Seeking Bonhoeffer

Tracing the steps and legacy of the pastor who defied Hitler.

Editor’s Note: The following essay is adapted from an introduction by the author to the 10th anniversary edition of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, the bestselling biography of the German pastor who joined the plot to assassinate Hitler and was killed at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in April 1945. Bonhoeffer is also known for his now-classic books The Cost of Discipleship and Letters and Papers from Prison.  

That ten years have passed since my biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer appeared is hard to fathom. Though a cliché, it’s nonetheless a rude certainty that as time passes it accelerates, until years skip past with the disconcertingly blurring rapidity of subway cars. I first observed this, albeit secondhand, in 1973 at age ten when my German grandmother saw a newspaper mentioning the tenth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. “Ach!” she said, incredulous. “Can that be ten years already?” And her observation — still so fresh and vivid to me — is itself nearly a half-century old.

The accelerating passage of time is as dismaying and as unnatural to our eternal souls as is death; and even when we try slightly to arrest the progress of a passing moment, if only to appreciate it the better, we are dismayed to see it cannot be done — except, perhaps, after some fashion in art. But even in art the ancient Greeks depicted Kairos, the god of opportune moments, as a man with a longish forelock, bald in back, so that as he approached you might attempt to grasp him, but once passed he was maddeningly ungraspable — forevermore.

Something about art — even the art of historical narratives such as my biographies of Luther, Wilberforce, and Bonhoeffer — transcends time, magically pulling us away from the pinched present and into a larger realm partaking of eternity. But does not even that taste of eternity make us ache to enter eternity more truly and fully, at the same time knowing that we simply cannot, any more than we can lick the horizon?

Since I am writing on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my Bonhoeffer book, I should here admit that something about Dietrich Bonhoeffer exacerbates these longings particularly. His charm and intelligence make most who become acquainted with him wish to be in his presence which, of course, we cannot be; but even more, it is that he himself pondered the secret to undoing the Gordian knot of our time-cursed estate and claimed to have discovered the one path by which we may defeat death and slip beyond time.

It is hardly remarkable that in writing of Bonhoeffer I often found myself longing to see him and speak with him, but by the time the book was finished this ache was sometimes so keen that I was forced to avoid thinking about him and his world altogether. It was simply too much. He had become so real and dear to me that I finally understood the wish to be united with those who have gone on ahead, though not in any morbid sense. I simply knew I would meet him in glory and looked forward to it.

The sense of almost being able to touch Bonhoeffer began before I started writing the book, when I had the great privilege of meeting two of the characters who appear in its pages, both of whom knew him, and one of whom knew him exceedingly well. (For this I must thank the filmmaker Martin Doblmeier, who interviewed these subjects for his award-winning 2002 documentary on Bonhoeffer, and who generously enabled me to connect with them.) And after writing the book I met many others who were close to those who knew him. I have treasured these hallowed encounters immeasurably, though I have not mentioned most of them until now.

It was on a sun-filled April day in 2008 that Renate Bethge — Dietrich’s niece and the widow of his best friend, Eberhard Bethge — greeted me and my wife, Susanne, at the door of her home near Bonn. I remember first beholding with my own eyes the flaxen-white hair and piercing blue eyes of Dietrich’s maternal von Hase genes, unmistakable in the woman standing before me in her entrance hall, who with typical German brusqueness apologized for her appearance and scuttled away to set the table. Here was the woman who had been a young woman in her parents’ and grandparents’ homes — side by side on Marienburger Allee in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin — where so many of the scenes in Bonhoeffer’s story, some quotidian and some historic, unfolded. When the vast happy family gathered for birthday celebrations, she had often been the one to play the piano. Like her uncle, she was something of a virtuoso, and there in the room with us I saw the piano she still played, linking us to those extraordinary times.

“Frau Bethge,” as I called her that day, had in 1944 ridden in the car to deliver to the brave Tegel prison guard Knoblauch those things necessary for Dietrich to make his escape, shortly after the failed July 20 plot. But he never took this opportunity, for fear of further endangering his brother Klaus, his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, and his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher, Renate’s father — all central figures in the plot against Hitler, and all later tortured and killed by the Nazis. Our hostess had lost her father and two beloved uncles in those years. But just before these sadnesses, she had, at the tender age of sixteen, married Eberhard, their wedding sermon penned by Dietrich himself, then already imprisoned and unable to attend. It is now a classic of 20th-century letters, and here was the woman at whose nuptials those words were first read, when the hope was still very bright that its author would be released to marry his own young fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, and that he and Eberhard and their beautiful young wives would be able to enjoy the decades ahead together.

The house that day was just as it had been when her husband passed away in 2000. Bonhoeffer had written his now famous Letters and Papers from Prison to Eberhard, who in releasing them had introduced his valorous genius friend to the wide world. Only eight years earlier, Eberhard had sat on the couch where we sat, taking Kaffee und Kuchen from these self-same cups and plates. And it was from his widow’s lips now that I received firsthand stories and impressions, and first heard the name of the woman her uncle dated throughout his 20s and whom he had almost married: Elizabeth Zinn. Until 2008, it would have been somehow unseemly and awkward to mention her relationship to Dietrich and to include her name in a book, principally because Germans can be extremely private about such things. Perhaps there was some embarrassment about it, since they traveled in similar social and academic circles. So Eberhard Bethge’s own unsurpassable 1967 biography did not mention her name, nor had any subsequent books. But by the time I visited Frau Bethge, she obviously felt that enough time had passed and she could share it with me, someone whom she had only just met. So I thought it was right for me to include it, and I did, proud that in this very smallest way I might have added something to Bonhoeffer studies going forward.

The day before, Susanne and I had visited Maria von Wedemeyer’s eldest sister, Ruth-Alice von Bismarck, then in her late 80s. After the war and Dietrich’s death, Maria had moved to America where she attended Bryn-Mawr and had gone on to make a name for herself as the first female head of a department at Bell & Howell in Massachusetts. She was married twice and had two boys before dying of cancer at age 53.

In 1994 Ruth-Alice edited and published the moving correspondence between Dietrich and Maria (Love Letters from Cell 92), and, during our afternoon with her, Susanne and I melted to hear her talk with obvious feeling about this couple, still so alive to her, and, through her, now alive to us, as though her vivid memories enabled us all for those few hours to be with Dietrich and Maria in a world apart from clocks and calendars.

I was astounded when Ruth-Alice recalled that 75 years earlier — as a teenager in the mid 1930s — she was taken every Sunday with her brothers and sisters by their heroic grandmother Ruth von Kleizt to hear Dietrich preach in the Finkenwalde chapel. She recalled how most other young people at that time had gulped down the Nazi propaganda and craned to hear the cackling of its demented standard-bearer, giddily declaring, “This is the future! This is our future!” And she remembered how she and her siblings wondered where their own future lay, or whether they had any, for they knew this burgeoning movement was the enemy of everything their beloved parents had taught them about God and about God’s idea of Germany. But with a joy that erased the decades, she said that when they heard Bonhoeffer preach those Sundays, they had their answer. “Here!” she said to us. “Here was our future!” This golden young man and what he said in that chapel was proof God had not forgotten them, that he was not dead and never could be, and that despite all, he would lead them through the Valley of the Shadow of Death of that terrible time.

As we said our reluctant goodbyes that afternoon, Ruth-Alice made it clear — simultaneously plaintive and full of joy — that Dietrich and Maria had brought the three of us together that day, that we had them personally to thank for our happy afternoon, and she inscribed her book to us to that effect.

How can one begin to honor the kindnesses bestowed on us by these dearest women? Those conjoined afternoons buoyed me through the stressful composition of my book, which after some hiccups and agonies was at long last brought into the world. Not long after its appearance in English, the book appeared in German, put out by SCM Haenssler, followed by a cheering spate of subsequent translations into Swedish, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Italian, Hungarian, French, Spanish, Korean, Polish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, and Greek.

To promote the German edition, I soon found myself speaking at a packed hall in Wiesbaden, Germany, after which I was approached by two patrician gentlemen in their 70s. The first, dressed in loden green and gray, had the last name von Hase, so I inquired whether he bore any connection to the famous General Paul von Hase, commandant of Berlin during the war, and who had made a special show of visiting his imprisoned nephew Dietrich at Tegel prison — even bearing four bottles of Sekt, with which they celebrated their union that day — and who for his role in the noble plot to kill Hitler was executed shortly after its tragic failure. Was this von Hase any relation to that man? “He was my father,” the man said, with as much humility as anyone could muster in revealing such a thing.

I was only barely recovered from this shock when the second man introduced himself, giving the surname Schlabrendorff. I asked whether he bore any relation to the fabled Fabian von Schlabrendorff, Maria’s cousin, who last spoke with Dietrich at the Gestapo prison in Berlin on February 7, 1945, just as Dietrich was being trundled off to Buchenwald, and who, as adjutant to Henning von Tresckow, had been near Hitler innumerable times, and who dared when no one was looking in the cloak room at Wolfschanze to heft Hitler’s impossibly heavy, armor-plated hat, and who in the mess had observed firsthand the Fuehrer’s manners at table, immortalizing in his memoirs how Hitler mechanically shoveled the stewed repast of vegetable mush into his infamous mouth. And when I asked whether this man, now in crisp blazer and bright orange tie here before me, bore any relation to that colorful hero, he, with similar diffidence, repeated the words of his friend: “He was my father.” And there I stood, pinned like a beetle at the inestimable honor of meeting the sons of these great heroes in the story I had had the undeserved privilege to tell.

A few years later I was flabbergasted to learn that a younger sister of Maria’s lived just blocks from us in Manhattan, and we were invited to have tea with her and some other relatives. In her eighth decade she was still practicing law, and with classic German impatience waved off the thought that she should be doing anything less. She spoke of her uncle Fabian and of many others from those now mythical times, and again I could hardly take it in, the almost painful privilege of this conversation and company.

Not long after this, my own father told me of his conversation with a man in our Greek church in Danbury, Conn., who had driven from Scarsdale with his Greek wife and who had the surname Ern. He revealed himself to my father as the son of the German boy whom the 24-year-old Bonhoeffer befriended on the trans-Atlantic crossing to New York in September 1930, and whom Dietrich visited several times during that year abroad, even helping him learn to drive the family car. I also spent an afternoon in Chicago with an older man whose father had been a professor of Nordic languages in that city when Bonhoeffer made his May 1931 automobile journey there before continuing south to Texas and Mexico. Bonhoeffer had visited and had lifted this octogenarian — then a boy of four — up in the air, such that eight decades later he still had a distinct impression of Bonhoeffer as very large and strong, and as somehow especially kind.

And on the evening of the day this book came out — on April 9, 2010, marking the 65th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death — I gave my maiden speech on the subject at a Socrates in the City event at the University Club in Manhattan, and afterward met a distinguished elderly gentleman who had driven down from New Canaan, Conn., to hear me. His name was Stephen Wise, the grandson of the famous Rabbi Stephen Wise, with whom Bonhoeffer and his friend Paul Lehrman had corresponded in the summer of 1939, hoping to alert Wise’s friend Franklin Roosevelt to the horrors then befalling Jews in Hitler’s Germany, to which Bonhoeffer was that month returning.

And so it went, each such meeting so moving as to be simultaneously wonderful and distressing, for in bringing me palpably closer to the subject of my book and in somehow lifting me up to see beyond the ramparts of my time-bricked tower, my longing for escape only increased. But to preserve my sanity, I eventually had to look away to the strange fiction of the present, because the longing to escape into the eternal world of the book I had written and to parlay with the figures therein was too much. But is this aching and longing not the inevitable result of our cursed circumstance and the very question with which Bonhoeffer himself grappled? It is, which explains the lion’s share of my gratitude for this great man’s life and work.


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