Having thus become a passive instrument, the fool will be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Friends and readers,
While Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-45) has occupied a paradoxically at once hagiographic and controversial position in studies of Hitler’s Third Reich, which suggests an audience familiar with his name, life and writing; he is not well-known to people outside Germany, the religiously inclined, pacifists, and those who’ve studied the elite German milieus who supported Hitler as a bulwark against socialism. The reasons for the peculiarity of the way he’s been heroicized and marginalized come from the unwillingness of people to confront painful realities of the past or overturn the continuing male hegemonic structuring of much human experience and stigmatizing of people who don’t conform to simplistic sexual norms. Bonhoeffer’s is one of the (when we are telling truths) ambivalent stories of those who resisted Nazism.
His life history has been kept muted and/or distorted to erase his homosexuality (an important source for aspects of his thought), especially his relationship with Eberhardt Bethge, who, as the man Bonhoeffer was ineradically in love with, built books intended to mount a difficult barrier to get past. The widely-popular (a surprise best seller of 1953) Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison, edited by Bethge from unpublished manuscripts, fits squarely into the kind of first edition Donald Reiman (The Study of Modern Manuscripts: Private, Confidential, and Public) describes as a “family book” where the editor acts as an advocate of the writer’s family’s view of this writer, the family itself (Deirdre LeFaye’s edition of Jane Austen’s letters is such a book), in Bethge’s case also to obscure his actual relationship with Bonhoeffer and his own ambitious political and personal choices during Hitler’s regime.
A photograph of Bethge and Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer has not been forgotten because his extensive original writing (very ethical in bent), the rich, powerful elite group he belonged to (which survived the Hitler era), the positions he achieved in the powerful church structures, and his imprisonment and murder for conspiring against Hitler. He has been useful as a martyr, as a conservative religious hero, an ethical thinker, and a corpus of far from disinterested books and essays continue to be written about him.
Tubingen University Library (where Bonhoeffer studied as a young man)
Diane Reynolds has studied this secondary material, and the extensive primary documents; she interviewed people who knew those who knew Bonhoeffer, visited the places he lived in, and has produced a candid, lucidly written biographical account of the man’s life and his behavior, drawing especially on his letters (the life-blood of biography). She has been preceded by Charles Marsh’s flamboyant biography, which hers is an improvement on because of her scrupulous care not to claim anything for which there is no consistent substantial evidence. Some LGBTQ people may object to her reluctance to concede the probable where the nature of the case cannot provide evidence, such as Bonhoeffer’s sexual activity (there is evidence for more than one close male relationship and several revealing portraits of male supporters and friends, e.g., Franz Hildebrandt with whom he lived for a time) as true acceptance, respect and fulfillment, not to omit safety, for them in society requires adult understanding, but nothing else is elided over, and she is critical of her subject where criticism is called for. We see a root cause for his on the one hand, reluctant betrayal of his sister and her Jewish husband, and on the other, loyalty to an upper class luxurious community: he gave up while in the US an opportunity to escape Germany, the offer of a good position because he couldn’t bear to live apart from Bethge (241-45) or lose his sense of some meaning through belonging with numinous privileged people who shaped important social structures and beliefs.
Women readers will see how he was willing to support as his patroness the domineering reactionary Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow, who was ceaselessly coercive over her daughters’s lives and engineered the pretense of an affair with her granddaughter, Maria von Wedermeyer (herself unable to throw off the Nazi training in submissiveness and self-sacrifice until years later). We learn of Bertha Schultz, a brilliant scholar who could only get work as his housekeeper and personal assistant, translated for free for him, and then is dismissed (79-81); and Elizabeth Van Thadden who opened the genuinely anti-Nazi progressive school for girls (Maria attended), had her school taken from her, re-Nazified, and was later imprisoned and beheaded (228-29, 22, 396). He was himself deeply attachment to a number of female relatives: his grandmother, his mother, a life-long close congenial relationship with his sister, Sabine: they go on a walking tour together which may reminded readers of English poetry of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.
This is an excellent biography of a man placed in the context of his time and directed to our world today.
Family summer vacation house in Freidrichsbrunn
Reynolds’s book’s historical significance is its irrefutability and portrait of a fallible and quietly courageous highly intelligent man who was pro-active in creating moral schools (for men), who displayed far more integrity than most, and expanded his horizons: a telling time was his sojourn in New York city where he attended a black Abyssian church and experienced a religious rejuvenation and saw “a view [of life] from the bottom looking up” (66). Just about all he did was in the face of discomfort in others (he was not a manly boy). Sometimes it’s mild (from his family) pressure; he had excellent connections and was chosen for high positions, but in these he encountered outright hostility from his own church and the Nazi state it complied with. And at the last imprisonment, interrogation, and towards the end (when his part in a failed plot to kill Hitler was discovered) vicious abuse leading up to his execution.
A clavichord Bonhoeffer and Bethge played on together
A summary with paraphrased and quoted vignettes: Her book is a narrative of Bonhoeffer’s life.
Part One situates the reader in the Bonhoeffer family background, telling of events and people who influenced Bonhoeffer’s grandparents, parents, moves through Bonhoeffer’s siblings and their childhood during World War One and its aftermath. . A characteristic chapter is called “Life Amid the Ruins:” Reynolds shows the family continuing its privileged life against the backdrop of the growing power of the Nazis, all around them desperation, Berlin crumbling, half starved Berliners, and soldiers posted everywhere in the streets, children with rickets. Hitler ominously blaming Jews, and father and uncle saying that the best types of people were killed off, glimpsing the possibility of a sociopath coming to power. But everything they read, the music they played has nothing to do with what’s happening outside; they lived within an idyllic strain in the European culture, divorced from politics. Bonhoeffer refuses to pursue a career in music (the family’s preference), and moves to theological studies. His sister and friends all marry while he evades a proposed bride for him, a third cousin, Elizabeth Zinn. Reynolds makes an astute use of Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, where he constructs the image of maleness and femaleness the Nazis projected, one troublingly close to what may be seen today in popular US miliarist movies today. Against this all his life Bonhoeffer had to contend.
Part Two (“Seeking Ground”) while the Nazis begin to seize control (burn books publicly), become violent against Jews (he writes, “literally no one in Germany … can grasp it … major turning point in history:” 7 million unemployed 15 to 20 hungry), he travels (Barcelona, Manhattan, Forest Hills even, Cuba) seeking some meaning, work, relationships, to ground his existence on: he writes a second dissertation, is ordained. Vignettes from this section: “Dietrich [was] vehemently opposed compromise by his church,” sermonized to this effect, but did not go to his sister’s husband’s father’s funeral … here Bonhoeffer writes that Jews are “a problem; they needed to convert;” yet he “writes against persecution of Jews, one must help victims.” May 10, 1933 book burning night. Max Reinhardt fled to LA; Bonhoeffer’s “brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, lawyer, joins party, says keeping job helps undermine the state. Nazis imposed level of regimentation that surprised and made fear grow; 50 concentration camps by 1933 … Hans von Dohnanyi, a friend and relative by marriage [later executed] liked by Hitler so original Jewishness forgiven. German Lutheran church yields to become vitriolically anti-semitic; Catholic Youth Leagues are outlawed, Nazi or nothing. In 1933 Bonhoeffer is turned down for pastorate and in October goes to London, shaken to discover himself in radical opposition to all his friends.
Part Three is called the “Incomparable Year” (1933) and Part Four “Reconfigurations” (taking the reader up to 1938 and Bonhoeffer’s first arrest). In ’33 he met and his relationships with Bethge and Ruth von Kleist-Retzlow flowered. While the Nazis are toting machine guns and beginning their imperial conquests, he opens Finkenwalde, a “confessing” school offering an idyllic community for (male) students by the North Sea. While fighter planes are taking off, he teaches pacificism and joins the world of country landed estates. Until the concentration camps begin to open, he, his friends, associates, his sister seem to think somehow they will be insulated, and carry on their lives. Vignettes: these elite families moves to small houses in Charlottenburg (Marienbad), as good for conspiracy; musical evenings are a cover for politics, people from all walks of life, a refuge too. Karl, his brother, stays on with Nazis as psychiatrist saying he is moderating worst aspects. Bonhoeffer’s grandmother is horrified to see a cousin emigrating – having to take his chances like everyone else in this world. Ruth comes across with money for seminary in Sweden (which Bonhoeffer described as “wonderful years”). Dietrich’s prison writing includes letters to his grandmother – of how he felt for defenseless epileptics. By 1935 his sister Sabine (married to a Jew) begins to understand the terror of Nazism (they come to her door for information), but her brother “would be alive now than 30 years ago.” Bonhoeffer shows a problematic disposition to spend his sister’s money on holidays for himself.
Finkelwalde by the sea: now a Bonhoeffer memorial
Parts Five through Seven (“Cornered”) bring us to the heart of the book (1937/8-43): Reynolds weaves the unfolding of the Nazi barbaric world inside Germany with the lives, work and reaction of Bonhoeffer and many of his friends and associates. The great value of this part of the book are these individual stories and the depiction of intimate life of the semi-protected elite, what emerged in public social life in Nazi Germany at the time, and the punitive patriotic culture of Nazism easily sliding into cruelty to the weak, vulnerable, despised, anyone who dissented. Bonhoeffer seems to have joined the “underground” resistance about 1938; some of his associates compromise, some try to ignore what was happening all around them; others looked simply to survival (insofar as one could as food shortages and bombing had begun). Vignettes: November 1937 27 Finkenwalde seminarians imprisoned; 1938 Dietrich arrested, interrogated, banned from Berlin. He has underground collective pastorates, apprentices in a remote village (with Bethge there, later doing “quite well”) … Dietrich living a nomadic life working on ms’s. Neimoller released and then swept up, disappears; Confessing church fools take an oath of allegiance that Hitler treats with [the] contempt [it deserved].
A revealing element about Bonhoeffer is he continues to write optimistically, perhaps conceiving himself as supporting the spirits of others; a close friend said it was pride that kept him from revealing his anguish, but the letters have a jarring disconnect. His theological writings “encode” (that’s the word Reynolds uses) justifications for homosexual love; his bitterness against Bethge; his misery at the harsh isolated conditions of the prison (he does use the word “horrible” once). But the letters keep his hidden life in a closet.
Reynolds shows how average Germans appear to have felt about the war at this time: we have to remember Germans supported the war, and Bonhoeffer’s activity would have been seen as that of a traitor: So more vignettes: June 17, 1940 France caves. German newsreels exulted. Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy quoted. Fair haired young men: “what does it matter if we destroy the world? When it is ours, we’ll build it up again” … Germans are ecstatic at victory over France; foresee short war; Germans torpedo 600 prisoners headed for Canada; meanwhile Bonhoeffer’s sister, Sabine, now in Oxford moves with her husband to one room with 14 trunks. Bethge’s behavior reminds me of the enigmatic amoral characters in LeCarre’s novels: he decides to marry a Bonhoeffer niece, Renate, many years younger than he since he finds himself in “untenable” position. The long sections on the reality of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with Maria are important to read: we see her mother tried to protect her, regards Ruth’s tactics as a nuisance; for Bonhoeffer Maria is cover and unreal wish fulfillment dreams (of what neither he or she wanted). After Stalingrad, Bethge sends Bonhoeffer a picture of Napoleon; a letter remembering a year ago they were together when they shared a hotel room. Reynolds brings in the male couple in another surprising best seller of the era: Santayana’s The last Puritan.
Parts Eight (“Locked in”) through Ten (“Saints”) take us through Bonhoeffer’s years of imprisonment, his murder and the first build-up of hagiography. This was for me the most moving part of the biography. The conditions in which Bonhoeffer lived and eventually (he managed to make friends, his prestige and connections and his family’s money brought him food) even wrote were utterly wretched and dangerous. Reynolds maintains her cool stance towards the letters, pointing out repeatedly the undercurrents of bitterness (towards Bethge), egoism (in his approach to Maria), leaving the reader to feel uncomfortable, askance, compassion or astonishment. Just one vignette from many: Hitler carried a whip, beat his dogs and took disproportionate revenge on those within his reach after the bomb (detonated under a table) failed to kill him. Newspapers presented this as a coup of officers power-hungry … he writes suffering a way to freedom. He looked ill on his daily walk. There seems to have been opportunities for him to escape, but he withdrew with the excuse he didn’t want to endanger others: throughout his life he had what (I’d call) bad dreams of having a devout death which he yearned for, and one explanation for his persistent refusal to escape is a probably half-conscious death-wish.
One can fill out this section with some of the material Bethge published in 1953 (now available in an expanded edition): the book as constructed by Bethge presents a striking contrast to Primo Levi’s If this be Man and The Truce. Readers are not shown which letters were meant to be passed around by his relatives, which private (very few): Bonhoeffer persists in hoping, presenting himself as looking forward to release (his mother was fooled for a long time), comfortable. But there are striking breaks: for example, the narrative of Lance Corporal Berg, where suddenly Bonhoeffer reveals a gift for narrative, powerful drama: we first witness an interrogation which shows us how one need not resort openly to violence, torture, emotional bullying to subdue a prisoner. He shows how prison itself is an excruciating experience because those running it are implicitly bullying all prisoners all the time. A man with his face blown away shows up, and everyone is horrified by the ugliness of the man and they are mostly very kind to him, they feel sorry for him, they respect him for having allowed this to happen to him, but when for a moment he loses it and began to cry and complain, immediately they are hostile. Another man they deride, berate, kick, just shit on because he ‘deserted” — would not obey orders. It includes poems (e.g, Night Voices in Tegel) about his experience of the night in these prisons.
Reynolds shows how Marie distanced herself from the Bonhoeffer society, and tried to tell some truths, but her silence (as well as his sister Sabine’s) implied consent to Bethge and other interested witnesses’ stories. Her upper class strong sense of herself and understanding of how to get along in higher echelons served her well, and she somewhat recovered, even married, became a highly successful businesswomen.
Maria von Wedermeyer
If I have some criticism, it’s that I missed a sense of deep inwardness, which might have come from more analysis and quotation of Bonhoeffer’s ethical and religious treatises. Take the “Prologue: A Reckoning made at New Year 1943, also called “After Ten Years.”
He opens up with a (Samuel) Johnsonian meditation about time. “Time is the most valuable thing that we have, because it is the most irrevocable.” He writes of people “with no ground under their feet.” Here he recognizes that obedience to others to erase the self comes from cowardice and Germans have been deluded to think they kept their liberty by service to the community. An extraordinary passage about folly: folly is far more dangerous than anger; it’s worse than evil. Again folly there is no defense. No matter what you see the fool carries on. (This reminds me of Trump supporters.) The fool is self-satisfied, it’s easy for him to become aggressive, he’s harder to cope with than a scoundrel. Folly is capable of any evil. He reminded me here of Erasmus’s profound ironic (sardonic) In Praise of Folly. The worst blaspheme is contempt for others. (Again I thought of Trump, his insistent derision of others.) Bonhoeffer insists we must regard others not in terms of what they can do or do do but in the light of what they suffer. That in social life there are laws that cannot be eradicated and are powerful than anything that may claim to dominate them. How reprehensible to sow mistrust, how dangerous, when we should strengthen confidence in the self and others. (I thought of training programs in the US gov’t today where employers are taught to suspect and turn others in.) I liked his definition of quality. To have an experience of nobility, of quality you have to renounce all place-hunting, break with the cult of stars, must look to pleasure in private life as well as have courage to enter public life. Most people only learn wisdom (at all?) from personal experience. This explain insensibility to suffering. Death has become what people live with daily. We must not romanticize it; we do still know too much about the good things in life and that helps. But prolonged insecurity, and destructiveness of prolonged anxiety dissolves attachment to life. Which leads to him asking if people individually or as a group are of any use? He insists an experience of incomparable value is to experience life from below, and if you can’t at least try to see and empathize with those from below: history from below, the outcasts, suspects, maltreated, powerless, oppressed, reviled.
I want to emphasize that Diane Reynolds’s book is an enjoyable book to read. She recreates places, times, idyllic and nightmare experience. The reader who is familiar with 19th century novels will find parallels between characters in Tolstoy and this German milieu (Ruth as kind of Prussian cross between Countess Rostov and Anna Mikhailovna). It belongs to our conversations today about how what happened in Germany between the 1920s and well after the end of WW2 parallels the increase we see today of violence, racial, ethnic, and religious hatreds and intolerance and the complicity of our present (ever self-regarding, enrichening, luxurious) establishment as found in books like Volker Ulrich’s Hitler’s Ascent, 1889-1939. Reading it ought to worry readers right now.
Philip Seymour Hoffman in LeCarre’s A Most Wanted Man: about extraordinary rendition in the context of an exaggerated “war on terror” which has led to stark erosions of civil and social liberty — I can see Hoffman playing Bonhoeffer