Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bonhoeffer's childhood: a turning point

As described in a previous post the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's older brother Walter in the waning days of the First World War had a telling effect on the family. It also marked something of a turning point for young Dietrich. In the opening pages of Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson, 2010) author Eric Metaxas wonderfully draws the reader in to the almost fairy-tale-like world of the seven Bonhoeffer children. Yet, where in other families of privilege this could have resulted in a bunch of spoiled brats, Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer cultivated an ethic of service to others and doing the right thing which powerfully impacted their children. I think they would have agreed that, "to whom much is given much will be required."

The impact of World War I on the Bonhoeffer family was a microcosm of it's cataclysmic effect on Germany. If there had been an age of innocence it was blown to smithereens in the bloody trenches of France. Nothing would be the same again. The humiliating defeat of the German nation set in motion a train of events that would culminate in the election of a crackpot nationalist and Jew-hater as Chancellor in 1933. The Bonhoeffer family, and Dietrich in particular, would be among the first prominent voices to sound the alarm against Hitler and all that he stood for. Ultimately, two of Karl and Paula's boys, and two of their sons-in-law, would die for their opposition to the Nazi regime.

But before all that there was Walter's untimely death. Metaxas suggests that this tragedy set Dietrich on the unexpected and unorthodox (in a family of doctors and lawyers) path of studying theology and becoming a pastor. Here's how Metaxas describes Walter's funeral (pp. 27-8)

In early May a cousin on the general staff escorted Walter's body home. Sabine [Dietrich's twin sister] recalled the spring funeral, and "the hearse with the horses decked out in black and all the wreaths, my mother deathly pale and shrouded in a great black mourning veil . . . my father, my relatives, and all the many silent people dressed in black on the way to the chapel." Dietrich's cousin Hans-Christoph von Hase remembered "the young boys and girls weeping, weeping. His mother, I had never seen her weep so much."

Walter's death was a turning point for Dietrich. The first hymn at the service was "Jerusalem, du Hochgebaude Stadt." Dietrich sang loudly and clearly, as his mother always wished the family to do. And she did, too, drawing strength from its words, which spoke of the heart's longing for the heavenly city, where God waited for us and would comfort us and "wipe away every tear." For Dietrich, it had to seem heroic and filled with meaning:

The patriarchs' and prophets' noble train,
With all Christ's followers true,
Who bore the cross and could the worst disdain
That tyrants dared to do,
I see them shine forever,
All-glorious as the sun,
Midst light that fadeth never,
Their perfect freedom won.

As meaningful as those words must have been to the 12-year-old boy, he couldn't have known that they were also foreshadowing of the path that ended at Flossenbürg. When Dietrich was confirmed a few years later his mother gave him Walter's Bible. He would carry it with him the rest of his life.

Over the next few weeks I'll share more vignettes from this exceptional biography.

1 comment:

Jimmy said...

hey, this was great. I used it and the prior post studying for my Church history final. keep up the good work!