“Ferocious power like that of the old Caesars can never again disgrace the leading civilizations of the world,” Frank Newman confidently predicted during the course of his lectures on ancient and modern history. Almost exactly one hundred years later a certain Lutheran pastor called Dietrich Bonhoeffer was taken from his Berlin prison to an extermination camp at Flossenbürg. The next day he was stripped naked and hanged.

He left behind him one uncompleted work of scholarship, several books of a pastoral nature, and some letters and jottings he had kept throughout his two-and-a-half years of imprisonment. These last were preserved and published in English sixteen years ago. If John Robinson, the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich, had not injured his back and thus had time for that meditation on the state of religion which in 1963 produced the provocative best-seller Honest to God, it is possible that Bonhoeffer’s influence would have been confined to a narrow circle. The Bishop, however, quoted him extensively, public interest was aroused, and the Bonhoeffer industry began. Books and articles poured from the press. Some nerve was touched which still vibrates and I do not think it an exaggeration to say that Bonhoeffer has been responsible for a great deal of the mood which lies behind the present theological debate. But how much is the real Bonhoeffer and how much Bonhoeffer bent to fit the preconceptions of those who are, in fact, preaching quite another gospel?

While rejoicing at the wide publicity given to his life and work we may legitimately regret the banner under which he was entered for the theological lists. There has been no lack of informed appreciation of his thought. The work of Bethge, Marty, Godsey, Phillips, and René Marlé, immediately springs to mind. But like the Bishop of Woolwich himself, to an unfortunate extent Bonhoeffer has been captured by his cruder exponents. A fastidious, conservative, deeply Christ-centered man has been associated in the public mind with revolutionary theology of a particularly shallow kind. Those who have not troubled to read his Ethics1 and Cost of Discipleship2 , or considered his Letters and Papers from Prison3 against its real setting, have seized on such notorious phrases as “religionless Christianity” and “man come of age” to promote attempts to substitute anthropology for theology. So, ironically, the man who on his first visit to New York wrote scathingly, “What do we find in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism which pins its faith to progress and which for some not quite evident reason assumes the right to call itself Christian,” has often been dubbed the apostle of what is in essence unselfish atheism masquerading as religion. The saint of the secular has been transformed into the secular saint.

The truth is quite different and very much more disturbing. As a thinker Bonhoeffer was not original, nor, even if he had had the capacity, did circumstances permit him to integrate his ideas into some profound synthesis. What is, to some, startling about his estimate of the spiritual situation in which man finds himself is confined to a comparatively few pages of his posthumously published correspondence. He was not an academic theologian wrestling in the peace of his study with the problem of belief, conceived as intellectual assent to a metaphysical argument. What he left were the fragmentary, unresolved, probing reflections of one who had witnessed the failure of his own motivating force to affect the affairs of men one way or another. He was writing in extremis, expecting at any moment torture or death, and the very sharpness of his perceptions implies distortion. He uses words ambiguously, he is sometimes obscure, at others contradictory, but from first to last there is a basic consistency of thought and purpose.

No radical discontinuity exists between the Lutheran who once accepted the autonomous spheres of church and state and the man who spent his active years trying to persuade people of the contrary, or between the man who started life as a near pacifist and yet who ended deeply involved in schemes for political assassination. The prisoner who so baldly proclaimed that humanity must live as if God were not there was the same person who could write after the failure of the July Plot, upon the success of which so much of his hopes depended, “May God in his mercy lead us through these times. But above all may he lead us to himself.” It is this inner consistency which is revealed so clearly in Mary Bosanquet’s splendid biography, which she spent the last five years of her life compiling.

In the case of Bonhoeffer knowledge of the inner and outer man is not an impertinence but a necessity. Without it his work is unintelligible. It would have been easy in such a dramatic tale to have taken the reader’s emotions by assault. Mary Bosanquet’s restraint is far more effective, sharing at times with Bonhoeffer’s last letters of farewell an extremely moving quality. Bonhoeffer’s complex, attractive character is beautifully drawn out. As far as possible Miss Bosanquet lets him speak for himself, so the reader who is unacquainted with his earlier works gets an introduction not only to them, but also to his lectures, sermons, and poetry. For his character, personal life, and the interpretation of his theology she has consulted all those now living who knew Bonhoeffer well, including his twin sister, Sabine, who has contributed a foreword.


Her greatest debt is to the generosity of Dr. Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s former pupil and close friend, who was involved with him in the struggles of the final years. It was Dr. Bethge who edited the Letters and Papers from Prison and to whom so many of the letters themselves were addressed. He has already written extensively on his friend, but his latest work, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, theologe, Christ, Zeitgenosse, has not yet been published in English. For the political and ecclesiastical scene Miss Bosanquet was faced with a daunting amount of published material. She has skillfully guided the reader through the evidence, sifting and selecting so that the pattern emerges clearly.

In an interesting passage the author points out that until those last years in prison, Bonhoeffer tended to avert his eyes from the challenge scientific knowledge makes to religion. She suggests that this may have been a defense mechanism, a survival from the time when, as a boy, he felt unable to defend his immature but profound sense of religious reality from the informed arguments of his skeptical elder brother. His home was not a religious one in the simple sense. It was a curious mixture, more common then than now, of settled agnosticism, high ethical standards, and a vague but pervading Christian piety. Bonhoeffer’s decision to become a pastor, although unopposed, was not received with enthusiasm. His father was Professor of Psychiatry at Berlin and in today’s jargon would be termed a secular humanist with a social conscience.

Living in the shattered Germany which followed the defeat of 1918, with its galloping inflation and political and economic unrest, the Bonhoeffer family were in close contact with events and alive to the danger of that bitter backlash which paved the way for the rise of National Socialism. All of them inherited the courageous, individualistic, cultivated, liberal tradition at its best. It is typical that when the command to boycott Jewish stores was obeyed, as the author says, “amid many scenes of disgusting inhumanity,” the majority of those who did not care to be mixed up in the general unpleasantness remained at home. Not so Bonhoeffer’s ninety-year-old grandmother who boldly pushed her way through the cordon of S.A. men and Hitler youth to do her shopping as usual.

In one aspect Bonhoeffer’s intellectual, sophisticated, liberal university circle was broad enough; from another his early environment was narrow. He visited Rome when he was seventeen. There the young man who had seen the Christian Church merely in its provincial shape of Lutheran Prussia and only occasionally attended Protestant services encountered a truly universal Church and the still numinous splendor of a liturgy whose reckless destruction is one of the saddest and maddest features of the present decay of Catholicism. At that moment the Protestant Church seemed to him “no more than a small sect” and he wrote after a brief visit to the Libyan desert, “In Islam everyday life and religion are a single whole, as also in general they are in the Catholic Church. As for us, we go to Church and when we come back quite a different life begins…..”

No doubt the Islamic and Hindu religious cultures will sooner or later go the way of Catholicism. But I think Bonhoeffer hankered after something like them and the impossibility of translating such a synthesis into modern terms accounts in part for the pessimism and contradictions of his later writing. The point to be made here, however, is that his awareness of the pressures of the outside world stimulated in his home was early fused with a realization which was to lead him to the gallows—namely that the demands of Christianity are as total as the pretensions of the Nazi state.

The flavor of Bonhoeffer’s Christian devotion always remained Lutheran, nor, as Mary Bosanquet remarks, was he affected by Catholicism in the sphere of dogmatic theology. Fertilization occurred where it matters most, not in conceptual formulation but through interior approach to God. He was constrained, the author remarks, “by a powerful inward pressure to explore the vast territory of the spirit of which so large an area had been wiped off the map of Protestant theology.” This most active of men seemed to have been strongly attracted to contemplation. For many years he longed to go to India, and there survives a revealing sermon on the subject which clearly indicates the direction of his mind.


In the event, he remained within his own tradition, but at the seminary he founded near Stettin, which flourished until it was closed down by the Gestapo in 1940, he established a discipline of meditation and prayer described by an uneasy Karl Barth as possessing an “indefinable odour of the eros and pathos of the cloister.” It is important to stress this aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life because without it he is seen entirely in the wrong focus. The foundation of his activity was prayer. As Captain Payne Best, the English officer who was Bonhoeffer’s companion during his last weeks remarked, “He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom God was real, and ever close to him.”

Recognition of the potential and actual wickedness of humanity was one of Christianity’s most valuable inheritances from Judaism. “Ce serait une duperie,” writes David Rousset, himself a former inmate of one of the worst German concentration camps, “et criminelle, que de prétendre qu’il est impossible aux autres peuples de faire une expérience analogue pour des raisons d’opposition de nature.” Given certain conditions the horrors of Nazi Germany could be repeated anywhere.

Because the modern state has more effective means at its disposal, democratic Godless man has committed more crimes against humanity than anything perpetrated in the name of privilege or religion. The new age of enlightenment spawned and supported a Hitler whose massacres make the ecclesiastical pogroms of the past pale into insignificance. Those who opposed him burnt more people alive at Dresden in one afternoon than all the victims of the Inquisition. Loss of any real faith in God is an old story. To lose faith in man as well is the peculiar sadness of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer lost neither, and that is where the true significance of his life and work is to be found.

It has been hinted that had he lived he might have become a Marxist. This is as absurd as the notion that his “religionless Christianity” implies an atheism he had not brought himself to articulate. Both Fascism and Communism, in the form it has taken up to now, are different expressions of a fundamental denial of human dignity. “The news,” Bonhoeffer had written in his Ethics, “that God has become man strikes at the very heart of an age in which both the good and the wicked regard either scorn for man or the idolization of man as the highest attainable human wisdom.” For him the fact of the Incarnation necessarily implies an acceptance of the dignity of man, the more truly human man is the more he will be capable of union with Christ. It was for this he strove to stab the conscience of his generation broad awake. This was the message of The Cost of Discipleship with its indictment of “cheap grace,” of those Christians who imagined they could slink into the “protective enclosure of Churchliness” and let the world wag as it will. To practice what he preached he returned from the safety of the United States in 1939 to meet what he must have known to be likely death.

The failure of the civilized liberal ideal in Germany, typified by the Bonhoeffer family, was matched by the all but total apostasy of the Christian churches. The qualification is important, but the fact remains that, faced by a regime which taught and practiced everything each professedly abominated, the majority of both humanists and Christians showed themselves up as shams. Its significance cannot be brought out here, but the only group consistently to stand up to Hitler (and they are today repeating their defiance in the Soviet Union) were the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The parsons, as Hitler so truly foretold, dug their own graves. Both the Evangelical Church and that Catholic Church which had so impressed Bonhoeffer in his youth became the tools of Fascism. For this the Catholic bishops and the Papacy must shoulder the main responsibility.

In his book, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-1945,4 J.S. Conway has made it clear that at the start Hitler feared the Catholic Church would prove more difficult to manipulate than the Reformed. Unlike Protestantism, Catholicism then possessed a machinery of government analogous to that of the dictatorships. It is easy to be wise after the event, and to censure what one has not suffered, but at that stage the Church could well have put a spoke in the Nazi wheel. Instead it fell beneath it. As early as 1933 Bonhoeffer (fruitlessly) proposed that the far less well organized German Protestant Church should adopt that kind of passive resistance later to be so successful in Norway—wholesale resignation of pastors and refusal to perform any function required by the state. In that very year the Vatican signed its ill-judged Concordat with Hitler, hoping, as the author remarks, to make the world safe for Catholicism.

The fact is that the Catholic bishops, although they resisted specific Nazi aggressions against church rights and property and some government-sponsored programs which openly defied certain Catholic principles, at no time released their flock from the obligation to obey a plainly vicious government. It is true that once Germany’s national survival was at stake, no pressure from Rome would have prevented the bishops rallying to the support of their Führer. But persistent, public, and unequivocal condemnation from the Pope, whatever proximate evil it brought in its train, would have given some semblance of credibility to the Church’s claim to be the unique guardian of Christian morals. The slow realization of this betrayal, so inexorably but compassionately documented for instance by Professor Gordon Zahn,5 has shocked and surprised many Christians who have failed to read the past history of their religion with the attention it deserves. It is, I think, one of the main reasons why the present reform movement has taken on an avenging, almost vindictive, character.

It is unjust to put the blame solely on the German and Austrian bishops. Almost without exception, when national interests are involved, officials of all Christian churches have encouraged those under their care to co-operate with the secular arm even where it shows itself most brutal. As far as I know, not a single British or American Catholic bishop protested against the saturation bombing of Germany, or publicly condemned the crimes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The only Anglican bishop able to view the conflict in another light was Bell of Chichester, whom Bonhoeffer had already met during his sojourn as a pastor in England and also in connection with the Ecumenical Movement. At the height of the war, in 1942, making use of his cover as counter-espionage agent, Bonhoeffer met Bell in Sweden. Mary Bosanquet does not raise the question in this precise form, but to those who are conscious of the dilemma posed by the fear that Nazism could have been stamped out only by plainly immoral means, this part of her book makes suggestive reading. Bonhoeffer informed the Bishop of the plot to murder Hitler and of the extent of the resistance to him within Germany.

Bell, who had confirmation from other sources, reported to the British Foreign Secretary. But the government, determined to demand unconditional surrender, did not wish to hear. No support for the resistance was obtained, no indication that Britain would be prepared to negotiate with a reconstituted German government. When we recall the fissures within the resistance movement itself we may think the author over-optimistic about the results that might have been achieved had this policy been pursued. Nevertheless, it does indicate a possible alternative, in the conditions then prevailing, to the evil of total war or the martyrdom of absolute pacifism.

Fear, either personal or for others, is excusable. The real mischief was not that the Churches capitulated to Nazism with their eyes open but to a large extent did so with their eyes closed. As Professor Zahn has shown,6 the Austrian farmer, Jäggerstätter, beheaded because he refused to serve in Hitler’s army, received no encouragement whatever from his spiritual superiors, who in all good faith considered that in time of war obedience to the state was a Christian duty. Moreover, as late as 1946, when the full horror of the final solution was common knowledge, his bishop wished to minimize Jäggerstätter’s heroic stand for fear it would “disturb consciences,” still sincerely considering “the greater heroes to be those exemplary young Catholic men, seminarians, priests, and heads of families who fought and died in heroic fulfillment of duty…” That a Christian bishop should so simply agree with Hitler’s cynical comment that the best soldier is a pious one speaks for itself.

Mary Bosanquet shows that, on the contrary, from the very beginning Bonhoeffer wished to disturb consciences. “What is the use of all our theology,” he cried despairingly in the early Thirties, “…our Church is today incapable of proclaiming God’s commandments in any concrete form.” The author properly confines most of her attention to the German Evangelical Church. She carefully traces the gradual corruption of the good, the formation of the Confessing Church which followed the declaration of faith drawn up by Karl Barth for the Synod of Barmen, the dissensions within the Confessing Church itself, the infirmity of purpose which the ceaselessly energetic Bonhoeffer tried almost in vain to stiffen. Just how unwelcome was his insistence that between “Church and pseudo-Church there can be no compromise” is shown by the fact that in the end the vast majority of Confessing pastors took the oath of loyalty to Hitler without any reservation.

If Bonhoeffer’s death is the best comment on his theology we are not therefore absolved from criticizing it. Mary Bosanquet has chosen not to analyze at enormous length those last over-interpreted pages from Letters and Papers. This has been done by professional theologians elsewhere and would have destroyed the balance of her biography. She has organized her material so well, so firmly placed the development of Bonhoeffer’s thought, that the reader can have no doubt about its general direction even if he remains puzzled by detail and would wish to question certain assumptions.

Bonhoeffer’s misleading expression “religionless Christianity” was the result of his deeply felt awareness that organized religion had betrayed its raison d’être. Self-regarding ecclesiastical systems had succeeded in separating the reality of God from the reality of the world we actually inhabit. The human spirit in its widest non-religious sense is thus isolated from (what was for Bonhoeffer) the true source of its being. To secular man religion becomes more and more meaningless, while all that is good and noble in secularist ideals and aspirations tends to alienate itself from religion.

Bonhoeffer did not wish to get rid of the institutional churches but to re-think their significance in a world he considered no longer accepted the religious premise. Nor did his equally misleading expression “world come of age” mean that he regarded modern man as a Prometheus. Such a conclusion would not only make nonsense of his entire theology but insult the intelligence of one who saw millions of his fellow countrymen obediently dancing to the beat of a criminal lunatic. He was reacting against a crude supernaturalism which views God as a convenient hypothesis to fill in the gaps of our scientific knowledge or uses him as a deus ex machina to save us from the consequences of our own decisions. At one level Bonhoeffer was asking us to be more responsible. At another, through the crucible of his own experience, exploring the implications of continued faith in a God who counts every hair of our head but lifts not a finger to help us down from the cross.

If Bonhoeffer has been appropriated by those who consider it the sole function of a Christian clergyman to translate sound morals into political action, there are others who feel less happy about his actual involvement in the resistance, his acceptance of the role of double agent, his prayers for the defeat of his own nation, and willingness to take part in attempts to assassinate Hitler. The author shows the personal anguish lying behind this decision for someone of Bonhoeffer’s rigorous, sensitive temperament. It meant for him the loss of his own sense of righteousness. He had to dirty his hands, stoop to conspiracy, lead a life of deception, and ultimately become a party to murder. “Who speaks? My faith? My vanity?” he asks in an autobiographical fragment which described his boyhood decision to take orders. Half a lifetime later he wrote to Bethge from prison, “At first I wondered a great deal whether it was really for the cause of Christ that I was causing you all such grief.”

Those who believe, as I do, that the answer is in the affirmative can at least share Bonhoeffer’s clear-sightedness if they cannot match his courage. To a convinced secular humanist, of course, all that was of ultimate importance to Bonhoeffer must be judged as an illusion. The man last glimpsed on his knees by the prison doctor through the half-opened hut door was praying to a non-existent God, expecting an imagined immortality, joining himself with the sufferings of a first-century Jew as deluded as himself. Here Christians and secularists cannot meet, they can only agree to differ. About the nature of ultimate reality there can be no compromise. But over the right relationship between man and man in that state Bonhoeffer called the penultimate, the here and now, the world we live in, there should be no radical disagreement. Behind every attempt, whether from left or from right, from church or secular establishment, to subject mankind to any power less than the human spirit Bonhoeffer stands both as a reproach and a challenge.

This Issue

August 21, 1969