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Bonhoeffer, Unplugged

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Biography. Eberhard Bethge. Fortress Press (Rev. ed. 2000), softcover, 1,048 p., $39.00.

“Jesus! That book’s bigger than the Bible,” exclaimed our bartender when he noticed the biography on the stool next to my wife. Within a hundred pages of finishing it, I had hauled the 1,048 page volume on the subway ride downtown from New York City’s Upper West Side to the Union Square area, site of a Bobby Flay restaurant that is one of our favorites. When the book’s subject was mentioned, Paul, the bartender, responded enthusiastically, “Dietrich is what my friends named their son, my best little buddy,” as he whipped open his wallet and displayed a picture of the boy.

The book on the barstool was the second English edition of Eberhard Bethge’s classic biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. More than five decades ago, the author and his wife also named their boy Dietrich. From his prison cell in Tegel, Bonhoeffer wrote poignant sermons on the occasions of the wedding of Renate, his niece, and Bethge in May 1943 and the baptism of their son, his namesake, one year later.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was first published in the United States in an English translation in 1970, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death by hanging at the hands of the Nazis. In The New York Times Book Review, John Macquarrie, Oxford divinity professor, wrote at the time, “Mr. Bethge has created a memorable portrait of a great Christian and moral leader of this century.” This new edition, published to coincide with the year of Bethge’s ninetieth birthday, provides for the first time in English the complete text of the German edition originally published in 1967.

Bethge’s professional career is one of high distinction, wholly apart from his close relationship with Bonhoeffer. This definitive treatment of Bonhoeffer’s life testifies to Bethge’s stature as biographer. The passages of particular vibrancy, and there are many, radiate from Bethge’s first-hand role as a witness to key parts of Bonhoeffer’s life. He assisted Bonhoeffer with the Finkenwalde seminary until it was closed by the Gestapo and then with underground pastorates. Like Bonhoeffer, Bethge was imprisoned for his role in a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler. He possessed not only the inside view of his subject, but also the milieu of Germany as it gradually became ensnared by National Socialism.

Bethge’s original German subtitle is echoed in the phrase of the title page: “Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times.” It also provides the form and function of the work itself, as the three main sections reflect what Bethge interprets to be the major changes in Bonhoeffer’s life. (Dietrich’s twin sister Sabine Leibholz, in her 1968 Portrait of a Family, emphasizes that the stages described by Bethge are to be read as fully cumulative, not merely sequential.)

The lure of theology is evident throughout the periods of his childhood and youth, his student years, and his postings as assistant pastor in Barcelona and assistant lecturer in Berlin. These years culminated with his first trip to America and nine months based in New York City at Union Theological Seminary. The first great change, according to Bethge, occurred around 1931-1932 “when Bonhoeffer the theologian consciously grasped the fact that he was a Christian.” The following years were characterized by his activities as lecturer and pastor, his time in London, and “life together” at preachers’ seminary, Finkenwalde, and the collective pastorates, again culminating with travel to America. Finally, in 1939, upon his return to Germany from New York after an abbreviated stay of less than two months, “the theologian and Christian became a man for his times.” The urgency of the most difficult of all his decisions, to return and face what even then seemed inevitable, was such that Bonhoeffer’s room at Union was left strewn with sheets of paper and the large quantity of cigarettes he had smoked.

While major changes did occur, Bonhoeffer remained unchanged. His love for art, literature, and music never waned. The “Negro spirituals” he cherished from gramophone records collected while in Harlem ministered to his German colleagues many years later. He never abandoned his recreational breaks or the enjoyment of nature and games, regardless of the setting or pressures on all sides. His extraordinary spirit of generosity was consistently revealed. This was true whether he contributed disproportionately to the vital needs of room and board for a group of theologians, or gave simply for the pleasure of it, as when he paid the airfare to Berlin for two ordinands whose deepest wish was to fly for the first time. While in prison, he provided legal help for a young prisoner with his own funds. Later, when all he had left was a remnant of tobacco, he divided it among his fellow prisoners.

These personal attributes helped touch everyone from George K. A. Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, to the prison guard who requested that his photograph be taken with Bonhoeffer in the Tegel courtyard. Payne Best, the British secret service officer and author of The Venlo Incident, after a few short weeks imprisoned with Bonhoeffer in Buchenwald and Schšnberg, wrote, “He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close. . . . He was, without exception, the finest and most lovable man I have ever met.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is highly recommended. It is so well written and translated that it seems to have been originally done in English by a gifted native-born speaker. With more than 900 pages of biographical text, seventy-six pages of supporting notes, a chronology, a detailed twenty-page index, and two appendices (notes on the Zossen files and a list of his readings while in prison), the sheer length of the biography may seem daunting at first. Be forewarned; Bethge’s two-page personal portrait of Bonhoeffer appearing before the text is enough to turn readers from casual or curious to avid.

It is axiomatic that Germans keep doors closed. During his first sojourn in the United States, Bonhoeffer had difficulty adapting to the open doors and loss of privacy at the seminary. At times, the book is laden with meticulous theological and ecumenical content and context, and bound by an insular national perspective on German history in the first half of the twentieth century.

As a result, Bonhoeffer can seem closed behind a door barricaded with theology. But these passages are worth navigating because, when Bethge opens the door to Bonhoeffer’s personal life, and portrays a man for others, the biography soars and inspires.

In the end, Bethge’s methodical approach is purposeful, serving as foundation to his exposition of Bonhoeffer’s unfulfilled new theology. He admirably preserves Bonhoeffer’s “nonreligious interpretation” of Christianity in the “world come of age,” and the quest to find “genuine worship” in the face of “arcane discipline.” Whether for research and scholarship, or for lay insight into the German whose memorial service was broadcast by the BBC, whose statue stands at the main west front of Westminster Abbey in central London, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is the starting point.

Bonhoeffer’s legacy continues to grow. Progress continues on the sixteen-volume English edition Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works project. Bonhoeffer: The Cost of Freedom, a dramatization by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, won the 1997 Peabody Award and a new film, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, premiered on PBS in June 2000 after winning the top honor at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. Bethge’s biography is seminal, no matter through which medium or for what audience the Bonhoeffer story of vision and courage may be told.

At a noon meeting on April 5, 1945, with the end in sight, Hitler personally presided over the order to kill Bonhoeffer. After his murder four days later, his body and remaining possessions were burned. Maria von Wedemeyer, Bonhoeffer’s fiancée, learned in June while searching for him throughout western Germany that it was to no avail. It’s difficult not to lament what might have been for Dietrich and Maria Bonhoeffer, perhaps even for the course and contours of Christianity today, or merely for the friendship between Bonhoeffer and Bethge.

Bonhoeffer’s literary efforts from Tegel transcend the sermons he provided for his eventual biographer. Amidst the Letters and Papers from Prison that first introduce the man for many of us, mingled with fragments of a play and a novel are his poems, including one called “The Friend.” “Finest and rarest blossom, at a happy moment springing from the freedom of a lightsome, daring, trusting spirit, is a friend to friend.” On March 18, 2000, shortly after publication of his biography’s revised edition, Eberhard Bethge died at home in Wachtberg, a suburb of Bonn. After fifty-five years apart, the best of friends are at last together again.

–Tom Fredrick


Tom Fredrick is a lawyer living with his wife and five children in New York City.

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