I’ve mentioned Charles Marsh’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer several times here in recent months—there’s a round-up here—but now my full review has been published and is online at Books & Culture. Here’s my conclusion:
On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested. The charges didn’t initially include his involvement in a plot on Hitler’s life (those details would emerge later); they were, rather, lackluster accusations related to his trip to the UK, his avoidance of military service, and other “minor” offenses to do with incendiary speech and assistance to the non-state sanctioned church. Soon he was transferred from a Gestapo cell to the military prison at Tegel. And it was there, finally, that Bonhoeffer tried to put into words the faith he had come to embrace.
Much of what he wrote was centered around [his closest friend Eberhard] Bethge, whom Marsh’s portrayal foregrounds. Bonhoeffer loved Bethge in a way he never loved anyone else, not even his (much younger) fiancée, Maria. “[T]he human,” he wrote, “is created in such a way that we seek not the many but the one particular.” (Again, Bonhoeffer rejected the monastic preference for companies rather than pairs.) One could speculate that Bonhoeffer was a homosexual, albeit a celibate one, but Marsh wisely avoids any clear-cut verdict on that score. He lingers over the relationship, revealing its depth and intensity in a way no other scholar has attempted. But what emerges most clearly from that close attention is not a homoerotically inclined Bonhoeffer to the exclusion of a “quite normal” one (to use Bethge’s designation for his friend) but a Bonhoeffer whose zeal for intimacy and filial, spiritual closeness complicates and overflows the categories by which we often classify such things. I think here of Rowan Williams’ conclusion that romantic love and the love of same-sex friendship are best understood as “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.”
Perhaps it was the austerity of the war years that made Bonhoeffer eschew the timidity of expression he might otherwise have disciplined himself to observe in his friendship with Bethge (“[I]n the months here in prison I have had quite a terrible longing,” he exclaimed in one of his letters). Or perhaps the reason for his pursuit of such a friendship was deeper than merely a consciousness of time having grown short. Perhaps it was owing, more fundamentally, to what Bonhoeffer had come to see as the way to embody the faith and spirituality he had long sought. “God, the Eternal,” he wrote to Bethge in 1944, “wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus”—the primary musical voice to which other voices in a polyphonic composition relate in counterpoint. God is found and known and loved in the world, in relationships, in the love between human beings, “in a few people one wants to see and with whom one wishes to be together,” Bonhoeffer said. If true, it was an experience of God he would only know for a few months longer. He was executed in April 1945, just before the Allied forces arrived to liberate the Nazi prisons but not before he had asked Bethge to save his prison letters for possible publication. It was one of the last exchanges Bonhoeffer had with “the man who was his soul mate,” and, thus, it seems to be the most natural, the most intimate, lens through which to view Bonhoeffer’s entire life.
We speak often here at SF about needing to see real-life, in-the-flesh friendships—how they work (or don’t), what makes them tick. For me, even before Marsh’s biography appeared, the friendship of Dietrich and Eberhard was one of those inspiring and instructive models. It was far from peaceful: Dietrich could be possessive, mercurial, demanding. But reading their letters to one another is still, I would say, one of the high points of my life as a reader. Their friendship continues to move me and delight me and provoke me, and I’d commend their writings to anyone here who wants to know more about what friendship can be.