There is something about the history
of Germany before and during the last War that continues to haunt us.
Perhaps it is the spectacle of a highly civilised, modern European
nation destroying itself; perhaps is it because the choice between good
and evil was so stark. The life of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer
exemplifies both aspects; he came from a cultured and musical family
which also chose – unlike the Wagner clan at Bayreuth, for instance –
the painful road of opposition to National Socialism.

The author of this new biography understands this Kulturkampf
from within. Not only is he the son of a pastor from the German
Confessing Church but he was also a close friend of Eberhard Bethge. It
was Bethge who, rather as Robert Bridges did with the poetic legacy of
his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, preserved the posthumous writings of
Bonhoeffer, brought them to international attention and wrote the first
important biography.

In this book Schlingensiepen touches
on the development of Bonhoeffer’s theological ideas only as they
impinge on his life; he does not try to place his subject within 20th
century Lutheran scholarship, so much as bring sympathetic insight to
the man and to his milieu. His subtitle is “Martyr, Thinker, Man of
Resistance”. Bonhoeffer himself would have considered them as one: his
Christian beliefs made him resist Nazism and this resistance ended in
his execution. Born in 1906 to a professor of psychiatry in Berlin and
one of eight children who all excelled academically, he surprised his
non church-going family by announcing aged 14 that he wanted to study
theology. At first this was an intellectual pursuit; the brilliant and
highly ambitious student early made a name for himself in Lutheran
academic circles. Nonetheless, in his first sermon he stated
“Christianity entails decision” – an indication that he recognised that
being a Christian would affect the way one lived. For him the statement
was to prove prophetic.

Bonhoeffer published, taught, engaged
in parish and youth work, travelled and made contact with the Swiss
theologian Karl Barth and also with the brave Bishop George Bell of
Chichester, who was unfailing in his support of the Confessing Church
at a time when all things German were deeply unpopular in England. As
late as spring 1931 his parents wrote to him in America, saying the
Nazi Party posed no threat. His brother Klaus, a lawyer, was shrewder,
writing to his brother, “People are flirting with fascism. If this
radical wave captures the educated classes, I am afraid it will be all
over for this nation of poets and thinkers.”

That same year Bonhoeffer returned
home. Of this period he was later to admit: “I had seen a great deal of
the church and had written about it – but I had not yet become a
Christian.” Gradually the popular young pastor changed; in 1935 he told
his older brother, Karl Friedrich, that he was beginning to take the
Sermon on the Mount seriously: “Things do exist that are worth standing
up for without compromise… peace and social justice are such things.”

These thoughts were prompted by the
worsening social and political situation. In 1933 the Protestant
provincial churches had formed a “German Reich Church in the National
Socialist spirit”. This body was essentially a tool of the Government;
the move caused a split in its ranks and the founding of the
“Confessing Church” in protest. Bonhoeffer was involved from the
beginning, setting up an experimental form of Lutheran monastic life, a
“House of Brethren” at Finkenwalde, to train future pastors for the
Confessing Church. It was here that he met Eberhard Bethge, a theology
student who became his closest friend and confidante. In 1937 this
fledgling community was abruptly closed down by the SS. The Confessing
Church had already been declared illegal.

Even before war was declared
Bonhoeffer had decided to refuse military service, knowing that this
could lead to a death sentence. It was a lonely decision, not supported
by the Confessing Church. By 1938 he had also been initiated by his
brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who worked in the Justice Ministry,
into plans for a coup against Hitler. This entailed a change of
direction and a further difficult decision: to avoid conscription
altogether by working alongside von Dohnanyi and his bosses, Canaris
and Oster, in the Abwehr (department of military intelligence), secretly subverting the Government.

As a Christian pastor, Bonhoeffer’s
choice of political engagement is controversial. Can you be a Christian
and a spy, even for the “right” side? When Dohnanyi asked him if a
Christian could be involved in the murder of Hitler, he agreed – as
long as one accepted guilt and responsibility. Others, such as Count
Helmuth von Moltke of the Kreisau Circle (one of the eventual July
plotters) at first opposed this notion – indeed oxymoron – of
“sanctified murder”. In the event, all the plots and projected coups
against Hitler came to nothing. Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were arrested
in April 1943 and imprisoned. Though not directly involved in the July
Plot of 1944, sufficient evidence was finally unearthed to link the
pastor to the conspirators. Along with other Abwehr
conspirators, he was subject to Hitler’s final frenzied malice:
stripped naked and hanged with piano wire at Flossenburg on 9 April
1945 during the last days of the Third Reich.

Today Bonhoeffer’s writings on the
nature of the Christian community and “religionless Christianity”,
which he would certainly have developed further had he lived, are less
important than his life of witness and the price he paid for his
principles. His example was to influence later Christian leaders caught
up in political injustice, such as Martin Luther King and Archbishop
Desmond Tutu. His statement, “To endure the cross is not tragedy; it is
the suffering which is the fruit of an exclusive allegiance to Jesus
Christ”, resonates down the decades.

More debatable was his decision,
as a Christian pastor, to allow himself to become involved in a
political plot that intended actual violence, however desperate the
situation. The Austrian farmer Franz Jaegerstatter
who chose to abjure all violence and who was executed for refusing to
fight in an unjust war, seems more commendable and more Christ-like.
Although Schlingensiepen, steeped in the perspective of his father’s
wartime generation, is not critical enough about this aspect of
Bonhoeffer’s life and death, his book remains a serious contribution to
our understanding of a man for whom the word “charismatic” is not
inappropriate and to the period in which he lived and died.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.