A witness who paid the price

The German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was charismatic, courageous and controversial
Francis Phillips | Dec 29 2009 | comment  

There is something about the history of Germany before and during the last War that continues to haunt us. Perhaps it is the spectacle of a highly civilised, modern European nation destroying itself; perhaps is it because the choice between good and evil was so stark. The life of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplifies both aspects; he came from a cultured and musical family which also chose - unlike the Wagner clan at Bayreuth, for instance – the painful road of opposition to National Socialism.

The author of this new biography understands this Kulturkampf from within. Not only is he the son of a pastor from the German Confessing Church but he was also a close friend of Eberhard Bethge. It was Bethge who, rather as Robert Bridges did with the poetic legacy of his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, preserved the posthumous writings of Bonhoeffer, brought them to international attention and wrote the first important biography.

In this book Schlingensiepen touches on the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas only as they impinge on his life; he does not try to place his subject within 20th century Lutheran scholarship, so much as bring sympathetic insight to the man and to his milieu. His subtitle is "Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance". Bonhoeffer himself would have considered them as one: his Christian beliefs made him resist Nazism and this resistance ended in his execution. Born in 1906 to a professor of psychiatry in Berlin and one of eight children who all excelled academically, he surprised his non church-going family by announcing aged 14 that he wanted to study theology. At first this was an intellectual pursuit; the brilliant and highly ambitious student early made a name for himself in Lutheran academic circles. Nonetheless, in his first sermon he stated "Christianity entails decision" – an indication that he recognised that being a Christian would affect the way one lived. For him the statement was to prove prophetic.

Bonhoeffer published, taught, engaged in parish and youth work, travelled and made contact with the Swiss theologian Karl Barth and also with the brave Bishop George Bell of Chichester, who was unfailing in his support of the Confessing Church at a time when all things German were deeply unpopular in England. As late as spring 1931 his parents wrote to him in America, saying the Nazi Party posed no threat. His brother Klaus, a lawyer, was shrewder, writing to his brother, "People are flirting with fascism. If this radical wave captures the educated classes, I am afraid it will be all over for this nation of poets and thinkers."

That same year Bonhoeffer returned home. Of this period he was later to admit: "I had seen a great deal of the church and had written about it – but I had not yet become a Christian." Gradually the popular young pastor changed; in 1935 he told his older brother, Karl Friedrich, that he was beginning to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously: "Things do exist that are worth standing up for without compromise... peace and social justice are such things."

These thoughts were prompted by the worsening social and political situation. In 1933 the Protestant provincial churches had formed a "German Reich Church in the National Socialist spirit". This body was essentially a tool of the Government; the move caused a split in its ranks and the founding of the "Confessing Church" in protest. Bonhoeffer was involved from the beginning, setting up an experimental form of Lutheran monastic life, a "House of Brethren" at Finkenwalde, to train future pastors for the Confessing Church. It was here that he met Eberhard Bethge, a theology student who became his closest friend and confidante. In 1937 this fledgling community was abruptly closed down by the SS. The Confessing Church had already been declared illegal.

Even before war was declared Bonhoeffer had decided to refuse military service, knowing that this could lead to a death sentence. It was a lonely decision, not supported by the Confessing Church. By 1938 he had also been initiated by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked in the Justice Ministry, into plans for a coup against Hitler. This entailed a change of direction and a further difficult decision: to avoid conscription altogether by working alongside von Dohnanyi and his bosses, Canaris and Oster, in the Abwehr (department of military intelligence), secretly subverting the Government.

As a Christian pastor, Bonhoeffer’s choice of political engagement is controversial. Can you be a Christian and a spy, even for the "right" side? When Dohnanyi asked him if a Christian could be involved in the murder of Hitler, he agreed – as long as one accepted guilt and responsibility. Others, such as Count Helmuth von Moltke of the Kreisau Circle (one of the eventual July plotters) at first opposed this notion – indeed oxymoron - of "sanctified murder". In the event, all the plots and projected coups against Hitler came to nothing. Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested in April 1943 and imprisoned. Though not directly involved in the July Plot of 1944, sufficient evidence was finally unearthed to link the pastor to the conspirators. Along with other Abwehr conspirators, he was subject to Hitler’s final frenzied malice: stripped naked and hanged with piano wire at Flossenburg on 9 April 1945 during the last days of the Third Reich.

Today Bonhoeffer’s writings on the nature of the Christian community and "religionless Christianity", which he would certainly have developed further had he lived, are less important than his life of witness and the price he paid for his principles. His example was to influence later Christian leaders caught up in political injustice, such as Martin Luther King and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His statement, "To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ", resonates down the decades.

More debatable was his decision, as a Christian pastor, to allow himself to become involved in a political plot that intended actual violence, however desperate the situation. The Austrian farmer Franz Jaegerstatter who chose to abjure all violence and who was executed for refusing to fight in an unjust war, seems more commendable and more Christ-like. Although Schlingensiepen, steeped in the perspective of his father’s wartime generation, is not critical enough about this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life and death, his book remains a serious contribution to our understanding of a man for whom the word "charismatic" is not inappropriate and to the period in which he lived and died.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.

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