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Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
By ERIC METAXAS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2014 Eric Metaxas
All rights reserved.
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.
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 and Paula von Hase 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. In fact, 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.
They brought eight children into the world within a decade. The first two sons came 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. 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.
All 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. The Bonhoeffer house—at 7 Birkenwäldchen—was near Karl's 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.
Their mother presided over the well-appointed home. Upstairs was the schoolroom with desks, where Paula taught the children their lessons. It had been somewhat shocking when she chose to take the teacher's examination as a single woman, but as a married woman, Paula Bonhoeffer used what she had learned to great effect. When they were a bit older, she sent the children to the local public schools, where they invariably excelled.
In 1910, the Bonhoeffers decided to look for a place to spend their holidays. They chose a remote idyll in the woods of the Glatz Mountains near the Bohemian border, a two-hour train ride south of Breslau. 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 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.
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.
When Dietrich and Sabine were old enough to be schooled, their mother turned the duty over to Fräulein Käthe, though Paula 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?"
The place of religion in the Bonhoeffer home was far from pietist but followed some Herrnhut traditions. For one thing, the Bonhoeffers rarely went to church; for baptisms and funerals, they usually turned to Paula's father or brother. The family was not anti-clerical—indeed, the children loved to "play" at baptizing each other—but their Christianity was mostly of the homegrown variety. Daily life was filled with Bible reading and hymn singing, all of it led by Frau Bonhoeffer. Her reverence for the Scriptures was such that she read Bible stories to her children from the actual Bible text and not from a children's retelling. Still, she sometimes used an illustrated Bible, explaining the pictures as she went.
Paula Bonhoeffer's faith was most evident in the values that she and her husband taught their children. Exhibiting selflessness, expressing generosity, and helping others were central to the family culture. Still, their good behavior did not always come naturally. Fräulein Käthe remembered:
Dietrich was often mischievous and got up to various pranks, not always at the appropriate time. I remember that Dietrich specially liked to do this when the children were supposed to get washed and dressed quickly because we had been invited to go out. So one such day he was dancing round the room, singing and being a thorough nuisance. Suddenly the door opened, his mother descended upon him, boxed his ears right and left, and was gone. Then the nonsense was over. Without shedding a tear, he now did what he ought.
Karl Bonhoeffer would not have called himself a Christian, but he respected his wife's tutelage of the children in this and lent his tacit approval to it, even if only by participating as an observer. With the values that his wife taught the children, he was entirely in agreement. Among those values was a serious respect for the feelings and opinions of others, including his wife's. She was the granddaughter, daughter, and sister of men whose lives were given to theology, and he knew she was serious about her faith and had hired governesses who were serious about it.
"There was no place for false piety or any kind of bogus religiosity in our home," Sabine said. "Mama expected us to show great resolution." Mere churchgoing held little charm for her. The concept of cheap grace that Dietrich would later make so famous might have had its origins in his mother; perhaps not the term, but the idea behind it, that faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God.
The Move to Berlin, 1912
In 1912, Dietrich's father accepted an appointment to the chair of psychiatry and neurology in Berlin. This put him at the head of his field in Germany. It's hard to overstate Karl Bonhoeffer's influence. His mere presence in Berlin "turned the city into a bastion against the invasion of Freud's and Jung's psycho-analysis," in the words of Eberhard Bethge, a close friend of Dietrich's. Karl Bonhoeffer never publicly dismissed Freud, Jung, or Adler and their theories, but he held them at arm's length with a measured skepticism borne of his devotion to empirical science. Bethge quoted Karl Bonhoeffer's friend, Robert Gaupp, a Heidelberg psychiatrist:
In intuitive psychology and scrupulous observation Bonhoeffer had no superior. But he came from the school of Wernicke, which was solely concerned with the brain, and permitted no departure from thinking in terms of cerebral pathology.... [He] had no urge to advance into the realm of dark, undemonstrable, bold and imaginative interpretation, where so much has to be assumed and so little can be proved.... [He] remained within the borders of the empirical world that was accessible to him.
The family's move from Breslau to Berlin must have felt like a leap. For many, Berlin was the center of the universe. Its university was one of the best in the world, the city was an intellectual and cultural center, and it was the seat of an empire. Their new house—on the Brückenallee, near the northwest part of the Tiergarten—was less spacious than their Breslau house and situated on smaller grounds. But it had the special distinction of sharing a wall with Bellevue Park, where the royal children played.
In 1913, seven-year-old Dietrich began school outside the home. For the next six years he attended the Friedrich-Werder Gymnasium. Dietrich did well in school, but was not beyond needing discipline, which his parents didn't hesitate to provide. "Dietrich does his work naturally and tidily," his father wrote. "He likes fighting, and does a great deal of it."
"Hurrah! There's a war!"
With the move to Berlin, their Wölfesgrund house was too far away, so the Bonhoeffers sold it and found a country home in Friedrichsbrunn in the Harz Mountains. They spent the summer of 1914 there. But on the first day of August, while the three younger children and their governess were in the village enjoying themselves, the world changed. Flitting here and there through the crowd, until it reached them, was the stunning news that Germany had declared war on Russia. Dietrich and Sabine were eight and a half, and she recalled the scene:
The village was celebrating its local shooting festival. Our governess suddenly dragged us away from the pretty, enticing market stalls and the merry-go-round which was being pulled by a poor white horse, so as to bring us back as quickly as possible to our parents in Berlin. Sadly I looked at the now emptying scene of the festivities, where the stall-holders were hastily pulling down their tents. In the late evening we could hear through the window the songs and shouts of the soldiers in their farewell celebrations. Next day, after the adults had hastily done the packing, we found ourselves sitting in the train to Berlin.
When they arrived back home, one of the girls ran into the house and exclaimed, "Hurrah! There's a war!" She was promptly slapped. The Bonhoeffers were not opposed to war, but neither would they celebrate it.
For the most part, however, the boys were thrilled and remained so for some time, though they were careful in expressing it. Dietrich's brothers wouldn't be eligible to enlist until 1917, and no one dreamed the war could last that long. But they could at least get caught up in the whole thing and talk about it knowledgeably, as the grown-ups did. Dietrich often played at soldiers with his cousin Hans-Christoph, and the next summer at Friedrichsbrunn, he wrote his parents asking them to send newspaper articles about events at the front. Like many boys, he made a map and stuck colored pins into it, marking the Germans' advancement.
The War Comes Home
In time the realities of war came home. A cousin was killed. Then another. Another cousin lost a leg. Their cousin Lothar had an eye shot out and a leg severely crushed. Yet another cousin died. Food grew scarce. Even for the relatively well-to-do Bonhoeffers, hunger became an issue. Dietrich distinguished himself as especially resourceful in procuring food; he got so involved in tracking down food supplies that his father praised him for his skill as a "messenger and food scout." He even saved his own money to buy a hen.
When Dietrich turned eight, he began piano lessons. All the children had music lessons, but none had showed such promise. Dietrich's ability to sight-read was remarkable. At ten he was playing Mozart's sonatas. The opportunities for exposure to great music in Berlin were endless. When he was eleven, he heard Beethoven's Ninth Symphony performed by the Berlin Philharmonic, under the direction of Arthur Nikisch, and he wrote to his grandmother about it. Eventually, he even arranged and composed.
Most of Dietrich's earliest musical experiences came in the context of the family's musical evenings each Saturday night. His sister Susanne remembered:
We had supper at half-past seven and then we went into the drawing room. Usually, the boys began with a trio: Karl-Friedrich played the piano, Walter the violin, and Klaus the cello. Then "Hörnchen" accompanied my mother as she sang. Each one who had had teaching that week had to present something that evening. Sabine learned the violin, and the two big sisters sang duets as well as Lieder by Schubert, Brahms, and Beethoven. Dietrich was far better at the piano than Karl-Friedrich.
According to Sabine, Dietrich was especially sensitive and generous as an accompanist, "always anxious to cover over the mistakes of the other players and to spare them any embarrassment." His future sister-in-law Emmi Delbrück was often there too:
While we were playing, Dietrich at the piano kept us all in order. I do not remember a moment when he did not know where each of us was. He never just played his own part: from the beginning he heard the whole of it. If the cello took a long time tuning beforehand, or between movements, he sank his head and didn't betray the slightest impatience. He was courteous by nature.
In March 1916, while the war raged on, the family moved from the Brückenallee to a house in Berlin's Grunewald district. Like most homes in Grunewald, the Bonhoeffer home at 14 Wangenheimstrasse was huge, with a full acre of gardens and grounds. It was another prestigious neighborhood, where many of Berlin's distinguished professors lived. The Bonhoeffers became close to many of them, and their children spent so much time together that they would eventually begin marrying each other.
As the war continued, the Bonhoeffers heard of more deaths and injuries among their wide circle. In 1917, their two eldest, Karl-Friedrich and Walter, were called up. Though they might easily have done so, their parents didn't pull any strings to help them avoid serving on the front lines. Germany's greatest need was in the infantry, and there both boys enlisted. Following basic training, the two young Bonhoeffers would be sent to the front.
Walter had been preparing for this moment since the war broke out, strengthening himself by taking long hikes with extra weights in his backpack. Karl-Friedrich actually took along his physics textbook. Things were still looking very well for Germany that year. In fact, the Germans were so confident that on March 24, 1918, the kaiser declared a national holiday.
Walter left in April 1918. As they had always done and would do for their grandchildren's generation twenty-five years hence, the Bonhoeffers gave Walter a festive send-off dinner. The large family gathered around the large table, gave handmade presents, and recited poems and sang songs composed for the occasion. Dietrich, then twelve, composed an arrangement of "Now, at the last, we say Godspeed on your journey" and, accompanying himself on the piano, sang it to his brother. They took Walter to the station the next morning, and as the train was pulling away, Paula Bonhoeffer ran alongside it, telling her fresh-faced boy: "It's only space that separates us."
Excerpted from Bonhoeffer Abridged by ERIC METAXAS. Copyright © 2014 Eric Metaxas. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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