Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Bonhoeffer's childhood: happiness interrupted

Eric Metaxas writes in his superb new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that Bonhoeffer's childhood was like something "from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander, without the undertones of angst and foreboding." (p. 25) Like the sprawling Ekdahl family of Bergman's film, the Bonhoeffer's enjoyed the best that turn-of-the-century continental European culture had to offer. Dietrich grew up surrounded by his many siblings, aunts and uncles, family caregivers, and was as sheltered from the dark side of life as one could be. The Bonhoeffer clan were a genuinely happy bunch.

Patriarch Karl Bonhoeffer was an agnostic, but he gave his pious wife free reign to instruct their children in the Christian faith. Though they weren't a churchgoing family, Paula Bonhoeffer organized elaborate celebrations of Christian holidays. For Advent and Christmas these included Bible readings, hymns and candle lightings. The Bonhoeffer's were a musical family and each Saturday evening they gathered for songs and chamber music. Metaxas paints a vivid picture of an idyllic childhood for the man whose martyrdom at age 39 we'll commemorate again on Saturday.

Dietrich was 8 years old when Kaiser Wilhelm II made the disastrous decision in August, 1914 to declare war on Russia. Three days later Britain declared war on Germany and World War I was joined. Even the war couldn't interrupt this privileged and happy existence -- yet. Most Germans foolishly thought the war would be over by year's end. Dietrich's older brothers Karl-Friedrich and Walter weren't old enough to be called up so the family seemed safe. But the war dragged on; and in 1917 the family's fortunes took a darker turn as the two eldest of the Bonhoeffer boys were called to war. Metaxas reports that the parents could have pulled strings to keep their sons away from the front lines (they had distinguished friends in high places), but they didn't. This was a family that believed in doing the right thing even if it came at great cost. It did.

In April 1918 it was Walter's turn to go. As they had always done and would do for their grandchildren's generation twenty-five years hence, they 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 for "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." Two weeks later, in France, he died of a shrapnel wound. Walter's death changed everything. (p. 26)

This tragedy had a profound effect on young Dietrich and presaged the difficult decades that lay ahead for this great family. To be continued. . .

Quotes from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010)

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