Book Review: The Life And Death Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The Life And Deaeth Of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Mary Bosanquet

When I found this particular well-regarded biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer in the library of my roommate, I found it necessary to put on my reading list, although it proved a difficult book for me to read.  This is not due to anything wrong with the book itself–Bosanquet’s prose is lovely and thoughtful, and Bonhoeffer himself is a subject well worth the writing of many people [1], but rather due to the demands of time, the closeness of the text in requiring sustained attention and focus (which can be difficult for me to give to anything) and because reading this book was a somewhat gloomy prospect akin to reading a Greek tragedy.  Those of us who have taken the time to study Bonhoeffer’s life know where the book is going to go, that it is going to discuss his aristocratic heritage, his young adulthood full of service to his church and getting caught up in matters of politics and social justice in the chaos of Hitler’s Germany, and that he would end up falling in love as a middle-aged man with a beautiful and vivacious teenage girl even while his life as a spy involved in the German resistance against Hitler would lead him to a lengthy imprisonment and finally a disgraceful death by hanging as Hitler’s regime was collapsing into ruin and destruction in April 1945.  A reader such as myself, familiar with Bonhoeffer’s virtues and his supposed vices, cannot read such grim material without both a high sense of personal identification and the grim foreknowledge that just like him, we too may face the need to sacrifice our reputation and our lives for the principles we hold most dear.

As a biography, this 280 page or so effort is very excellently done, and the author deserves high praise for her honesty as well as the poetic qualities of her prose, as she deals with Bonhoeffer’s life in a chronological fashion with plenty of foreshadowing, given that she is writing with knowledge of how the story ends and to an audience that likely shares her knowledge of how the story ends.  This biography is a metanarrative in the way that it not only follows the form of a tragic biography but that it, and Bonhoeffer himself in quotations that the author makes [2] from his prolific body of writing remark and comment specifically on the nature of tragedy of the situation of Germany and Christendom during the evil days of Hitler’s regime.  The structure of this book is in a nominally four act organization, but one that is really a three act tragic structure beginning with discipline–Bonhoeffer’s youth and young adulthood given in the first seven chapters of the book–then proceeding on to action–Bonhoeffer’s efforts against Hitler covered in chapters eight through eighteen–and then culminating in suffering and death as Bonhoeffer is in prison, which takes up the last two chapters of the book.  Given the cinematic structure of this book, in fact, and of the life and activities of Bonhoeffer himself, I am surprised that no one has adapted this particular book for a dramatic and tragic World War II movie, because the raw materials of a fantastic movie can be found in these pages.  The words themselves are sufficiently moving to those of us who can painfully relate to Bonhoeffer as a Christian, as a gentleman, and as someone imbued with a deep sense of remorseless honesty about himself and his tragic times.

How one feels about this book ultimately depends on the extent to which one is able to identify with Bonhoeffer or which one considers him to be among the most important figures of 20th century Christianity.  Those who are appalled by the prospect of a decent man engaging in espionage activities to disobey the wicked laws of his own nation and actively plot in the overthrow of one of history’s worst dictators will likely find Bonhoeffer an unpleasant figure, and certainly he was a man who reflected on his own unclean hands and the awkwardness of his own personal relationships with other people.  There is a lot of awkwardness to be found–the awkwardness of Bonhoeffer’s courtship and engagement with the vastly younger Maria, the awkwardness of Bonhoeffer’s involvement in church politics as well as the resistance politics of Nazi Germany, and the awkwardness of Bonhoeffer’s relationship with the noted 20th century conservative reformer Barth–and those of us who relate well to awkwardness will find much to commiserate over here.  As a stellar biography of a noble and complicated man, this biography does its subject justice, and allows this life and death to serve as a model for those of us who may someday be called to emulate its example, if God so ordains as a result of our sins as a nation and as a civilization.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

“With her a world is buried, which we all in some way bear within us, and wish so to bear. The unbending authority of the right, the free vow of a free man, the binding power of a promise once made, clarity and moderation in speech, honor and simplicity in public and private life–this she cared for with all her heart. In this she lived. She had discovered in the course of her life that it costs trouble and effort to achieve these aims in one’s own life. She did not flinch from this trouble and effort. She could not bear to see these aims despised, or to see human rights denied. Therefore her last years were darkened by the distress she felt over the fate of the Jews in our country, for this she herself grieved and suffered. She belonged to a different age, to a different spiritual world–and this world shall not be buried with her. This inheritance, for which we must thank her, puts us under obligation.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Gesammelte Schriften, volume IV, p. 458-9

“But if someone sets out to fight his battles in the world in his own absolute freedom, if he values the necessary deed more highly than the spotlessness of his own conscience and reputation, if he is prepared to sacrifice a fruitless principle to a fruitful compromise, or for that matter the fruitless wisdom of the via media to a fruitful radicalism, then let him beware lest precisely his supposed freedom may ultimately prove his undoing. He will freely consent to the bad, knowing full well that it is bad, in order to ward off what is worse, and in doing this he will no longer be able to see that precisely the worse which he is trying to avoid may still be the better. This is one of the underlying themes of tragedy.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics p.5-6

“We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers From Prison, p. 40

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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