Dietrich Bonhoeffer died April 9, 1945 in the Nazi concentration camp at Flossenbürg, a tiny village near the Czech border in the Oberpfalz region of eastern Bavaria. He died with six military officers who conspired with him to overthrow the Nazi state by force and take over the government. He died in a place of absolute evil, in the presence of tens of thousands of victims of Nazi terror. Last year, I visited the place of his execution.
The village of Flossenbürg was home to granite quarries and impoverished stone workers before the Nazis claimed it for their own; its castle ruins and pastoral setting appealed to the Nazi sentiments. The castle, in particular, came to symbolize the Aryan struggle against the supposed Slavic menace to the east.
The Nazi SS established a concentration camp in Flossenbürg in 1938 to exploit the granite deposits in the region. Economic expansion and Nazi vanity both demanded raw materials, which the SS intended to sell to the state on the backs of slave laborers. Camps like Dachau had been created to terrorize, torment and dehumanize the enemies of the state; camps like Flossenbürg continued that work while making a profit.
After the war began, the camp’s purpose evolved. War production became more important than granite quarrying, so the prisoners began manufacturing airplane parts. An extensive series of sub-camps was established throughout Bavaria and the Czech Republic to produce armaments. Prisoners of war from the Eastern Front were brought to Flossenbürg and many were executed in mass-killings. Jews, too, came to Flossenbürg. And special enemies of the state came to Flossenbürg for “special” treatment: torture, interrogation and execution.
Life in Flossenbürg was unbelievably cruel from the beginning, and grew worse as time went on. Rations were meager. The work was dangerous. Disease and work-site accidents brought death daily. The high death rate almost immediately created a need for a crematorium; the death count soared even higher in the latter years of the war. Overcrowding and unsanitary conditions grew steadily worse, along with Nazi cruelty and paranoia.
The prisoners’ personal identities disappeared as soon as they arrived at the camp. Guards inflicted arbitrary beatings and executions to terrorize the prisoners. The SS guards publicly hanged prisoners in the roll call grounds while the camp population stood for hours in formation. The Nazis shot prisoners in mass in the valley below the camp so that the corpses would fall close to the crematorium. They “euthanized” the sick in the isolation barracks. And they executed special prisoners in the detention barracks by hanging them or strapping them in a device to hold them still while they shot them in the head.
Bonhoeffer came to Flossenbürg as a “special” prisoner expressly for the purpose of execution. It was in the detention barracks compound that the SS hanged Bonhoeffer with other members of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler.
I visited Flossenbürg on the first day of spring at about the same time of year that Bonhoeffer died. The Nazis hanged him on April 9, 1945. On the day I visited, the snow still covered most of the camp and wisps of fog bathed the camp in a surreal glow.
If Bonhoeffer could see out of the vehicle that brought him to Flossenbürg – which is extremely unlikely – the first thing he would have noticed as he approached the town was the ruin of the old castle.
Upon arriving at the camp, the SS headquarters building would have stood out.
Passing through the gate into the prison compound, he would have entered the roll-call grounds, with the Kitchen building on the left and its twin, the Laundry building, on the right. These were the only stone buildings in the main part of the prison compound.
The prison barracks were cheaply constructed from pre-fabricated wooden parts. The barracks are all gone today. This photo shows modern housing where most of the old barracks once stood, up the hill from the Kitchen. I think I would feel just a little bit creepy owning – or living in – housing that stood on this solemn place.
Before the end of the war, up to 1000 people were crowded into barracks that were insufficiently designed for 250. At the war’s conclusion, however, the Nazis mostly emptied the camp, taking the prisoners on death marches and away from approaching Allied troops. I don’t know how many sick, emaciated souls Bonhoeffer would have seen as he was dragged through the roll-call grounds toward his fate.
The laundry building contained the shower rooms in which prisoners were beaten, stripped, shaved and showered before they were issued the striped prison uniform. As a “special” prisoner, Bonhoeffer was probably spared this indignity and kept isolated from the other prisoners. It is likely that the SS marched him directly into the Detention Barracks (Arrestbau).
Not much is left of the Arrestbau; most of it was demolished many years ago. A portion of the entrance gate remains.
One wall remains at the eastern end of the Arrestbau.
The remaining building and wall at the western end of the compound give the visitor a good idea of what Arrestbau looked like.
Each building had a series of small cells. A wooden door with a peep-hole closed each cell.
The SS would torture and abuse their prisoners here, and keep long-term “special” prisoners in darkness and isolation. Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators only stayed one night in one of these cells before they were “tried,” found guilty and led into the courtyard to be hanged.
Physician H. Fischer-Huellstrung witnessed the event:
On the morning of that day between five and six o’clock the prisoners were taken from their cells and the verdicts of the court martial read out to them. Through the half-open door in one room of the huts I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer, before taking off his prison garb, kneeling on the floor, praying fervently to his God. I was most deeply moved by the way this unusually lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”
The gallows are gone; the SS removed them shortly after killing Bonhoeffer so that the Allies would not discover the machinery of death. The Laundry building has a very thorough exhibit on the history of the camp, and I could find no evidence there of the widely published claim that piano wire or meat hooks were used for hanging at Flossenbürg. As with the martyrologies of old, stories tend to be embellished over time.
The disposition of Bonhoeffer’s remains is unknown. Most of the dead at Flossenbürg were cremated in a facility built in the valley just outside the walls of the camp. These photographs show the crematorium and a pyramid constructed from the ash heap that collected outside the building.
As “special” prisoners whom the Nazis knew would be of great interest to the Allies, I think that it is likely that Bonhoeffer’s remains were burned shortly after his death. His ashen remains may rest here, then, with those of thousands of others who died at the hands of the SS in this place.
Another possibility exists. When the Allies liberated the camp on April 23, they discovered many unburied dead. Retired Chaplain Leslie A. Thompson served in the 97th Division and arrived sometime after the liberation. Writing in 1989, he recalled:
Two days later a mass burial ceremony was held for the unburied dead. The chosen site was a vacant area in the town of Flossenbürg. The Jewish chaplain gave the ceremony for the Jewish persons, the Catholic ceremony was given by Chaplain John Tivenan, and I gave the Protestant ceremony. The townspeople were ordered to attend by the American military in charge.
It is possible that Bonhoeffer was buried in one of these unmarked graves. You can read Chaplain Thompson’s remembrances here: US 97th Infantry Division WWII – Flossenbürg Concentration Camp. [Note: As of 29 Apr 12, the original link is dead. I have republished the original text at the published link.]
The memorial stone near Bonhoeffer’s place of death in the Arrestbau Hof reads (translated):
In resistance against dictatorship and terror, they gave their lives for freedom, justice and human dignity.
The memorial bears a cross inscribed with 2 Timothy 1:7, in which Paul says
For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
Bonhoeffer’s name is listed with six others – all military officers – who died in the same struggle.
But if Bonhoeffer died in solidarity with the military officers with whom he conspired, he also died in solidarity with those he tried to save by his actions. He was a “special” prisoner, but he was one with those who suffered under Nazi hands.
The prisoners at Flossenbürg came from all over Europe.
Where the conspirators failed to stop the Nazis and save the innocent, the Allied forces succeeded. Members of the 90th and 97th Infantry divisions liberated the camp on April 23, 1945, just two weeks after Bonhoeffer’s murder. Two markers commemorate the liberation.
Click any photo to enlarge.