Bonhoeffer Read-Along Part 1: Chapters 1-18

February 4 has come and gone without fanfare, without even being noticed by me, the one hosting a read-along of a bio on Bonhoeffer. That day two weeks ago would have been Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s 107th birthday (1906-1945). I’m feeling a sense of loss for missing it.bonhoefer book cover

A sense of sadness too which comes from knowing a young and brilliant life so purposeful even from the start was cut short violently. It also comes from empathy with the parents Karl and Paula, who had to experience the death of three of their four sons and two sons-in-law during war time. Back in 1918, their second son Walter died in action in WWI. And during WWII, their third son Klaus, youngest Dietrich, and two sons-in-law were executed by the Nazis for their role in the German resistance against Hitler. Sad especially that they only learned of Dietrich’s death through a radio broadcast of his memorial service from England. He was only 39.

My impression from the outset is, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s was a life of purpose, even from an early age. It was made possible largely by a nurturing and vibrant family, and a lively brood of four boys and four girls. Father Karl Bonhoeffer, a prominent psychiatrist and university professor, instilled intellectual rigor; mother Paula imparted faith and fervor. The young lives benefitted from the cultural and musical home environs, but more importantly, the indomitable sense of social justice.

The Bonhoeffer children
The eight Bonhoeffer children with their governess at a holiday home (ca. 1910). Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer in the background. Dietrich to the right of the governess.

Dietrich knew he wanted to study theology when he was only thirteen. He graduated summa cum laude from the University of Berlin, obtaining his doctorate when he was only twenty-one. What brilliant mind and potential! And with that mind he saw through the trickery and schemes of an emerging demigod in Hitler. This is probably my favorite quotes from him. You can see his driven sense of direction:

If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.

This has been my query all the time, and Eric Metaxas’s accounts have partially answered it. How could Hitler have gained such power without being challenged? It can’t be all due to fear, that came later. Hitler was democratically elected by the people as chancellor in 1933. The Führer Principle was readily embraced by most. So nationalism played a large part. Then came racism, with the establishment of new laws barring Jews, many of them in prominent positions too from the legal, academic, and medical fields, and then the engulfment of the German Church by the Third Reich. It’s utterly mind boggling. Why was it that the Bonheoffer family was only one of a dearth of lucid observers during this dark chapter in German history?

Nothing is beyond the Nazis reach. The ‘purging’ of the literary and scientific realms resulted in the casting out of thoughts and works by anyone not of the Aryan race, including Helen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and the poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote these prophetic words in 1821 in his play Almansor:

Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people too.

Metaxas’s book is informative and detailed, especially on Bonhoeffer’s effort to take back the German Church from the Nazis by establishing The Confessing Church with Karl Barth. Metaxas has also painted a very human portrait, a purposeful young man, bold, principled, passionate, and full of life. I move along eagerly, albeit sometimes confused by the numerous names and historical accounts. I want to find out what actually happened in the end, although not so sure how I can bear to read about Dietrich’s ultimate demise.

What are your thoughts so far? Throw your two pebbles into the pond. I’ll be glad to link your post here. Do go and visit:

Alison of Chino House

Ellen The Happy Wonderer

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To read my wrap-up post on Chapters 19 – 31, CLICK HERE.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Bonhoeffer Read-Along Part 1: Chapters 1-18”

    1. Thanks Alison, I’m just reading your excellent review. Will have to get back there and comment. Will link your post here. Thanks for accompanying me on this rewarding journey.

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  1. Thanks for introducing me to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I was only vaguely aware of him, even though I have read a great deal about that period of history. Bonhoeffer is an amazing, courageous and inspiring person, and I’m glad you are highlighting him. I’ve ordered the book about him.

    Two good nonfiction books about the Nazi era I’ve read recently are “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson and “Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal” by Ben Macintyre.

    A book I read in graduate school, which I still own and should re-read, is
    “The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience Of A Single German Town, 1922-1945,” by William Sheridan Allen.

    A fiction book I read a long time ago is “The Black Obelisk,” written in 1956 by the German author Erich Maria Remarque. It’s about Germany in the early 1920s, a period marked by hyperinflation and rising nationalism.

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    1. Cathy,

      Thanks for the book suggestions. I’ll keep these in mind. Just like Downton Abbey had sparked my interest in reading about WWI, reading Bonhoeffer’s bio leads me to other WWII reading… esp. those focused on the Holocaust. Right now it’s Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française. I’ve just learned that the book is being adapted into film with Kristin Scott Thomas and Michelle Williams. All the more reasons for reading it first before the film comes out.

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      1. What was so fascinating and also heart-breaking to me about “Suite Francaise” was that it was written in real time as those events were unfolding and without hindsight and the knowledge of how the events would eventually unfold. So much heart-breaking about Irène Némirovsky’s story. Also, I think, if I remember correctly, that the manuscript was almost lost. I look forward to seeing the movie, which I hadn’t heard about, as well as reading the Bonhoeffer book.

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  2. I read this book last year, and it remains one of the most powerful books of several decades for me. Bonhoeffer’s unwavering courage and truth are powerful examples both for the Christian and the nonbeliever. Reading of the way that he studied and meditated on the Bible is absolutely inspiring, and I almost felt he had a direct call on the phone with God because he was so astute in his observations.

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    1. Bellezza,

      Yes, I remember you’d read it last year. It certainly is a powerful book. I look forward to the latter half of it. Bonhoeffer is certainly an exemplary figure for us to reflect upon. Thanks for stopping by the pond and sharing your thoughts.

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  3. Well, unfortunately I haven’t joined your readalong but I know I will read this one in due course. I’ve always admired this man and known little about him. Your observations about the period and your notes on this book certainly are astute and reinforce my desire to seek it out.

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    1. Thanks Jeanie. You know, it’s not too late to join in. We still have a month to go before the next and last post on this book, that’s March 15. You’re most welcome to read along, and post your thoughts however much you’ve managed to finish. I’m thinking about your Anne Frank house visit… this is just too real.

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  4. I have really enjoyed reading about Bonhoeffer. It is a very detailed biography, but the details have brought out not only the personality of Bonhoeffer, but the horrifying aspects of that period of history. My mother was from England so I heard a lot about WW II from the allied side of the war. It is very illuminating to read and visualize the events that led up to the war and understand how such an evil man was able to come to power. I am sure i will have more insights to share as I continue to read the book.

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    1. Edwina,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad to know you’re reading along as well. Are you a blogger? If you have written a post on it, I’ll be glad to link you here. Just let me know. And yes, Bonhoeffer is such an inspiring figure. Hope you’ll come back and share with us after you’ve finished the book. Our next post on the last half of the book will be on March 15.

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  5. Me and read-alongs just seem impossible. But now I have a few chapters finished, and hope to catch up by March 15.

    One thing that’s slowed me down is some cross-reading. I’d read several reviews of Metaxis’ book that mentioned errors of fact, and some shaping of Bonhoeffer’s views by Metaxis to make them more representative of today’s evangelicals than of the Confessing Church. So, I ordered Eberhard Bethge’s biography, generally acknowledged to be the authoritative volume. When it arrived, the danged thing weighed five pounds and is three inches thick! But it’s been a good tool for getting some additional background information and will do well for fact-checking.

    One of the most intriguing statements I’ve heard popped up around Martin Luther King day. MLK once said, “if your opponent has a conscience, then follow Gandhi. But if you enemy has no conscience, like Hitler, then follow Bonhoeffer.” Today, whether reading Bonhoeffer himself or reading about him, the question constantly in my mind is, “Will I have the courage to stand?”

    I’ve been growing increasinly cranky of late because I see far too many conscienceless people in our government, and far too many people willing to bury their heads in the sand in our society. I see the willing compliance of the press in this country – their transformation into government lapdogs. I watched a drone fly over me at work in late January, on the same day that the US military and local law enforcement were carrying out a live-fire “urban warfare” drill in South Houston that was not announced beforehand, and which terrified people in the neighborhood. I read reports about Google providing the government information about their users even without warrants, and I read about the stockpiling of unbelievable amounts of ammunition by our government.

    As I said, all this makes me cranky. And it makes me glad I’m reading Bonhoeffer. I think a lot of us are going to need his courage before this is over. We’ve always assumed another Hitler was impossible. Now, I’m not so sure.

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    1. Linda,

      I’ve heard of critiques about Metaxis’s book. I know too that there are those who avoid this book based on these critiques. My stance is: I should read the book first-hand before delving into the reviews or critiques. This can be said of not just this book, but come to think of it, my position regarding movies as well. 😉

      You know, this is the first bio I’ve ever read on Bonhoeffer, so I’ve no way to note inaccuracies. But you’re brave enough to go into the definitive version by Bethge’s and that’s good. I await your insights after you’ve compared the two. As for me, I’m trying to at least finish this one so I can at least grasp one biographer’s point of view.

      As for the ‘evangelical slant’, that too, I feel I haven’t read enough theological writings and historical accounts to compare and repudiate, albeit I can sense some wordings could have reflected that a little. However, I’m glad Metaxis has presented the actual writings or sayings of Bonhoeffer’s to support his statements and descriptions.

      As for The Confessing Church, Metaxis has included the original Barmen Confession written by Karl Barth, as well as the Confessing Church’s Theological Declaration. I can’t see those documents could have been tailored by Metaxis to be compatible with ‘evangelical’ stance. These are presented in pages 222 – 226. As I’m still finishing the book, these are only my thoughts so far.

      Regarding the political scene of today, I can only say the game is, as through eras of time, whoever has the most power wins. And in a capitalistic context, the bottom line is still what keeps the wheels turning… the ‘invisible hand’ maintains its power in the economic realm. By that I refer to Google. I’m not surprised at all that Google would cooperate with the government, they have been doing that in order to break into the market in China. Why would they do differently in the US?

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