He has been quoted by leaders and thinkers from across the globe, including President George W. Bush, the late antitheist Christopher Hitchens, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Among Christians, Bonhoeffer’s appeal extends from evangelicals to the liberals, and he is a poster boy at both ends of the religious spectrum for any number of contradictory political and theological positions.
Yet enter into any serious conversation about Bonhoeffer and there is a striking divide between the faithful and the historians, particularly scholars of the Holocaust. Examining Bonhoeffer’s actual record, the historian Kenneth C. Barnes once described his words and actions as “small, tentative, restrained, and ambivalent.” Looking at his theological writings, the Jewish philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emil Fackenheim found no sign that Bonhoeffer had addressed anti-Jewish stereotypes and charged that Bonhoeffer “wholly failed to grasp” the evil that was done to Europe’s Jews.
Tensions between history and hagiography are inevitable. The bones of the familiar Bonhoeffer narrative are correct: he was the promising young theologian, the cosmopolitan student with a deep sense for outrage wherever he encountered injustice, the early critic of the Nazi regime, the pastor actively opposed to the nazification of German Protestantism, the man who carried messages for the German resistance to his contacts abroad.
But popular hagiography has lifted him far beyond that historical record. Hagiography establishes the life story as monument, giving it the meaning we would like it to have. In Bonhoeffer’s case this has happened literally: a sculpture of him stands as one of 10 saints of the 20th century on the west front of Westminster Abbey.
Popular films, novels and nonfiction works portray Bonhoeffer as a brave voice on the front lines, driven by his concern for Germany’s Jews and ultimately giving his life for their sake, a leader in Germany’s Confessing Church and then in the German resistance that sought to overthrow the regime.
And yet. In life Bonhoeffer was a young man, just starting his career when the Nazis came to power, and throughout the 1930s he was finding his way. In the 1980s, I interviewed a number of Germans who had been in the Confessing Church and was struck by the number of people who told me they had never heard of him until after 1945.
As one of the editors of his collected works, I read Bonhoeffer as a good man and a brilliant theologian, a man who questioned the very legitimacy of the Nazi regime in early 1933 precisely because of its persecution of German Jews—but who then wrote and spoke surprisingly little on the issue in the ensuing years. Although his writings call to activism, he seldom took an activist role.
In 1936, he filled out the required political questionnaire and provided an “Aryan certificate” in an attempt to keep his teaching position. He was brought into the resistance only as a ploy to keep him out of Hitler’s army. Once there, he found himself part of a plot that included a wide range of figures, some of them honorable, others men who had fully participated in Nazi misdeeds before ultimately turning against the regime.
In the process he came to understand something we easily forget in our quest for heroes. When it reaches the scale of National Socialism the nature of human evil is like rising water, leaving nothing untouched, no one untainted or unchanged.
The story of Nazi Germany is the story of what historian Klemens von Klemperer, himself a refugee from Nazism, once described as a “consensual dictatorship,” one in which the vast majority of Germans became complicit in the Nazi system. Even those who turned against it were unable to keep their hands completely clean.
Bonhoeffer saw what had happened to his country, and he wrote about the poignancy of trying to do good when there are no good options. In Bonhoeffer’s own life there is an ongoing and striking tension between silence and speaking, between compromise and protest, between the moments when he acted and those in which he did not.
We cannot understand his wartime and prison writings if we see only the heroic Bonhoeffer. “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…are we still of any use?” he wrote fellow conspirators in December 1942. With regard to the profound failures of his church under Nazism, he charged that it had fought “only for its own self-preservation,” thereby losing the very capacity to bring “reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world.”
Toward the end of his life Bonhoeffer was surveying the wreckage and trying to determine what the future might look like. He retained a remarkable and profound faith, but it was the faith of someone who had gone through his times with his eyes wide open, and who realized that in a post-Holocaust world, faith itself would never be the same.
If we can understand Bonhoeffer outside the box—not as saint, not as mythological hero, but as someone who reflected poignantly on evil’s consequences for the human conscience and spirit, for an entire culture and country, we may begin to uncover the person behind the mythology: a man who tried to face the darkness of his times. In the process, we may discover someone who can speak more directly to the darknesses and failures of our own.
Victoria J. Barnett is one of the general editors of the 17-volume “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works” (English Edition) and director of Programs on Ethics, Religion and the Holocaust at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The museum has more information on Bonhoeffer’s life and legacy.
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