Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
“On a scale of one to five stars, this book gets six stars. The precise detail throughout lets the reader experience the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not just read about it.”
In his biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory, Charles Marsh must be applauded for the minute detail his research has produced. While this detail through the first half of the book is at times exhausting, its value becomes apparent once the reader arrives at the conflict between Bonhoeffer and the Nazi regime as Hitler comes to power in the early 1930s.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer grew up in an upper-class family environment with seven siblings, including his twin sister, Sabine. His siblings had the distinct benefit of not only experiencing wealth, but of being talented and receiving exceptional educations.
The Bonhoeffer family spent its early years in Breslau, Germany, where Dietrich’s mother and father provided their children with a wide expanse of knowledge in music, philosophy, religion, and environmental issues. When Dietrich was six, his father, Dr. Karl Bonhoeffer, moved the family to Berlin when he was offered the chair of neurology and psychology at Friedrich-Wilhelms University. Although first impressions were negative, the family quickly adapted to their new home.
Dietrich was a competitive child both within the family and in his educational pursuits. He was well aware of the privileges his life provided for him, and although to many he may have appeared egotistical and aloof, he seemed to not be troubled by this. He was outspoken and good at debating a variety of questions—a characteristic that led to trouble in his later years.
Dietrich found comfort in religion and decided early in his life that this was to be his life’s pursuit. His travels to Italy, Spain, America, and England provided a multitude of educational experiences in his religious studies and through these experiences his questions about humanity began to grow. He had a particular appeal to the youth of the various places where he preached, and often saw the attendance at his churches grow as the youth communities developed an affinity for his sermons.
And yet, even as he furthered his religious studies, Bonhoeffer remained the spoiled son of a wealthy family and let his desire for knowledge dictate his travels. His requests for funding for his travels, often with his brother Klaus, were always granted by his parents. The advantage was his ability to expand his understanding of humanity.
During his trip to America, Bonhoeffer spent time studying the effect that religion had on the black American community, and through this study he learned to appreciate the role that religion played in the black community. This was during the Jim Crow era, and all things bad about how one group treated another group rose to the top.
While the historical detail in the first half of the book is interesting, it is in Chapter 8 where the story unfolds with more clarity as to Bonhoeffer’s determination regarding religious attitudes toward diverse groups.
At the conference of the World Alliance for International Friendship Through the Churches in Sofia, Bulgaria, held in September 1933 the plight of minorities around the world was discussed. Attendees gave attention to the matter of universal human rights and developed a resolution specifically condemning the “. . . treatment that people of Jewish ancestry and association have suffered in German.” It is also at this point that the German government in the form of the Foreign Ministry warns, “. . . that further criticism of the German Christians would be treated as high treason” —a shot across the bow to Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was not moved by the government threats and defended the Sofia resolutions. Recognizing the course that Germany was taking in the world, especially with regard to religion, Bonhoeffer moved to London where he took an assignment in the eastern suburbs. Irrespective of the events unfolding in Germany, Bonhoeffer frequently traveled back to Germany and only once was called back to Berlin for his criticisms of the Reich Church.
The church in Germany continued to falter. In November of 1933, the German Christian Faith Movement staged a crusade for the soul of the Aryan nation. The leaders of the event scorned the Old Testament and recommended that the cross be removed from German churches along with the colorful banners of the Christian calendar to be replaced with the Nazi swastika flag. The German religious movement continued a downward spiral, much to the frustration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
It was during this time that Bonhoeffer began his pacifist movement and comments, garnering the first of many zealous Nazis attacking his stand on pacifism. By July 1934, he was offered a directorial position at a seminary in Finkenwalde. Ruing the direction that education in Germany had taken, he accepted the position. The seminary grew without initial interference from the state but by 1936 the first Finkenwaldean, Wilhelm Rott, had been arrested for his association with a non-“assimilated” i.e. non-Nazi, church.
Always under the watchful eye of the growing Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer continued his travels and pacifist agenda. His own observations of events through the 1930s confirmed his fears about Germany’s ecumenical movement. In 1937, the Ministry of the Interior issued an order against praying for or naming any individual who left the Reich Church for reasons of conscience. Soon thereafter, Finkenwalde followers were harassed and/or arrested. Later that same year, Heinrich Himmler issued a decree that outlawed preachers’ seminaries resulting in the arrest of 27 Finkenwalde ordinands and closing the seminary entirely.
Bonhoeffer moved on as an “itinerant preacher” to Sigurdshof, which was the last place where he would teach theology. In 1938, as the Nazi regime moved closer to war, Bonhoeffer came into contact with the German resistance. Church leaders who did not conform to the strict regulations being placed upon them were rounded up and incarcerated, and by 1939 Bonhoeffer was on his way to his second visit to America. His stay was a short six weeks after which he returned to Germany, the resistance, and the end of his life.
By 1940 he was under scrutiny by the Reich Central Security Office and ordered to the police. He was, by this time, serving as a secret agent. And during the first weeks of autumn he had joined those who were planning an overthrow of the Nazi regime. Although he continued with his theological life, the next few years were couched in covert agendas.
As treatment of the Jews took more despicable turns, from wearing the Yellow Star of David to increasing numbers of deportations, Bonhoeffer’s anguish continued to grow. In January of 1942, the Wannsee Conference occurred with the birth of the Jewish extermination plan. Within days of that conference, Deitrich Bonhoeffer met with resistance leaders and the plans to assassinate Hitler were moved forward.
On March 13, 1943, the first plot to kill Hitler failed when a bomb on an airplane failed to detonate. On April 4, 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo—not for any part in that plan, but for various minor acts of subversion and military avoidance. He did remain in jail for the next year until his interrogators gathered more information on his involvement in further events. On April 9, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, along with five others, was executed by hanging.
On a scale of one to five stars, this book gets six stars. The precise detail throughout lets the reader experience the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not just read about it. The life of a man spoiled by riches but also learned and faithful to his beliefs is spread out before us, and we can’t help but mourn the loss and wonder what would have happened had Bonhoeffer survived.