Bonhoeffer Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
PASTOR, MARTYR, PROPHET, SPY A RIGHTEOUS GENTILE VS. THE THIRD REICH
By ERIC METAXAS
FAMILY AND CHILDHOOD
The rich world of his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's own life. It gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition. -Eberhard Bethge
In the winter of 1896, before the aforementioned older couple had met, they were invited to attend an "open evening" at the house of the physicist Oscar Meyer. "There," wrote Karl Bonhoeffer years later, "I met a young, fair, blue-eyed girl whose bearing was so free and natural, and whose expression was so open and confident, that as soon as she entered the room she took me captive. This moment when I first laid eyes upon my future wife remains in my memory with an almost mystical force."
Karl Bonhoeffer had come to Breslau-today Wroclaw in Poland-three years earlier, to work as the assistant to Karl Wernicke, the internationally renowned professor of psychiatry. Life consisted of working at the clinic and socializing with a few friends from Tübingen, the charming university town where he had grown up. But after that memorable winter evening, his life would change dramatically: for one thing, he immediately began ice-skating on the canals in the mornings, hoping to meet-and often meeting-the captivating blue-eyed girl he had first beheld that evening. She was a teacher, and her name was Paula von Hase. They married on March 5, 1898, three weeks shy of the groom's thirtieth birthday. The bride was twenty-two.
Both of them-doctor and teacher-came from fabulously illustrious backgrounds. Paula Bonhoeffer's parents and family were closely connected to the emperor's court at Potsdam. Her aunt Pauline became a lady-in-waiting to Crown Princess Victoria, wife of Frederick III. Her father, Karl Alfred von Hase, had been a military chaplain, and in 1889 he became chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm II but resigned after criticizing the kaiser's description of the proletariat as a "pack of dogs."
Paula's grandfather, Karl August von Hase, loomed large in the family and had been a famous theologian in Jena, where he taught for sixty years and where his statue still stands today. He had been called to his post by Goethe himself-then a minister under the Duke of Weimar-and met privately with the eighty-year-old national treasure, who was composing his Faust, Part Two. Karl August's textbook on the history of dogma was still used by theological students in the twentieth century. Toward the end of his life, he was awarded a hereditary peerage by the Grand Duke of Weimar and a personal peerage by the king of Württemberg.
The maternal side of Paula's family included artists and musicians. Her mother, Clara von Hase, née Countess Kalkreuth (1851-1903), took piano lessons from Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann, wife of the composer. She bequeathed her love of music and singing to her daughter, and these would play a vital role in the Bonhoeffers' lives. Clara's father, Count Stanislaus Kalkreuth (1820-94), was a painter known for his large Alpine landscapes. Although from a family of military aristocrats and landed gentry, this count married into the Cauer family of sculptors and became director of the Grand Duke's School of Arts in Weimar. His son, Count Leopold Kalkreuth, improved upon his father's success as a painter; his works of poetical realism today hang in museums throughout Germany. The von Hases were also related to the socially and intellectually prominent Yorck von Wartenburgs, and they spent much time in their society. Count Hans Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg was a philosopher whose famous correspondence with Wilhelm Dilthey developed a hermeneutical philosophy of history, which influenced Martin Heidegger.
The lineage of Karl Bonhoeffer was no less impressive. The family traced itself to 1403 in the annals of Nymwegen on the Waal River in the Netherlands, near the German border. In 1513, Caspar van den Boenhoff left the Netherlands to settle in the German city of Schwäbisch Hall. The family was afterward called Bonhöffer, retaining the umlaut until about 1800. Bonhöffer means "bean farmer," and the Bonhöffer coat of arms, still prominent on buildings around Schwäbisch Hall, pictures a lion holding a beanstalk on a blue background. Eberhard Bethge tells us that Dietrich Bonhoeffer sometimes wore a signet ring bearing this family crest.
The Bonhoeffers were among the first families of Schwäbisch Hall for three centuries. The earliest generations were goldsmiths; later generations included doctors, pastors, judges, professors, and lawyers. Through the centuries, seventy-eight council members and three mayors in Schwäbisch Hall were Bonhöffers. Their importance and influence may also be seen in the Michaelskirche (St. Michael's Church), where Bonhöffers are marmoreally and otherwise memorialized in baroque and rococo sculptures and epitaphs. In 1797, Karl's grandfather, Sophonias Bonhoeffer, was the last of the family born there. Napoleon's invasion in 1806 ended the free city status of Schwäbisch Hall and scattered the family, though it remained a shrine to which subsequent umlautless generations repaired. Karl Bonhoeffer's father took his son to the medieval town many times and schooled his son in the details of their patrician history, down to the "famous black oak staircase in the Bonhoeffer house in the Herrengasse" and the portrait of the "lovely Bonhoeffer woman" that hung in the church, with a copy in the Bonhoeffers' home during Dietrich's childhood. Karl Bonhoeffer did the same for his own sons.
Karl Bonhoeffer's father, Friedrich Ernst Philipp Tobias Bonhoeffer (1828-1907), was a high-ranking judiciary official throughout Württemberg, and he ended his career as president of the Provincial Court in Ulm. When he retired to Tübingen, the king awarded him a personal peerage. His father had been "a fine hearty parson, who drove about the district in his own carriage." Karl Bonhoeffer's mother, Julie Bonhoeffer, neé Tafel (1842-1936), came from a Swabian family that played a lead role in the democratic movement of the nineteenth century and was devotedly liberal. Of his mother's father, Karl Bonhoeffer later wrote, "My grandfather and his three brothers were plainly no average men. Each had his special trait, but common to them all was an idealistic streak, with a fearless readiness to act on their convictions." Two of them were temporarily banished from Württemberg for their democratic leanings, and in a telling coincidence, one of them, Karl's great uncle Gottlob Tafel, was imprisoned in the Hohenasperg fortress. He was there at the same time as Dietrich's great-grandfather Karl August von Hase, who before embarking on his theological career went through a period of youthful political activity. These two forebears of Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to know each other during their mutual imprisonment. Karl Bonhoeffer's mother lived to be ninety-three, and had a close relationship with her grandson Dietrich, who spoke the eulogy at her funeral in 1936 and treasured her as a living link to the greatness of her generation.
The family trees of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer are everywhere so laden with figures of accomplishment that one might expect future generations to be burdened by it all. But the welter of wonderfulness that was their heritage seems to have been a boon, one that buoyed them up so that each child seems not only to have stood on the shoulders of giants but also to have danced on them.
And so in 1898 these two extraordinary lines intermingled in the marriage of Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer, who brought eight children into the world within a decade. Their first two sons came into the world in the space of a year: Karl-Friedrich was born on January 13, 1899, and Walter-two months premature-on December 10. Their third son, Klaus, was born in 1901, followed by two daughters, Ursula in 1902 and Christine in 1903. On February 4, 1906, their fourth and youngest son, Dietrich, was born ten minutes before his twin sister, Sabine, and he teased her about this advantage throughout their lives. The twins were baptized by the kaiser's former chaplain, their grandfather Karl Alfred von Hase, who lived a seven-minute walk away. Susanne, the last child, was born in 1909.
All of the Bonhoeffer children were born in Breslau, where Karl Bonhoeffer held the chair in psychiatry and neurology at the university, and was director of the hospital for nervous diseases. On New Year’s Eve the year Susanne was born, he wrote in his diary, "Despite having eight children-which seems an enormous number in times like these-we have the impression that there are not too many of them! The house is big, the children develop normally, we parents are not too old, and so we endeavor not to spoil them, and to make their young years enjoyable."
Their house-at 7 Birkenwäldchen-was near the clinic. It was a gigantic, rambling three-story affair with gabled roofs, numerous chimneys, a screened porch, and a large balcony overlooking the spacious garden where the children played. They dug caves and climbed trees and put up tents. There was much visiting between the Bonhoeffer children and Grandfather Hase, who lived across the river, a branch of the oder. His wife died in 1903, after which his other daughter, Elisabeth, looked after him. She, too, became an important part of the children's lives.
Despite his busy schedule, Karl Bonhoeffer took much joy in his children. "In winter," he wrote, "we poured water on an old tennis court with an asphalt surface, so that the two oldest children could try skating for the first time. We had a big outbuilding meant to hold a carriage. We didn't have a carriage or horses, but we did use this outbuilding to keep all kinds of animals." There were animals in the house proper as well. One room in the house became a zoo for the children's pets, which included rabbits, guinea pigs, turtledoves, squirrels, lizards, and snakes, and a natural history museum for their collections of birds' eggs and mounted beetles and butterflies. The two eldest girls had another room set up as a dolls' house, and on the first floor the three eldest boys had a workshop, complete with carpenter's bench.
Their mother presided over the well-appointed home; the staff included a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a cook. Upstairs was the schoolroom, with desks where Paula taught the children their lessons. It was somewhat shocking when Paula Bonhoeffer chose to take the teacher's examination as a single woman, but as a married woman, she used what she learned to great effect. She was openly distrustful of the German public schools and their Prussian educational methods. She subscribed to the maxim that Germans had their backs broken twice, once at school and once in the military; she wasn't about to entrust her children to the care of others less sensitive than she during their earliest years. When they were a bit older, she sent them to the local public schools, where they invariably excelled. But until each was seven or eight, she was the sole educator.
Paula Bonhoeffer had memorized an impressive repertoire of poems, hymns, and folk songs, which she taught her children, who remembered them into their old age. The children enjoyed dressing up and performing plays for each other and for the adults. There was also a family puppet theater, and every year on December 30-her birthday-Paula Bonhoeffer put on a performance of "little Red Riding Hood." This continued into her old age, when she did it for her grandchildren. One of them, Renate Bethge, said, "She was the soul and spirit of the house."
In 1910 the Bonhoeffers decided to look for a place to spend their holidays and chose a remote idyll in the woods of the Glatz Mountains near the Bohemian border. It was a two-hour train ride south of Breslau. Karl Bonhoeffer described it as being "in a little valley at the foot of Mount Urnitz, right at the edge of the wood, with a meadow, a little brook, an old barn, and a fruit-tree which had a raised seat with a little bench for the children built into its wide branches." The name of this rustic paradise was Wolfesgründ. It was so far off the beaten track that the family never saw another soul, save for a single odd character: a "bigoted forestry official" who wandered through now and again. Bonhoeffer later memorialized him in a fictionalized account as the character Gelbstiefel (yellow Boots).
We get our first glimpses of Dietrich during this time, when he was four and five years old. They come to us from his twin, Sabine:
My first memories go back to 1910. I see Dietrich in his party frock, stroking with his small hand the blue silk underskirt; later I see him beside our grandfather, who is sitting by the window with our baby sister Susanne on his knee, while the afternoon sun pours in the golden light. Here the outlines blur, and only one more scene will form in my mind: first games in the garden in 1911, Dietrich with a mass of ash-blond hair around his sunburnt face, hot from romping, driving away the midges and looking for a shady corner, and yet only obeying very unwillingly the nursemaid's call to come in, because the immensely energetic game is not yet finished. Heat and thirst were forgotten in the intensity of his play.
Dietrich was the only child to inherit his mother's fair complexion and flaxen-colored hair. The three elder brothers were dark like their father. Klaus, the youngest of Dietrich's brothers, was five years older than Dietrich. So his three brothers and two older sisters formed a natural quintet, while Dietrich found himself grouped with Sabine and their little sister, Susi, as the "three little ones." In this trio, Dietrich enjoyed his role as the strong and chivalrous protector. "I shall never forget Dietrich's sweetness of character," Sabine later wrote, "which showed when we gathered berries on the hot summer slopes. He would fill my little pitcher with the raspberries he had toiled to collect, so that I would not have less than he, or share his drink with me." When they read together, "he pushed the book in front of me ... though this made his own reading difficult, and was always kind and helpful if asked for anything."
His chivalrous bent went beyond his sisters. He adored Fräulein Käthe van Horn, their governess from infancy, and "of his own free will he assumed the role of her good spirit who helped and served her, and when her favourite dish was on the table he cried: 'I have had enough,' and forced her to eat his portion too. He told her: 'When I am grown up I shall marry you, then you will always be with us.'"
Sabine also remembered when, at about age six, her brother marveled at the sight of a dragonfly hovering above a stream. Wide-eyed, he whispered to his mother: "look! There is a creature over the water! But don't be afraid, I will protect you!"
When Dietrich and Sabine were old enough to be schooled, their mother turned the duty over to Fräulein Käthe, though she still presided over the children's religious instruction. Dietrich's earliest recorded theological inquiries occurred when he was about four. He asked his mother: "Does the good God love the chimney sweep too?" and "Does God, too, sit down to lunch?"
Sisters Käthe and Maria van Horn came to the Bonhoeffers six months after the twins were born, and for two decades they formed a vital part of the family's life. Fräulein Käthe was usually in charge of the three little ones. Both van Horn sisters were devout Christians schooled at the community of Herrnhut, which means "the lord's watch tower," and they had a decided spiritual influence on the Bonhoeffer children. Founded by Count Zinzendorf in the eighteenth century, Herrnhut continued in the pietist tradition of the Moravian Brethren. As a girl, Paula Bonhoeffer had attended Herrnhut for a time.
Count Zinzendorf advocated the idea of a personal relationship with God, rather than the formal churchgoing lutheranism of the day. Zinzendorf used the term living faith, which he contrasted unfavorably with the prevailing nominalism of dull Protestant orthodoxy. For him, faith was less about an intellectual assent to doctrines than about a personal, transforming encounter with God, so the Herrnhüter emphasized Bible reading and home devotions. His ideas influenced John Wesley, who visited Hernnhut in 1738, the year of his famous conversion.