One other component found in the Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life in prison was his poetry. From 1928 to 1943, there is not a single poem in his writings.[1] But then in June of 1944, he wrote the first of ten poems. It was entitled, “The Past” and it was “significant for the way it depicts Bonhoeffer sense of loss at having to be separated from his loved ones.[2] In the remaining months of 1944, Bonhoeffer composed the other nine poems[3]:


The tenth and final poem, “By the Powers for Good,” was written in the Gestapo cellars of Prinz Albrecht Strasse in Berlin, where prisoner Bonhoeffer had been transferred from Tegel Prison a few weeks earlier. This poem is widely known in the Christian world because of its having been adapted into a hymn and translated into a variety of languages. It included in church hymnals throughout the world.[4]


Bonhoeffer’s final poem, “By the Powers for Good” was dated December 19, 1944.[5] It was composed “…in the more severe surroundings of the Gestapo prison, where he was subjected to more intense interrogations…”[6] Bonhoeffer had been moved from the Tegel Prison to the Gestapo Prison at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin on October 8, 1944.[7]


In this final poem, Bonhoeffer expressed his trust in the sovereign God who gives strength and endurance and hope in a dark world. There were “powers for good” that surrounded Bonhoeffer “even during the dire days of imprisonment”[8]. These “powers” were a source of comfort for Bonhoeffer:


   With every power for good to stay and guide me,

   Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

   I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

            And pass, with you, into the coming year


            The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;

            The long days of sorrow still endure;

            Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening

            That thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.


            Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving

            Even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,

            We will not falter, thankfully receiving

            All that is given by thy loving hand.


            But should it be thy will once more to release us

            To life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,

            That which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,

            And all our life be dedicate to thine.


            Today, let candles shed their radiant greetings;

            Lo, on our darkness are they not thy light

            Leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?

            Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.


            When now the silence deepens for our hearkening,

            Grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise

            From all the unseen world around us darkening

            Their universal paean, in thy praise.


            While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

            Boldly, we’ll face the future, come what may.

            At even and at morn God will befriend us,

            And oh, most surely on each newborn day![9]

There is a “paradoxical peace”[10] in the poem. Bonhoeffer experienced that peace of God in a harsh environment. Kelly and Nelson also point out that Bonhoeffer’s faith in cruel times can serve as an example for “moral”[11] leaders faced with opposition. It also follows the example of Jesus:


This poem is in many ways reminiscent of Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer of resignation to God’s will, such that, through his continual trust in Father God, Jesus was enabled to drink the cup of sorrow to the dregs and fearlessly face the agony of passion and death..


This poem offers unique insights into what can support Christian moral leaders, faced as they may be with frustration, opposition, rejection of their vision, and the shattering of their hopes. The sustaining forces for good are the same for Bonhoeffer as they can be for the Christian moral leader: faith in God’s promised grace, solace from the risen Lord ever present in life’s sorrows, and the breaking into each day of the divine love that overcomes hatred and the divine life that over comes death itself.[12]


Bonhoeffer’s poems “probably cannot be classified among the unforgettable, enduring gems of world literature, though they belong to an important epoch of Christian history.”[13] Even Bonhoeffer “exhibited no illusions about their literary excellence.”[14] Nevertheless, Bethge saw value in Bonhoeffer’s poetry:


Despite this disclaimer, Bonhoeffer’s biographer (Bethge) saw their value as poetry because of the special circumstances in which they were composed and because the poetry was shared in such a personal way with him. In the extreme conditions of imprisonment and Gestapo interrogations, Bonhoeffer had bared his soul as never before.


In underscoring the significance of the poems for understanding Bonhoeffer’s experiences as a prisoner, Bethge would write, “How are we to judge Bonhoeffer’s attempts at poetry? They are efforts to overcome his isolation.[15]            


Kelly and Nelson write that the poems of Bonhoeffer are important because “they serve as keys to interpret the moods and profound thoughts harbored by Bonhoeffer during the months of his forced confinement.”[16]His poems were an outlet for Bonhoeffer in his final months of life:


Bonhoeffer’s poems represent a way of expressing his profound feelings, his faith, his love for his friends, his struggle for freedom, and the depths of his prison and life experiences. The poems serve veritably as windows into his own soul, carrying the freight of his loneliness, his anxiety, his longings, his faith, and his spirituality. Not only are they in large measure links to his autobiography; they also reflect his personal assessment of the cost of his moral leadership in the midst of the Nazi nightmare.[17]

Edwin T. Robertson concludes that “the importance of the poems he wrote lies in the fact that they were the ultimate attempt to express his deepest feelings about himself, his friends, his church, the future of Germany, and his future.”[18] The future for Bonhoeffer was execution. 


He knew that his death was nearing when he wrote the poem, “The Death of Moses” in September of 1944. This poem seems “to be an effort by Bonhoeffer in the more strained circumstances of the Gestapo’s tightening grip on the conspirators, to peer into the future and to see some meaning amidst the bleakness.”[19] Bonhoeffer compared himself to Moses in that both of them were only given a glimpse of the future for their people. Death would hinder both of them from sharing in that future. The last lines were:


Hold me Fast!—for fallen is my stave,

O faithful God, make ready now my grave.[20]


Like Moses, who never entered into the Promised Land, Bonhoeffer would not be alive to see a new Germany after the war:


Bonhoeffer…saw himself as a Moses on the threshold of the Promised Land. He harbored hope in the midst of the massive destruction and ruin all about him, hope that out of the ashes and shattered lives a new Germany, a new Europe, and a new world might eventually arise.


His death he now understood and accepted for the sake of his people. He would not live to see their liberation but was content to know he had done all he could to share in the sufferings of Christ at the hands of the godless world of Nazism.[21] 

Nevertheless, it was enough for Bonhoeffer to at least “see his people marching free.”[22] Bonhoeffer’s freedom would not come. By early 1945, “interrogations were taking a much more serious turn. Communication could no longer be maintained between those who had privy to conspiracy…Bonhoeffer…and others were being examined under torture, all were on trial for their lives.”[23]  


[1] Ibid., 236.


[2] Ibid.


[3] Ibid., 237


[4] Ibid.


[5] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 246.


[6] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 247.


[7] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 535.


[8] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 248.


[9] Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 400-401.


[10] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 248.


[11] Ibid.


[12] Ibid.


[13] Ibid, 237


[14] Ibid.


[15] Ibid.


[16] Ibid., 238.


[17] Ibid


[18] Edwin T. Robertson, The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A New Translation with Commentary (Surrey: Inter-Publishing Service, 1998).


[19] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 494.


[20] Kelly and Nelson, The Cost of Moral Leadership: The Spirituality of Moral Leadership, 245.


[21] Ibid., 246.


[22] Kelly and Nelson, eds., Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Testament to Freedom, 494.


[23] Bosanquet, The Life and Death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 267.