The German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote the poem “Von guten Mächten” (By Gracious Powers), his last theological work, in December 1944 while he was imprisoned in a basement cell at the Reich Security Main Office on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin. He sent it in a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, with the note “als ein Weihnachtsgruß für Dich und die Eltern und Geschwister” (“as a Christmas greeting for you and the parents and siblings”). Two months later, the building was destroyed by an air raid, and Bonhoeffer was moved to Büchenwald and from there to other places. He was executed April 9, 1945, at Flossenbürg concentration camp, just two weeks before it was liberated by the Allies.
The poem was published posthumously in The Cost of Discipleship under the title “New Year 1945.”
Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben, behütet und getröstet wunderbar, so will ich diese Tage mit euch leben und mit euch gehen in ein neues Jahr. Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen, noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last. Ach Herr, gib unsern aufgeschreckten Seelen das Heil, für das du uns geschaffen hast. Und reichst du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand, so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern aus deiner guten und geliebten Hand. Doch willst du uns noch einmal Freude schenken an dieser Welt und ihrer Sonne Glanz, dann wolln wir des Vergangenen gedenken, und dann gehört dir unser Leben ganz. Laß warm und hell die Kerzen heute flammen, die du in unsre Dunkelheit gebracht, führ, wenn es sein kann, wieder uns zusammen. Wir wissen es, dein Licht scheint in der Nacht. Wenn sich die Stille nun tief um uns breitet, so laß uns hören jenen vollen Klang der Welt, die unsichtbar sich um uns weitet, all deiner Kinder hohen Lobgesang. Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag. Gott ist bei uns am Abend und am Morgen und ganz gewiß an jedem neuen Tag.
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 our sorrow still endure. Father, grant to the soul 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 we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us and all our life be dedicate as thine. Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting: lo, on our darkness are they not thy light, leading us haply to our longed-for meeting? Thou canst illumine e’en our darkest night. When now the silence deepens for our harkening, 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, be it what may. At even, and at morn, God will befriend us, and oh, most surely each new year’s day! Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop Young
“In this hymn,” writes Joshua Miller for 1517, “Bonhoeffer leaves us a theological legacy that takes seriously the sorrows of life and the reign of death in a world still under the power of sin and the devil. But it’s a hymn that also confesses hope in a God who holds all things in his hands and demonstrates faithfulness to his promise to work all things together for his children’s ultimate good.”
The text has been set to music more than seventy times and appears in a number of hymnals. It is commonly sung by German congregations around New Year’s.
In 2020, the seventy-fifth anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death, Berlin-based musical artist Sarah Kaiser released the song as a single, using the 1977 melody by Siegfried Fietz. COVID disrupted her plans to shoot a music video with her whole band, so she pivoted, singing a stripped-down, a cappella version with a minimal crew at the Kunstanstalt in Berlin-Köpenick, a former prison. (Bonhoeffer was not kept here, but the space is evocative of the other Berlin prison, no longer extant, where he was.) Filmed by Lukas Augustin, the video is hauntingly beautiful, with Kaiser’s bare vocals echoing through the dark, dank cell, testifying to God’s goodness amid the bleakest of circumstances.
Turn on the closed captioning (CC) on the YouTube video player for English subtitles.
Also, here’s a metrical translation by Fred Pratt Green (©1974 Hope Publishing Company) of five of Bonhoeffer’s original seven stanzas, which appears in several English-language hymnals:
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting, come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling,
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through,
and our whole life shall then be yours alone.
By gracious powers so faithfully protected,
so quietly, so wonderfully near,
I’ll live each day in hope, with you beside me,
and go with you through every coming year.
Thank you to Dr. Paul Neeley at the Global Christian Worship blog for introducing me to this hymn and this moving performance.