Thursday, May 19, 2011
I’m not a huge fan of biographies. I have, of course, read plenty of them over the years and some I really have enjoyed immensely. (Robert K. Massie’s biography of Peter the Great comes right to mind, for example. As do—to think off the top of my head of books I’ve truly liked—Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, Joel Kraemer’s biography of Maimonides, Maynard Solomon’s biography of Beethoven, and Kitty Kelley’s great book about Sinatra.) Others, not so much. The problem always seems to be either too much detail (Peter Gay’s, Freud: A Life for Our Times come to mind in that regard) or, less often—as, for example, in the case of that same author’s book about Mozart—too little. For what it’s worth, I generally like autobiographies even less. Mind you, I just read one which will interest Shelter Rockers endlessly and regarding which I am publishing a separate review in the June issue of the Shelter Rock bulletin. But why give away that surprise here when the bulletin itself will come out in just a few weeks?
Having said all that, I’ve just finished reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His name, the author’s I mean, will be known to some of you for his book about William Wilberforce, the man responsible for bringing both the slave trade and slavery itself to an end in the British empire. (I haven’t read that book, actually, but I’d like to. It is, more formally: Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery, published by HarperOne in 2007. Maybe I’ll make it next year’s pre-Pesach read when slavery seems a reasonable thing to be thinking about. I’ll let you all know what I think then.) But will the subject’s name be any more familiar to most of us? Like most of you, I think I vaguely knew that Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister who lived and worked in Nazi Germany. But the details of his life—and specifically his role in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and the horrific story of his execution at the personal order of his intended victim on April 9, 1945, just three weeks before the fall of Berlin and a day short of a single month before the collapse of Nazi Germany—were unknown to me. Nor can I say that I would have been able to say anything at all about the rest of his life’s work or his legacy before reading Metaxas’ book. In fact, I only came to the book because it came highly recommended to me and, like you (I hope), I generally make it my business to follow up on a good lead when someone whose literary taste I trust recommends a book I haven’t heard about. Sometimes that doesn’t quite work out as planned, of course, but most of the time it leads me to all sorts of interesting books I would otherwise probably not even come across, let alone actually read. But I have to say this was an exceptional experience, reading this book. And I recommend it to you wholeheartedly as something well worth your time. The book's full title is Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, published in 2010 by Thomas Nelson.
Generally speaking, rabbis (I guess) are not supposed to recommend that people read deeply inspiring books about the clergy of other faiths. But why should that be, really? In the end, the quality I admire the most in clergymen and women of all stripes is not the specific degree to which they hew to details of the religious systems to which they subscribe, but the degree to which their work is characterized by a sense of absolute and unyielding intellectual and spiritual integrity. And it is in that light that I found myself not merely enjoying a masterful biography set in the first four and a half decades of the twentieth century against a backdrop that includes Berlin, London, and New York, but feeling beyond inspired by the story of a man who embodies the concept of spiritual integrity in a way that all people who subscribe to religious beliefs, most definitely including ourselves, should not only respect but also honor, and honor deeply.
Bonhoeffer grew up in Berlin. In every sense, his was a golden childhood. His father was one of Germany’s best known and most accomplished neurologists. His mother was from one of Germany’s most distinguished families. He had an older brother who died in the First World War and two sisters, one of whom later married a man who was also part of the conspiracy to kill Hitler and who was executed on the same day as his brother-in-law, and also who was eventually honored at Yad Vashem as one of the righteous Gentiles who risked everything to save Jewish lives. There was plenty of money, plenty of prestige, education at Germany’s finest schools, a large home staffed by servants, and large servings of pre-war Germany culture at its finest. Against all odds (and also against his father’s wishes), Dietrich chose theology as his field of academic interest. But (in this one way not unlike myself) he eventually found life in the academy to be too far removed from the actual lives of the people he truly wished to serve, and so he chose instead to pursue a career in the actual ministry. Eventually, he served congregations in Germany and then in England. He was in New York on the eve of the Second World War, where he was especially influenced by the preaching of Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., then the minister of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He could have stayed. He could have settled into a nice life in New York and known about the war by reading about it in the newspapers. But instead he made the first of the decisions that would alter the course of his life permanently and lead eventually to the gallows because, even though he was totally free and safe in New York, he felt called by God to return to Germany and to attempt to influence the faithful to oppose Nazism and to depose its leader.
To give you more of a sense of the man and his moral worth, let me cite a letter he wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr, then a professor at the Union Theological Seminary across from JTS on Broadway, explaining his decision. “I have come to the conclusion,” he wrote in August of 1939, “that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people... Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security." He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic. And thus was the man’s eventual doom sealed years before he had an actual inkling of what exactly lay in store for him.
Metaxas’ book makes it clear in a way that no other book I’ve read just what this decision actively to work against the Nazis meant in the circles in which Bonhoeffer travelled in the first years of the war. For us, the Jewish question will always crowd out everything else. That is undoubtedly just as it should be: if we don’t remember our own martyrs, who will? As a result, though, we tend to think of wartime Germans as monolithically evil. I notice myself doing that as well, but there were also Bonhoeffers to consider, men and women who could not simply stand back and do nothing. In the end, none of them was successful. None brought down the government. None managed to assassinate the arch-fiend himself. But they existed and, at the risk of their own lives, they did what they could to topple a regime that was not merely criminal in terms of its activities but truly demonic in terms of its worldview, its ruthlessness, and its disregard for the elemental value of human life. Reading about these people would be stirring enough. But watching Bonhoeffer evolve in terms of his faith in God—and, yes, I mean to say his Christian faith, since Bonhoeffer was a deeply pious Christian in every aspect of his demeanor, behavior, and personal philosophy—from a merely concerned citizen who didn’t like the direction in which his country was headed to a man who, to quote the founder of his own church, simply “could do no other” because of the conviction that turning away from the struggle against Nazis would be tantamount to renouncing God and faith in God—watching such a man evolve is both stirring and very inspiring.
We talk a lot about the importance of incorporating the struggle for social justice into our religious lives. We mean it, of course, but, in the end, we also find it more than possible to look away—or rather most of us do most of the time—when what is involved crosses the line from talking to doing, from opining that right must be done to actually taking steps that could lead to danger or arrest in the cause of justice. Whether reticence to put oneself on the line for others is simply hardwired into the human condition as a feature of our very human will to survive or whether it would more accurately be described as self-serving fecklessness (and thus as a flaw in, rather than as a basic feature of, human nature) is a question for philosophers to ponder. But to be inspired by the story of a man who gave his life to bring down a tyrant and whose last words, imbued with the approach to martyrdom that is characteristic of religious faith at its finest, were “This is…for me the beginning of life“—that is not solely for philosophers to ponder but for all who adhere to any set of religious beliefs at all to admire, and to admire deeply.
There are lots of features of Christian theology I find perplexing. There is a long, bitter history of Christian anti-Judaism that gets in the way of any positive appraisal of the role Christianity and its adherents have played in the life of our people. The founder of Bonhoeffer’s church himself was the author of one of the most viciously anti-Semitic tracts ever published in the pre-Nazi era. And yet…you will find it impossible to read a book like Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer without being moved. And it is therein that the book’s great merit lies and why I recommend it to you: here was a man who, for once, was the real deal, a man of faith whose beliefs led him only to good, only towards justice, only towards the conviction (for which he paid with his life) that life in the service of God cannot mean other than undertaking a lifelong struggle for justice in the world for all of God’s creatures.