The Changing Faith of a Hero

Dietrich Bonhoeffer at an ecumenical conference, Gland, Switzerland, August 1932

One night in the fall of 1930, when he was twenty-four years old, Dietrich Bonhoeffer went to a Manhattan movie theater to see the new film of All Quiet on the Western Front. Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian who was spending the academic year at Union Theological Seminary, was accompanied by another foreign student, the French pastor Jean Lasserre. Twelve years after World War I ended, Germans’ resentment of their defeat and of the Treaty of Versailles remained ferocious—a sentiment shared by Bonhoeffer, who lost an older brother in the war.

For a German and Frenchman to see this war film together, then, was inevitably a fraught experience. But according to Lasserre’s account of the evening, he and Bonhoeffer were unexpectedly drawn together, out of horror at the reaction of the surrounding audience:

The audience was American but, since the film had been made from the German soldiers’ point of view, everyone immediately sympathized with them. When French soldiers were killed onscreen, the crowd laughed and applauded.

Bonhoeffer was hurt on his friend’s behalf, as Lasserre recalled: “I was very affected and he was also affected, but because of me.” And the experience, trivial as it might seem, drove home for both men the true meaning of Christian ecumenicism: “I think it was there both of us discovered that the communion, the community of the Church is much more important than the national community.”

One might not expect a turning point in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life to come in a New York cinema. After all, he was one of the twentieth century’s most important Christian thinkers, a product of the University of Berlin’s legendary theology faculty, and a martyr who lost his life in the resistance to Hitler. Yet one of the revelations of Strange Glory, Charles Marsh’s new biography, is how Bonhoeffer managed to combine mortal earnestness about faith with a talent for enjoying life in this world.

In the mid-1930s, at a time when the German church had fallen almost completely under the sway of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer led a quasi-clandestine seminary at Finkenwalde, sixty miles northwest of Berlin, where he trained ministers for the dissenting Confessing Church. Though a Lutheran institution, Finkenwalde was structured almost like a Catholic monastery, in which the students were “bound together by brotherly admonition and discipline and open confession” in a way that some of them found oppressive. “There was too much ‘must’ for us,” said one student quoted by Marsh. Even here, however, Bonhoeffer was given to bursts of sheer fun, encouraging his students to play tennis or bridge, go swimming in the Baltic Sea, or even, on one occasion, attend a costume party he had organized.

At the very end of his life, as he awaited death in a Nazi prison, Bonhoeffer elevated this kind of joyous embrace of…

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