Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

Even though Ursula and Sabine were gone, Dietrich found life at home as busy as ever. His mother still organized musical evenings at the house, and Dietrich was sure to be there. On Sundays he liked to get up early with his brothers and sisters and head to the Halensee station. There they would meet up with various friends for the train trip across Berlin to the Müggelsee lake area on the eastern side of town. They spent the day picnicking, talking, and walking around Müggelsee and the other lakes in the area.

The walks gave Dietrich time to think about the new ideas and concepts he was learning in his theology classes. The University of Berlin was one of the most prestigious universities in Europe, and Dietrich felt blessed to have some of the great theological thinkers of the day teaching him, men like Adolf von Harnack, Karl Holl, and Reinhold Seeberg. Surprisingly, it was not the writings or teachings of any of these three that Dietrich felt most drawn to. Dietrich was drawn to the work of a professor at Göttingen University, 150 miles away. This man, Karl Barth, was not even German, but was Swiss. What was important to Dietrich was not Barth’s nationality but the radical ideas he put forward. Barth redirected scholarly theology back to the Bible and away from the liberal thought that was pervasive at the time. He declared that God was transcendent and unknowable by man except through revelation, and that revelation could be discerned through studying the Bible.

Dietrich found Barth’s view to be a breath of fresh air. It provided him a different framework from which to approach the Bible. It was at odds with what he was learning from Adolf von Harnack, who asserted that man couldn’t speculate about the existence of God—it is unknowable. According to Harnack’s approach, all one could do was draw lessons and conclusions from the biblical texts and their history with the aid of science and logic.

Dietrich was also both astonished and delighted to learn that his cousin, Hans-Christoph von Hase, who had gone to Göttingen University to study physics, had been so impressed with a lecture by Karl Barth that he had switched to studying theology. Now there would be two theologians in the family, and someone for Dietrich to have deep conversations with.

By the end of his first year at the University of Berlin, Dietrich had decided on his thesis topic. Drawing from his experience in Rome the year before, Dietrich wanted to study the true meaning of the church. In particular, he wanted to explore the notion that it was more than a historic organization or current institution. He titled his thesis Sanctorum Communio (The Communion of Saints): A Dogmatic Inquiry Into the Sociology of the Church.

Around the time Dietrich finalized the subject of his thesis, he attended the wedding of his older sister Christine, who married Hans von Dohnanyi. Now one less sibling was living at home. However, Grandmother Bonhoeffer soon took Christine’s place. She was getting older, her house in Tübingen had become too big for her to care for, and she moved to Berlin to live with the family.

During his second year at the University of Berlin, Dietrich embarked on another adventure. Part of his degree requirement stipulated that he find a way to serve in a local church. Dietrich began attending the Grunewald Lutheran Church regularly, something new to him. He asked his mother, herself a devout Christian, why she had never insisted that he or his siblings attend church. Paula’s answer was simple. Her father had been a pastor, and she had grown up in the church and been a Sunday school teacher herself. In the process, she saw some church adults push strange and frightening ideas onto young children at Sunday school, and she decided not to let that happen to her children. Instead she taught them Bible lessons and read them stories at home. Dietrich was satisfied with her answer. He had no doubt he’d received a genuine Christian upbringing from her.

Following in his mother’s footsteps, Dietrich decided to take on the challenge of teaching Sunday school in the parish church. At first he was unsure whether he would enjoy such work and, more important, whether the children would enjoy being around him. Dietrich need not have worried. He soon discovered he had a natural gift for working with and teaching children. He loved planning lessons that would help even the youngest children understand ideas about God, and he often made up parables and fairy tales to make his points. The children loved Dietrich’s approach, and soon his Sunday school class was overflowing with enthusiastic children. In fact, the class grew so big that he enlisted the help of his sister Susanne to take the overflow. Together they formed a strong team.

On April 6, 1926, Dietrich, along with the rest of the Bonhoeffer family, attended Sabine’s wedding. Dietrich’s twenty-year-old twin sister married Gerhard Liebholz, who at twenty-eight years of age was already a full professor of law at the University of Greifswald. Now all of the Bonhoeffer girls except Susanne were married. Ursula and her husband, Rüdiger, had children, making Dietrich an uncle and his parents grandparents. Dietrich smiled as he saw how much his parents savored their new role.

Dietrich enjoyed teaching children so much that in April 1927 he started another group, the Thursday Circle, and cast a wider net than the church group. In fact, many of the teenage boys whom he invited to his house for the gathering were Jewish. The Thursday Circle covered a range of topics. One week Dietrich might lead a conversation on the gods of the ancient Germans and the next week an exploration of the Muslim faith. The Thursday Circle often met for outings on Saturdays as well, attending operas, ballets, and guest lectures at the university. Dietrich’s involvement in the group brought him a great deal of satisfaction. He believed Germany needed strong, intelligent young men to help rebuild the country and strengthen its fledgling democracy.

The situation in Germany had improved. The runaway inflation of the German mark had been stabilized, and things remained calm in the streets. Even so, many small political parties, particularly right-wing groups, were vying for power in the country. Dietrich was too busy to keep up with all the political maneuvering going on, and the subject was rarely brought up at home. Science and music and family occupied conversation in the Bonhoeffer home.

Life continued at a brisk pace for Dietrich, who was eager to complete his theological studies and so took on many extra classes. At the same time, he continued to teach Sunday school, run the Thursday Circle with its Saturday outings, and play an active role in the life of his family. The Saturday evening musical gatherings his mother hosted were attended by friends, neighbors, and relatives, including an ever-growing number of grandchildren. Despite his other responsibilities, Dietrich attended each musical gathering, playing the piano as he still loved to do and entertaining his young nieces and nephews.

By now, Dietrich had a girlfriend, a fellow theology student named Elizabeth Zinn. Elizabeth shared Dietrich’s enthusiasm for the ideas of Karl Barth, and the two of them enjoyed long conversations as they toured the museums of Berlin and attended the symphony.

Dietrich’s time at the University of Berlin passed quickly. Before he knew it, 1927 was drawing to a close. Dietrich had finished his thesis and successfully defended it. He graduated summa cum laude, the only person in his class to receive the distinction. At twenty-one years of age, he was now Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich’s life was at a crossroads. He could move in either of two directions: he could become a university lecturer and pursue further theological studies, or he could become a pastor and help shape the life of the church he had studied so much about.

Dietrich’s family assumed he would choose teaching at university level, but Dietrich’s heart pulled him in the other direction. Two days after Christmas 1927, Dietrich received a telephone call from Lutheran Superintendent Max Diestel, who offered him a yearlong position as an assistant pastor at a German-speaking church in Barcelona, Spain. Somehow Dietrich felt a year in another country serving the German population there would be good for him. His parents were shocked when they heard the news. They’d hoped that if Dietrich did take on a pastoral role outside Germany it would be in London or Paris or Rome, not in a place like Barcelona. Still, the more Dietrich thought about going to Barcelona as an assistant pastor, the more he liked the idea. He decided that one year away from everything and everyone he knew would be a great test of his faith and manhood.

Four days after his twenty-second birthday, Dietrich boarded a train in Berlin and headed westward to Paris. From there he took another train south to Barcelona. As the train rolled along, Dietrich was nervous. Going to Barcelona had seemed like a good idea, but now here he was, headed nearly a thousand miles from Berlin to another country, to work under a pastor he had never met.

As the train pulled into Paris, the city was enveloped in damp mist. Soon Dietrich was on his way again, headed south to Barcelona, and the sun came out as he left Paris behind. Dietrich watched as the train skirted the Mediterranean coast, passing quaint fishing villages on the left and mile after mile of almond groves on the right, until it reached Barcelona.

Pastor Fritz Olbricht was waiting at the train station. He was an older man and looked tired. He shook Dietrich’s hand warmly and explained that he was about to head back to Germany for a three-month vacation.

Pastor Olbricht found Dietrich a room in a boarding house near the church. It was run by three Spanish women who welcomed Dietrich warmly. Three other German men rented rooms in the boarding house, and they were friendly toward Dietrich too.

Until this point in his life, Dietrich had not thought much about why Germans would choose to live in a foreign country. He soon learned they did it for all sorts of reasons: some were seeking adventure or were involved in international businesses, while others were fleeing the law. He described his findings in a letter to his family.

One has to deal with the strangest persons, with whom one would otherwise scarcely have exchanged a word: bums, vagabonds, criminals on the run, many foreign legionaries, lion and other animal trainers who have run away from the Krone Circus on its Spanish tour, German dancers from the music-halls here, German murderers on the run. . . .

Dietrich came in contact with all these people in the course of his duties. As assistant pastor he conducted services in Barcelona and other smaller towns and at the sailors’ mission. The church ran a welfare office where Germans could come if they were in trouble. Many of those who came to the office came seeking financial help to return to Germany.

Approximately six thousand Germans were living in Barcelona, and about forty of them came to church regularly. Since the church had no Sunday school, Dietrich decided to start one. Things did not begin well. Only one girl showed up the first Sunday, but Dietrich was not deterred. He taught the full Sunday school lesson to the single student, and the next week fifteen children showed up ready to learn. By the end of the first month, forty children were regularly attending Sunday school.

Dietrich had opportunity to visit the families of these children, and he was soon encouraging the parents to come along to church. This proved a successful strategy and led to Dietrich’s decision to become more involved in Barcelona’s German community. Dietrich joined the chorale society, where he was quickly appointed to play the piano; the German society, where he liked to play chess; and the tennis club. Dietrich attended these three groups regularly, but his main focus was drawing people to church. He loved writing and delivering sermons each Sunday and soon struck on the idea of a series of lectures that might interest a wider audience. During the winter he gave a series of four lectures open to the general public. Large numbers of people attended, and Dietrich was soon widely recognized around Barcelona.