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“I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”
Gary Blount, psychiatrist-turned-producer, has created a remarkable new film about the last days of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a Nazi concentration camp, told through the eyes of a British broadcast team.
Question: You have just produced a film about influential theologian and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer after years of studying his work. What has kept you so interested in Bonhoeffer?
Answer: Since first hearing the story more than 50 years ago, I’ve never hit a roadblock or detour. (That is, once I got used to my Christian hero being a chain smoker.)
As with all of my heroes, I’ve constantly tried in one way or another to relate to Bonhoeffer, and I suppose this has gotten a bit easier as I’ve become acquainted with a few members of his family in Germany and England.
From the beginning, I’ve loved his hard-core faith and courage, but I confess I’ve also been increasingly wowed by his good taste: Bechstein piano, Audi (okay DKW), and pet Saint Bernard. And it was easy to relate to his need to move back in with his parents and his willingness to accept an adult allowance. Dare I mention his eagerness to marry a girl half his age who was possibly smarter than he was and a lot better looking?
You work as a psychiatrist in Minnesota. Do you have a particular interest in theology? Does your expertise in psychiatry give you particular insights into Bonhoeffer and his still-discussed ideas?
It seems to me there is a kinship between theology and psychiatry. Many people seem convinced that neither one requires a degree or even specialized study.
Seriously, I love theological insights and, in fact, really look forward to hearing them occasionally from the pulpit.
You know, Bonhoeffer said some harsh things about mental health treatment, but some of his actions in prison reveal a more open stance. For instance, recently I read that when he would learn from a fellow inmate in Tegel that a family member might benefit from a psychiatric consultation either to address a condition or simply mitigate what otherwise might seem to be a hopeless forensic situation, Bonhoeffer would find a way to refer the person to his father, the recently retired psychiatrist Karl Bonhoeffer. I would put that in the practical theology column.
I recall a legendary professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota who would tell his residents and students: “With this new patient, I don’t care who does the physical exam; I’ll do the history.” That’s what I want to continue doing — focus on the dynamic story.
What is your film Come Before Winter about?
Our story is about the final chapter in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and what must have been the aching for deliverance by the Allies, who were rapidly closing in. We felt our time frame might extract something of the essence of his life and the perspective which he seemed to seek — “the view from below.” This view now includes more uncertainty, wartime cruelty, and vengeance.
Bonhoeffer had long been an outspoken foe of Hitler, and we chose to tell the story with the help of a couple of other anti-Nazis: seriously broken vessels Sefton Delmer and Otto John. The latter has been called “the living link” between Bonhoeffer’s last days and the storyteller in England.
My father remarked the other day that my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister, would occasionally invite faculty from the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur to preach at the church where he ministered.
Dad remembers one Sunday during the McCarthy era of our national life when a faculty member preached a sermon titled “My Country, Right or Wrong.”
Dad did not remember the content of the sermon or the biblical text from which the professor preached, but the title of the sermon was firmly written in his long-term memory. The title presents a troubling choice.
I am proud to be an American and am grateful for the gifts and benefits of that citizenship, but “my country, right or wrong?”
First and foremost I am a citizen of God’s Kingdom. Those of us who profess to follow Jesus are ourselves resident aliens.
Yes, we are in the words of God to the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29:1-8) to settle down, build houses, plant gardens, engage in the life of the country. We are to pray for and work for the welfare of the country, and to understand that when the country thrives we will thrive. But our citizenship is in God’s Kingdom, our ultimate allegiance is to King Jesus, not to this country or to any leader of this country.
A pastor who wrestled deeply with the implications of this choice was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Many of the faculty at Bonhoeffer’s university embraced the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer protested that the church had forgotten where her ultimate allegiance lies. He insisted that the church had an obligation to challenge the legitimacy of the state’s actions; that the church had an obligation to render aid to the victims of the state’s actions even if those victims were not a part of the Christian community; and if the state turned justice into injustice, order into disorder, the church was obliged to move from indirect action to direct political means.
(Dietrich) Bonhoeffer returned to Nazi Germany with a sense of personal certainty and moral clarity, but it would be the surrender of France one year later, on June 17, 1940, that put him on his ultimate collision course with the Nazi regime and sealed his involvement in the conspiracy to overthrow Hitler.
Last Days of the Nazis is a story that’s rarely been broadcast on television before. This is a dark and compelling history of Nazism from a different perspective – that of the Nazis themselves. In 1945, the Allies rounded up and interrogated thousands of ex-Nazis. The interrogations became a fascinating, but largely forgotten, part of the historical record. The Last Days of the Nazis uses these interrogations to dramatically bring to life accounts by Nazi death camp commandants, Nazi doctors, generals, architects, and members of the Hitler Youth. It is an inside look at the minds and motivations of the most evil regime in history. This is what the enemy told us.
This was fun…
I sometimes talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in my services, church meetings etc. He was an inspirational person!
But then I thought sometimes it’s a bit boring to just talk about someone’s biography. So instead, I created a quiz.
These are my questions (and I had fun making up some of the answers!!):
- Bonhoeffer’s father was
a) a Lutheran minister
b) a butcher and an atheist
c) a psychiatrist and a Christian
- Because he was too young to be ordained after he finished his studies in theology (he had 2 PhDs and was a University Lecturer before the age of 25!), Bonhoeffer spent some time studying in:
a) the USA
b) the UK
- While he was in the States, Bonhoeffer attended and was deeply inspired by
a) a Presbyterian Church in Texas
b) a Methodist Church in Florida
c) an African-American Baptist Church in Harlem
- Bonhoeffer was
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On this day, 75 years ago, the bloodiest war in human history broke out when Nazi Germany, fresh off of signing a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, invaded Poland. Though two years would pass before the United States entered the war, the conflict would profoundly change the American role in the world.
Adolph Hitler had duped many world leaders into believing that Germany really wanted peace and perhaps just a little “lebensraum,” or “living space.” But events would prove that they were bent on the conquest of a continent, and that the only thing that could stop this menace was military might.
German SS troops, the military arm of the Nazi Party, put on Polish army uniforms and raided several German outposts along the German-Polish border, giving the regime a false pretense for their war of conquest. At 4:45 am, on September 1, 1939, over a million Germans poured over the Polish border en route to the takeover of a country that had enjoyed less than a quarter century of independence since the end of the Great War, the so-called War to End All Wars. Poland was defeated in less than a month and the world was plunged into an even more devastaing conflict.
The image of the Polish war effort in the popular mind is of antiquated Polish cavalry making chivalric, yet doomed charges against modern, sophisticated German tanks. Yet, this narrative is more the result of Nazi propaganda; the truth was much different. The Polish army fought well against their German foes, and was not too far behind technologically. Horses were still a major part of most armies on the eve of WWII because they were logistically important for troop and supply movement. Nevertheless, the German Army, drawing from their experience in the Spanish Civil War that they treated as a training ground just a few years earlier, used a sophisticated combined arms strategy of tanks, troops, and planes to quickly cut through their valiant, but outmatched Polish foe. The use of “blitzkrieg” or “lightning war” to rapidly advance and prevent the slog of trench warfare that became the norm in WWI, had become possible because of advances in communication and transportation technology. The German military would master this technique.
Poland was beaten so quickly because, on top of fighting the advanced German war machine in the West, the Polish army had to cope with the Soviet Union’s invasion from the East. Often lost in the modern historical revisionism which claims that it was really the Soviet Union that won the war and defeated Nazism, is the fact that the Communist empire helped launch World War II, and was fully complicit in the premeditated carving up of free countries.
Germany would go on to consume all of Europe, plunging the entire continent into the darkness of the Holocaust, a genocide of Jews that many at the time believed a modern, civilized country was simply incapable of. Nazi Germany had launched a new “dark age,” as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said in his famous “Finest Hour” speech, that would be “made more sinister…by the lights of perverted science.”
Adolph Hitler, high off of the conquest of Europe, would turn his country against its powerful partner-in-crime, the Soviet Union, thus sowing the seeds of ultimate German defeat. Yet, the more important change in the war, at least for the free world, was the entrance of the United States after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.
Coming to terms with the genocidal century just past, especially the unvarnished evil of Nazi Germany, has prompted theologians and philosophers to adjust and recalibrate much of what they thought they knew. Writers as diverse as Reinhold Niebuhr, John Pawlikowski, Richard Rubenstein and Elie Wiesel — some more successfully than others — have all struggled to reconcile the existence of the divine with unspeakable atrocities, many of them carried out in the name of God.
Few theologians witnessed the juggernaut of Nazi depravity at closer range than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In “Strange Glory,” Charles Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, renders Bonhoeffer’s life and thought in exquisite detail and with sympathetic understanding, and in the course of more than 500 pages, we see Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pampered scion and theological dilettante to energetic churchman and Christian martyr, all against the backdrop of cataclysmic changes in Germany.
Born the sixth of eight children in Breslau, Prussia, in 1906 to a psychiatrist and his wife, Bonhoeffer grew up in a privileged environment but one that was not especially religious. When Dietrich announced at age 13 his intention to become a theologian, his siblings questioned and even belittled his choice, arguing that the church was hopelessly irrelevant. “In that case,” the undeterred teenager replied, “I shall reform it!”
After his family moved to Berlin, Bonhoeffer attended the Grunewald Gymnasium, graduating at the precocious age of 17, and in 1923 settled in for a year of study at Tübingen University, while the Weimar Republic continued its downward economic spiral. Insulated by his family’s wealth, Bonhoeffer barely noticed. The following year, he set off on an aesthetic summer in Italy. Whereas Martin Luther had been repulsed by the opulence and corruption he witnessed on his visit to Rome four centuries earlier, Bonhoeffer was rather enchanted with the Eternal City and even, in Marsh’s telling, lured by the “beauty, exuberance and grandeur” of Roman Catholicism.
Bonhoeffer’s theological training began in earnest under the tutelage of Karl Holl, Reinhold Seeberg and Adolf von Harnack at Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1924. These were tempestuous times, not only politically but theologically. Although the eminent theologian Karl Barth had also studied with Harnack, he rejected what he saw as Harnack’s enervated liberalism, tethered as it was to nationalism and reduced to social utility. Barth sought a fresh understanding of divine transcendence.
Bonhoeffer was entranced, and in ensuing years he would seek to embellish Barth’s insights by emphasizing the ethical and communal ramifications of doctrine, insisting that the Christian Gospel unfolds most authentically within community, “not through individual social or ethical experience.” Bonhoeffer was searching, Marsh writes, “for a more embodied, vital and dynamic Protestantism.” The danger in Bonhoeffer’s ideas, as Marsh acknowledges, is that his notion of the kingdom of God, in the context of rising nationalism, could be commandeered in the service of Germany, especially when the German theological establishment “presumed the providential blessings of the warrior God.”
Bonhoeffer’s brief stint as an assistant pastor to the German Lutheran congregation in Barcelona provided a respite from the growing crisis in Germany and also exposed him to those less fortunate (although he continued to live comfortably). Even more formative was his year in the United States for postgraduate study in 1930. Although he was underwhelmed by his courses at Union Theological Seminary — and found that among his fellow students everyone “just blabs away so frightfully” — he responded to the Gospel he heard at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, where he became a pastoral assistant. And a road and rail trip through the South and into Mexico allowed him to see firsthand the effects of poverty and racism. Bonhoeffer came to admire the social conscience of Union students, although he found no more sustenance in the preaching of liberal Protestants in the United States than he had in Germany. “The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events,” he lamented.
Back in Berlin in 1931, Bonhoeffer continued his engagement with the poor in parish work, but the Lutheran church in Germany was quickly capitulating to Hitler’s regime. Nazi banners ornamented the churches; one minister declared, “Christ has come to us through Adolf Hitler.” Bonhoeffer’s initial protest centered on the so-called Aryan paragraph, passed by the Reichstag on April 7, 1933. It mandated the removal of all Jews, even baptized Jews, from civil service, which included the churches.
The protests were unavailing. As a leader of what would become the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer organized a school for dissident seminarians at Finkenwalde, near the Baltic Sea. Until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1937, Finkenwalde immersed Bonhoeffer in Christian community, a place where, in his words, “the pure doctrine, the Sermon on the Mount, and worship are taken seriously.” It was also where Bonhoeffer developed a lifelong, homoerotic relationship with a student, Eberhard Bethge, although Marsh insists it was chaste.
Marsh is a bit less persuasive in making the case that Bonhoeffer in no way cooperated with the Nazi regime. An avowed pacifist, Bonhoeffer secured an appointment with German military intelligence, which allowed him remarkable freedom to travel both in and out of Germany. His complicity in a plot to assassinate Hitler, however, sealed his fate, although his principal involvement lay in providing moral justification for tyrannicide.