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New light on Bonhoeffer

15 June 2010

John Arnold on a book that draws on newly opened archives


Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906-1945: Martyr, thinker, man of resistance
Ferdinand Schlingensiepen

T & T Clark £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

FEW PEOPLE, since the time of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, have been as fortunate in their biographers as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Eberhard Bethge. His is, and will remain, the standard life by a friend, a kinsman, and a compan­ion. Still, as he himself admitted, a book of more than 1000 pages is too long for many readers, and in any case perspectives have changed since 1967, new material has come to light, and an author can no longer take for granted an immediate knowledge of the complexities of life in both Church and State in the Third Reich.

The need for a shorter study was met in 1992 by Renate Wind’s A Spoke in the Wheel; and Ferdinand Schlingensiepen now meets our other needs with this equally admir­able work. It is a standard biography in 12 chronological chapters, start­ing with Bonhoeffer’s privileged birth in the noonday of the cultural élite of Wilhelminian Germany, and ending with his horrific death on the gallows in the twilight of a truly evil empire.

It was not only faith in Jesus Christ, but also the inner security that he gained from his family, his education, and his position in society, which gave him the inner strength progressively to detach himself from the particularities of class, nation, and denomination in order to become a “man for others”, and thus to belong to us all as a teacher and martyr of the universal Church.

Bethge was writing when it was still necessary to convince a sceptical German public that the conspirators against Adolf Hitler were not trai­tors but true patriots. Schlingen­siepen emphasises rather the explicit connection that Bonhoeffer made between theology and political action. “It was theological thinking and decisions that made this Con­fessing Church pastor a member of the Resistance movement.”

He has made excellent use of newly opened archives of both the Resistance and the Confessing Church, on the one hand, and of the various competing, gangsterish institutions of Hitler’s Germany, on the other. The overwhelming im­pression is one of chaos and con­fusion, bungling incompetence, vacillation and rivalry on all sides, and chance playing a larger part in the survival until April 1945 both of Hitler and of Bonhoeffer than any human agency. So much for the myth of German efficiency! The Church of England, with its uni­form diocesan structure, appears posi­tively totalitarian compared with the patchwork quilt of German Protestantism; and the penetration of the highest levels of the military by conspirators was unparalleled elsewhere.

It was Bonhoeffer’s experience of other Churches and of other coun­tries, and his extensive friendships with, among others, the French pacifist Jean Lasserrre, the Dutch ecumenist Willem Visser’t Hooft, and the Anglican Bishop George Bell, which helped him to break with conventional life and thought in Church and university, and enabled the remarkable transition to the “religionless Christianity” of Letters and Papers from Prison.

This heritage was maintained in a serious and principled way during the church struggle in the German Democratic Republic; and it was taken up, sometimes in trivial and superficial ways, in the West. Schling­en­siepen’s measured re-evaluation will help to sift the wheat from the chaff.

Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with his fiancée, the talented and spirited Maria von Wedemeyer, which was not available to Bethge, deepens and humanises the por­trait­ure. They were never alone together during their engagement, which consisted of “eighteen agon­izing farewells”; and yet this is a love-story to set beside that of Hélöise and Abelard. In each case, the patriarchal professor found that he had something to learn about life and love from the young student. It is as idle to speculate about the future of their relationship as it is to wonder what would have happened if Bonhoeffer had survived to guide the German Church through the post-war years.

Schlingensiepen has been well served by his translator, Isabel Best; but the Nazi neologism Gleichschalt­ung, meaning “imposed and en­forced uniformity”, loses some of its sinister overtones when rendered simply as “synchronization.”

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

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