Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

It was a sad day for Germany, and it was a sad day for Dietrich. Ursula Andreae, one of his friends at school, was Walther Rathenau’s niece. Dietrich had often dined at her house with her uncle, a brilliant man, in attendance. Now the man was dead.

Despite such senseless violence, Dietrich moved forward with his life. In March 1923, at the age of seventeen, he passed the Abitur, or final examination, and was finished with high school. Not only did Dietrich pass the Abitur, but he also graduated with top grades in all his subjects, except handwriting, which was still declared “unsatisfactory.” Now Dietrich looked forward to attending university.

Sabine chose to stay in Berlin and attend art school while Dietrich enrolled at the University of Tübingen, 325 miles southwest of Berlin. Karl-Friedrich had just earned his degree from that university and won a prestigious place at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin to study natural science. Klaus was also at Tübingen, as was Christine, a year behind her older brother and studying biology.

At the time, because money was short, it was arranged for Dietrich and Christine to stay with their Grandmother Bonhoeffer, who lived in Tübingen. This suited Dietrich well. He loved his family and was relieved to know he would not be living among total strangers. He looked forward to the start of university.

Chapter 6

Dietrich stood quietly in the circle of young men, each of whom wore a hedgehog skin on his head. It was hard for Dietrich not to laugh, but his initiation into the Igel, or Hedgehog Fraternity, was a serious matter. His father had been an Igel before him, and Dietrich looked forward to being one as well. The Igel was known as the friendliest fraternity on campus, emphasizing intellectual games and outings rather than the macho sports some of the other fraternities engaged in.

The macho sport Dietrich found the most difficult to understand was fencing. It wasn’t that he thought there was anything wrong with fencing itself. But many rich, young male university students practiced the sport so they could be injured and scarred, especially on their faces. Such a scar was considered a badge of honor and was called a renommierschmiss. It was common to see students in class with their faces bandaged, waiting for the coveted scar to heal. Sometimes, if the wound looked like it was healing too well, a student would pack it with horsehair to inflame the wound and cause a more noticeable scar.

Dietrich’s first year at Tübingen was challenging. Food rationing remained in effect, and everywhere Dietrich looked he saw young soldiers with missing limbs or eyes, a constant reminder of the price the war had cost the German people. To make matters worse, inflation was out of control in the country. Dietrich’s father wrote to say that an insurance policy for one hundred thousand marks on which he had been regularly paying premiums for years had finally matured. But with the runaway inflation, all this amount of money would buy was a bottle of wine and some strawberries. And when Karl went to the store to purchase the items, he found the one hundred thousand marks would cover only the cost of a pound of strawberries. Dietrich wrote home to say that his meals were costing him one billion marks, and a little while later he wrote complaining that a loaf of bread now cost him six billion marks. Fortunately for the Bonhoeffer family, Karl Bonhoeffer saw a number of patients from around Europe who paid him in their countries’ stable currencies, helping the family ride out Germany’s economic woes better than most other German families.

In the middle of his first semester, Dietrich applied for permission to return briefly to Berlin for a family wedding. His older sister Ursula was marrying Rüdiger Schleicher, a promising young lawyer. Dietrich was so happy to see his family again. Even though he lived in Tübingen with his grandmother and sister Christine, he missed everyone in Berlin. At home Dietrich realized how blessed the family was to be able to afford any kind of celebration. Many German families were on the brink of ruin.

Not only did skyrocketing inflation send shock waves through the German economy, but the leaders of Germany were also concerned about the country’s safety and security. One condition of the Treaty of Versailles stipulated that Germany could have an army consisting of one hundred thousand soldiers. The Russian (Soviet) army was many times that size, and Germans were concerned that if the Soviets decided to invade Germany, one hundred thousand soldiers could not stop them. In fact, many Germans doubted that one hundred thousand soldiers could even stop the rioting in the streets if it erupted again. The German government came up with a way to get around the Treaty of Versailles stipulation: as part of their coursework, male German university students received covert military training.

In November 1923 it was Dietrich’s turn to undergo military training. The training would take two weeks and be overseen by the Ulm Rifle Troop. Ulm was located not far from Tübingen, and Dietrich made his way there with a number of his fellow fraternity members. When he arrived, Dietrich wrote his parents. “Today I am a soldier. Yesterday, as soon as we arrived, we were invested with a uniform and were given our equipment. Today we were given grenades and weapons. Until now, to be sure, we have done nothing but assemble and disassemble our beds.”

Still, Dietrich enjoyed the physical challenge. He was now about six feet tall, had a muscular build, and liked athletics. Throughout his training he continued to write letters home.

The exercises have not been very taxing at all. There are approximately 5 hours of marching, shooting, and gymnastics daily, and 3 instruction periods, as well as other things. . . .We live 14 to a room. . . . The only thing that the examination found amiss were my eyes. I’ll probably have to wear glasses when I fire a weapon. . . .

We practiced ground maneuvers with assaults and such. It is especially horrible to throw oneself down on the frozen field with a rifle and a knapsack. Tomorrow we have a big marching exercise with all our equipment, and on Wednesday we have a battalion maneuver. After that the fortnight will soon be over.

On December 1, 1923, Dietrich wrote home from Tübingen, declaring, “Dear Parents, Today I am a civilian.”

Dietrich found his brief stint of army training interesting. Although he was glad to discover that he was physically fit enough to thrive under the challenge, he had no desire to be a soldier. He happily went back to his university studies.

Everything went fine until one afternoon in January 1924, when Dietrich took time off to go skating on the frozen Neckar River that ran in front of his grandmother’s house. Dietrich enjoyed exercising in the bracing cold. But as he sped along on the frozen river, he lost his balance. His skates slid out from under him, and he tumbled to the ice, bumping his head hard in the process. He lapsed into unconsciousness and had to be carried back to his grandmother’s house. When Dietrich didn’t immediately regain consciousness, the doctor was summoned. He examined Dietrich and pronounced that there was little anyone could do except keep him warm and hope he regained consciousness soon.

Dietrich’s parents were informed of the situation and quickly made their way to Tübingen. Thankfully, by the time they arrived, Dietrich was improving. However, as a psychiatrist and neurologist, Karl Bonhoeffer was concerned for his son’s well-being. He examined Dietrich closely and made his diagnosis. His son had suffered a concussion, but there appeared to be no long-lasting consequences. Dietrich would make a complete recovery.

Dietrich was delighted to see his parents, and more so when they decided to stay for his eighteenth birthday on February 4. For his eighteenth birthday they gave him a special gift—an extended trip to Italy with his brother Klaus.

Dietrich was so excited he found it hard to stay in bed. His mother bought him a guidebook to Italy, and he practically memorized the whole thing, including many Italian words and phrases. He also quizzed his mother about her grandfather, the famous theologian August von Hase. Von Hase had visited Italy more than twenty times in his career and brought back several paintings that hung in the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin. Images of the Basilica of St. Peter and ancient Roman ruins flooded Dietrich’s mind. It was going to be difficult to wait until the end of the school year to depart on the trip.

On April 3, 1924, Dietrich and Klaus boarded a train bound for Rome. The train was crowded with fellow Germans wanting to travel outside Germany after being isolated by the war.

Dietrich’s spirits were high as the train chugged south toward Italy. As soon as it crossed the border, Dietrich quickly realized that Italy was even better than he’d imagined. The first stop was Bologna, which Dietrich found to be beautiful. Then it was on to Rome. If Bologna was beautiful, Rome was astounding. Dietrich enjoyed seeing the spectacular sites: the Colosseum and the Pantheon, the paintings of Michelangelo, and the colorful outdoor flower markets. But most of all he enjoyed his visits to the Catholic church, which surprised him, since he had been born and raised a Protestant and had not spent much time thinking about Catholicism.

From Rome, Dietrich and Klaus traveled to Naples and then caught a ferry to Sicily. Although Dietrich enjoyed everything he saw on this leg of the journey, he was eager to get back to Rome.

Once back in Rome, Dietrich set out to further investigate the Catholic church. He attended Mass at St. Peter’s, where he was moved by the singing of the boys’ choir. In fact, everything he experienced during the Mass deeply impressed him. While in Rome, Dietrich began attending Mass regularly. He was especially touched by the services of Holy Week. He even had an audience with the Pope, but that was not what impressed him most about the Catholic church.

Dietrich was most impressed with the idea that people from all over the world could gather under the banner of Catholicism. In Germany, he had been exposed to traditional Protestant churches, which were closely tied to the national identity of Germany and Germans. But here in Rome he was seeing all sorts of people who were able to identify with the same faith, even though they might be from countries that had fought on opposite sides during the war. In Rome, Dietrich saw people of various skin colors from far-flung cultures and nationalities who all saw themselves as belonging to one church.

Dietrich was shocked by the idea that the Christian church might be bigger than one’s own country or even possibly be made up of both Protestants and Catholics. As he lay awake for many nights in Rome thinking about the concept, he recalled all the prayers and declarations by pious Christians during the war that God was on the side of the German people. Now he realized this was not true. There were Christians on both sides of the war, and God could not possibly have wanted them all to win. The more Dietrich pondered what really makes the church and what binds Christians together, even if they are of different nationalities, the more he wanted to spend time studying the notion.

Before Dietrich knew it, it was mid-June, time to return to Berlin. He hated to leave Rome. He loved being there more than almost anywhere he’d ever been. He wrote in his diary, “When I looked at St. Peter’s for the last time, there was a pain in my heart, and I quickly got on the trolleycar and left.”

By the time Dietrich arrived back in Berlin, he had found his life’s mission—to investigate the real meaning of the word church.

Chapter 7
A Breath of Fresh Air

Dietrich arrived back in Berlin just in time to enroll for the summer semester at the University of Berlin. He’d always planned to spend one year at Tübingen and then switch to the University of Berlin, which had one of the best theology departments in Germany.

As he began attending classes, Dietrich had to admit it felt good living back in Berlin. Many things remained the same, but other things had changed, especially with the family. Ursula, now married, was no longer living at home. Neither was Sabine, who was studying in Breslau and had recently become engaged to a young lawyer from a Jewish background named Gerhard Liebholz. Meanwhile, Christine, who had also moved back to Berlin from Tübingen, was seeing Hans von Dohnanyi, who had just graduated with a law degree. Hans, who was two years older than Christine, lived in the Grunewald area of Berlin and was a school friend of Klaus’s. Meanwhile, Dietrich’s oldest brother, Karl-Friedrich, was employed at the prestigious Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where he worked alongside Albert Einstein and Max Planck.