Visitors today can still imagine something of what it must have been like for a captive to squirm or pace in the 10-foot by 7-foot floor space of a dismal cell at a Nazi prison called Tegel.
All the senses can come into play during such imagining. For instance, the odor of the whole third floor in which this cell stood, the prisoner’s pen for a year and a half, was barely endurable.
From that cramped space designed to kill creativity and bury hope, however, there issued letters and papers that became the substance of one of the great testimonial books of the 20th century.
Since there is so little to observe in the shadowed picture of this room, we are left other reminders and, later, his words written there, to fill it in with a human portrait, that of the author.
He was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the best-known German Lutheran pastor, who resisted Hitler and paid for his actions and expressions with his life.
He was a man of many paradoxes: a longtime pacifist, something that Lutherans were not supposed to be; an inconsistent pacifist who became a conspirator in an assassination plot against Adolf Hitler; a thinker who took citizenship seriously but technically was guilty of treason; a still young world traveler who did his most memorable work in this cramping cell.
Many who view the photo of this enclosure do so knowing in advance, from his writing and that of his friends, something of what was occurring in his mind and in the cell. His letters tell us, but in any case it is not difficult to conjure up a sense of what his aloneness meant to the confined man, who was a naturally gregarious and friendly sort.
For a time he was unspoken to, even by guards. In his first days in the cell, they tossed in his meager breakfasts. They were forbidden to recognize the humanity of such a locked-in person.
We learn from a letter that succumbing to despair was tempting to the prisoner and that at a low moment suicide was even an option, because he considered himself to be “basically” dead.
We learn that, instead of killing himself, he began to write, especially as his material circumstances eventually, if only slightly, improved. Many of his notes, of course, were personal letters, some passed on through authorities and some smuggled out and then transmitted to his best friend, Eberhard Bethge, a pastor who saved them.
No publisher would have seen a potentially attractive book in the letters or his other various jottings, musings and poems written in prison.
Against all odds, a book was being drafted. After World War II, Eberhard — who had hidden the scraps and scribblings in the days of danger — evaluated and organized them.
This meant deciphering scripts and arranging pages to fashion the book that the English-speaking world knows as Letters and Papers from Prison.
Issuing from that 70-square-foot cell, this little work came to be known, read and used around the world well into a new century. While the physical setting of its letters and papers was a place capable of inducing claustrophobia, spiritually these contents served readers everywhere as a testimony to openness, possibility and hope.
The letters and papers from prison reveal much about Bonhoeffer’s spiritual life and vocation, and they served a new generation of collegians and seminarians who were looking for models of witness and courage.
Martin E. Marty is professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago. He is the winner of the National Book Award and the author of more than 50 books. He has recently written the biography: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison.