February 4 has come and gone without fanfare, without even being noticed by me, the one hosting a read-along of a bio on Bonhoeffer. That day two weeks ago would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 107th birthday (1906-1945). I’m feeling a sense of loss for missing it.
A sense of sadness too which comes from knowing a young and brilliant life so purposeful even from the start was cut short violently. It also comes from empathy with the parents Karl and Paula, who had to experience the death of three of their four sons and two sons-in-law during war time. Back in 1918, their second son Walter died in action in WWI. And during WWII, their third son Klaus, youngest Dietrich, and two sons-in-law were executed by the Nazis for their role in the German resistance against Hitler. Sad especially that they only learned of Dietrich’s death through a radio broadcast of his memorial service from England. He was only 39.
My impression from the outset is, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s was a life of purpose, even from an early age. It was made possible largely by a nurturing and vibrant family, and a lively brood of four boys and four girls. Father Karl Bonhoeffer, a prominent psychiatrist and university professor, instilled intellectual rigor; mother Paula imparted faith and fervor. The young lives benefitted from the cultural and musical home environs, but more importantly, the indomitable sense of social justice.
Dietrich knew he wanted to study theology when he was only thirteen. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Berlin, obtaining his doctorate when he was only twenty-one. What brilliant mind and potential! And with that mind he saw through the trickery and schemes of an emerging demigod in Hitler. This is probably my favorite quotes from him. You can see his driven sense of direction:
If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.
This has been my query all the time, and Eric Metaxas’s accounts have partially answered it. How could Hitler have gained such power without being challenged? It can’t be all due to fear, that came later. Hitler was democratically elected by the people as chancellor in 1933. The Führer Principle was readily embraced by most. So nationalism played a large part. Then came racism, with the establishment of new laws barring Jews, many of them in prominent positions too from the legal, academic, and medical fields, and then the engulfment of the German Church by the Third Reich. It’s utterly mind boggling. Why was it that the Bonheoffer family was only one of a dearth of lucid observers during this dark chapter in German history?
Nothing is beyond the Nazis reach. The ‘purging’ of the literary and scientific realms resulted in the casting out of thoughts and works by anyone not of the Aryan race, including Helen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and the poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote these prophetic words in 1821 in his play Almansor:
Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people too.
Metaxas’s book is informative and detailed, especially on Bonhoeffer’s effort to take back the German Church from the Nazis by establishing The Confessing Church with Karl Barth. Metaxas has also painted a very human portrait, a purposeful young man, bold, principled, passionate, and full of life. I move along eagerly, albeit sometimes confused by the numerous names and historical accounts. I want to find out what actually happened in the end, although not so sure how I can bear to read about Dietrich’s ultimate demise.
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