascher had borne after the age of forty-eight had in reality been kidnapped from orphanages. The camp commandant and the chief medical officer at Dachau thereupon discharged a flood of complaints against Rascher, whom they described as a dangerous, incredible person who had been under Himmler’s personal protection for years, performing unspeakable horrors. Himmler naturally refused to have the Raschers tried, but they were confined in the political bunkers of Dachau and Ravensbrueck, the fate under the Third Reich of people who knew too much. Captain Payne-Best met Sigmund Rascher during the southward evacuation of the Dachau political bunker at the beginning of May 1945. He found Rascher garrulous and sympathetic. One of Rascher’s boasts to Captain Payne-Best was that he had invented the gas chamber. Perhaps that was why Sigmund Rascher disappeared soon afterwards, and likewise Frau Rascher who was last seen in Ravensbrueck.

So, acccording to Reitlinger, a highly respected historian, Captain Payne-Best did not meet Dr. Rascher until both were on the evacuation trip from Dachau to the South Tyrol.

According to Freiherr Von Eberstein, the SS officer and Police President of Munich, who arrested Dr. Rascher, he was sent to a prison in the city of Munich.  Munich is 18 kilometers from Dachau, so it makes sense that Dr. Rascher would have been sent to Dachau, not to Buchenwald.

Metaxas points out in his book that a group of prisoners, including Bonhoeffer, were taken from Buchenwald to Flossenbuerg in a van with a “wood-fueled engine.”  Along the way, they encountered bridges that had been destroyed and bomb damage along the roads. With such scarce transportation near the end of the war, why would Dr. Rascher have been moved from the Munich prison to Buchenwald, which was over 200 miles away?

Captain Payne-Best wrote that he arrived at Dachau on April 9, 1945, the same day that Dr. Rascher arrived there.  But were they on the same bus or train?  Captain Payne-Best was with a group of prisoners from Buchenwald, but Dr. Rascher had been in prison in Munich. Was Dr. Rascher first transferred from Munich to Buchenwald before being sent to Dachau?  April 9th was the day that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed at Flossenbuerg, where he had been transferred from Buchenwald.

Dr. Sigmund Rascher was allegedly shot on April 26, 1945 inside a prison cell at Dachau on the direct orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, but according to Gerald Reitlinger, Dr. Rascher had been sent from Dachau to the South Tyrol, along with Captain Payne-Best.

Captain Sigismund Payne-Best was a British intelligence agent; he was arrested on November 9, 1939 as a suspect in an alleged British plot to kill Hitler. Before he was moved to the Buchenwald concentration camp in August 1944, Captain Payne-Best had previously been a prisoner at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp where Georg Elser, the man who had tried to kill Hitler with a bomb planted at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, was also a prisoner.

Both Elser and Captain Payne-Best were awaiting a trial during which Hitler expected to prove that the British intelligence service (MI6) was involved in Elser’s failed assassination attempt.  Georg Elser was allegedly killed at Dachau on April 9, 1945 during an Allied bombing raid. All the other prisoners in the bunker were taken to a bomb shelter and Elser was the only one who was killed. Wait a minute!  Did Captain Payne-Best arrive at Dachau on the day that there was a bombing raid?

The story of Georg Elser’s execution, according to Captain Sigismund Payne-Best, is that either Adolf Hitler or Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had ordered the head of the Gestapo, SS-Gruppenführer Heinrich Müller, to deliver a letter, authorizing the execution of “special prisoner Georg Eller” during the next Allied air raid, to the Commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, Obersturmbannführer Eduard Weiter, on April 5, 1945.

Eller was a code name for Elser so that the other prisoners would not know his true identity. By some strange coincidence, Captain Payne Best had come into possession of this letter in May 1945 shortly before the end of World War II.

In my humble opinion, Captain Payne-Best made up some of the stories in his book, The Venlo Incident, including the story that Dr. Rascher was a prisoner at Buchenwald. But why would he do that?  I think that it was because he wanted to tell the story that he had met Dr. Rascher in a washroom at Buchenwald and that Dr. Rascher had told him all about the gas chamber at Dachau.

To this day, tour guides at Dachau tell visitors that the gas chamber at Dachau was not used for “mass murder” but it was used a few times to test different kinds of poison gas.