Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness

In a letter home to Max Diestel, Dietrich wrote, “There is no theology here. . . . The students—on average twenty-five to thirty years old—are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions.”

It was not a promising start, but Dietrich soon found a few friends with whom he could have meaningful conversations. They were an unusual group: Erwin Sutz, a Swiss; Jean Lasserre, a Frenchman; and Frank Fisher, an African-American man from Alabama. Dietrich loved the different perspectives these men brought to their conversations, and it wasn’t long before Frank invited Dietrich to attend a service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in nearby Harlem.

Dietrich wasn’t sure what to expect as he headed to the church on 138th Street. What he found astonished him: the church building was large and imposing. When Frank explained how the building had been financed, Dietrich was amazed. The church had begun in 1808 when a group of Africans and Ethiopian sea merchants left First Baptist Church in lower Manhattan. The people refused to accept the racially segregated seating that took place there and left to form their own church. Drawing on the ancient name of Ethiopia—Abyssinia—they founded the Abyssinian Baptist Church. They believed that even if there was racism outside the church, inside the church all people should be treated equally as Christian brothers and sisters, and that’s what they strove for. Over the years the Abyssinian Baptist Church outgrew several facilities until the large church on 138th Street was built. The building was completely financed by tithes from the congregation.

Dietrich was impressed and sat transfixed as the pastor, Dr. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., preached. Dr. Powell was the liveliest pastor he’d ever heard. Dietrich soon found himself casting off his German reserve, singing and swaying along with the throng of people in attendance. Frank explained that the Abyssinian Baptist Church had a membership of nearly fourteen thousand, making it the largest Protestant church in the United States.

Attending the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was a life-changing experience for Dietrich. He asked Frank about race relations in the United States and why black people were treated differently than whites. Frank invited Dietrich to go to Washington, DC, with him for Thanksgiving. Dietrich readily agreed, and he and Frank and another African-American student drove to Washington. When they stopped on the way for lunch, Dietrich was shocked when the waiter said they would have to leave. Black people were not welcome to sit with whites. Having grown up in Europe, where everyone was pretty much of one race, Dietrich found it impossible to fathom why people refused to get to know each other simply because of skin color. Things only got worse when they arrived in Washington and Frank took Dietrich sightseeing. It was illegal for them to be in the same tram or sit together on the bus. Dietrich could hardly believe that this was America in 1930.

Knowing that his brother had also been to the United States, Dietrich wrote to Karl-Friedrich saying, “I want to have a look at church conditions in the South, which allegedly can still be quite peculiar, and get to know the situation of the Negroes in a bit more detail.”

The letter he received back from his brother surprised Dietrich. Karl-Friedrich explained that he’d been offered a university post in the United States but had chosen not to accept it, because he didn’t want to raise his children in a racially divided country. Dietrich knew exactly what his brother meant.

After returning to New York, Dietrich committed himself to work at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. He knew he looked very blond and pale compared to the other church members, but he figured that if he made himself useful they would accept him, and they did. Soon Dietrich was a well-loved figure at the church as he attended Sunday services regularly and taught a Sunday school class.

Dietrich’s next experience had nothing to do with church or religion, but it challenged his thinking nonetheless. It occurred when he agreed to accompany Jean Lasserre, his French friend at Union Theological Seminary, to see a newly released movie called All Quiet on the Western Front. The movie, based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, was about young German soldiers during the war.

Within minutes of sitting down in the movie theater, Dietrich was unsure whether he should have come. The movie opened with a group of enthusiastic young German schoolboys being lectured on the joys of serving the Fatherland as soldiers. At first the boys were reluctant to embrace the message, but as the teacher persisted, they caught a vision of the glorious war that awaited them. In a fit of patriotic fervor they left the classroom to sign up to fight.

Watching the action on screen, Dietrich cast his mind back to that time. He had been eight years old when war was declared. He remembered his exuberance and how his mother had chided his sister for being overly excited. He remembered Fräulein Lenchen and how she talked about the young heroes dying. But most of all, he remembered his brother Walter. As he watched, Dietrich wondered whether the movie echoed Walter’s experience—excitement and discipline followed by despair and death. He remembered Walter’s body being returned home in a coffin and how his mother was never the same.

The movie screen flickered as black and white images of gunfire and bombs, blood and barbed wire, told the unfolding story of the boys. Toward the end of the movie, one of the German boys became stuck in a bombed-out hollow with a dying French soldier who was also young, confused, and scared. As Dietrich watched the final minutes of the movie, he wiped away tears that flowed down his cheeks. He looked over and saw that Jean was also crying silently. The American audience had a different reaction, cheering when the movie ended. Dietrich and Jean quietly made their way outside.

Back in his dorm room at the seminary, Dietrich sobbed. It all seemed too much. The senselessness of war and what it had cost his family and his country overcame him. Later he talked to Jean about the movie. Jean was a pacifist who opposed war under any circumstance. Dietrich understood his friend’s position, though he did not quite go that far himself. Nonetheless, All Quiet on the Western Front had thoroughly shaken his notion of war being a noble venture.

As Christmas approached, Dietrich wondered what to do. He had spent Thanksgiving in Washington and was eager for a new experience. In the end he settled on a trip to Cuba to visit his childhood teacher, Käthe Horn, who was teaching at a German school in Havana. Getting to Cuba was an adventure in itself. Dietrich and Erwin Sutz, his Swiss friend, took a train south to Miami, Florida, then caught another train to Key West. This stretch of track, known as the Overseas Railroad, was spectacular as the train traveled over long bridges above the open sea. Dietrich sat by the window watching in wonder as they crossed the sea and dozens of tiny islands, or keys, some just a few feet above sea level. In Key West they boarded a ferry for the ninety-mile voyage south to Havana.

The noise and hubbub of Havana reminded Dietrich of his time in Barcelona. Since Spanish was Cuba’s national language, Dietrich was able to pick up with the Spanish he had learned while living in Spain. He loved the sun and warm temperatures in Cuba. Snow had already been on the ground in New York when he and Erwin had left to head south. Käthe showed Dietrich and Erwin the sights and sounds of Havana. Cuba turned out to be a different and exciting place full of history, culture, and music. On Christmas Day, Dietrich preached the sermon to the German congregation in Havana.

On the way back to New York, Dietrich made some detours to see more of the South and observe how African-Americans were treated there. He was not impressed with what he saw. From his first visit to the Abyssinian Baptist Church, though, Dietrich had fallen in love with Negro spiritual music, and as he traveled the South, he bought as many records of Negro spirituals as he could find.

When the academic year came to a close at Union Theological Seminary in May 1931, Dietrich and Jean took a road trip all the way to Mexico. Dietrich was interested in seeing firsthand the Mexican form of Catholicism, and in Mexico the two men visited many churches and cathedrals before making their way back north to New York.

Dietrich and Jean arrived in New York on June 17. After ten months packed full of activity in the United States, it was time for Dietrich to return to Germany. Dietrich set sail from New York on June 20, 1931.

As he made his way home, Dietrich felt like a different person. For the first time in his life, he had lived completely outside of a German environment. He understood the way the Allies viewed Germans, and he’d had some surprises of his own. He could not understand how a country like the United States could talk so much about justice and liberty for all while at the same time allowing racial discrimination. He was glad to be returning to a country where people of different ethnicities were treated equally, or so he thought. What Dietrich didn’t know was how much Germany had changed in the short time he’d been away.

Chapter 9
Dark Developments

Dietrich was glad to be home in Berlin. His parents welcomed him warmly. It was good to see his siblings again and their ever-growing brood of children. Yet Dietrich was amazed at how much Germany had changed. Now that the Nazis were the second-largest political party in the country, they were trying to exert their influence in every area of culture. Dietrich wrote to his Swiss friend Erwin Sutz, “The outlook is really exceptionally grim. We are standing at a tremendous turning point in world history.”

Soon after arriving back in Germany, Dietrich visited Karl Barth in Bonn. Given the impact Barth’s theology and writings had had on him, Dietrich was eager to meet the man. The two of them spent many hours together discussing their points of view, and Dietrich came away from the meeting more impressed with Barth than he had imagined he would.

In Berlin, Dietrich became a lecturer at the University of Berlin. Although his subject was theology, he liked to challenge his students. One of his lectures was on the subject of whether the church is outdated. “Nowadays we often ask ourselves whether we still need the church, whether we still need God. But this is the wrong question to be asking. We are the ones who are being questioned. The church exists, and God exists, and we are asked whether we are willing to be a part of the church and of service, for God needs us,” he declared.

Dietrich was speaking to himself as much as to his students. He loved being a theology lecturer, but he was also sure God had called him to be a pastor. In fact, he was ordained a pastor on November 15, 1931, and began looking for pastoral opportunities. It wasn’t long before he was asked to take over the confirmation class of fifty boys at Zionskirche, in the suburb of Wedding, a notoriously rough and poverty-stricken area in the north of Berlin.

In Germany, parents sent their children to confirmation class not because they felt it was good for their children but because it was the law. This meant that confirmation classes were often filled with unruly boys who did not care about religion at all, and the boys’ class at Zionskirche in Wedding was no exception, as Dietrich soon found out.

As Dietrich and the local pastor walked upstairs to the third floor where the confirmation class was held, the fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys who made up the class peered over the banister yelling and hurling garbage down on Dietrich and the pastor. Dietrich’s heart sank. This was not going to be an easy assignment. In the third-floor classroom the pastor introduced Dietrich to the boys as their new catechism teacher. Immediately the boys began chanting the first syllable of his name, “Bon! Bon! Bon!” The pastor shrugged in despair and left Dietrich alone at the front of the class. Dietrich stood silently, his hands in his pockets, and waited for the chanting to subside. As the minutes passed and he failed to respond to the taunting, the boys began to tire and quiet down. When the chant stopped, Dietrich spoke in a soft voice, telling the boys about his experiences in Harlem and the Abyssinian Baptist Church. At first only the boys in the front row could hear, but soon the room was completely quiet as those at the back strained to hear. Dietrich promised to tell the boys more about Harlem next time. At the next confirmation class the boys stayed quiet and listened as Dietrich described his American travels and told several Bible stories. From then on Dietrich had few discipline problems with the class.