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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries

DAY EIGHT NINE Dietrich Bonhöffer

The quickest way from Regensburg to Dresden is through the top of the Czech Republic. So - a bit of an early start this morning but I reached Pilsen in time for a late lunch. A good town for a lay-over: two-thirds of the beer drunk in the world today is made in the Pilsner-style invented here in 1842 by the Bavarian brewer, Josef Groll. Here also is the biggest distillery in the Czech Republic – so plenty of choice for thirsty car makers from the nearby Skoda plant.

Groll's German identity made me reflect on the extraordinary creation of Mad King Ludwig that I cycled past this morning as I wound along the Danube. Standing on a bluff above the river is a huge white parthenon. The frieze on the north pediment honours Hermann and victory in the Teutoburg Forest while the southern pediment celebrates liberation from Napoleon.


The friezes are the clue to the purpose of the building – an assertion of German identity. This was not an issue for Hermann in 9 AD as he faced the Romans, but it was the subject of much soul-searching after a decade of rule by Napoleon. The answer for King Ludwig of Bavaria was to build his Walhalla, a shrine to the heroes of German identity. So here, in one of the richest and largest marble halls in the world, stand an array of busts and plaques of significant Germans.

Ludwig defined 'Germans' as 'of the air' – a people identified by language. As early as 1812, a popular song had put the question What is a German's Fatherland - concluding that the Fatherland exists where people speak German. Ludwig agreed except that his view was a broad interpretation of 'German'. He included Flemish and even English as I realised on coming face to face with that notable German hero, Alfred the Great (he made the mistake of speaking Anglo-Saxon, a Ludwigian Germanic language).

Eccentricities aside, Ludwig put all the obvious people in his Walhalla, a good spread of the rich and powerful, literary, clerical and scientific. Under pressure, he even admitted Martin Luther. More heroes were added sporadically - female (Hildegard of Bingen) and male - but no Jews until Albert Einstein in 1990. Surprisingly, the Nazis did not shanghai the idea: their only inductee was Anton Bruckner, whose deification Hitler attended.

Since the war, the Bavarian State Government has added "eminent figures from science or art, or individuals with extraordinary social or caritative merit" – such as Jakob Fugger, Brahms, Sophie Scholl, Käthe Kollwitz, and Max Planck in 2019. Karl Marx is not in, and his cousin Heinrich Heine has only recently made it - not surprising that he didn't make the original cut with Ludwig, given his penchant for debunking heroic idealism.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (c)

Two very surprising omissions are Hannah Arendt and, even more so, Dietrich Bonhöffer. Knowing I would be venturing eastwards toward the Bonhöffer family home, I asked The Reverend Frederic Miller, Interim Rector of The Church of St. Jude on Long Island, to tell us about this great man.

Here is Fred's guest post:

“If you’re cycling from Berlin to London, what would be a better detour than a visit to some of the sites associated with Dietrich Bonhöffer?

One of the greatest theologians of the 20th Century, Bonhöffer was a martyr of the German resistance to Hitler. He was executed 75 years ago on April 9, 1945 just two weeks before the U.S. Army liberated the Flossenbürg concentration camp. (That’s just under 200 miles from Berlin, which I’m sure Mei could pedal in a couple of days.) Although Bonhöffer was just 39 when he died, he travelled quite a bit in the prewar years. He was born in Breslau (now Wrocław – slightly closer to Berlin but in the wrong direction if you’re London-bound) to an upper middle-class family and studied in Tubingen and Berlin.

Charles Marsh’s recent biography doesn’t list any bicycle trips (though later in life he rode a motorcycle between two churches near the Baltic). But Bonhöffer travelled to New York in 1930 for a teaching fellowship, where he got to know African-American students and churchgoers (notably at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem), and later borrowed a car for a road trip to Mexico.Bonhöffer spent 18 months in east London from 1933 to 1935, leading the German churches St. George’s Lutheran on Dacres Road in Whitechapel and St. Paul’s on Goulston Street in Aldgate East. He explained to his friend the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who condemned Bonhöffer’s departure from Germany at a critical time, that he needed “time to go for a while into the desert.”

London wasn’t that much of an ascetic ordeal for Bonhöffer. I can’t confirm that he ever visited St. Martin in the Fields, but some of his colleagues did, so he very well might have done. Certainly, music was a big part of his life. Among the possessions he had shipped from Germany was the Bechstein grand piano he was given on the occasion of his 15th birthday, which according to Marsh would not fit through the front door of the parsonage in Lewisham (on Manor Mount Road in Forest Hill).

“After studying the situation with the movers, the principal of the German school, and a few passers-by,” Marsh writes, Bonhöffer “helped construct an elaborate system of pulleys to hoist the piano up to the third story, where he would arrange a makeshift music room.” There he held weekly music nights with friends, and often went to the theatre and the cinema, “followed by drinks and dinner and more conversation, often continuing well after midnight.”

It wasn’t a life of partying, though. While he was in London, Bonhöffer stayed in contact with his friends in the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches. After his farewell sermon in London March 10, 1935, Bonhöffer decided to return to Germany to take up the leadership of an underground seminary for the Confessing Church in rural Finkenwalde (now Zdroje, Szczecin), a Pomeranian village on the east bank of the River East Oder, about 150 miles northeast of Berlin. The seminary lasted about 2 ½ years before the Gestapo closed it down, after which Bonhöffer hit the road, training individual pastors in secret classes and zooming around northern Germany on his motorcycle.

In June of 1939, barred from Berlin by the Gestapo and with war approaching, Bonhöffer accepted an appointment at Union Theological Seminary in New York (arranged by the eminent theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was fearful of the young German’s arrest). After six weeks back in the U.S., he realized he had made a mistake and returned to Germany. As he wrote to Niebuhr explaining his decision, “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of the nation and thereby destroying our civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose, but I cannot make that choice in security.”

In July, Bonhöffer took the last steamer back to Germany, to a life on the run, leading underground seminaries, writing, and working more and more for the resistance. Indeed, the following year he joined the Abwehr, German military intelligence, which provided cover for travel and meetings with ecumenical contacts to feed information from the resistance to the Western allies. His involvement deepened to the point where, despite great ambivalence due to his lifelong pacifism, he joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. He played no active role in any of the plots but was eventually arrested in April 1943 and executed two years later.”

Thank you very much, Fred - very nice to have so much detail of his time in England, too. No wonder they were talking about him in a pub in Hastings in a recent episode of Foyle's War.

20th Century Martyrs at Westminster Abbey: l/r - Mother Elizabeth of Russia, Martin Luther King, Óscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhöffer (c)wikicommons

A tour of Walhalla (to Beethoven's 5th) -

The full film of Bonhöffer - Agent Of Grace -

An interview with Eric Metaxas, a biographer of Bonhöffer -

Bruckner's Das Deutsche Lied -

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