The Common Good
November-December 1998

Motivations of a Martyr

by F. Burton Nelson | November-December 1998

A novel approach to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

The unveiling of a new sculpture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer over the West Front of Westminster Abbey in July 1998 underscores the legacy of this German pastor, teacher, theologian, and author. Joined with nine other Christian martyrs of the 20th century, he represents those who have died in circumstances of persecution and oppression during this battered century.

The life of Bonhoeffer, brutally ended at the age of 39 in the Nazi concentration camp of Flossenburg, continues to fascinate. A recent contribution to the body of literature on his life and influence is Denise Giardina’s historical novel, Saints and Villains.

The author, a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal church and teacher at West Virginia State College, has written three previous novels-Good King Harry, Storming Heaven, and The Unquiet Earth. The unusual title for this volume comes from Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, the manuscript on which he was working during his "secret agent" years as a civilian member of the Abwehr, Nazi Germany’s counterintelligence agency of the armed forces:

Today there are once more saints and villains. Instead of the uniform grayness of the rainy day, we have the black storm cloud and brilliant lightning flash. Outlines stand out with exaggerated sharpness. Shakespeare’s characters walk among us. The villain and the saint emerge from primeval depths and by their appearance they tear open the infernal or the divine abyss from which they come and enable us to see for a moment into mysteries of which we had never dreamed.

Giardina’s novel catches some of the mysteries of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was a lover of classical music throughout his life, nurtured by the strong attachment of his whole clan to the heritage of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, as well as the great hymns of the Christian faith throughout the ages.

Giardina highlights this characteristic by intertwining the several phases of Bonhoeffer’s life with brief segments of Mozart’s Mass in C Minor. The Mozart connection becomes startlingly dramatic when the original manuscript is placed in his hands in the schoolhouse at Sch÷nberg, the last stop for prisoner Bonhoeffer before being transported to the place of his execution.

The bearer of the treasured manuscript is Alois Bauer, an SS officer who has been assigned to guard the ragtag collection of prisoners, and who has unashamedly stolen it. Bonhoeffer, an accomplished pianist, agrees to play the score for the prisoner group on Saturday night, April 7, 1945. Ironically, the tenor soloist is Kokorin, the Russian prisoner who is a nephew of Molotov, singing Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

IN APPROACHING this novel, the reader-whether Bonhoeffer scholar or novice-is advised to begin with the Afterword. In this brief piece, Giardina explains that "the novel is a work of the imagination, first and foremost, and yet I hope it is also true." She acknowledges that some "facts... have been altered because of the demands of the story." Liberty is likewise taken to alter the chronology and to combine personages in order "to streamline the story and keep reader confusion to a minimum."

Giardina herself identifies the most significant departure from fact, her decision to exclude Bonhoeffer’s closest friend and biographer, Eberhard Bethge. She offers a two-pronged explanation of this startling omission: First, she had met Bethge a few years ago, "and perhaps this encounter with the flesh-and-blood man made it more difficult to recreate him as a fictional character." Second, "Bethge entered Bonhoeffer’s life fairly late in the narrative, and I found it awkward to simply insert him into the story."

The omission of Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s confidante and spiritual alter ego, is quite inconceivable, even in a fictional form. Without Bethge a unique perspective of the life, times, and influences of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is lost. Why not accentuate the faith and transcendent motivations that underlay this martyr’s journey to Flossenburg’s death camp?

Similarly, why invent Elisabeth Hildebrandt, Bonhoeffer’s Jewish girlfriend? Why make Bonhoeffer into a passionate lover when one suspects that his German upbringing in a patrician home would have made all the bedroom scenes in this novel nigh unto impossible?

Lastly, the Bonhoeffer character who emerges from the pages frequently is overdrawn-moody, depressed, cowardly, wishy-washy, morose, caddish, suicidal, bordering on a nervous breakdown, simply "out of it." Why demean the personality and commitment of a German patriot, in the true sense of the word, who for the majority of the Hitler years risked life and limb for what he believed?

Because the novel Saints and Villains is dealing with such a dynamic personality and because it is set in one of the most tumultuous eras of the 20th century, it commands the reader’s undivided attention throughout. After all, the Bonhoeffer story itself, even without the fictional twists and turns given by author Giardina, is a challenging, gripping, incredible tale that personalizes the tragedies of World War II and the Holocaust.

F. BURTON NELSON is research professor of Christian ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago and a senior associate at Oxford University.

Saints and Villains. Denise Giardina. W. W. Norton and Co., 1998.

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