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 the world to a theological principle. “Bonhoeffer discovered the value of hilaritas—good humor—as the quality of mind, body, and spirit most important to animating the greatest human achievements,” Marsh writes. And in his letters from prison, which became some of the most influential religious writings of the twentieth century, Bonhoeffer mounted a critique of religion’s tendency to focus on “human weakness and human boundaries.” Religious people, he complained, tended to use God as “deus ex machina that they bring on to the scene…for the apparent solution of insoluble problems,” such as death and sin. But

I should like to speak of God not on the boundaries but at the center, not in weaknesses but in strength; and therefore not in death and guilt but in man’s life and goodness…. God is beyond in the midst of our life. The church stands, not at the boundaries where human powers give out, but in the middle of the village.

When Bonhoeffer speaks, in these late letters, about the need for “religionless Christianity,” the paradoxical formulation is not intended to diminish faith, but on the contrary, to present it anew in its true radical challenge. “Religion,” he reflects in April 1944, “is only a garment of Christianity,” a set of institutions and behaviors, and Bonhoeffer sees those traditional forms of religiosity vanishing before his eyes, above all in Nazi Germany. When Christianity disappears, for Bonhoeffer, what remains is Christ himself, in all His scandalous immediacy: “In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean?”

Marsh’s biography pays due attention to the political dimension of Bonhoeffer’s life, which came to the fore in the 1930s and 1940s as he became first a leading Christian critic of Nazism, and then an active plotter against the Nazi state. But other biographies—for example, No Ordinary Men by Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, a brief, lucid account of Bonhoeffer’s career1—do a better job of setting out exactly what his resistance work entailed, and describing how he took part in the political opposition to Nazism. In particular Sifton and Stern show how Bonhoeffer was both protected and influenced by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, who while working within the Abwehr intelligence organization plotted against Hitler and kept secret records of the regime’s atrocities.


Marsh, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia and the director of the Project on Lived Theology, is at his best when he traces the evolution of Bonhoeffer’s religious vocation and theological vocabulary. He convinces us that only by understanding Bonhoeffer’s faith will we be able to understand his deeds.

Exactly where Bonhoeffer’s vocation came from was a mystery, not least to his own family. Marsh notes that “unlike most Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not the child of a minister.” On the contrary, his father Karl was one of Germany’s leading psychiatrists, a professor at a Berlin university, and a man of science who did not go to church. It was Dietrich’s mother, Paula, the daughter of a court chaplain, who took care of the religious upbringing of the family’s eight children.

But whatever training they received made little impression on most of the Bonhoeffer children, who inclined to follow their father into the sciences; indeed, one older brother, Karl-Friedrich, came back from his service in World War I as a radical agnostic and socialist. Thus they were surprised when Dietrich, at the age of thirteen, announced that his goal in life was to become a theologian. Karl-Friedrich and another brother, Klaus, tried to dissuade him: “‘Look at the church,’ they insisted. ‘A more paltry institution one can hardly imagine.’” But Dietrich was self-confident enough to meet the challenge: “In that case,” he replied, “I shall reform it!”

This early exchange seems to contain the seeds of much of Bonhoeffer’s later development as a pastor and theologian. One of the recurring themes of his writings, both academic essays and sermons, is the mediocrity of the Lutheran Church as he found it in Weimar-era Germany. Luther may have urged the faithful to “sin boldly,” but what Bonhoeffer saw all around him was a mild piety that treated Christianity more as a form of polite behavior than a living faith. He longed throughout his life for a community of believers who would constitute a true church, rather than merely go to church. His first sustained piece of theological writing—his doctoral dissertation at the University of Berlin, written in 1927 when he was just twenty-one years old—was titled Sanctorum Communio, “The Communion of Saints,” and it sharply contrasted the ideal church with the actually existing one.

“The churchliness of the modern bourgeoisie,” he wrote, “is threadbare, and…their living power in the church is at an end…. The sermon meets the need for having something fine and educated and moral for the free hours of Sunday.” He sees the church’s mediocrity betrayed in its aesthetics:

If I consider the pictures hanging in church halls and meeting places, or the architectural styles of churches of recent decades…I cannot help thinking that in none of these things is there the slightest understanding of the church’s essential social nature.

The modern church was a far cry from the ideal church as Bonhoeffer imagined it—an institution in which

persons can and should act like Christ. They should bear their neighbor’s burdens and sufferings…. What makes this state of being “with one another” possible is not something willed by us; it is given only in the community of saints….

But once he left the university and got his first taste of actual pastoral work, Bonhoeffer began to realize that just getting people to show up on Sunday was hard enough. At the beginning of 1928, he began working as assistant vicar of the German congregation in Barcelona. Amusingly, Marsh shows the young Bonhoeffer as still a rather feckless and spoiled young man, continually postponing his arrival in Spain and bombarding his new boss with questions about what clothes to bring (“would he need dinner clothes, or ‘special evening wear’?”). When he finally showed up, he found that of the six thousand Germans living in Barcelona, only about fifty came to church. Nor was he impressed by the spiritual caliber of those who did come:

Bonhoeffer said he had never seen people so visibly impressed by their own wealth. He heard the director of the German bank boast about a recent gala for which ten thousand pesetas had been spent on the decorations alone.

Bonhoeffer enjoyed his year in Barcelona—he joined a tennis club, socialized with the German expatriates, and made something of a sensation in the pulpit, incurring the jealousy of his superior. More important, Marsh shows, his spiritual temperament was broadened by the experience of living in a southern, Catholic city. Surprisingly, perhaps, for a Lutheran minister, Bonhoeffer thrilled to Holy Week parades—just as, during a youthful trip to Rome, he had been strongly drawn to the sensual pageantry of Italian Catholicism. His appreciation of the world’s beauty, and of religion’s, was expanding, as he admitted: “He would say that he felt as if ‘a theology of…spring and summer’ were replacing ‘the Berlin winter theology.’”


Still, he went back to Berlin after a year in Spain, to complete the second dissertation he needed to win a teaching post in the German university system. He would spend the next year and a half there, producing the book Act and Being, and a prestigious academic career seemed to be on the horizon. But the real turning point in Bonhoeffer’s education, Marsh argues, came during his year at Union Theological Seminary in New York, in 1930–1931. When he first got there, Bonhoeffer was snobbishly unimpressed by the quality of the faculty and students, whose thought lacked the richness and subtlety he was used to in Berlin. “The students,” he observed, “are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions.” Once again, Bonhoeffer was troubled by Christians who did not seem to take Christianity seriously: during one class discussion, the students laughed out loud at Luther’s notion of “bondage of the will.” “The spectacle of an educated person taking seriously the ruminations of a neurotic sixteenth-century monk,” Marsh writes, “struck them as comic.”


bpk, Berlin/Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his twin sister Sabine during their last visit together, London, July 1939

At first, Marsh shows, Bonhoeffer was even unimpressed by Reinhold Niebuhr, Union’s leading light, who he believed was too focused on social problems: “Is this a theological school or a school for politicians?” Bonhoeffer asked Niebuhr impatiently. But his exposure to Niebuhr’s ideas, and to the American style of socially engaged, pragmatic Christianity, was crucial in turning his attention to the way faith could, and must, intersect with reality, including social and political reality. Above all, his eyes were opened by his exposure to African-American churches, to which he was introduced by a black fellow student. Worshiping at Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church was, Bonhoeffer exclaimed, the first time “he had experienced true religion in the United States.” His experiences in the black community, as well as classes at Union that involved visits to labor and civil rights organizations, would awaken his political consciousness and give him a glimpse of the kind of “communion of saints” he found lacking at home.

As it turned out, this new orientation in Bonhoeffer’s thought came at just the right time. For he returned to a Germany in the throes of political chaos, and with Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933, the Lutheran Church was thrown right into the center of the fray. A faction known as Deutsche Christen, “German Christians,” was eager to see the German Protestant Church remade along Nazi lines—both theologically, by claiming “that God had chosen a new Israel, the German Volk,” and organizationally, by subordinating the church to the Third Reich. The first item on the Nazi agenda was, naturally, anti-Semitic: in an Aryan church, there would be no room for converted Jews, whose race was more important than their beliefs. The so-called Aryan paragraph, made into law on April 7, 1933, forbid “Jewish Christians” from serving as ministers, as part of the larger purge of Jews from the civil service.

It was now that Bonhoeffer’s strict Christian principles began to lead him to publicly oppose the Nazi state. This represented a break with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of the “two kingdoms,” which saw state power as itself an instrument of God. The German Christians actively supported the Aryan paragraph, and most others were willing to tolerate it, or at least didn’t find it sufficient grounds for a public break with the Church. Bonhoeffer, however, immediately began circulating a mimeographed protest statement, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” in which he audaciously urged Christians “to jam a spoke in the wheel” of the Third Reich, on the grounds that “the state which endangers the Christian proclamation negates itself.” Bonhoeffer was not yet opposing anti-Semitism per se, but the idea that race could take precedence over Christian belief, disqualifying a believer from membership in the national church, seemed to him an appalling insult to the church’s independence and to Christian doctrine.

A few months later, in August 1933, Bonhoeffer joined a meeting of other dissenting ministers at Bethel hospital in Westphalia. There they began to draw up a statement for what would become the Confessing Church, the anti-Nazi dissident movement that tried to hold out against state domination. By the time the so-called Bethel Confession was officially adopted, it had been moderated and watered down so much that Bonhoeffer refused to sign it. But his initial draft, which is excerpted along with many of his principal works in the volume A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, puts the Jewish question front and center.2

Its terms are not, it must be said, those of liberalism and equality, but rather of Christian toleration. Essentially, Bonhoeffer advances the old argument of Saint Augustine (brilliantly analyzed by Paula Fredriksen in Augustine and the Jews) that the Jews should not be molested, but left to survive as a witness to the Bible and as potential converts to Christianity: “God continues to preserve a ‘holy remnant’ of Israel after the flesh…. The church has received from its Lord the commission to call the Jews to repentance and to baptize those who believe in Jesus Christ,” Bonhoeffer insists. Theologically speaking, it is necessary for the Jews to remain alive as a scattered, exiled minority, which is why Bonhoeffer’s statement explicitly opposes not just “Pharaoh-like measures” to “exterminate” them, but also “emancipation and assimilation” and “Zionist and other similar movements” that try to make the Jews “one nation among others.”

But while Bonhoeffer was not quite advocating Jewish equality, he was taking a clear and brave stand against Nazi persecution—a stand that most of his fellow ministers couldn’t bring themselves to share. (Even the great theologian Karl Barth, Marsh notes, “disagreed sharply with [Bonhoeffer’s] position on the Aryan paragraph and its centrality in the Bethel Confession,” though he would later “come to regret the tepidness and legalism of his response.”)

Throughout the 1930s, Bonhoeffer would continue to oppose the Nazification of the church in word and deed. He became one of the leaders of the ecumenical movement, visiting many European countries to meet with like-minded clergy, and always insisting that the Confessing Church, rather than the official Reich Church, should be considered the true representative of German Christianity. At one such meeting, in Fano, Denmark, in 1934, Bonhoeffer delivered an eloquent address on “The Church and the People of the World,” in which he laid out the terms of what had become his absolute pacifism:

Peace on earth is not a problem, but a commandment given at Christ’s coming…. “Must God not have meant that we should talk about peace,… but that it is not to be literally translated into action? Must God not have really said that we should work for peace, of course, but also make ready tanks and poison gas for security?”… No, God did not say all that. What God has said is that there shall be peace among people—that we shall obey God without further question, that is what God means.

It’s clear that the thread running through Bonhoeffer’s thought from beginning to end was the desire to take Christ seriously—not to be respectably pious, but to make an existential decision for God. At the Finkenwalde seminary, between 1935 and 1937, Bonhoeffer tried to create a Christian community “according to the Sermon on the Mount,” as he told his skeptical brother Karl-Friedrich. In the book that grew out of that experience, published in English as The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer inveighs against what he calls “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth…. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before.

In contrast to this undemanding, external conception, Bonhoeffer urges the faithful to accept “costly grace”: “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock.”

Life with community had been central to Bonhoeffer’s vision of Christianity from the beginning. But as Marsh’s biography continues, one kind of fellowship becomes conspicuous by its absence: until almost the age of thirty, Bonhoeffer never seems to have had a romantic relationship. That changed at Finkenwalde, Marsh argues, when he met Eberhard Bethge, a student at the seminary. Bethge usually features in the Bonhoeffer story as a best friend and spiritual confidant, and ultimately as Bonhoeffer’s first biographer and the guardian of his legacy. But Marsh makes a convincing, if necessarily speculative, case that, on Bonhoeffer’s side at least, the relationship was more like romantic love than friendship. The two men lived together, “kept a joint bank account, signed Christmas cards from ‘Dietrich and Eberhard,’ fussed over gifts they gave together, planned elaborate vacations, and endured numerous quarrels.”

Though Marsh doesn’t use the word, the clear implication is that their relationship was a marriage—although he shows that it was Bonhoeffer who kept pressing for greater intimacy, while Bethge kept up a measure of reserve. It seems no coincidence that when Bonhoeffer finally did get engaged in 1943—to Maria von Wedemeyer, a much younger woman he didn’t know well—it was immediately after Bethge announced his plans to be married (to none other than Bonhoeffer’s niece).

Bonhoeffer’s marriage, however, was never to take place; a few months after the engagement was announced, he was in prison. After years of openly opposing the Third Reich on religious questions, in the summer of 1940 Bonhoeffer had joined an active plot against Hitler within the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service, a hive of conspiracy, whose ranks included Hans von Dohnanyi, the husband of Bonhoeffer’s sister Christine. Dohnanyi recruited Bonhoeffer to serve as a secret agent playing a perilous double game. Ostensibly, his job would be to use his international contacts to gather information for the military. In fact, he would use those contacts to “try to keep the Allies apprised of resistance activities in the hopes of garnering international support for a non-Nazi government to follow the planned coup.”

Thus in May 1942, Bonhoeffer secretly flew to Sweden to meet with George Bell, the bishop of Chichester and one of his old allies from the ecumenical movement. He “asked Bell to ascertain whether the Allies would be prepared to negotiate with a new government,” in the event that the conspirators managed to assassinate Hitler and take over Germany. Marsh shows how this overture came to nothing—Anthony Eden, Churchill’s secretary of state for war, felt the conspirators had “given little evidence of seriousness,” and indeed for the first years of the war the Abwehr’s resistance remained more notional than effective. Nothing Bonhoeffer did made a dent in Hitler’s power or plans—which does not mean that he didn’t show great courage in secretly plotting against the dictator.

Just how much was at stake became clear in April 1943, when the Gestapo, which had long been suspicious of the Abwehr circle, cracked down in a mass arrest of the conspirators, including Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer. At first, the charges against Bonhoeffer seemed to be minor, having mainly to do with his evasion of military service and his suspicious trips abroad. He was still in prison, however, more than a year later, when on July 20, 1944, Claus von Stauffenberg made his failed attempt to assassinate Hitler with a bomb. In the aftermath of this shock, the Gestapo launched a thorough investigation that unearthed a cache of secret documents hidden by Dohnanyi, which detailed the plotters’ plans, including Bonhoeffer’s role in them. From then on, Bonhoeffer knew he was doomed, unless he could somehow survive until the Allied victory that seemed to be coming closer and closer.

He almost made it. In February 1945, however, he was taken from his nightmarish Berlin prison and sent to Buchenwald. Then, in the last weeks of the war, with the Third Reich he had long opposed crumbling around him, Bonhoeffer and a group of fellow prisoners were taken by SS guards to another concentration camp, at Flossenbürg in Bavaria. On the morning of April 9, Bonhoeffer was hanged, alongside the former heads of the Abwehr, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris and General Hans Oster; his body was either cremated or thrown into a mass grave. It was then that his second life began, the life of his thought and example, which Strange Glory helps to share with a new generation of readers.