I’ve read some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing years ago, but knew close to nothing about the life of this highly admired Christian theologian, pastor and anti-Nazi martyr. Eric Metaxas’s 2010 biography of Bonhoeffer is an informative first step for me to delve into a selfless and heroic life. Within the close to 600 pages are highly readable narratives, at times humorous and even entertaining, albeit juxtaposed with pathos and sombre accounts.
What I’ve appreciated most is Metaxas’s inclusion of Bonhoeffer’s own voice, excerpts from his writing, letters, sermons, and words spoken as reported by witnesses. One of the most important sources is from his theology student and confidant Eberhard Bethge who had written what generally considered the definitive biography on Bonhoeffer. That’s over a thousand pages. I’m in no position to offer any critique on the accuracies of Metexas’s book, for I have not read both or any other historical documents to compare notes. Here I’m just sharing my thoughts as a reader, casting my two pebbles into the pond of resonance.
In this second part, Chapters 19 to the end, the mood changes as we see Hitler tightening the noose on his opponents, especially the Jews and their sympathizers. Bonhoeffer had to help his twin sister Sabine’s family flee the country before it was too late, as her husband Gerhard Leibholz was Jewish.
Dietrich’s own Confessing Church which had boldly stood against Hitler’s anti-semitic laws was now facing Gestapo arrests, its seminary Finkenwalde shut down, and its pastors slapped with the ordinance to swear an oath to Hitler. For his own safety, he had made arrangement to leave Germany for America. The Union Seminary in NYC had offered him a teaching post, welcoming the return of this brilliant theologian from Germany.
Bonhoeffer sailed to NYC on June 12, 1939, finding a safe haven in America, but not peace of mind. His inner turmoils were so overwhelming that he stayed there for just twenty-six days. His pastor’s heart prodded him to rush back to Germany to be with those who were suffering. My admiration for the man grew even more as I came to this part.
Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.
It was a much deteriorated country to which he returned under the grip of a mad Führer. War broke out. His brother Karl and brother-in-law Dohnanyi were in the Resistance against Hitler’s regime. Soon, Dietrich was involved too, at first offering encouragement and emotional support, but later worked for the Abwehr, the German spy agency, as a pastor, which he was, but unbeknownst to the Abwehr, as an undercover for the Resistance. What a dangerous job to take on!
In Operation 7, Bonhoeffer successfully helped seven Jews escape to Switzerland from certain death. A larger amount of foreign currency had to be transferred out of the country to suport their livelihood. Thus a track was left for his later Gestapo arrest. It’s interesting to note one of the two relatively minor reasons for his arrest is money laundering, for it’s much easier for the Gestapo to believe that than for them to think any German of sound mind would want to help Jews escape.
I can see a courageous man with integrity. Bonhoeffer could not stand aside to see the murders of innocents and the spread of evil. Yet, it’s disturbing to see his stance belonged only to a dearth of people at that time. Hitler’s murderous rampage and the Gestapo’s torturous tactics seized the country with a ferocious grip. Soon, those few dissident voices had to go underground, for their own lives were at stake. I kept asking myself what would I have done… a question I’m afraid to answer.
It was also then that Dietrich was swept by love with Maria von Wedemeyer. Their love was like silver linings behind dark, ominous clouds. Most of their time was spent apart, for Dietrich was held in prison by then, a most precarious relationship indeed. Yet from their letters, I could see love bring them hope, and hope in turn enriches their bond. It was heartbreaking to read their letters to each other, foreseeing wedding and marriage. From the dreadful Gestapo prison, Dietrich wrote Maria:
You mustn’t think I’m unhappy. Anyway, what do happiness and unhappiness mean? They depend so little on circumstances and so much more on what goes on inside us. I’m thankful every day to have you – you and all of you – and that makes me happy and cheerful.
Maybe the title of this book should add in one more description: Lover.
Dietrich had earlier written a Wedding Sermon from the Tegel military prison in Berlin for the wedding of his best friend Eberhard and his niece Renate. In there is a most inspiring thought:
It is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
Later, he was transferred to the Buchenwald death camp outside Berlin, and ultimately, to Flossenbürg for his execution. It’s heart-wrenching to read about Bonhoeffer’s last days, still keeping a calm and peaceful composure, touching other prisoners and even the doctor overseeing his execution. What is death? In his own words:
… life only really beigns when it ends here on earth, that all that is here is only the prologue before the curtain goes up…. if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word… Death beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace.
I had expected Metexas’s book to be informative, but I had not thought it would read like a page-turner. The last chapters are so intense and engrossing that it felt like I was reading the script to the film Valkyrie, about the foiled plan to assassinate Hitler by Colonel Stuaffenberg and a subsequent coup. Bonhoeffer was not personally involved in the operation. But it was due to the failure of the Valkyrie plan that Bonhoeffer’s hidden identity with the Resistance was later discovered. Nine months after Stuaffenberg’s execution, Bonhoeffer was hanged at the Flossenbürg prison on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched in, and three weeks before Hitler took his own life.
Maria and Dietrich’s parents did not know of his demise until much later. Upon hearing the memorial service on BBC radio broadcast on July 27, 1945, Dietrich’s parents were confirmed of the saddest news a parent could ever hear. I was deeply moved to read the Sermon on the Mount excerpt from Matthew 10:17-42. What jumped out from the passage were these most apt and powerful verses:
And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul…
Whoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
And with the script of Bishop Bell’s poignant sermon at the Memorial Service, Metaxas ends his biography of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.
I thank all those who have read along with me, some with their thoughts posted on their blogs, some silently participating. If you’ve written a post, do let me know in a comment. I’ll be sure to link it here.
Next Read-Along: Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time Vol. 1: Swann’s Way