A Humanized Saint

Thank God for Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory. This new biography definitively wrests the legacy of the World War II–era German theologian from the fact-defying clutches of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, the wildly popular 2010 book by evangelical self-promoter extraordinaire Eric Metaxas. As Metaxas’s subtitle suggests, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed in 1945 by the Nazis for his work with the resistance, has lately emerged as an all-purpose hero to the evangelical Right, as it harbors outsize fantasies about its own acute cultural persecution in the age of Obama. Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, offers an erudite and humanizing corrective to this caricature, and not a moment too soon.

It pains me even to mention Metaxas’s book, a work so fundamentally misinformed and distorting that scholars have lined up to denounce it. Metaxas’s pre- and postpublication media blitz included glowing blurbs and reviews by usual hyperconservative suspects like Glenn Beck, Archbishop Charles Chaput (the Vatican’s pit bull in Philadelphia), and Kathryn Jean Lopez (editor of National Review Online). Whatever his shortcomings as a responsible historian, Metaxas clearly doesn’t lack for media savvy, and in conscripting Bonhoeffer’s memory into the right-flank vanguard of the American culture wars, he has segued deftly from his ostensible subject to push his conservative views on everything from “traditional” marriage to manliness.

These are not mere scholarly quibbles. Getting Bonhoeffer’s theology and role in the German resistance wrong has real-world consequences. It distorts, among other things, our understanding of how the Nazi Party rose to power in the 1930s; the fraught negotiation of church-state relations; efforts to regulate the power of propaganda; and how to assess culpability for war and genocide.

In this regard, Strange Glory is a welcome breath of fresh air. Marsh’s book is a definitive study of Bonhoeffer’s life, using newly discovered source materials and fresh translations to return desperately needed context and subtlety to the question of Bonhoeffer’s legacy. Marsh places Bonhoeffer in the tumultuous social and political world of Nazi Germany, where good and evil were not always an obvious binary, and the Reich’s machinations behind virtually every sphere of life often served to conflate survival with complicity. And in navigating this treacherous scene, Marsh provides us with a reading of Bonhoeffer’s theological work that is both innovative and compelling.

The events of Bonhoeffer’s life lend themselves to ideological mythmaking largely because they were so dramatic. One of eight children, and a twin, Bonhoeffer was born to an elite Berlin family. He chose to study theology at age thirteen and completed the two theses required for a doctorate by the age of twenty-one, an extraordinary feat in the German academy at the time. His professors were the last of a bright era of independent scholarship before the academy was stuffed with Reich-appointed sycophants.

Bonhoeffer’s intellectual background is crucial here, since a first-order error of recent Bonhoeffer-related revisionism is to blame the “liberal” Christian church in Germany for the rise of the Nazi regime. In reality, Bonhoeffer’s theological outlook, like virtually everything else about the man, was complicated, and is not readily reduced to a culture-war talking point. Like many Protestant intellectuals, he was intrigued, even moved, by the high rituals of the Catholic Church, but he was theologically consistent in his commitment to community as representative of the body of Christ. Marsh writes that in Act and Being, written in 1929, Bonhoeffer was able to address Kant’s relocation of God from the “starry heavens above to the moral law within” by synthesizing “the two most popular responses to the Kantian tradition”: the “Reformation’s emphatic doctrine of revelation”—i.e., the notion that we can only know God from his words and actions—and “Catholicism’s expansive doctrine of the sacred,” the idea that “the reality of God could be experienced in the social dimension.” The body of Christ—the community—is God made flesh. God, then, is represented in the least among us. To be a Christian means to love His beings, in all their deprivations and varieties. This was no rebuke to secularism or even humanism; it was, rather, a new way of conceiving the church—as an agent of social witness.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (right) and a friend at the Baltic Sea, ca. 1932.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (right) and a friend at the Baltic Sea, ca. 1932.

Bonhoeffer strongly and loudly opposed the Reich’s commandeering of the church, particularly its implementation of the law that Christian Jews could not hold church positions. But even here, the reality is more complicated; as Marsh writes, “One sobering fact bears repeating: his response to the events of April 1933, though forthright and courageous, applied strictly to Jews who had converted to Christianity—and more specifically to Jews baptized in the German Evangelical Church.” While Bonhoeffer was clearly animated by the cruel injustice of Nazi anti-Semitism, his primary concern was for the integrity of the German church, which he saw as drastically corrupted by its allegiance to the state.

In 1933, Bonhoeffer and other dissenting pastors gathered to draft the Bethel Confession, a condemnation of the Reich’s anti-Jewish church laws. The group, initially made up of more than six thousand pastors, formed the Confessing Church—dissenting Protestants whom Nazi leaders would aggressively persecute. In later years, the Confessing Church would be completely transformed by pressures from the Reich: So many of its members were incarcerated or conscripted by the Nazis that it became a shell organization for Nazi sympathizers.

Another anti-Nazi document that circulated widely among European Protestants was the 1934 Barmen Declaration, largely written by Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian whose work Bonhoeffer had studied while in Berlin. On one level, the Barmen Declaration “served the Protestant world as an inspiring example of radical Christian conviction,” Marsh writes; but on another it was “an exercise in subversive indirection.” The declaration uses theology to confront the Nazi usurpation of church power, and never challenges the regime directly. Bonhoeffer signed the Barmen Declaration but agreed that it didn’t go far enough; it omitted the cause of German Jews, and “it was evasive on concrete issues.” Moreover, Bonhoeffer felt that the Barmen document was tainted by the Nazi Party members among the other signatories.

By 1939, under the threat of the draft, Bonhoeffer was recruited by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnányi, to join the Abwehr, the intelligence arm of the German military, which was then anti-Nazi. Bonhoeffer’s tasks were to serve as the resistance’s pastor (“to articulate with authority the moral justification for their goal”) and, as the war began and progressed, to use his international contacts to secure the Allies’ support. In 1941, the Abwehr, with Bonhoeffer’s assistance, was able to successfully smuggle fourteen Jews (eleven of them Christian Jews) out of the country.

Bonhoeffer, through Dohnányi, learned early on about the Nazis’ mass deportations; the horrors of the Reich became all too plain for Berlin residents when sixty thousand Jews were deported from the city in 1941. The theologian and vocal pacifist wrestled with his conscience and the resistance’s subsequent plots to kill Hitler. Bonhoeffer’s efforts to secure Allied support for the resistance, whose members sought to form a new government once Hitler was out of the way, came to naught.

Such efforts were undeniably heroic—but here, as throughout his nuanced account, Marsh insists on seeing Bonhoeffer’s activities against the larger backdrop of wartime geopolitics. “It must be allowed that the prevailing views of Bonhoeffer’s part in the resistance retain a certain gilt of hagiography,” he writes. The Allies had no interest in preserving what was left of Germany. “In January 1941—nearly a year and a half before Bonhoeffer and [Bishop of Chichester George] Bell’s exchange—Churchill had clearly stated England’s intent to greet all inquiries about support of a German coup with ‘absolute silence.’” In view of such studied Allied indifference, it’s hard not to see Bonhoeffer’s promotion of the resistance abroad as a naive and futile risk. “The effort,” writes Marsh, “would represent Bonhoeffer’s most daring mission as a participant in the resistance.”

Bonhoeffer was arrested at his parents’ house on April 4, 1943. He was hanged at Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, only two weeks before the camp was liberated by Allied troops. The location of his remains is still unknown.

Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom has, in a sense, served as but the initial phase of the battle over his legacy and its meaning—which still takes place at a fervid pitch today. Marsh sagely counters all of today’s polemical heat with more historical context. Bonhoeffer’s “clarion eloquence would justly win him many admirers—among not only popular chroniclers but scholars as well,” he notes. “But it has also given rise to ‘a kind of mythology’—one that proposes a more dramatic and central involvement for Bonhoeffer than can be asserted by the evidence.”

What’s so dangerous about modern portrayals of Bonhoeffer as a martyr and saint? To begin with, few of us are cut out to be saints. Marsh reminds us that the great lesson of Bonhoeffer’s life and work—contextualized by the propaganda, social hysteria, and systemic injustices of Nazi Germany—is that he was a real man, assailed with his own uncertainties and strategic miscalculations, yet able to discern the impending horror and to denounce it loudly and clearly. It is this Bonhoeffer, and not the stick-figure culture-war conscript to the evangelical Right, who embodies an example of spiritual witness that we desperately need today.

Ann Neumann is a visiting scholar at the Center for Religion and Media at New York University and contributing editor at Guernica magazine and The Revealer, where she writes the Patient Body column. She is currently at work on a book about a good death.