That popular version of Bonhoeffer’s death is explained below…

There was a “trial” that lasted through the night: “the prisoners were interrogated once more and confronted with one another. All were condemned.”Early in the morning on April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by hanging. Bosanquet writes:

“So the morning came. Now the prisoners were ordered to strip. They were led down to a little flight of steps under the trees to the secluded place of execution. There was a pause. For the men about to die, time hung a moment suspended. Naked under the scaffold in the sweet spring of woods, Bonhoeffer knelt for the last time to pray. Five minutes later, his life was ended.”

     The camp doctor was an eye-witness of Bonhoeffer’s final minutes:

“Through the half-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 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 of the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly seen a man die so entrirely submissive to the will of God.”

That version may be debatable according to Craig J. Slane in Bonhoeffer as Martyr…

The report, received by Wolf-Dieter Zimmermann, was written 4 April 1955 by H. Fischer-Hullstrung, a medical doctor who ostensibly had attended to the prisoners on that morning. But it may be as bogus as the trial that preceded the execution.

J. L. F. Mogensen, a Danish survivor of the Flossenburg camp, has taken the doctor’s account at several points, First, he notes that on the morning of the hangings the hangings were taken an usually long period of time, from about six o’clock until close at noon. He conjectures that that the reason for the length had to do with the torture technique sometimes used by the Nazis: to hang the victim with the tips of the toes touching the ground so as to prolong the death. When death drew near, the victim might be revived and the process repeated. Mogensen believes this practice would help to explain the prolonged nature of the killings. Second, he notes that the door to the execution area was always closed during killings. Even it it were left open by chance, there were no barrack buildings with a view of the place of execution. Third, he doubts weather the executioner would have allowed Bonhoeffer the uncommon privilege of kneeling and praying. This would have been outside normal procedures.

The camp doctor may have known what happened to Bonhoeffer and decided to create an alternative account in order to wash his hands of these deaths. Or he may not have been an eyewitness at all. It also remains possible that he is telling the truth and that Mogensen has misinterpreted his own experience in some way. At the very least, Fischer-Hullstrung had to have signed Bonhoeffer’s death certficate. Even so, the doctor’s report is losing its credibility among Bonhoeffer scholars and interpreters. The physical details of Bonhoeffer’s death may have been much more difficult than we earlier imagined. But aside from some kind of recantation, which is practically unthinkable, it is hard to imagine how the harrowing details of his final minutes or hours could make a real theological difference, though they might shape our psychological identification with him.

(Craig J. SlaneBonhoeffer as Martyr28).

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