Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
by Eric Metaxas
Thomas Nelson, 608 pp., $29.99
His end is what most people recall of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: the creeping light of first dawn in a barren yard of Flossenbürg concentration camp where he—theologian and spy, pastor and conspirator—was hanged until dead by a thin wire. Mere days before, Bonhoeffer and his fellow captives heard the great booming march of American guns across the German landscape, and dared to hope for freedom. But he met a different freedom on that chill morning, one for which he was well prepared.
With such a story, it is tempting to view Bonhoeffer’s life exclusively through the lens of his death, and more than one chronicler of his story has done so. It is as if, peering through history with a 20/20 hindsight machine, we see him from boyhood ordained to die, a born martyr if there ever was one. Yet this discerning biography tells the story of a life lived, not in fear of death, but in defiance of it. Bonhoeffer, the author of Christology, plainly saw his life this way, and it is tempting to think that he would have agreed with Winston Churchill: “Although prepared for martyrdom, I prefer that it be postponed.” Bonhoeffer is a rich, colorful portrait textured with the small brushstrokes of daily living—a humane portrait of a humane man.
It is remarkable that the depleted soil of the German church should have born such hardy fruit as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That the Bonhoeffer family, on the other hand, produced Dietrich should have surprised no one in particular. His grandfather was chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II and his great-grandfather was the venerable theologian Karl August von Hase. This ancestry, and his mother’s attitude of private piety, nurtured a religious devotion untainted by the morally crippled German church. Though prayers were frequently on the lips of the eight Bonhoeffer children, they were seldom recited inside a kirche; little Dietrich was of the church but not in it. That status as an informed outsider would give him a critical eye and shield him from a growing religious anti-Semitism.
The official German church of Bonhoeffer’s childhood (later the Third Reich’s German Evangelical Church) would prove itself slavishly devoted to moral corruption. Under the Nazis it set out to renovate extensively both heaven and hell. A deified Hitler joined the triune God in a new holy quadruple; Satan’s lair gained several additions through the vilification of the imperfect, the handicapped, the Jews, and other “inferior races.” Pastors swore oaths not to God but to the Führer, and the virtues of racial purity and power usurped faith, hope, and love.
All of this would come to pass under Hitler’s rule, but the seeds for such malignant growth had been sown many years earlier. The church of Bonhoeffer’s time pined for its prestige under the Kaiser; like Israelites of old, they clamored for a king. To their delight, the new Saul (named Adolf) seemed destined to restore their earthly glory.
Had Bonhoeffer’s view of Christendom extended no farther than the borders of Germany, he might have been tempted to join his contemporaries in imagining themselves the exclusive heirs of an Aryan Christ (the bleaching of Jewish Jesus was a favorite Hitler parlor trick). Eric Metaxas convincingly makes the case that Bonhoeffer’s extensive travels, primarily to Italy and the United States, instead impressed upon him an awareness of the church as an international body of saints, not subject to theological tailoring for any party or people. In Rome, he witnessed the communion of saints, many of whom, rather critically, looked nothing like the Volk. The tribes of the world gathered under St. Peter’s dome, and though a devout Lutheran, Bonhoeffer was deeply moved. Further visits to churches in Harlem and the Jim Crow South sharpened his vision.
Ironically, Bonhoeffer’s perspective on racism and the humanitarian obligations of the Christian church are so common in the 21st century as to seem natural, obvious, even banal. Modern readers are tempted to overlook the deeper conflicts and presume upon his good character. Yet his beliefs were far from foregone conclusions in the 1930s and early ’40s: Anti-Semitism was widely accepted in the West, and the nightmare of the concentration camps yet undreamed-of by most. Of the millions murdered by the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer is remembered, deservedly, for his bravery and compassion—but as a bit of a riddle as well. What led this peaceful pastor, in his contemporary Eberhard Bethge’s words, to cross the “borderline between confession and resistance”? How did pacifism and assassination dwell so comfortably in the conscience of one man?
While many German Christians lamented the Nazis’ exultation of racial blood above the blood of Christ, even the defiant Confessing Church failed to address the larger persecution. Numerous histories, such as Saul Friedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews, have faulted the Confessing Church for failing to see past their own cloisters. But Bonhoeffer, a radical even among his own kind, rejected the churchyard as a boundary for Christian compassion: The material and spiritual worlds were conjoined, he argued; and thus, the obligations of the church stretched far beyond the steeple’s shadow. Bethge summarizes his views: Bonhoeffer “testifies to God’s ‘no’—Christ cannot endorse slave holders in brutal societies. And he testifies to God’s ‘yes’ to people who are victims of false imperial gods.” His devotion to social justice would have resounding consequences.
The litmus test for these converging ideas came in 1939. Bonhoeffer had waged a protracted and failing crusade against the Nazis on German soil; now, as a pacifist facing the draft, he must cede ground or face execution. Setting sail for the safety of America the summer before the war, he was briefly counted among the blessed: Millions more would fail to escape, or like his sister and Jewish brother-in-law, do so by the skin of their teeth. But he felt no relief upon reaching the New World, writing, “I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. . . . [I must] share the trials of this time with my people.” He wrote again that he felt “grasped” by God, driven to go back. In a Gethsemane moment, he chose to accept the cup, whatever draught it might contain. He would return to Germany, to the aid of his countrymen and the Jews. In a poem written shortly before his death, he dwelled on the finality of that decision:
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.
The taste would be doubly bitter. Bonhoeffer deeply loved his country, and it would offer him hemlock. He was a prisoner of the state for more than two years. The Nazis were for a long time unaware of his involvement in the budding assassination plot; the Gestapo arrested Bonhoeffer after tracing monies bribing Swiss authorities for the escape of seven Jews. In a moment of darker comedy, they became convinced of Bonhoeffer’s entanglement in a money-laundering scheme, for who would willingly aid and abet the escape of a Jew? The lesser charges protected his greater purpose, and for a time, his life.
By the spring of 1945 the plot to kill Hitler had failed, and Bonhoeffer, along with most of the conspirators, was executed. At Flossenbürg his body, stripped and burned, mingled with the ashes of Jewish victims—a final resting place, Metaxas notes, that Bonhoeffer would have counted an honor.
Years before, during a sermon delivered in London, Bonhoeffer had said of Christianity, “That is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” His death—premature, brutal, and unjust—was thus transformed: Out of defeat came victory. This was the “costly grace” of Bonhoeffer’s writings, the triumph of a good so great it muted mortality.
Skyla Freeman is a writer in Washington.