MY TOP SHELF
[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]
LETTERS AND PAPERS FROM PRISON
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1945)
Folio Society, Enlarged Edition, edited by Eberhard Bethge, 2000; rebound with marbled boards, quarter in biscuit leather with sage label with gilt lettering.
Are we still of any use?
If the Almighty and I were to get back on first-name terms, it would most likely be through the agency – or grace, perhaps – of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. What a man!
Bonhoeffer was born, with a twin sister, to a family of culture and privilege that knew that the things that count come from the home. His father was a doctor who became a professor of psychiatry; his mother was a teacher who became the nerve centre of a family of eight children and seven servants. The family performed simple rites at home, but they were not regular church-goers. When Dietrich found God and decided to go into theology, his family warned him against ‘a poor feeble, boring, petty bourgeois institution.’
Dietrich became involved in the ecumenical movement and he had his eyes opened in the UK and the US. He heard the black Christ preached with ‘rapturous passion’. But also, ‘not just separate railway cars, tramways, and buses south of Washington, but also for example, when I wanted to eat in a small restaurant with a Negro, I was refused service.’ Karl Barth called him back home in 1933: ‘You are a German…the house of our church is on fire.’
When Hitler came, Bonhoeffer said that the church had to stand up for victims whether they were baptized or not. When the Nuremberg Laws came, he proclaimed that ‘only those who shout for the Jews are permitted to sing Gregorian chants.’ The role of those who followed Jesus was not ‘just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam a spoke in the wheel itself.’ He preached that the church had the right to engage in direct action against the state. That is a complete repudiation of the relevant teaching of Martin Luther. Bonhoeffer took his moral stand on the Sermon on the Mount.
On 1 February 1933, he was on the microphone at the Potsdammerstrasse Voxhaus in Berlin. He was speaking of ‘The Concept of the Führer’. Two days after Hitler came to power – a calamity for the Bonhoeffer family – Dietrich Bonhoeffer told the German people that a leader could be a misleader. ‘This is a leader who makes an idol of himself and his office, and who thus mocks God.’ Before he could get these words out, they had switched the microphone off. Here, then, was courage to take your breath away. Bonhoeffer was 26 years old.
This man of God, this pacifist, was true to his word. He was in a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. He wanted to put a spoke in the wheel. He was arrested, and imprisoned in various places, like Buchenwald and Tegel, after first being taken to the Gestapo Headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse. (At this site, you can now visit a frighteningly moving museum called the Topography of Terror.) Our book comes from his time in prison.
This book is on my shelf because of what the man did more than for what he said – as is the case with some others who are there. We know what history tells us of the Nazis, but we can have no idea of what it was like to live under their Terror. They regarded the church with the kind of contempt that they felt for non-Aryans. They put Mein Kampf in place of the Bible, and the sword in place of the cross. Hitler told Goebbels: ‘Let the churchmen dig their own grave. They will surrender their kind little deity to us. They will give up anything just to preserve their pitiful junk, rank, and incomes.’
We have debased privacy with a welter of laws and bureaucrats and wall-eyed zombies telling the whole carriage the awful story of their lives. Bonhoeffer saw it coming. He spoke of ‘respect for reticence’, ‘of a willingness to observe people more or less cautiously from the outside, but not from the inside’. He referred to a ‘revolution from below…Anything clothed, veiled, pure and chaste is presumed to be deceitful, disguised, and impure; people here simply show their own impurity. A basic anti-social attitude of mistrust and suspicion is the revolt of inferiority.’
We have become scared to face up to inferiority, and we are in thrall to mediocrity. Bonhoeffer, as ever, resisted. He was prepared to take on those ‘below’ as well as those ‘above’. He could do so with a smile. ‘Don Quixote is the symbol of resistance carried to the point of absurdity, even lunacy…Sancho Panza is the type of complacent and artful accommodation to things as they are.’
He knew our limits. ‘Uneducated people find it very difficult to decide things objectively and they will allow some more or less fortuitous circumstance to turn the scales.’ Did he only learn this in jail? No. He saw something that Keats famously remarked on in one of his letters – ‘how few people there are who can harbour conflicting emotions at the same time.’ While he feared that ‘man becomes radically religionless’, he was fond of reading Kant (‘a very rationalist rococo psychology’) and Spinoza (‘emotions are only expelled by stronger emotions, and not the mind’). Standing by the Sermon on the Mount, he observed that ‘unlike the other oriental religions, the faith of the Old Testament is not a religion of redemption.’
At Easter 1944, Bonhoeffer spoke of Bach and Beethoven, and went on: ‘Easter? We’re paying more attention to dying than to death. We’re more concerned to get over the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the last enemy…There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities: the other means resurrection.’ The previous year, Bonhoeffer had said: ‘We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and stopped us being truthful and open…Are we still of any use?’
At Flossenberg at dawn on 9 April 1945, the SS hanged Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was a round-up before liberation. The Fatherland stripped one of its greatest sons of his clothing so that it could put him to death naked, but they used hemp rather than piano-wire. They burned his corpse. He was as guilty of a capital crime as was the man whose life and teaching he had sought to follow. It might fairly be said to have been an accident of history that one crime was defined as treason and the other as blasphemy – it was nigh on inevitable that the mission of each would end in his execution.
Perhaps Bonhoeffer inherited his great strength and power of resistance. His mother, Paula, wrote to him in jail: ‘I have always been proud of my eight children and I am now, more than ever when I see the dignity and respect they maintain in such an indescribable situation.’ She signed off: ‘All the best, my good boy. Your old Mother.’ Her last letter added after those words: ‘We are staying in Berlin, come what may.’’ The whole family was tough.
Paula’s mother Julie had died in 1936. She was a resister, too. She just walked passed the Brownshirts to shop at Jewish shops. On the way out she gave them that in-your-face attitude that we see in people in New York and Berlin – ‘I shop where I always shop!’ When Dietrich spoke at Grandma Julie’s burial, he used words of surpassing beauty that keep coming back to us. ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her. This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’
What a family! Other members were in the resistance and they too were executed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a great hero of resistance, is as good case of noblesse oblige as you will see.