Dietrich Bonhoeffer was recognized as a hero of World War II Nazi-resistance with the posthumous publishing of his letter exchange with Eberhard Bethge entitled Letters and Papers From Prison.
It is a little strange to see a saint-cult built around somebody who vaguely argued for a “religionless Christianity.” Granted, this concept was much more descriptive rather than proscriptive (as Altizer’s “Death of God” theology and later Mark C. Taylor’s a/theology erroneously took it to be).
Bonhoeffer’s Christian heroism has become so exemplary in the collective imagination that someone like Alfred Delp, SJ–a unique and unrepeatable witness, martyr, and thinker in his own right (See: his prison writings)–is stuck with the label of being a “Catholic Bonhoeffer.”
Yesterday, in celebration of the 70th anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s martyrdom, the Washington Post ran a piece demythologizing his legacy. It is a subtle piece, not at all trying to cut the man down to our everyday stature:
As one of the editors of his collected works, I read Bonhoeffer as a good man and a brilliant theologian, a man who questioned the very legitimacy of the Nazi regime in early 1933 precisely because of its persecution of German Jews—but who then wrote and spoke surprisingly little on the issue in the ensuing years. Although his writings call to activism, he seldom took an activist role.
In 1936, he filled out the required political questionnaire and provided an “Aryan certificate” in an attempt to keep his teaching position. He was brought into the resistance only as a ploy to keep him out of Hitler’s army. Once there, he found himself part of a plot that included a wide range of figures, some of them honorable, others men who had fully participated in Nazi misdeeds before ultimately turning against the regime.
In the process he came to understand something we easily forget in our quest for heroes. When it reaches the scale of National Socialism the nature of human evil is like rising water, leaving nothing untouched, no one untainted or unchanged.
The author then puts Bonhoeffer’s failures in a forgiving, truly Christian, light:
We cannot understand his wartime and prison writings if we see only the heroic Bonhoeffer. “We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds…are we still of any use?” he wrote fellow conspirators in December 1942. With regard to the profound failures of his church under Nazism, he charged that it had fought “only for its own self-preservation,” thereby losing the very capacity to bring “reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world” . . .
. . . If we can understand Bonhoeffer outside the box—not as saint, not as mythological hero, but as someone who reflected poignantly on evil’s consequences for the human conscience and spirit, for an entire culture and country, we may begin to uncover the person behind the mythology: a man who tried to face the darkness of his times. In the process, we may discover someone who can speak more directly to the darknesses and failures of our own.
All of this boils down to a fundamental question asked by Max von Sydow in the film Hannah and Her Sisters, perhaps the single best film of the 1980’s:
You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question “How could it possibly happen?” is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is “Why doesn’t it happen more often?”
We frequently act as if heroism were the default setting for human beings, thereby stupidly judging World War II Europe according to unreasonable standards.
This very well may be the reason why we cannot recognize true heroism and courage when it faces us. It might be the reason why someone like Dietrich von Hildebrand goes unnoticed these days. Unlike with Bonhoeffer, there were no ambiguities to his resistance to the Nazis.
The introduction to von Hildebrand recently published wartime memoir My Battle Against Hitler (in German “my struggle” is “mein Kampf” just as in the title of Hitler’s book) shows the German phenomenologist was against the Nazis before the Nazis made their first attempt at a power grab with the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923:
He was predestined to be an enemy of Nazism, for even before the rise of the movement he had been a vocal opponent of nationalism, militarism, collectivism, and anti-Semitism, the major pillars of the Nazi ideology. Thus the Nazis had already taken note of von Hildebrand in 1921, not because he had attacked them by name, but because he had publicly condemned as an “atrocious crime” the German invasion of neutral Belgium at the start of World War I (1914). His remarks, made at a peace conference in Paris in 1921, created an uproar in the German press. He had violated the nationalist tenet of the Nazi orthodoxy, and for this he was marked for execution and then forced to flee in 1923 when Hitler attempted to seize power in Munich.
There is something almost miraculous in such principled resistance. It is not our usual course. It needs to be acknowledged as such.
Most of the time we stumble around in the grays of ethical life like Bonhoeffer, but more frequently we descend into the realm of shadows like Martin Heidegger. The recent Swedish film Force Majeure demonstrates this fundamental fact of life wonderfully.
This is why we need forgiveness, otherwise known as grace.
Remembering this helps us ask better questions about the evil in our hearts.
The book The Far Reaches claims von Hildebrand was the first phenomenologist to directly apply Husserl’s and Heidegger’s brainchild to social resistance. For more on the book, and the social and Central European heart of phenomenology, look here.
While you’re at it you might also want to take a look at my post on the profoundly Catholic genealogy of phenomenology in light of Derrida’s thought.