The Common Good
May-June 1995

A Time of Trials

by Leon Howell | May-June 1995

The tribulation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Fifty years ago, April 9, 11 days before U.S. troops liberated the Flossenbürg Concentra-tion Camp where he was held, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed by his Nazi captors. He and perhaps 5,000 others were put to death in the months before the end of World War II because of their participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. This extra-

ordinary Lutheran minister and theologian lived only 39 years, the last two years of which he spent in prison. Yet he left behind sufficient theological reflections to fill 16 volumes.

Still he is not a household name. Last summer at a retreat center with a religious identity only one of 25 college juniors and seniors could identify Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They had been asked if they would like to participate in a Bonhoeffer seminar led by Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer's student, close friend, and key biographer, and Renate Bethge, Bonhoeffer's niece and co-trustee of the Bonhoeffer legacy. (Several did in fact attend.)

It's not something we do well, remembering our "heroes of conscience." But Dietrich Bonhoeffer deserves to be remembered and studied as a 20th-century martyr in the same breath with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, and others of notable achievement who could have honorably stayed above the battle but chose to risk their lives for what they believed.

His story-unknown to most of the world for several years after World War II-caught its imagination as more and more of his writings became available. He grew up in an upper-middle-class family-his father headed the leading psychiatric institute in Berlin-and, to the surprise of his family, studied theology, garnering a Ph.D. by the age of 21. After writing a second doctoral dissertation, he became a lecturer in theology at the University of Berlin at the age of 24, a year before he was old enough to be ordained. But almost immediately his life as an intellectual, his theology, and his understanding of what it meant to be a Christian were to be tested by the rise of the Nazis, and their demand that all institutions pay fealty to the party.

Bonhoeffer's experience was broadened by time in Barcelona, New York (at Union Theological Seminary), and London. At Union he was put off by the fascination with the social gospel and the lack of scholarship in the German tradition. But he spent time at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, among other places, and took away black spirituals that he would keep with him the rest of his life.

He had more than one opportunity to leave Germany-such giants as Paul Tillich and Karl Barth were pushed out-but he always chose to return. That is most dramatically captured in the phrases in a letter to Reinhold Niebuhr (as remembered by Niebuhr) in 1939-when Bonhoeffer had paid his second visit to the United States, with a chance to lecture at Union and around the United States. After several agonizing weeks, he decided to return to Germany, saying, "I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people."

BONHOEFFER, CONVINCED sufficiently of the arguments for pacifism that he arranged to visit Gandhi in the mid-1930s (something he was unable to do), eventually supported a plot to assassinate Hitler. He simply could not accept the personal perfection of withdrawal. In doing that, one "sets his own personal innocence above his responsibility for [humanity], and he is blind to the more irredeemable guilt which he incurs precisely in this," Bonhoeffer wrote.

Of the elites and never a populist, Bonhoeffer left the immortal phrase that it was essential "to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the oppressed, the reviled-in short from the perspective of those who suffer."

Bonhoeffer, from Luther's tradition of justification by faith alone, warned against "cheap grace...the preaching of forgiveness without requiring church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipline, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

In the mid-1930s, Bonhoeffer headed a small seminary of the Confessing Church-over against the German Church with its Reichsbishop-and that experience produced his much read Life Together (published posthumously, 1954) and The Cost of Discipleship (1937), important to an understanding of Bonhoeffer. The Gestapo closed the seminary, finally forbade him from speaking or writing in public, and, after he began to work for the counterintelligence service loaded with anti-Hitler personnel, arrested him in early 1943. From there came his Letters and Papers From Prison(published posthumously, 1951), so full of marvelous theological fragments that continue to inspire and challenge. Then in April 1945 he, his brother, his brother-in-law, and many comrades were executed. Within the month Hitler had committed suicide, Berlin had fallen, and Germany surrendered.

The last words he spoke were: "This is the end, for me the beginning of life." Ten years later a military doctor reported witnessing Bonhoeffer's kneeling in prayer before his execution. "In the almost 50 years I have worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God."

It is a great legacy that Bonhoef-fer's life and death, his witness, offer much for those today trying to be faithful to the gifts and demands of the gospel. That means a critical engagement with a man whose influence continues and grows. n

LEON HOWELL lives in Washington, D.C., and is the former editor of Christianity and Crisis. Bonhoeffer's comment regarding his future role in the reconstruction of Germany adorned the wall where Christianity and Crisis' editorial panel met, giving Howell many spirit-filled moments.

A Martyr's Life

The Cup of Wrath: A Novel Based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Resistance to Hitler. By Mary Glazener. Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 1992.

Mary Glazener's novel (see "An Uncommon Cup," August 1994) is a fine history of the final 10 years of Bonhoeffer's life. Although it is not a dramatic novel, it provides opportunities to understand why even some of Bonhoeffer's students were excited by Hitler's victories, getting the country to stand up after the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. And she, almost alone among historians, includes a warm portrait of Elenore Nichol, an ordained minister and compatriot, whom many thought Bonhoeffer would marry. Apparently his sense of obligation to the cause brought an end to the relationship.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures. By Eberhard Bethge, Renate Bethge, and Christian Gremmels. Fortress Press, 1987.

A Life in Pictures is an annotated work by the Bethges, which offers another dimension into the understanding of the life and times of Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Spoke in the Wheel! By Renate Wind, translated by John Bowden. W.B. Eerdmanns, 1992.

Renate Wind, a pastor in Heidelberg, Germany, has written an excellent short biography that serves as a good introduction to Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: His Significance for North Americans. By Larry Rasmussen, with Renate Bethge. Fortress Press, 1989.

Union Theological Seminary professor Larry Rasmussen has written a very interesting book. Especially strong are a section on patriotism and Bonhoeffer's prison poem called "The Death of Moses," in which he speaks of himself: "God I have loved this people./That I bore its shame and sacrifices/and saw its salvation-that is enough."

A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. By Geffrey Kelly and F. Burton Nelson. Harper San Francisco, 1990.

A Testament to Freedom contains not only samples of all his essential writings, but also a useful biographical introduction to each section. It also has several of the letters between Bonhoeffer and Maria von Wedemeyer, who became publicly known as his fiancee after he had been imprisoned. This book is a good addition to a church library.

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Translation project is a scholarly effort to compile his writings, and the German-language version is almost complete. The next step is to translate into English several volumes per year, with completion targeted for Decem-ber 2003. This serious werke, as the German has it, will bring to a single standard all the translations that are now widely different in quality and completeness, bring out some items never seen in English, and provide annotations to bridge the gap of 50 years or more in our understanding of the context of his writings. -LH

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