Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Things became quite dangerous in Berlin as the Spartacists (communists) battled in the streets to overthrow the Council of People’s Commissioners and establish a government like the one that had taken over Russia in 1917. One of these battles took place in front of Halensee train station, a half-mile from the Bonhoeffer home. As night fell, Dietrich lay in bed listening to the screaming and yelling in the distance while the sound of gunfire peppered the air. He wondered whether things would ever settle down in Berlin.

It wasn’t long before a paramilitary group of volunteer soldiers called Freikorps—many of whom had recently returned from the Western Front—decided to deal with the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. Bloody street battles were soon taking place, where people were shot or bludgeoned to death. Eventually the Freikorps prevailed, crushing the communist revolt and killing the two Spartacist leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, on January 15.

Although things settled down a little more on the streets of Berlin after this, many people were unhappy. As far as they could see, when they looked at the political and economic mess in Germany, the only answer to the nation’s woes was communism. Dietrich knew that his father was not one who thought this way. Dietrich’s father put his faith in the upcoming election of a new National Assembly as the way to stabilize the country.

The election took place on January 19, and the Social Democratic Party won a majority of the seats in the National Assembly. Their first job was to write a new democratic constitution for Germany. But as more violence erupted in Berlin’s streets, the National Assembly decided to convene in the city of Weimar to discuss drawing up the new constitution.

Meanwhile, Karl-Friedrich returned home. He had been wounded in the closing days of the war. Thankfully his injuries were not life threatening, though he did have to spend time in the hospital. Dietrich was glad when his oldest brother arrived home safely.

Karl-Friedrich told Dietrich stories about what it had really been like fighting on the Western Front. Before he left to go to war, Walter had made fighting seem almost glamorous, but Karl-Friedrich’s grim description of conditions on the front lines painted a very different picture.

Soon Klaus also returned home. His military experience had been quite different from his older brother’s. Klaus had been an orderly at German General Headquarters in Spa, Belgium, where conditions were much better than on the front lines. Klaus told Dietrich all about how he had been stationed in the hallway outside the room where Field Marshal von Hindenburg had met with Kaiser Wilhelm II and told him that for the good of Germany he must abdicate the throne. Klaus had witnessed history that day, he told Dietrich.

Except for Walter’s absence, the Bonhoeffer family felt complete and happy again. Dietrich wished that all Germany could feel that way, but the country was far from happy or complete. As the debate over the new constitution dragged on in Weimar, fighting continued in the streets of various German cities. In Munich a Soviet-style republic was declared, but once again the Freikorps moved in to brutally put the rebellion down.

It wasn’t only left-wing groups like the communists and the socialists causing problems in the streets. Militant right-wing groups made up of workers and returned soldiers loyal to the old political order argued that Germany had lost the war because communists had fomented rebellion among the armed forces and stabbed the country in the back. These groups opposed both the new democratic order that had been established in Germany and the communists, whom they openly attacked in the streets.

At night Dietrich would lie in bed and think about the situation in Germany. Everyone seemed to blame someone else for the country’s problems. Dietrich wondered how long people would continue to do this. Couldn’t they see that their actions were only hurting Germany more?

There was more pain to come. In May 1919 the Allies published their postwar demands of Germany. The demands sent Germans reeling. Karl Bonhoeffer was so astonished he could hardly discuss the matter without sinking his face in his hands.

The Treaty of Versailles, a document named after the town in France where it was negotiated, asked a lot of a country that had already lost its kaiser, its sense of honor, and two million of its young men in the fighting. Now, according to the treaty, Germany must also give up territory to France, Belgium, and Denmark, along with all its Asian and African colonies. And if that were not enough, Article 231 of the treaty read, “The Allied and Associated Governments affirm and Germany accepts the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage to which the Allied and Associated Governments and their nationals have been subjected as a consequence of the war imposed upon them by the aggression of Germany and her allies.” As a result of this article, Germany would be required to pay huge sums of money as reparations for the damage caused to the Allies during the war.

It was almost too much for Germany to accept, but what choice did the country have? Even Dietrich thought Article 231 went too far and railed against it. But in the end, Germany accepted the conditions and signed the Treaty of Versailles.

Around the same time, Dietrich began attending a new school, the Grunewald Gymnasium, designed to prepare students for a university education. The new school was located within easy walking distance of the Bonhoeffer home. No longer did Dietrich have to travel across Berlin to get to and from school. From the start, Dietrich enjoyed Grunewald Gymnasium, where he made new friends.

The teachers expected Dietrich to excel in science as his older brothers had when they attended. But Dietrich had a secret dream—he wanted to be a theologian. He knew it was a strange choice for a boy whose father was a well-known psychiatrist and who came from a family that did not attend church. But for some reason this was the vocation Dietrich felt drawn to, though he decided not to announce his decision to his family right away.

The new German constitution was finally agreed upon and was adopted on August 11. The new German republic was known as the Weimar Republic, after Weimar, where the new constitution was drafted. Dietrich hoped that things would settle down, but violence continued in the streets and constant attempts were made to overthrow the government.

Dietrich and Sabine celebrated their fourteenth birthday on February 4, 1920. Dietrich decided it was time to tell the family of his desire to become a theologian. He didn’t think they would be supportive of his choice, and he was right. When his father heard the news, he raised his left eyebrow and kept a serious look on his face. Dietrich knew this was not good. Karl wanted to know why on earth his son had chosen theology and not science or music. Dietrich was a gifted piano player. Why not be a concert pianist rather than a theologian? Even Dietrich’s mother, whose father and brother were both pastors, found Dietrich’s career choice surprising. And his older brothers and sisters kidded him mercilessly about the decision. Karl-Friedrich wanted to know why Dietrich would want to leave the verifiable reality of science to escape in the fog of metaphysics. Besides, didn’t he know that being a theologian was a dead-end career choice meant for lesser people than a Bonhoeffer? Klaus mockingly asked, “Why would you devote yourself to a poor, feeble, boring, and bourgeois institution as the church?” Dietrich confidently refuted his brother’s question by saying, “In that case, I shall reform it!”

Dietrich stood his ground amid his family’s opposition and skepticism. He could not satisfactorily explain the decision to himself, let alone his family, but he knew it was the right choice for him.

Although the Bonhoeffer family did not regularly attend church, all of the older children were confirmed in the Lutheran Church. Now that they were fourteen, Dietrich and Sabine were enrolled in confirmation class at the Grunewald church. In March 1920, Dietrich and Sabine were confirmed. Dietrich’s mother gave him his brother Walter’s Bible, which Dietrich treasured. He was honored to have the Bible and promised himself that he would read it often. At school, in preparation for his new career, Dietrich enrolled in Hebrew class and added Greek the following year.

Despite the constant ribbing from his older siblings, Dietrich found that Sabine and Susanne were more supportive of him. The “three little ones” had always had a kind of secret religious club. As small children they played “baptism,” taking turns preaching sermons to each other. As they got older, they began walking to church together, even though their mother suggested that too much church might not be a good thing.

In November 1921, General Bramwell Booth of the Salvation Army arrived in Berlin to hold a series of evangelistic meetings. Until this point in his life, Dietrich had attended only the state church. He wondered how different the Salvation Army could possibly be.

Dietrich made his way to the hall where the meetings were being held. The thousands of people who showed up for the event surprised him, though he decided he was probably the youngest one there. The first thing he noticed as the meeting began was how different the music was. The songs were cheery and fast paced, and the singing was accompanied by a brass band as the congregation sang. How different this was from the Lutheran church.

Bramwell Booth, an elderly Englishman with white hair and a kindly smile, walked to the podium. He opened his Bible and, staring out at the crowd, began to preach about the kingdom of God and how there were no barriers between Christians from different countries. “Every land is my fatherland, for all lands are my Father’s,” he proclaimed. Dietrich was impressed, both by the message Booth preached and by the plain, unadorned, yet powerful way he delivered it. It was as though he could feel Booth’s words as he spoke—something he had never felt before.

Dietrich told Sabine all about the meeting—the exuberant singing, the powerful preaching, and how afterward people had walked to the front in a public show that they wanted to become Christians. Dietrich had never seen anything like it.

Throughout this time Germany continued to be riven with violence. Left-wing groups continued agitating and fighting in the streets to see Germany become communist. They were opposed by ultranationalist right-wing groups wanting to turn back the clock to the way Germany used to be. They believed it was the communists, with the help of the Jews, who had undermined Germany’s war effort and caused the country to lose the war. Many of these right-wing groups said that Germany should get rid of all its communists and Jews. Both the left-wing and right-wing groups took aim at the centrist Weimar government in Berlin.

Dietrich tried to avoid the violence and uncertainty in Germany by studying hard at school. However, as much as he tried to stay clear of the violence, on June 24, 1922, the violence followed him. While sitting in math class, Dietrich heard the crackle of gunfire outside. A small explosion followed and then the sound of a car engine revving and tires screeching. Dietrich knew this meant trouble. Sure enough, word filtered back that Walther Rathenau, Germany’s foreign minister, had just been assassinated less than three hundred meters from Grunewald Gymnasium. Dietrich knew enough about what was going on in the country to know why Rathenau had been targeted. Rathenau was not only Jewish but had also advocated that Germany agree to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. His was a position that right-wing groups hated, and they despised Rathenau.

At home, Dietrich learned from the newspaper that three members of a right-wing group had assassinated Rathenau. The men had pulled their car alongside his as he passed Grunewald Gymnasium and opened fire with a machine gun. They had then lobbed a hand grenade into the car before speeding away. When the police caught up to the assassins, the two who had fired the machine gun committed suicide, though the driver was arrested and would stand trial for his actions.