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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.

March 7, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:10 am

I am reading the new book by Eric Metaxas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with the sub-title: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich.  The book might be difficult for some people to understand if they are not well-versed in what went on in Germany in the 1930s. In my opinion, Metaxas does not explain everything adequately, but the book is so rich in the details of Bonhoeffer’s early life that readers can easily understand what made Bonhoeffer into the man that he became.

My first impression was that this biography would make a great movie, and I fully expect that it will be made into a movie. I have some ideas for a movie about Bonhoeffer:  The early scenes should show his childhood, as told by Metaxas in the book, but there should be scenes of Hitler’s childhood interspersed with Bonhoeffer’s childhood, so that people can understand that Hitler and Bonhoeffer lived in two different worlds, based on their family history.

The book starts out with a long detailed section about Bonhoeffer’s illustrious ancestry on both sides of his family.  He came from a long line of upper class Germans on his mother’s side; his father’s side was originally Dutch.  In 1531, Caspar van den Boenhoff left the Netherlands and settled in Germany, where the family name became Boenhoffer, which means “bean farmer.”  By 1800, the family had dropped the umlaut from the first syllable of their name and changed it to Bonhoeffer.

The maiden name of Bonhoeffer’s mother was Paula von Hase.  The Germans who had a von in their names were like minor royalty that did not associate with the lower class Germans who didn’t have a von in their name.  (Metaxas didn’t explain that in his book, but I know this from reading books by Thomas Mann.)

Both sides of Bonhoeffer’s family had been rich professional people for centuries.  They were the complete opposite of Hitler’s low-class family.  In an interview with Glenn Beck last year, Metaxas referred to Hitler as “vulgar.”  I immediately concluded that Metaxas is upper-class, in the same social class as the Bonhoeffer family.

A movie about Bonhoeffer should first establish the great divide between Hitler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hitler was a “man of the people” while Bonhoeffer was an upper class intellectual who had many Jewish friends.  The only Jew that Hitler ever met in his childhood was the doctor who treated his mother when she was sick. As a young man, Bonhoeffer lived in Berlin in a rich neighborhood where he socialized with his Jewish neighbors; his best friend was a Jew named Franz Hildebrandt.

One thing that Hitler did was to bring all the Germans together and make the lower class people feel that they were equal to the upper class Germans.  The two classes of Germans were working side by side in the work projects that all Germans were required to do.  There were Germans marching, with shovels on their shoulders, alongside the German soldiers at the Nazi rallies.  The reason that the German people worshiped Hitler was that he instilled pride in all the Germans and made them feel good about themselves.  All this was lost on the Bonhoeffers who were against Hitler from the very beginning.

In his book, Metaxas includes a photo of one of the homes where Bonhoeffer lived as a child; the house is still standing, but it has been converted into EIGHT APARTMENTS.  In other words, Bonhoeffer lived in a house big enough for 8 families.  According to the book, the Bonhoeffer family had “a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a cook.”  The girls in the family had a dollhouse — which was an entire room in the house.  Another room in the house was a classroom where the mother home-schooled the children for their first years. The dining room table could seat 20 people.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea: the Bonhoeffers were rich and upper class. Besides their huge home, they also had a summer home where they stayed for the entire summer, with their servants in attendance, of course.

When the family moved to Berlin, they lived in the Grunewald section where they socialized with their Jewish neighbors and the Bonhoeffer children went to the best schools where they never came into contact with vulgar, low class people like Hitler.  The way Metaxas tells it, the Bonhoeffer family did not suffer at all during the years following the first World War.  They did have a minor problem because food was scarce, but they didn’t go hungry; they had a huge estate where they could grow vegetables.

In his book, Metaxas wrote that “By November 1923 a dollar was worth about four billion marks” in Germany and that young Dietrich had to write home for money while he was a student at the University.  Dietrich was forced to spend one billion marks for every meal and he didn’t have enough money on hand because he had spent 6 billion for bread.  Not to worry — his father was a psychiatrist who had patients who paid in foreign currency.  Metaxas pointed out in his book that it was in November 1923 that Hitler attempted his Bierhall Putsch, but he didn’t mention how the lower class Germans, who didn’t have access to foreign currency, were suffering.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t have to worry about his future; he only had to decide if he wanted to be a doctor like his father, or a lawyer, or a musician.  At 14, he decided to become a minister; he didn’t have to worry about where he would get the money for college.

In 1924, while the whole country of Germany was in dire straits, 18-year-old Dietrich was off to Rome for the traditional upper class trip to broaden his knowledge in another country. It was at Mass in St. Peter’s Catholic church in Rome that Bonhoeffer had an epiphany about “What is the Church?” The idea of the “universality of the Church” came to him when he saw white, black, and yellow members of religious orders, all wearing clerical robes, united under the Church.  Metaxas wrote that in Rome, Bonhoeffer “saw a vivid illustration of the church’s transcendence over race and national identity.”

This quote from the book sums up how Bonhoeffer’s idea of “the Church” differed from Hitler’s ideas:

For him, ideas and beliefs were nothing if they did not relate to the world of reality outside one’s mind.  Indeed, his thoughts on the nature of the church would lead him into the ecumenical movement in Europe, causing him to link hands with Christians outside Germany, and therefore to see instantly the lie at the heart of the so-called of creation theology, which linked the idea of the church with the German Volk.  This idea of a church defined by racial identity and blood — which the Nazis would violently push and so many Germans tragically embrace — was anathema to the idea of the universal church.

Chapter 10 is probably the most important chapter in the book.  The title of this chapter is “The Church and the Jewish Question.”  Metaxas does not explain that the “Jewish Question” was “Should the Jews assimilate into German society, or should they have their own state or state-within-a-state?”  Bonhoeffer was clearly on the side of assimilation.  When this question was first discussed in Germany, the people who were on the side of assimilation were called “anti-Semites” because they were against the Jews having their own state.  That term means something completely different today.  On page 152, Metaxas used the expression “hate-filled anti-Semites.”  Back in the days when the Germans were discussing the “Jewish Question” the term “anti-Semite” meant a person who loved the Jews and did not want them to leave Germany and form their own state in Palestine.

In March 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question.”  This was only a few weeks after Hitler had been sworn in on January 30, 1933 as the Chancellor of Germany.  One of the Bonhoeffer girls was married to a lawyer who worked at the German Supreme Court, so the family had some inside information about the new regime.  They knew that the “Aryan Paragraph” would be put into effect on April 7, 1933.  This was a new law that would prevent Jews from having jobs in the German government.  Bonhoeffer anticipated that the new law would soon extend to the German church and that his Jewish friend, who wanted to be a Christian pastor, would be discriminated against.

In his famous essay on the Jewish Question, Bonhoeffer wrote that there are three ways that the Church should act, with regard to the laws of the state.  The first way was for the Church to question the legitimacy of the laws of the state.

The second way was for the Church “to aid the victims of the state action.”  Here, he had in mind aiding the Jews who would be victimized by not being allowed to participate in Christian churches.

The third way for the Church to act “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  By this, he meant that the Church should not just help the Jews who are being persecuted by the state, but the Church must also take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating the evil of discriminating against the Jews.

Bonhoeffer read his essay before an audience of German pastors and some of them walked out when he gave the second way that the Church should act.  They were gone before Bonhoeffer publicly hinted that the pastors should resort to treason, or even murder, to save the Jews from being persecuted by the state.

Hitler was not an “anti-Semite” in the original meaning of the word.  He wanted the Jews to have their own separate state rather than assimilate into German society. Hitler wanted the Jews to leave Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped the Jews to leave, by sneaking them into Switzerland with fake passports.  The problem was that Switzerland didn’t want the Jews, so Bonhoeffer was committing a crime by bringing illegals into a country that had laws designed to keep them out.  Committing a crime in order to help his Jewish friends, or even participating in a plot to kill the leader of his country, did not bother Bonhoeffer.  He created his own laws when it came to helping the Jews.  That’s why he was executed for treason on April 9, 1945.

March 4, 2011

Glenn Beck’s comment about Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Filed under: Germany, TV shows — Tags: , — furtherglory @ 9:24 am

Yesterday, I was watching Glenn Beck on his TV show, when he held up two books that he wants everyone to read.  One book was about Winston Churchill and the other was a new biography of German Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by New York Times writer Eric Metaxas.

In talking about Bonhoeffer yesterday, Beck said that “Bonhoeffer died before Hitler was killed.”  No, that’s not what happened.  Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbuerg concentration camp on April 9, 1945 because he was a traitor to his country. Like the other traitors who were involved in the July 20th plot to kill Hitler, Bonhoeffer was allegedly hanged with piano wire, not rope.  Hitler was not killed; he survived the attempt to kill him on July 20, 1944 and committed suicide in his bunker just days before World War II ended.

Before he was sent to Flossenbuerg, Bonhoeffer spent some time in the Buchenwald concentration camp.  At this camp, a sign painted on the wall of the gate house, read “My country, right or wrong” in German.  That sign has since been removed.

I don’t know why the “right or wrong” slogan at Buchenwald was removed, but maybe it was in deference to traitors like Bonhoeffer who did not believe in supporting his country, right or wrong.  The “Jedem das Seine” sign on the iron gate at Buchenwald is still there.  This is usually translated into English as “To Each his Own,” or “Everyone gets what he deserves.”

Beck did an interview with Metaxas in December, 2010. In this interview, Metaxas revealed that Bonhoeffer’s whole family was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. (One of Dietrich’s brothers and two of his brothers-in-law were executed by the Nazis; other family members were imprisoned but survived.)

Metaxas also said that Bonhoeffer’s “best friend” was a Jew who had converted to Christianity and wanted to become a Christian pastor. This was basically the reason that a group of Protestant ministers broke away from the German Protestant Church and started their own church called “the Confessing Church.”  (The Confessing Church allowed converted Jews to become Pastors.)

The Nazis wanted to unite the German churches under the German state; Metaxas pointed out that Germany was a “Christian nation.”  Hitler did not want Jews involved in the Christian Church in Germany.

The Nazis were Fascists and Fascism means a totalitarian state in which the government has total control over everything in the country.  The basic principle in a totalitarian state, whether it is Fascist or Communist, is that everything must be done for the good of the country, not for the good of the individual.  Bonhoeffer wanted the Christian Church in Germany to change for the good of his Jewish friend.

Hitler was a nationalist, not a racist.  He wanted to unite the German people under the concept of “ein Folk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer.”  Hitler wanted the Jews to have their own church and their own country, and he didn’t want the Jews and the Germans to become racially mixed.  The Bonhoeffer family didn’t agree with these principles. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s whole family was against the Nazi principles; his twin sister, Sabine, was married to a Jew.

Bonhoeffer won in the end.  Germany is now a racially mixed, diverse country and converted Jews are welcomed in German churches.

Read my comments about the biography of Bonhoeffer here.

Update, Mar. 5, 2011:

The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer being hung with piano wire might be one of those “Nazi myths and legends.”  Stories of prisoners being hung with piano wire were told to General Eisenhower by the survivors of the Ohrdruf sub-camp of Buchenwald when he visited the camp on April 12, 1945.

Gallows at the Ohrdruf sub-camp of Buchenwald

The photo above shows General Dwight D. Eisenhower viewing the gallows at Ohrdruf. Note that there is a short piece of something hanging from the gallows; I can’t tell if it is rope or wire. According to the survivors, prisoners were executed at Ohrdruf by being hung with piano wire, instead of rope.  An identical gallows was found at the Buchenwald main camp, but there were no claims that piano wire was used at the main camp.

Standing to the left of the general, and partially hidden by a pole, is Captain Alois Liethen, a German-American, who was General Eisenhower’s interpreter. The two men on Eisenhower’s right are survivors who are explaining the atrocities committed in the camp. The man on the far left, wearing a jacket and a scarf, is one of the survivors who served as a guide for General Eisenhower and his entourage. General Patton wrote in his memoirs that this guide was “killed by some of the inmates”  the very next day because the guide “was not a prisoner at all, but one of the executioners.”