Blogging Bethge Chapter Ten

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, Chapter Ten

“Finkenwalde: 1936-1937” pgs. 493-586

Other Works consulted:

The Way to Freedom: Letters, Lectures and Notes, 1935-1939, Edited by Edwin Robertson, Cleveland: Collins-World, 1977.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, the Centenary Edition, Fortress, 2006.

Daring, Trusting Spirit: Bonhoeffer’s Friend Eberhard Bethge by John W. de Gruchy, Fortress, 2006.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Life in Pictures, the Centenary Edition, edited by Renate Bethge and Christian Gremmels is a “must-have” when going through Bethge. It offers a pictorial chronology of every person, event, and writing pertinent to the time. By way of example, pg. 100-101 offers photos of Bethge lecturing at the Behrenhoff estate in 1936 and the cover of the issue of Evangelische Theologie where Bonhoeffer’s article “On the Question of Church Membership” appeared. With such a complex chapter as this one, I think you’d do well at times to peruse the wider angle lens that this book offers.

The first paragraph of Bethge’s chapter ten is a reflection on the seminary’s role in the three stages of the German church struggle. Just where Finkenwalde ends abruptly its’ significance is interwoven with the life of the church. Bonhoeffer is left without a building, its occupants are conscripted or imprisoned, but his mission remains unchanged: be a Christian and serve the church! Chapter ten concentrates more heavily than nine on the changes within the Confessing church that weakened it to outside pressure. In the end, the closure of the seminary took place very quickly and unexpectedly. In my reading I felt so belabored by the weight of changes within the church as a whole, that when the expected arrests, searches, and imprisonments finally took place the outcome was a severe drop in the momentum. The action continued for as long as possible, and then it stopped.

Bonhoeffer and the Finkenwaldians were so dedicated to their task, so firm in their resolve, that their faith seems to overwhelm the outcome itself. Yes they are physically removed from their work, very similar to nonviolent resistance itself. And why can’t it be seen that way? Their work itself was a form of resistance without arms against the State. They worked the democratic process at the very point at which that process was denied. Later in the chapter, after the arrests and closures have begun, we find a very unique act of civil disobedience. Bethge writes:

“No attempt was made to prevent Bonhoeffer’s return to Finkenwalde on 5 July. He sent a delegation from the seminary to Dahlem, where an important service of intercession was planned for 8 August. This developed into an open street demonstration because the police had cordoned off the church. The protest march by the excluded congregation was one of the very few instances of spontaneous “revolt” against National Socialism during the thirties. That evening, after vain attempts to disperse the crowd, the police made a large number of arrests. About 250 of the demonstrators, including some ordinands from Finkenwalde, were taken in trucks to the prison in Alexanderplatz where they were temporarily detained.” (580)

A “still life” scene stands out to me from this chapter. On July 1, 1937, Bethge and Bonhoeffer entered Martin Niemoller’s parsonage only to find that he’d just been taken away by the Gestapo. Upon their arrival they found themselves, together with Franz Hildebrandt and Eugen Rose, under house arrest. Bethge wrote:

“Thus they became involuntary witnesses to a seven-hour search in which every corner of Niemoller’s study was painstakingly examined; it eventually led to the discovery, behind a picture, of a safe containing thirty thousand marks that belonged to the Pastors’ Emergency League. Everyone was astounded at the meticulous tidiness of Niemoller’s desk, which contained neatly written verbatim copies of his sermons; it was something no one had expected of the spirited man.”

That little touch of humanity jumps out of the text at me. With darkness all around, in the face of tremendous fear, these pastors all noticed the unexpected tidiness of their friend’s desk. In my work through chapter ten (and remember with my reading its not just this chapter its all the other texts I can get as well) I couldn’t feel content with just the facts as they were. I must find the touchstone, the connection between my own place in the twenty first century and this time I’m reading about, such as things like music making, vacations, illness, or the weight of travel.

I have found in John deGruchy biography of Eberhard Bethge a third angle to the events Bethge writes about in chapter ten. In Daring, Trusting Spirit (pgs. 28-43) I learned of the significance of the vacation where Dietrich and Eberhard learned of Finkenwalde’s closure. From this new outside look we can see the community formed between these two men that carried them beyond their seminary’s physical closure and provided a linchpin for their continued work. Bonhoeffer needed someone worthy of trust who could keep him grounded and focused. The bond between these men began at Finkenwalde, deepened in the Collective Pastorates, and then continued through the conspiracy and imprisonment.

“The fifth session at Finkenwalde ended on 11 September 1937. The two friends spent the next two months at Marienburger Allee 43 with Bonhoeffer’s parents and took a holiday together during October in southern Germany. This pattern of vacationing together at the conclusion of the Finkenwalde sessions was now firmly established, and it would continue for the next few years in the new context for the seminary, the “collective pastorates” in Koslin and Gross-Schlonwitz.”

With key insights from the as-yet untranslated letters between Bonhoeffer, Bethge, and others, deGruchy brings out this special bond between the two men that Bethge himself doesn’t seem to relate in his biography of Bonhoeffer. Bethge is himself the important missing key to understand how easily it seems Bonhoeffer moved from Finkenwalde to the collectives.

The book we know as Life Together began as lectures given during the height of Finkenwalde’s influence, and became a working manuscript after the seminary was closed. What sort of godly hope fills this work, which began with a distinct audience of German students whose end was the German front line and imprisonment! It is pretty clear that without the tragic end of Finkenwalde and yet the strong belief in the little books contents to form new community again we wouldn’t have this book at all. Before reading this chapter of Bethge I had a certain impression of Life Together as a rather naïve attempt at community that lacked any trial by fire. How wrong could I be?!! The whole book was tried by fire. The adherents held on to its principles in the face of great fear and loss. The practices laid out in this book stayed with its writer and editor, long after Finkenwalde closed. As a gift to the Church, Life Together has managed to speak to the Church across time and culture in ways that never could have been imagined.

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Filed under Blogging DB, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eberhard Bethge, theology

2 responses to “Blogging Bethge Chapter Ten

  1. Carl

    Hi, Chris – appreciated this insight, thank you. I’d like to learn more about DB’s experiment at Finkenwalde. What are the best sources?

  2. If you’re reading Bethge you have one of the best sources. I also recommend Craig Slane’s book “Bonhoeffer as Martyr” for the importance and context he lays for Finkenwalde. Have you seen the website: There’s a lot of bibliographic info prepared there.

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