Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich. Eric Metaxas. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. ISBN 13-9781595551382. xvi + 591 pages.

Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.Charles Marsh. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. ISBN 978-0-26981-2 x + 515 pages. $35.00 (Kindle $14.39).



MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT DIETRICH: How Bonhoeffer was Made Fit for America


The status of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the United States is almost that of a national hero. When a new biography was published in New York in 2010, 300,000 copies sold within four weeks. As it happens, the book had been aggressively marketed by Fox News and the Wall Street Journal; its title ‘Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy’, its author Eric Metaxas. Turning Bonhoeffer into a spy was an invention of Metaxas. His book is a biographical novel written by a talented author.

In 2014, Professor Charles Marsh, a theologian from Virginia, wrote another American biography about Bonhoeffer with the title ‘Strange Glory, A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’. This is now being promoted by a very different section of the media. The United States of America is a deeply divided country. These divisions have now resulted in the production of two portraits of Bonhoeffer, one for the right and one for the left, both bearing a passing resemblance to the German Protestant pastor by the same name.

Eric Metaxas’ manuscript had to be cleared of a multitude of larger and smaller errors before being published in German. To start with, the American original was full of German spelling mistakes as neither Metaxas nor his editors knew any German. Much of Bonhoeffer’s reputation is based on his writings. Metaxas, who was unable to read these in the original, dedicates as little as 12½ pages out of his 600 to them. He does not know Bonhoeffer’s early theological thoughts and his claims about the later ones - from Bonhoeffer’s time in prison – came from his students who obviously misinterpreted him. He manages to turn Bonhoeffer into a courageous and benign fundamentalist. By giving him a mighty push to the right he makes him, politically speaking, something like a friendly great uncle of the tea-party movement. This explains the enthusiasm of Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. At the time of publication some papers showed a picture of Metaxas standing between George W. and Laura Bush, both of them holding a copy of the book.

Unlike Metaxas, Charles Marsh does know some German. He has read Bonhoeffer’s writings in the original and has carried out research in Germany. He served briefly as a ‘Bonhoeffer guest professor’ at Humboldt University in Berlin. Even so, his manuscript needed more substantial corrections than that of Metaxas before being published in Germany. The following example shows how bizarre some of his mistakes are. Marsh writes, ‘At the Altdorfer department store Bonhoeffer purchased a hundred Christmas cards with a reproduction of Durer’s Holy Night - one of their favorite woodcuts - to send to each of his former seminarians. Bonhoeffer joked to Bethge that this year he and his friend might inscribe their card ‘Christmas amid the ruins’ (p. 296).  The cards that Bonhoeffer found in Munich depicted Albrecht Altdorfer’s Mary and infant in front of a ruined 15th century stable. Bonhoeffer’s letter to Bethge dated 29.11.1940, used by Marsh as a source here, mentions neither the Altdorfer department store nor the name Durer, and least of all does it mention a joke. Unfortunately this is not the only example of Marsh’ laissez-faire treatment of his sources. Marsh could have gone to look at Altdorfer’s painting around the corner from Humboldt University. He spent enough time in Germany to know that Bayreuth is not in the Bavarian Alps. Dachau lies to the Northwest, not to the Northeast of Munich, and the ‘river Eisenach’, which Marsh has flowing at the foot of the Wartburg, does not exist.

Any German editor will find and correct those types of mistakes. In order to detect the greater number of Marsh’s mistakes, though, one will need a thorough knowledge of Bonhoeffer’s life and writings. Most of Marsh’s readers will readily believe that Professor Karl Bonhoeffer did not attend church on Sundays, but left this to his wife and children. An editor might also be taken in, but Marsh is wrong: the entire Bonhoeffer family stayed at home on Sundays and did not even go to church at Christmas. Instead Bonhoeffer’s mother instructed her children in the Bible at home, and there were Christmas rituals, beautifully described by Bonhoeffer’s twin sister Sabine. This mistake seems a minor one, until we consider that it attributes to Bonhoeffer the kind of socialization in the church that the future pastor did not have.

The content of Marsh’s biography will have to change in the German version, but in the United States it will remain as it is, except for small corrections. American readers are presented with a warped picture of Dietrich Bonhoeffer by this book, as they are by that of Metaxas. The authors have received much praise from their respective admirers. Both of them write extremely well. In Germany only those readers who can compare the German version of the biography with the American version will be able to see the pictures these two Americans are painting of Bonhoeffer. Both authors are said to have included new research. Whereas Metaxas actually presents very little that is new in this respect, new findings are restricted to the chapter on Bonhoeffer’s first visit to the United States in Marsh’s book.

Whoever wants to explain why both books are so very problematical, will have to admit that a significant hurdle exists for any Bonhoeffer biographer, whatever his or her persuasion. Of the four periods of Bonhoeffer’s life childhood (1), studies and periods abroad (2) as well as the final phase from his decision to join the resistance until his early death (4) are relatively easy to describe. One only has to follow Eberhard Bethge’s great biography. Metaxas has followed this more closely than Marsh, which is why he is more reliable in the corresponding chapters. 

The real hurdle presents itself in dealing with the third phase, when Bonhoeffer worked as a pastor and a teacher of theology from 1931 until his ‘Reich-wide ban from speaking in public’ in 1940. Any biographer will have to acquire a thorough knowledge of the German Protestant church during this time; otherwise a description of this time in Bonhoeffer’s life will fail. From 1933 the federation of 28 member churches was embroiled in a church struggle that was most confusing and therefore quite difficult to describe.

The fate of the ‘German Protestant Church’ in Hitler’s Germany will interest very few people in Germany today. Outside of Germany the complexities will be comprehensible only to specialists. From 1933 until the outbreak of war Bonhoeffer’s life was so caught up in the church struggle that half of Eberhard Bethge’s biography of 1080 pages is a history of the German Protestant church from 1933 to 1940. Five hundred pages of his book are dedicated to this third phase in Bonhoeffer’s life. Anyone who wants to make abbreviations or change the emphasis will have to be in command of the historical facts. Otherwise, the consequences of Hitler’s Germany on Bonhoeffer’s life will be distorted and the positions he took misinterpreted. This is what has happened in both of these American books, as different as they are from each other.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is made into a direct opponent of Hitler and represented as fighting a lone battle against Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies in particular. Metaxas and Marsh both see in Bonhoeffer the only Protestant Christian fighting for the Jews. This is seen as the most significant aspect of Bonhoeffer’s role as an opponent of Hitler. If this had been so, Bonhoeffer would have disappeared inside a concentration camp much earlier on. However, Bonhoeffer had comrades. Gertrud Staewen gets mentioned by both authors, but other courageous women like Katharina Staritz or men like Propst Grueber do not appear, even though they did much more than Bonhoeffer in this respect.

It is right that Bonhoeffer was one of the first to speak up publically for the Jews in Germany after Hitler’s rise to power. His decision to go to the United Kingdom, where he spent a year and a half as pastor to two German congregations in London, was born out of frustration; in his view, church groups in opposition did not protest strongly enough against the introduction of the ‘Aryan paragraph’, Hitler’s anti-Jewish legislation. Later on, others were able to do more for German Jews and were punished severely for it. During this time Bonhoeffer was concentrating on his duties as head of a remote theological seminary and remaining untroubled by the Nazi regime until the beginning of the war.

Marsh ignores the close cooperation between Anglican Bishop Bell and Bonhoeffer in their fight for the Confessing Church during Bonhoeffer’s time in London. This is difficult to comprehend, as American readers would surely have been interested. For example, Bishop Bell and Bonhoeffer achieved the immediate dismissal, by Hitler, of August Jaeger, a vicious Nazi, who had been given a post in Reichbishop Mueller’s office. Jaeger’s further path shows what he was capable of. He left the church and was hanged in Poland after the war for his role in major war crimes. Neither Jaeger, nor Mueller`s theological ‘watchdog’ Heinrich Oberheid, are mentioned in Marsh’s book. This omission attributes to Reichsbishop Mueller a greater power than he really had. In the earlier part of the church struggle jokes were still making the rounds in the Confessing Church. Later on, churchmen had nothing left to laugh about. This joke was being told in 1933: Mueller asks Goebbels for advice about a title for his memoirs, upon which Goebbels suggests, ‘From Dim Light to Church Candelabra’. Interestingly, the joke reflects Goebbel’s very low opinion of the Reichsbishop. Mueller only remained in office because Hitler could not be seen to have appointed to a high office someone who was incompetent.

Bell and Bonhoeffer cooperated closely a second time, when Bell was preparing for the ecumenical conference in Fanø, Denmark. Bonhoeffer was advocating for international protest against the suppressing tactics by the Reich Church, with its Nazi allegiance, against the Confessing Church. Bell sent a circular protest letter to all member churches. As the letter was on the agenda this resulted in a discussion about the church struggle in Germany at the international forum at Fanø, which was just what Bonhoeffer had wanted. Bishop Heckel, as representative of the Reich Church, had been keen to prevent this from happening. Marsh refers to Bonhoeffer’s speech on peace. He mentions a senior church official from Berlin by the name of Birnbaum, who made a fool of himself, but does not mention Bishop Bell in connection with Fanø.

During Bonhoeffer’s time in London the Confessing Church had been formed in Germany. In 1934, a synod in Barmen made up of the oppositional groups in all the federal churches, had ratified a theological declaration. It states the creed of the Protestant Church and rejects the false teachings of the German Christians. In October of 1934 the Confessing Church created its own leadership at a second synod in Dahlem, and thus it became separate from the Reich Church, which had become heretical. From then on there were two church bodies - the German Christian church structures, recognized by the state, and the councils of the Confessing Church within each federal church. According to the law at the time pastors with a parish could not simply be dismissed. This led to the situation where, in the same towns and cities, German Christian pastors would work with the official church leadership while pastors who had joined the Confessing Church would refuse to do so. Where German Christian were in the majority, as in Elberfeld, for example, Confessing Church congregations were locked out of their churches. They were forced to use public houses instead. However. in neighboring Barmen, the Confessing Church was in the majority.

Bonhoeffer later called the synods of Barmen and Dahlem ‘beacons on the path of the church’. The resolutions of the Dahlem synod gave him the confidence to return to a church office within Germany. Marsh makes a statement in connection with this, which casts doubts on his understanding of Bonhoeffer’s theology. Marsh writes: “Only two months after classes began, the Old Prussian Union Council decided that the Confessing Church might call itself a ‘confessional movement’ or ‘confessional front’, but it did not have the legitimate status of a Kirche (church). Thus, study with Bonhoeffer became a badge of dissent, and in the eyes of the church authorities it was to mark oneself out as ‘radical fanatic’ and as a disloyal German. Such pastors might sometimes be called ‘Dahlemites’, after the posh Berlin suburb of Dahlem. Moreover, Martin Niemoeller’s parish, where a coterie of dissenting ministers had defied the Reich Church,  proclaimed the Confessing Church as the one true Lutheran church in Germany”(p. 234f.).

Not only did an Old Prussian Union Council never exist, there is not much else that is true in any of these sentences. The crucial mistake is that they appear where Marsh ought to write about the synod of Dahlem. He ascribed to Bonhoeffer’s most important synod of the Confessing Church using the derogatory term ‘coterie’. One could call this a group of schemers. If Dahlem had been such a group of schemers, Bonhoeffer would have to be called its head schemer for no one else defended the Dahlem resolutions as energetically as did he. As the synod took place when Bonhoeffer was still in England, there is an additional problem with where Marsh locates this in time. The Confessing Church had elected its own leadership in October 1934 and called on all German Protestants to recognize only these leaders as the true leaders of the Protestant Church.

When Bonhoeffer returned to Germany, Hitler had just sidelined the Reichsbishop and implemented a ‘Reichskirchenministerium’ -- a Ministry of Church Affairs. At its head was Hans Kerrl, one of Hitler’s ‘old comrades’. He was given the task of putting an immediate end to the struggle within the Protestant Church. Kerrl created a committee to lead the Protestant Church - with sub-committees in the individual states - where all church groups, German Christians, Confessing Church and ‘the neutrals’ (who either could not or did not want to take sides) were supposed to work together. Kerrl called the highly esteemed Lutheran General Superintendant Wilhelm Zoellner out of retirement to chair the committee, leading many of the Confessing Church pastors to feel that one could leave the struggle behind and subject oneself to this committee and its regional sub-committees. Those who refused to do so were called ‘Dahlemites’, because they clung to the resolutions of the Dahlem synod. In two polemical articles, Bonhoeffer himself provided the strongest rationale for why one should not subject oneself to these committees. The first was directed at the Geneva head office of the ecumenical movement. This office continued to cooperate with the Reich Church allied to Hitler, and did not recognize the Confessing Church. The Geneva group did not come out in support of the Confessing Church, nor did it break contact with the Reich Church.

The second paper was directed against all the pastors and church elders in Germany who did not acknowledge the resolutions of Dahlem and who had subjected themselves to being governed by the committees. In this paper Bonhoeffer writes -- following the Latin ‘extra ecclesiam nulla salus’ - ‘Those who separate themselves knowingly from the Confessing Church separate themselves from salvation’. This sentence would still cause an uproar, years later after the war, among pastors and church leaders, who had decided differently.

This was precisely the kind of dispute that played a significant part in Bonhoeffer’s professional life. In Marsh’s biography of Bonhoeffer this aspect is not covered. Just as the names of Overheid and Jaeger are missing, the name Zoellner is also missing from Marsh’s text. Kerrl is mentioned once, only in a context outside of the timeframe when he was trying to unify the disparate Protestant church under the leadership of the committees. Zoellner soon became disillusioned and gave up in 1937. A lawyer by the name of Dr Friedrich Werner then took over the leadership of the German Protestant Church. He saw it as his job to liquidate the Confessing Church and to meet (or even go beyond) all requests of the NSDAP in relation to matters concerning the church. As the historical context alluded to above is missing from both books, the author of this review could not gain a sense of Bonhoeffer’s life and his positioning during this period in his life.

Marsh even manages to place Bonhoeffer in the wrong camp, when he says: “The Reich Church’s withdrawal of Bonhoeffer’s authority to teach . . . included Finkenwalde, since the seminary remained under the general auspices of the state church. It was at this point that Bonhoeffer’s supervision of training there became an illegal activity” (p. 252). The Reich Church never had anything to do with Finkenwalde, the seminary for training clergy, a seminary which had been founded by the Confessing Church. Nor could any church withdraw Bonhoeffer’s ‘venia legendi’, his authority to teach. Only the Prussian Minister for Culture could do that, as an act of state. It was he who withdrew Bonhoeffer’s venia legendi in 1936, when the Minister for the Reich Church had already declared all seminaries of the Confessing Church illegal a year earlier. This was done in 1935, at the insistence of the SS.

There is further confusion in connection with the Olympiad. Marsh writes: “As part of a campaign to project an image of openness and toleration, the Reich Church invited Bonhoeffer to preach in an enormous tent erected near the Olympic stadium and to give a half hour lecture on the ‘inner life of the German Protestant Church since the Reformation” (p. 250). No ‘Dahlemite’ would have preached or given a lecture following an invitation of the Reich Church. Bonhoeffer would certainly not have done so. On this occasion he spoke at an event organized by the Confessing Church. Apparently it had been considered within the Reich Church to invite him to a service in the Olympic Village and it was then decided not to. You can read this in Bethge’s biography. Marsh’s bibliography lists American, English and German sources where all this is described correctly.

Marsh’s statement that the Confessing Church had a membership of 6,000 (p. 206) must be based on a misunderstanding. To put this into perspective, the town of Siegen with its 60,000 inhabitants, to name just one German town as an example, had more than 10,000 members who carried the famous membership card of the Confessing Church. In 1938 a pastor was elected there, because he was a member of the Confessing Church and not a German Christian. There must half been more than a million members across the whole of Germany. Marsh says that all of these 6,000 members defected in the end. “Bonhoeffer was left virtually alone to preserve the convictions of the old Confessing Church” (p. 292). This statement is as unfounded as Marsh’s statements about the institution of Bethel near Bielefeld. Marsh writes, “By the end of the decade the grounds, gardens and spacious interiors of the Bethel Clinic had become an extension of Hitler’s T4 euthanasia program” (p. 433). On the contrary: Bethel was the only institution of its kind that did not become part of this programme. Not one of its patients was murdered.

Hundreds of pastors were imprisoned long before Bonhoeffer, some of them for a short time, others for longer. Some of them were sent to concentration camps. The majority of them are not mentioned by Marsh or Metaxas. There is a ghostly emptiness around Bonhoeffer and Bethge in both biographies; there were actually a large number of men and women in the Confessing Church until the end of the Hitler era, who fought as courageously or maybe even more courageously than did Bonhoeffer, who was hardly a household name then. They remained principled opponents of National Socialism until the end. Bonhoeffer’s superior in the leadership of the Confessing Church, Wilhelm Niesel, was imprisoned nine times. That this type of dogged resistance was not enough in the face of the atrocities that were being committed across Europe, is another issue. But it is wrong to separate Bonhoeffer from his friends and comrades, to put him on a pedestal and make him ‘fit for America’ in that way. Bonhoeffer was not “alone to preserve the convictions of the old Confessing Church.” He was the only pastor who had the prerequisites to join the military resistance, and he was only able to do so because Hans von Dohnanyi was his brother-in-law.

In the wide discussions prompted by the publication of Marsh’s book in the States, he is credited with having carried out ‘extensive research’. Perhaps this is true for the chapter on Bonhoeffer’s nine months in America, but only there. The American reviews make only passing reference to the findings of the research. Most of the space in the reviews is given over to Marsh’s argument that Bonhoeffer was gay. The account seems a little strange (p. 299f.).  Bonhoeffer and his friend Eberhard Bethge slept in one room in Marienburger Allee, Bonhoeffer’s parentalhome, and at other times by a camp fire. They had a joint bank account, etc. Bonhoeffer’s parents noticed this, but ‘chose to ignore it’. Marsh describes it in such a way that a real relationship must be assumed. Later on, he says that Bonhoeffer had hoped for more from Bethge than Bethge could or was prepared to give. The most interesting statements in this context are, firstly, that Bonhoeffer ‘died a virgin’, i.e., he was unable to ever express his sexuality. The second comes with the account of his engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer, which again contains mistakes. Marsh writes, ‘Observing his son’s happiness with Eberhard for the previous seven years made it even more difficult to comprehend, that this girl had become the object of his son’s romantic attachment’ (p. 335). One is keen to look up the reference that will back up this statement, but it is not there. It is a case of ‘assumptions about Karl’ being piled upon ‘assumptions about Dietrich’. The account of ‘Wedemeyer’s grandmother’ is totally grotesque. (Marsh refers to Bonhoeffer’s fiancée by surname only and deals with her almost as an irritation). Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, the grandmother, supposedly ‘could not hide her displeasure. Had the flamboyant abbot of Finkenwalde . . . really asked for the hand of her teenage granddaughter in marriage?’ (p. 335) This grandmother, who had long been an enthusiastic follower of Bonhoeffer, had been hoping for an attachment and had done what she could to promote it. The expression ‘flamboyant abbot’ is one example of the many instances of Marsh presenting Bonhoeffer as a ‘dandy’.

Marsh and Metaxas have dragged Bonhoeffer into cultural and political disputes that belong in a U.S. context. The issues did not present themselves in the same way in Germany in Bonhoeffer’s time, and the way they are debated in Germany today differs greatly from that in the States. Metaxas has focused on the fight between right and left in the United States and has made Bonhoeffer into a likeable arch-conservative without theological insights and convictions of his own; Marsh concentrates on the conflict between the Conservatives and the gay rights’ movement. Both approaches are equally misguided and are used to make Bonhoeffer interesting and relevant to American society. Bonhoeffer does not need this and it certainly distorts the facts.

Years ago Charles Marsh described his Bonhoeffer biography project. This reviewer remembers a passage about him wanting to approach the topic in a more ‘writerly’ way than Bethge, using a talent for storytelling for which the Southern States are famous. It is true that his book surpasses that of Bethge in terms of writerly skill, but is has become ‘A Life of Bonhoeffer’ that never existed in this form. A number of mistakes found in Marsh’s book have been referred to above. There are more, but I have deliberately concentrated on those that do most to distort the picture of Bonhoeffer.

As far as the hypothesis that is creating the most discussion in the United States is concerned, we will have to stay with Bethge’s accounts. Bethge writes, ’During a large student conference in snowy New Hampshire 1957/58, i.e., when the first edition of Letters and Papers from Prison did not yet reveal the names of those involved, I was asked if anybody knew who the recipient of the letters was. It was felt that the correspondence must have been between homosexuals. Otherwise such an intensive correspondence was hardly imaginable. No, we were all quite ordinary. We know today that no same-sex friendship is without varying degrees of homoeroticism. What happened with us was, simply, that our friendship deepened early on, because Dietrich shared with me the pain it caused him to end a long-term relationship with a woman. I had come to the bitter end of an engagement myself at the time and confided in him. Towards the end of our friendship we both formed attachments to partners who were both extremely lively. We talked to each other throughout the war years about these developing relationships and the accompanying trouble as men do, before anybody else knew about them. . . . Our love stories were normal and full of all conceivable intensity even though their expression would seem prudish from today’s point of view. However, even then we already had an understanding of the Song of Solomon, which has been in the Bible for 2000 years.  (Christian Gremmels, Wolfgang Huber, ed., Theologie und Freundschaft, 1994, p. 15f.)

Marsh’s argument rests on the assumption that Bethge knew of Bonhoeffer’s secret passion. Marsh does not seem to know that homosexuals in Germany were being sent to concentration camps. The Gestapo would have taken great pleasure in incarcerating a man like Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer would have been under constant strain, if this had been his sexual orientation. Bethge would have sensed something. There was never any suggestion of such tensions when Bethge talked about his time with Bonhoeffer. If even Bethge did not know anything about those homosexual tendencies, then Marsh’s hypothesis is completely unfounded. It does not contribute anything to the theological or political debate about Bonhoeffer in any way.