We’ve been over this ground before—see here and here—and I don’t want to beat a dead horse (especially since my review will be out in September and I’ll be linking to that here too!), but I was really struck by Charles Marsh’s comments from a few days ago on the Dietrich Bonhoeffer/Eberhard Bethge relationship as portrayed in his biography Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
In an interview at Religion and Politics, Marsh was asked this:
I want to switch gears to a more personal aspect of the book. You make the case that Bonhoeffer experienced a kind of romantic love or attraction to his best friend Eberhard. While you write that the relationship remained chaste, the notion that Bonhoeffer might have been gay has received a lot of attention in some quarters. So number one, I wondered, was this finding a surprise to you in your research? And what have you made of reactions to it?
And here was Marsh’s answer:
It wasn’t a surprise, this observation of Bonhoeffer’s romantic attraction to Eberhard. Over the years, I’ve gone to many Bonhoeffer conferences. This subject has been discussed often over meals and drinks and beers, but it’s never been discussed in an academic session or a lecture. But there’s been conversation among scholars for as long as I can remember. What I had that scholars didn’t have, and do now, is the body of letters that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard exchanged. They wrote when they were apart during those seven years of their partnership. To be sure, I was intrigued when I found in those archives in Berlin a statement from a joint bank account. I did not realize that their partnership had that kind of formality about it as well. So Bonhoeffer and Eberhard began giving gifts together as a pair, Christmas presents and the like. They traveled and shared a room. They were soul mates of a sort. Bethge never reciprocated the intensity of Bonhoeffer’s affections. I don’t think Eberhard was gay; I simply don’t have any reason at all to think that. I think that Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was one that he, Bonhoeffer, wanted to define as a kind of spiritual marriage, but Bonhoeffer’s love of Eberhard was also deeply romantic.
The challenge for trying to narrate this complicated relationship is, on the one hand, it was a chaste relationship. It was a relationship that was centered on their shared love of Jesus and shared devotional practices and it had a kind of liturgical shape to it. And yes, Bonhoeffer also was in love with Eberhard, and wanted in some fashion to secure a spiritual marriage of sorts, and Eberhard could not and did not want to finally accept that.
Of course, Bonhoeffer became engaged after Eberhard became engaged. The engagement was formalized only when Bonhoeffer was in prison. Even so, in a curious letter—I think it’s kind of a humorous letter—after Bonhoeffer had matched Eberhard’s engagement with his own engagement, he wrote to say, “Now, we can resume our partnership, and we can travel together in those places where we found so much joy, and we can leave our wives back in Germany, in Berlin, or some place.”
I’m not surprised by the response. I’m really grateful for having the resources, the documents, and an opportunity to offer such detail because there’s great beauty and poignancy to this relationship. It does annoy me when someone critical of my treatment says, “Well, this is just like Jonathan and David in the Bible.” Or, “This is just revisionist, and you’re just superimposing contemporary categories on a friendship that in the 1930s and 40s had a very different cast.” But the thing is it did have a different cast; it was different in 1935 and 1936 in Germany. Bonhoeffer’s family was liberal and open yet was initially surprised by the sudden entrance of Eberhard into the family—but accepted him and accepted their relationship. Whatever it was, it wasn’t discussed or put in any particular terms, but they were surprised nonetheless. Once they understood that Bonhoeffer and Eberhard were together, they accepted them fully into the family. Even the recollections of some of Bonhoeffer’s students made it clear that some of them thought that he was gay. So this is not my own attempt to sensationalize a relationship. If anything, I tried to capture it and respect it in its uniqueness, and not politicize it or insinuate. It was understood as a unique relationship, a different kind of relationship, in 1935 and 1936. The letters that we have now between Bonhoeffer and Eberhard are love letters, at least Bonhoeffer’s letters to Eberhard. Bethge’s letters back, I should make clear, were always more perfunctory, and the romantic quality, the quality of enthrallment and enchantment, this sort of romantic love, were not part of Bethge’s responses to Bonhoeffer. But for Bonhoeffer, they weren’t just letters, but beautiful love letters.
I think this is really well put. It strikes me that we need to avoid at least a couple of dangers when grappling with a story like Bonhoeffer’s and when trying to appropriate some of its insights for the sort of conversations we’re having here at SF. First, we need to guard against the impulse to assimilate the past into the present. (Who was it who said, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”?) In other words, we need to avoid the reflexive, “Bonhoeffer and Bethge did things that I do because I’m gay; therefore they must have been gay too!” It’s a totally understandable impulse to want to find solidarity with a person from the past, especially if they’re a hero, but we need to be prepared to acknowledge that close, non-sexual friendships between men may have existed in far more significant and prominent ways in Bonhoeffer’s Germany than they do in early 21st century America, and just because we can’t conceive of those friendships not being “gay” doesn’t mean they were. (See Trevin Wax’s thoughts on this point.)
But, second, it also seems to me there’s an opposite danger that, in our effort to articulate and defend the existence of something like “close, non-sexual friendships between men” in past eras, we may overlook the importance of homosexual feelings in shaping those friendships. Yes, of course, “homosexuality” as we know it didn’t exist as a social construct until relatively recently, but that doesn’t mean the reality of persistent, predominant same-sex sexual desire didn’t exist and that it didn’t have a friendship-deepening effect for those who experienced it. Sure, Bonhoeffer wasn’t “gay” in our post-Stonewall sense. But what Marsh’s biography tries to explore is whether Bonhoeffer may have experienced same-sex attractions and how those attractions may have led him to look for ways to love his friend Bethge. Bonhoeffer evidently didn’t—and maybe didn’t even want to—have sex with Bethge (and presumably Bethge himself wouldn’t have consented anyway). But did Bonhoeffer’s romantic feelings for his friend, if indeed they existed (as Marsh believes they did), lead him into a pursuit of emotional and spiritual intimacy with Bethge that he wouldn’t otherwise have sought? I think there’s a danger in avoiding that question, too, even as there’s a danger in jumping to the conclusion “Bonhoeffer was gay.”