Lauren and Mikaela--identical twins living on opposite coasts--blog about the story of life and their adventures in faith.

10.04.2011

Standing Fast

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Part Two

It was a muggy summer’s night. On a beautiful estate in Connecticut, the entire family was asleep, save for one guest, whose light still shone brightly through the window and mingled with the thousands of fireflies flitting about outside. Inside, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was journaling and pondering what had brought him to America in the first place.


He had spent the years since his last visit to the United States in a constant battle against the National Socialist Party. In between teaching and discipling his students at the University of Berlin and successfully teaching a rowdy confirmation class of fifty poor hooligans, the small compromises asked for by the Nazis kept getting bigger and bigger. And so he had fought—the boycotting of Jewish businesses, the burning of “un-German” books, the purging of the Old Testament from Christianity (as if!), the rigged church elections placing Nazis in many key church positions, and the Aryan paragraph allowing only Aryans to hold church office.

And when it became clear that there was no saving the German church, he had aided in the birth of a new church, the Confessing Church, emerging like shining gold from a pot of dross. He had spent several years pastoring a church in England and making good use of the microphone the Free World gave him. And after returning to Germay, he had begun an illegal seminary to educate and train men to lead the Confessing Church.


“Real faith and love were identical for [Dietrich Bonhoeffer]. Here was the very heart and core of the existence of this highly intellectual Christian. We felt it in the improvised prayers of the morning and evening devotions; they sprang from the love of the Lord and of his brethren[1].”
Bonhoeffer soon found himself in an impossible situation—he knew that it was only a matter of time before he was drafted into Hitler’s army, but he also knew that there was no way he could fight for Hitler’s cause. To refuse meant execution. While he did not blame anyone who submitted to the draft, Dietrich knew too much about the real situation of things for his conscience to allow him to fight for such evil.


Bonhoeffer with his parents.
So he had ended up here, in America, to do great things ministering with German refugees in the United States. But now, relaxing at a friend’s country house, he was all unease and fretfulness.

“15th June, 1939—This inactivity, or rather activity in unimportant things, is quite intolerable when one thinks of the brethren and of how precious time is. The whole burden of self-reproach because of a wrong decision comes back again and almost overwhelms one. I was in utter despair [today][2].”

Leaving behind the insanity and darkness of Germany for the freedom and ease of America would be an easy choice for most. Life versus certain death were the fates at the end of either path. Dietrich was not concerned, however, with ease, or life, or freedom, but rather with being in the center of God’s will. “His place was by the side of his hard-pressed brethren and disciples in the ministry and with his own family which was increasingly drawn into the battle between Christ and Antichrist[3].” Bonhoeffer arrived back in Berlin only five days before the attack on Poland, which effectively began World War II.

Although Bonhoeffer continued to write and teach, the Gestapo’s harrassment became increasingly more intense, and with that, options were becoming more limited. Soon, however, a new opportunity presented itself; the Abwehr, a German Military Intelligence agency wanted to make use of him. Dietrich would officially be a Nazi agent, and the Nazis would allow him to continue his pastoral work as a “front” for his Nazi work. Unofficially, however, Dietrich was actually spying on the Nazis and working against the Third Reich[4].



Meanwhile, Bonhoeffer had fallen in love. Through the unique older woman, Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, whom he had known as an aristocratic neighbor of his seminary, Dietrich met her granddaugther, Maria von Wedemeyer. Maria was just eighteen, while Dietrich was thirty-six, and so he kept quiet about his attraction through the summer and autumn of 1942. During that time both Maria’s father and brother were killed in the war, and Dietrich comforted the family as a pastor and friend. Somehow, though, Ruth von Kleist-Retzow decided to play matchmaker and let the cat out of the bag. Once rung, the bell could not be unrung, no matter how inappropriate the timing, and by January 17, 1943, Dietrich and Maria were engaged.

“Dear Pastor Bonhoeffer,
I’ve known, ever since arriving home, that I must write to you, and I’ve looked forward to doing so….
“But because I have experienced that you understand me so well, I now have the courage to write you, although I actually have no right at all to reply to a question you have not even asked me. Today I can say Yes to you from my entire, joyful heart….
Yours, Maria”


Maria von Wedemeyer
Their joy was shortlived, however. Maria asked that they wait six months, not communicating with or seeing each other during that time. But on April 6, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Gestapo. The Third Reich smelled a conspiracy, but couldn’t quite implicate Bonhoeffer, especially with his well-connected friends, and so he spent the next year and a half at the Tegel military prison, feigning innocence about the whole thing, writing, reading voraciously, and befriending almost everyone he met.

Everything fell apart July 20, 1944 with the failed Valkyrie plot to assassinate Hitler. A livid Fuhrer rounded up hundreds of spies and their family members—anyone remotely connected to the plot and the Abwher. Bonhoeffer’s involvement was discovered also, and from then on, his days were numbered. On April 9, 1945, Dietrich was hung, only two weeks before US soldiers liberated the camp.

“He had hardly finished his last prayer when the door opened and two evil-looking men in civilian clothes came in and said:
‘Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.’ Those words ‘Come with us’—for all prisoners they had come to mean one thing only—the scaffold.
We bade him good-bye—he drew me aside—‘This is the end,’ he said. ‘For me the beginning of life[5].’”
Bonhoeffer, second from the right, at the Tegel prison.

Dietrich wrote often of death in his prison cell—he called it “the supreme festival on the road to freedom[6],” because, for him, death was “sweet and gentle; it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland, the tabernacle of joy, the everlasting kingdom of peace. How do we know that dying is so dreadful? Who knows whether, in our human fear and anguish we are only shivering and shuddering at the most glorious, heavenly, blessed event in the world[7]?”
Look for a review of the New York Times Bestselling book, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas next week!

  

[1] Zimmerman and Smith, editors. I Knew Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 134. Translated by Kathe G. Smith. New York: Harper and Row, 1966.
[2] The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures and Notes 1935-1939, vol. 2, Collected Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Edwin H. Robertson, translated by Edwin H. Robertson and John Bowden (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 228-229.
[3] Cresswell, Amos and Maxwell Tow, Dr. Franz Hildebrant: Mr. Valiant for Truth (Grand Rapids, Smyth and Helwys, 2000), 223-27.
[4] Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010, 370. 
[5] Best, S. Payne. The Venlo Incident. Watford, Herts: Hutchinson & Co., 1950, page 200.
[6] Robertson, Edwin. The Shame and the Sacrifice: The Life and Martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, (New York: Macmillan, 1988), 370-372.

5 comments:

  1. Wonderfully inspiring man, thanks for sharing him with all your readers.

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  2. I love reading your posts about Bonhoeffer. What an inspiring man.

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  3. Wait - so he didn't get to marry Maria? And why did she cut off communication for six months? That is so sad! That aside, though, he was truly a good man, to willingly leave the safey of the U.S. to help his people. I hope I would be that brave and strong, if/when called upon.

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  4. TC Avey--You're welcome! I'm sure it's nothing new to you, but even I who had just finished Metaxas's book enjoyed reviewing the big picture again.

    Brandy--ah, I'm so glad! These posts have taken me five or six hours apiece to compile accurate documentation and a historical narrative, so I struggled to keep them from being dry. I hope I succeeded!

    Sarah--*sigh* there's so much to the story Lauren made me cut out. ;-) Maria's mother was hesitant about the match, not because she disapproved of Dietrich, but because she knew what dangerous business he was involved with, and she didn't want her daughter to get hurt after already enduring the death of her father and brother. Maria regretted not being able to see or communicate with Dietrich before his arrest for the rest of her life. After he was arrested, though, she and he wrote often, dreaming of their marriage and the time they would one day be able to spend together. She was even able to visit him in prison and see him face to face for the first time since their engagement. It is most definitely a bittersweet story!

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