As the German church became increasingly Nazified during Adolph Hitler’s rise to power, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of the nation’s most conspicuous dissidents, warning in a 1933 radio broadcast that “everyone who misappropriates the eternal law and concedes responsibility to a Superman will in the end be destroyed by him.”
Not long afterwards, the 27-year-old pastor would begin speaking of Hitler as the biblical Antichrist.
“I found (writing a book about Bonhoeffer) so interesting because I’ve always been interested in this question of why some people are able to see more clearly and more precisely the signs of the emerging evil structure in regimes and political movements,” Charles Marsh, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, told tothesource.
For example, Bonhoeffer was almost alone in seeing immediately, when Hitler was appointed chancellor in the spring of 1933, the devastating impact the Nuremberg laws would have on Jewish people and those in the churches of Jewish descent. Bonhoeffer denounced the race statutes as heresy and insisted on the church’s moral obligation to defend victims of state violence, regardless of race or religion.
“If you were a Jewish-Christian, for example, you were subject to the same state-imposed oppressions that a practicing Jew faced,” says Marsh, who spent eight years working on Strange Glory, beginning in 2007 while serving as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Visiting Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin. “Bonhoeffer saw this so clearly, so early, as the emergence of a catastrophic evil in spite of the churches’ appalling embrace of Nazi ideals. He saw it as a heretical movement, an idolatrous movement. So I’ve been interested over the years in why certain people, certain Christians, are able to see through all the propaganda, hysteria and theatrical expressions of national piety into the real heart of the matter.”
In his new book – largely based on the 2006 release of 25 cases of lectures, letters, books, photographs, notebooks and journals from the estate of Bonhoeffer’s biographer and dearest friend Eberhard Bethge – Marsh brings to life the struggles, triumphs and tragedy of the German pastor, dissident and conspirator in the resistance against Hitler and the Nazi party.
Hailed by Christianity Today as a “painstaking portrait of a faithful disciple” that will help readers “grapple with the eccentric Bonhoeffer of history,” Strange Glory explores the life and legacy of one of the most widely read Protestant thinkers of the twentieth century – the author of The Cost of Discipleship and Life Togetherand a “brilliant thinker, a martyr and this kind of Protestant saint” who has become a great hero of the faith to millions of Christians of all denominations worldwide.
“A marvelous biography, a page-turner, beautifully written,” wrote Carlos Eire, the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. “Strange Glory not only makes Dietrich Bonhoeffer come alive, but also offers us an intimate and very perceptive look into his mind and spirit. Charles Marsh confronts the complexities of Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the Third Reich with an unsentimental eye, allowing us to see why this martyred pastor and theologian has so much to offer to our increasingly godless world.”
The “golden child of the Berlin elite” and the scion of an affluent family that rarely went to church, Bonhoeffer was born on Feb. 4, 1906 in Breslau, Germany. At the age of 6, Bonhoeffer’s father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer, was offered the chair of neurology and psychology at Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Berlin, a prestigious post overseeing the clinic for nervous and psychiatric disorders. In the evenings, Dr. Bonhoeffer would gather his family in the library and read aloud the stories, poems and letters of his favorite writers, Friedrich von Schiller, Theodor Fontane, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hermann Hesse and others. Bonhoeffer’s mother homeschooled all her children until it was time for high school.
“She liked to say that the German government broke the will of its young in two ways, by forcing all young men into military service and through public schools,” Marsh says. “So there was in his upbringing a kind of instinctive distrust of presumed authority figures. He just simply distrusted people or institutions that claimed to have absolute power.”
At age 13, Bonhoeffer decided he wanted to become a theologian. By 21, the rather snobbish and awkward young man had already written a dissertation hailed as a “theological miracle.” In 1930, Bonhoeffer’s search for an authentic and orthodox Christianity – one unlike the dilutions of liberal Protestantism that would leave the German church helpless against the onslaught of Nazism – led him to America where for 10 months he enjoyed the company of social reformers, Harlem churchmen and public intellectuals. At one point, he did a brief correspondence with Mahatma Gandhi.
“He had broken away from what might be called the Protestant liberal theology of his particular time that so much shaped his university’s educational system and the churches,” Marsh says. “He felt very strongly that the great discoveries of the Protestant Reformation, of Martin Luther in particular, needed to be revived in the present time, and Luther, of course, believed that a holy, righteous God stood in judgment and in grace over all worldly powers and over all people and institutions.
“And so there was this horrible, horrible response by the Lutheran churches to venerate Hitler as the voice of God, to accept Hitler as sort of God’s gift to the German people, as most of the churches soon believed after 1933. Bonhoeffer thought this was nothing but idolatry and so I think his deep Christ-centered convictions gave him a kind of theological resource, if you will, to see that the emerging regime, the Hitler regime, was not just a political travesty, but it was an assault on the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and I think these qualities enabled Bonhoeffer to see clearly and to speak with such power and conviction – saying in response to the Nuremberg laws that it was the church’s obligation … to not only ‘bandage the victims under the wheel of the bus, but to break and crack and destroy the wheel itself.’ ”
Following the days of the Nazi rise to power in 1933, Bonhoeffer became a leading spokesman of the Confessing Church, the center of Protestant resistance to the Nazi regime. At the time, Bonhoeffer recognized that a “terrible barbarization of our culture” had begun. “The nation was reeling under the spell of hysterical longings, magical incantations, warrior fanaticism, and ‘all manner of public exorcism,’ ” Marsh wrote.
Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the resistance became increasingly political after 1938 when his brother-in-law introduced him to the group seeking the overthrow of Hitler. During this time, he carried on subverting the Nazi regime and bearing Christian witness, whether in the pastorate he assumed in London, the Pomeranian monastery he established to train dissenting ministers or in the worldwide ecumenical movement.
“They wanted to destroy the Hitler regime,” Marsh says. “They wanted to plot a coup d’ etat. They wanted to kill the madman and replace the Nazi government with a non-Nazi regime.”
By 1940, Bonhoeffer had become a double agent employed by a section of Germany military intelligence called the Abwehr.
“Bonhoeffer’s role in the conspiracy has been very difficult to ascertain, but what we know is that Bonhoeffer was able to get a position in this Germany police agency called Abwehr that enabled him to travel outside of Germany,” Marsh says. “Of course, the Nazis thought he was traveling and gathering information that would help the Nazi government understand more about what the Allies were planning. ”
During these trips abroad, Bonhoeffer met with many of his ecumenical contacts and told them about the plans underway to destroy the Nazi government and replace it with a non-Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer had hoped to convince the Allies that a German coup and assassination plot was a legitimate way to overthrow the Nazi regime, Marsh says.
In the ensuing years, by one count, more than 100 assassination plots were hatched against Hitler. However, Bonhoeffer was not involved in the “nuts and bolts of these like building explosives or carrying the bomb into a room or planning to assassinate Hitler with a gun,” Marsh says.
“He was a pastor,” Marsh says. “He prayed with the conspirators. He conferred blessings on their plans. He used his contacts in the international churches to lobby their support, but nonetheless a question that is often asked is how did this pastor we knew from 1932 who called himself a pacifist, how did he by 1939 or 1940, reach the conclusion that it was a responsible course of action to assassinate Hitler?
“Bonhoeffer had reached through a difficult period of soul searching and prayer and studying the Bible that his commitment to principled pacifism must yield to an ethic of responsibility for the sake of the coming generation and this meant the removal of the Hitler regime by any means.”
Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the resistance lasted until March 1943 when Fabian von Schlabrendorff smuggled a time bomb onto an aircraft scheduled to carry Hitler back to Germany from the Army Central Headquarters in Smolensk, but the detonator failed and the plot was discovered. On April 4, the Gestapo arrived at the 37-year-old Bonhoeffer’s home and he was taken into custody and charged with offenses relating to his United Kingdom classification, avoidance of military service and various minor acts of subversion. Following the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944 – depicted in the 2008 film Valkyriestarring Tom Cruise – documents were discovered linking Bonhoeffer with the conspiracy.
“Bonhoeffer was already in prison when that Valkyrie plot happened, but he knew about it in advance,” Marsh says. “This is the famous plot to detonate a suitcase bomb in Hitler’s secret headquarters east of Berlin. The bomb detonated and several men were killed, but Hitler escaped with only minor injuries. All the participants in the assassination attempt were quickly located. They were brought to court and within weeks several thousand of German’s best and most courageous and noble men were murdered or assassinated.”
In the wake of the bombing, the Gestapo found Bonhoeffer’s name in a file containing a list of men associated directly with the conspiracy. On April 9, 1945, during a “mass killing frenzy” ordered by Hitler, Bonhoeffer was executed at the Flossenburg concentration camp, two-and-a-half weeks before the Allies liberated the camp.
“After he was hanged, he was thrown into a mass pile,” Marsh says. “It could have been as many as 1,600 bodies because they could no longer use the crematorium to burn the bodies and instead they piled all the bodies into this large ravine and tried to set them on fire. It was just beyond evil. I was able to read a report that two American clergyman wrote. It turns out that a rabbi and a Presbyterian minister who were military chaplains both were part of the team that liberated the concentration camp and their report sounds like a report written from hell.”
In writing the book, Marsh says he was struck by a line in The Cost of Discipleship in which Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Jesus called a person to follow him, he calls that person to come and die.”
“He had his way of talking about costly grace,” Marsh says. “He used that phrase ‘costly grace’ in opposition to what he called ‘cheap grace.’ In 1935, he looked around at his fellow church members and he saw in them a culture of cheap grace. I think we can similarly say that in the American Christianity of 2014 there are far too many proponents of cheap grace.
“Cheap grace means that I believe as a Christian that I can follow Jesus, but I also have all the other things I want too. I can follow Jesus but I can hold onto all my little favorite prejudices and tastes and preferences. I can follow Jesus without wholehearted, single-minded devotion. Cheap grace means I can follow Jesus, but I can follow Jesus according to my own comfort level. I can follow Jesus as long as I feel safe and secure, prosperous and happy, and when I feel that I’m being led into difficult and threatening new areas of the Christian faith, I can just hold onto my own little security blanket.”