Can you be a saint and at the same time advocate the assassination of a political leader? Depends on how you want to define sainthood, obviously. I ask the question because I’ve just finished a project digging into the background of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Gestapo only three weeks prior to the end of the Second World War, for participating in an attempt to remove Adolph Hitler, stop the war, and seek to negotiate terms for a new Germany. It didn’t work. Hitler survived the attempt, and everybody involved in the coup, Bonhoeffer included, was executed, in some cases by being hanged by piano wire.
Hitler stands out as most people’s idea of the worst guy in the world. Certainly among the leading contenders. Estimates for deaths at the time go as high as 85 million, or 3% of the human population. Seems to me that to argue there is something morally wrong about taking this guy out requires an absurdly absolutist definition of morality. I’m against the death penalty on moral grounds. I have no trouble making an exception for Adolph Hitler.
I didn’t get into this quest to know more about Bonhoeffer out of moral grounds, though. I wanted to know if he was gay. Go ahead and laugh. I won’t pretend it’s a noble pursuit answering this question.
And – let’s get this out of the way - I admire the man so much I don’t feel entitled to call him Dietrich, but since I’m talking about the person Dietrich Bonhoeffer and not the historical figure, I don’t want to use just his last name, either. Let me use DB. I don’t think he would have minded.
One of my many life projects is contributing to the uncovering of the hidden history of gay people and their contribution to politics, to history and literature, and to life. I wanted to know if DB was another cog in that giant wheel of hidden gay history. To that end, I read two biographies and perhaps a dozen shorter pieces on the life of DB and went off on a number of tangents, reading a biography of Martin Niemöller as well as bits and pieces on other theologians and historical figures from the Weimar period into the Hitler years. Something we had to do in graduate school before anything we wrote could be taken seriously was write a “survey of the literature” – to provide a context before launching into the study of a given topic. I had forgotten how much I got out of the task, the sense of mastery and authority that would come of such efforts. So I enjoyed shutting out the world, putting on some good music and pretending Donald Trump had never been born. And seeing how much I could learn about what made DB tick before I hit the point where more searching became redundant.
Two things kept the fires burning. One was the fact that DB grew up in Charlottenburg, in Berlin, just a short walk from places that I associate with my own history, some of which goes back to the 60s. Friends who lived in Dahlem were actually members of Martin Niemöller’s church, a short walk (or two subway stops) from their house. Thanks to Google maps, you can literally have a look at the houses and the churches and walk through the streets from one familiar location to another. The other was how much information poured out about the history of the German Lutheran Church, another of the institutions I left behind decades ago but still enjoy filling in missing pieces of, in my knowledge and understanding.
I had developed a rage at organized religion over the years as the wellspring of homophobia which plagued my growing up and for many years into adulthood until I was able to recognize what a pack of cards these folks were and move on. I am no longer “plagued” by those who use religion to justify their inability to handle human diversity, but, as a shrink once said to me, “You’ve smashed the statues, but not the molds they came in.”
I had images in mind of German bishops, both Catholic and Protestant, giving the Hitler salute and draping their altars with the swastika. I knew about the Reichskoncordat the Catholics signed with Hitler, which gave him a free hand and an oath of loyalty in exchange for the right to run their own affairs, their schools, and their clerical institutions. And I knew that the German Evangelical Church – evangelical means “protestant” in the German context – went much further than the Catholics – to celebrate Hitler and his worship of German identity. Hopeless, I thought, this whoring after approval by organized religion, this modern-day golden calf they had bowed down to. I hated the German Lutheran Church.
Chasing after this maybe-gay man’s history, I came to know what I should have learned years ago, that the German Lutheran Church was never a monolith, that maybe a third of them went gung-ho for Hitler, but another third of them (actually more in the vicinity of 20%) – the portion which DB helped organize – actively opposed Nazi thought from the beginning. When the order came down soon after Hitler took power to exclude Jews from German life, DB followed Karl Barth, Martin Niemoeller and others in establishing the fact the “The Confessing Church” was the ongoing church and not the newly constituted state (reichs-) church with a Hitler stooge in charge. It would stick with their worship of Christ, thank you very much, and would not allow Hitler to sneak in to share the glory. No flags in the church. No swastikas. And mostly no acceptance of the “Aryan Paragraph” in which Jewish converts to Christianity were to be excommunicated – not for any alleged sins, but for their Jewish identity. And none of this euthanasia business for the weak and frail. And we’re not going to eliminate the Old Testament, either, on the grounds it’s too Jewish. “DB and them” as the old folks of my youth might have put it, were on the right side of history. The third group, the remaining number, simply refused to take a stand and sat and waited, as most people are inclined to do in difficult situations, to see who would come out on top.
Most of the Lutherans, in other words, did not shine brightly as Christian people. But what else is new? Look at American evangelicals today. About as Christian as a lump of coal. More accurately described as a political action group to oppose abortion and gay marriage. Folks who tend to view the poor as beggars with their hands out. And immigrants as invaders of America’s sacred borders.
But I digress.
Reading about the life of DB is simultaneously reading about a certain class of German well-borns. His mother came from Prussian nobility with a highly developed sense of noblesse oblige which DB took on. His father was a noted academic, head of psychiatry at Berlin’s university, and the family was the very essence of privilege. DB put his status to good use, became a proficient pianist and composer, and in short order moved among the intelligentsia as an accomplished theologian. When the Confessing Church took hold, it was DB who was selected to organize a seminary to train its next generation of preachers. And in doing so, DB developed his own theology, which involved coming to terms with a world gone to hell and a tyrant evil enough to invite people of good will to justify assassination.
The theology was the hardest part for me about reading these biographical works. One book, the one put together by “friend” Eberhard Bethge, was 933 pages long, much of it a dense thicket of theological jargon that had me pulling my hair out. Or would have, if I had not learned to shift into neutral until those passages passed. Or had more hair. I’ve always seen theology as the bastard child of philosophy. I understand philosophy to be the exploration of ideas about what is truth and how we know what we know (epistemology), what is beauty (esthetics) and what is right (ethics), all noble activities. Theology I’ve seen as the exploration of the concept of a divinity and all that is derived from that. And I don’t understand why people would want to wonder whether Santa Claus’s red outfit is tailor-made or prêt-à-porter when I have trouble with the idea of Santa Claus to begin with. Or what shade of red. Or whether it’s even red in the first place.
I did, kind of, get caught up after a time in some of DB’s theological ideas. One of the reasons why I left the church, besides the one just stated of not being convinced one should proceed on the basis of made-up ideas attributed to an unseeing being, was the gulf I saw between Christianity as I understood it from reading my Protestant Bible, as Luther told me to do, and what went on in the community of its followers. Since I couldn’t come up with personal reasons for making Jesus my buddy, I decided I’d take my cue from the adults in the room who acted as if they had the answers. Until I realized they had compartmentalized religion as something to talk about on Sundays quite separate from making a buck. I had no trouble accepting the idea that we were all sinners – it’s a convenient catch-all for all the jealousy and greed and deceit you see all around you. But I just got tired, eventually, of being preached at about sin and salvation by people who use religion as a political tool or a tool for self-advancement of some kind, and as a means of separating “us” from “them.”
While most of the theological discourse in the books by Charles Marsh (Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and Eberhard Bethge (Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography) went right over my head, I became intrigued by such notions as "cheap grace." I concluded from Luther's catechism that the Calvinists and the Catholics were wrong. You didn't earn God's grace by being a good boy. It was given no strings attached. It came with Christ's self-sacrifice. All you need to do is recognize it. I read DB's concept of "cheap grace" to mean that I didn't have it quite right. Grace doesn't come cheap. You have to engage in the world. Oh well, back to the drawing board. All purely academic to me now, in any case.
A second DB notion is this curiosity called “religionless Christianity.” I have no idea how far off the mark I may be when it comes to what is probably a complex theological notion – probably I'm botching this worse than I'm botching cheap grace, but I understand DB to be saying that the church has made religion irrelevant by separating it from our daily experience, but it doesn’t really matter, since what is called for by the Christian message of the Gospels (and particularly by the words attributed to Christ in the Sermon on the Mount) is an active engagement with the here-and-now. Stop dreaming about life after death, I hear him saying, and find Jesus in the world all around you. In believers, in non-believers, in the places where the rubber meets the road and you’ll know what it means to be alive.
I still don’t feel the need for an invisible friend, but I have a lot of respect for earnest folk yearning to find something transcendental to hang onto. If there’s anything I can do to help these people take back the conversation about this thing called religion (even if DB finds it increasingly irrelevant), just let me know how I might be helpful.
I was hoping that in my retirement I’d be spending much more time in Germany than I have been. It’s my third home (having been bumped down to third place by second place Japan after 24 years of life there) and I can’t get enough of it. But the big three limitations – money, physical stamina, and my inability to leave my dogs behind – have slowed me down. In reading the life of DB I got a good dose of that country I once intended to emigrate to and live happily ever after in. DB is so very German. The things I like about Germany, the sense of the importance of doing the right thing, the stick-to-it-iveness, the appreciation of the life of the mind, are all very much alive in Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
If you’re into streaming, you’ll want to see Babylon Berlin for a really good feel for the decadent side of life in the Weimar Republic, when DB was getting established. Or Cabaret. DB came of age just as the Weimar Republic was giving way to the Hitler period. I can see why people want to call him a saint. His was a life of tragedy, ultimately, and he never lived to see his thirtieth birthday. He began as a somewhat spoiled rich kid who took his faith in Christ seriously, even to the point of self-sacrifice. He had the opportunity to escape prison but didn't take it because he didn’t want to do anything that might put the lives of his family at risk, many of whom also perished in retaliation for having dared to oppose the Führer. That wasn't the first time he thought of others first. Some years before, he had gone to America, where he might have stayed and ridden out the horrors of the war. But he believed he needed to go back and share the fate of his countrymen. When you see the trajectory he was on – I am reminded of Malcolm X, who was shot down just as he was at the point of pulling together the life lessons learned the hard way – you wonder what he might have accomplished had he lived a normal lifespan. His contemporary, Martin Niemoeller, outlived his time in the concentration camps, and was rescued by the Americans. And how did he say thank you? He gave them hell over their war in Vietnam, and went about his ecumenical work founding the World Council of Churches. DB, one suspects, would have done no less. Both understood cheap grace to mean something like going with the flow. To be a Christian, they thought, meant making the conclusions of your conscience public.
Such a good time, these past several months of obsessive reading. So much fun chasing down all these side alleys – like pursuing the story of the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life for which DB lost his. There’s a surprisingly well-done film called Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, whose failed assassination attempt will challenge students of ethics for some time to come. Can one support the principle that life is sacred and still carry out a plan to blow Hitler and many around him to smithereens?
You may know Judgment at Nuremberg, probably my favorite film of all time, in which Marlene Dietrich plays the wife of a German general who tries to persuade the U.S presiding judge that there is something noble about a German soldier carrying out his duty to his country. The American judge (Spencer Tracy) is having none of it, and I’ve always felt that episode in the film paid too little attention to the moral dilemma in question. Martin Luther preached a soldier had a moral duty to follow the orders of a secular authority. The “German” value – if that’s what it is – didn’t originate with Hitler; it originated with Luther. DB had to develop a new morality not only to justify taking a life, but to justify this betrayal of his (German?) Lutheran tradition. Is this a struggle between individual morality and collective morality? Or does it come down to victor’s justice, the right of a victor in a war to determine whose moral code will prevail? Where is the line between legitimate and illegitimate authority, and who gets to call it?
The great moral scene in Judgment at Nuremberg is the exchange between Spencer Tracy as the judge and Burt Lancaster as the lead defendant, Ernst Janning. Janning says to the judge, “I never meant things to go this far, and the judge responds, “They went too far the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.” So much for the argument that there was a higher obligation to obey the duly constituted civil authority – Hitler, in this case. The example illustrates the need to challenge how laws are made. Does one accept any and every authority, including that of an individual who writes laws to suit him personally instead of allowing a legislature representing the consent of the governed to make the laws? What is meant by the “rule of law” as opposed to the “rule of man.”
One of the many tangents I went off on these last three months involved reflecting on the two uses of the word nobility. The first refers to so-called blue bloods who inherit their upper-class status from a distant ancestor who was "made a nobleman" by the king for services rendered. The second indicates the noble character one is expected to display in response to the honor of being a member of that class - a heightened sense of duty and honor, self-sacrifice, bravery, and so forth.
That's what the Marlene Dietrich character was getting at when she was trying to get the American judge in Judgment at Nuremberg to feel some sympathy for the German officers now on trial. Their nobility, she was trying to say, was in their willingness to put a duty to the Führer ahead of their duty to themselves because, mistaken though they might have been, they were caught up in the idea of the hour that the Führer was Germany. Claus von Stauffenberg, the man who attempted the assassination of Hitler and failed, also a member of this same Prussian nobility, displayed the same sense of duty except that he was convinced Hitler was not his country at all, but its greatest threat. Unfortunately, the same noble class of folk that put the man in manly, also brought you the ridiculous clown that was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who pranced around all day in military drag, changing his uniform sometimes five times a day when he wasn't doing his best to lose the First World War. And helping prime an entire generation of Germans for the notion that duty implies unquestioning obedience.
Another tangent involved tracking down the judge who sentenced DB to death. His name was Otto Thorbeck. He was chief judge of the SS. Thorbeck was one of countless Nazis who escaped justice at war’s end and ended up working in Nuremberg as an attorney. In 1955, however, things caught up with him and he was convicted of murder and sentenced to (no joke) four years of imprisonment. The following year the Federal Court of Justice of Germany exonerated him. The reason? At the time he put DB and six other conspirators to death, the killings were legal, because the Nazi regime had the right to execute traitors. In 1955, ten years after the end of the war! The Federal Court was following the reasoning that he had only followed orders. (Clearly they had not seen the movie Judgment at Nuremberg.) Good news is that by the time 1996 rolled around a Berlin State Court was able to rescind that judgment. Unfortunately by that time Thorbeck had been dead for twenty years.
And was Dietrich Bonhoeffer gay?
There are two answers to that question. You choose the one you like best:
1. What a silly question. Who cares? Don’t waste my time.
2. No. The use of “gay” suggests a modern-day political consciousness. DB never expressed such a thing in any of his writing and if he felt guilty about his feelings for his friend Eberhard, which were, pretty evidently, homophilic, and possibly homoerotic, he never spoke about that, either. He lived in the dark ages, when it comes to gay liberation. Back when being gay was so disparaged that many people, possibly including DB himself, couldn’t even come out to themselves, much less anybody else. Homophilic, by the way was a term which later got replaced by homosexual, and the two words meant the same thing, historically. I find it useful to distinguish them and use the former to mean non-erotic (sometimes referred to as “platonic”) same-sex love down to but not including any physical sexual interaction. When asked in 1958 about their relationship, Eberhard Bethge had this to say: “We know today that no same-sex friendship is without varying degrees of homoeroticism.”
Happy Pearl Harbor Day.