The price of peace

Martin Doblmeier’s recent film Bonhoeffer is a documentary on the life of anti-Nazi Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45). It shows Bonhoeffer’s transformation from pacifist to conspirator in a plot to kill Hitler. The US film-maker, based in Washington, has mixed together archival footage, interviews with Bonhoeffer’s relatives, contemporary theologians and churchmen, including Archbishop Tutu, and photos from the Bonhoeffer family archive.

The perennial issue of censorship comes up in the opening sequence of the film. Nazi thugs toss books onto a street bonfire. This is contrasted with the genteel and aristocratic atmosphere of an extended family gathering in the Bonhoeffer home. Bonhoeffer was born into a privileged class. His father was Professor of Psychology at Berlin University. This contrast between the family gatherings and Hitler’s night-time ranting, the rallies and torchlight marches sets the mood for the film.

‘We should not harm anyone. But we will not allow anyone to harm us.’ This strike-first policy belongs to Adolf Hitler. Sadly, similar words are heard in our own day to justify pre-emptive warfare. The conflict between good and evil is aptly summed up in the Edmund Burke phrase ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’.

Doblmeier shows how slow the churches, Protestant and Catholic, were to recognise Hitler for what he was. The most telling image is of Hitler greeting Abbot Schachleitmer and Reichbischof Mueller at a Nuremberg rally. The Catholic bishops were cunningly neutralised by Hitler’s concordat with the Vatican. Bonhoeffer felt betrayed by his own Lutheran Church to such an extent that he became part of a group of dissenting clergy who formed the ‘Confessing Church’. Doblmeier includes footage of Bonhoeffer in New York, where he studied under Richard Niebuhr, influential in the development of US social ethics. There are evocative images of Bonhoeffer at the black Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York (1930–31). There he found exuberant worship and spiritual songs, records of which he brought back to Germany and played for his own students. These experiences undoubtedly influenced him to take a strong stance against the treatment of the Jews in Germany.

Yet the film does not shy away from showing the human side of Bonhoeffer, his doubts and weaknesses, such as giving into fear and not preaching at the funeral of his sister’s Jewish father-in-law, a decision that Bonhoeffer deeply regretted. On his second visit to America, just before the outbreak of war, Bonhoeffer admitted he had made a mistake in fleeing the coming disaster. Only those who stayed in Germany would earn the right to have a say in the reconstruction, he said. He sailed back to Germany from New York on the last ship before the war started.

Bonhoeffer’s fiancée was Maria von Wedemeyer, whose grandfather provided the house where the illegal seminary of Finkenwalde was located. In interviews with Maria’s sister, Alice von Bismarck, Doblmeier skilfully interweaves the intimate and the social. The regal and gracious Alice cries as she recounts the doomed couple’s story and her sister’s defiant and loving gesture in her last meeting with Bonhoeffer in prison.

Doblmeier has a few surprises for the viewer. In the mid-1930s, Bonhoeffer was about to go to India to study non-violence with Gandhi when the Finkenwalde project was offered him. The other surprise is Bonhoeffer’s friendship with the Anglican bishop of Chichester, George Bell. This friendship proved vital when Bonhoeffer was invited by his brother-in-law, an officer in German Intelligence, to join a group plotting to overthrow Hitler. Bonhoeffer accepted and used his connections in international ecumenical circles to pass on messages. One of the most important messages from the group was to George Bell, who was also a member of the Westminster Parliament. Bell did speak in the British Parliament, but the plotters were told they were on their own. Ironically, Bonhoeffer is now captured in stone on the facade of Westminster Abbey. Doblmeier doesn’t show this, but Bonhoeffer’s is one of ten new statues unveiled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, in the presence of royalty, church leaders and representatives from many parts of the world, on 9 July 1998. Oscar Romero and Martin Luther King are two of the others honoured in stone.

Forbidden to write, Bonhoeffer nonetheless began his Ethics, published after his death, in which he rejects Luther’s ‘two kingdoms’ doctrine where the political and secular realm have nothing to do with Christian ethics and obedience. This issue is still hotly debated. Does the church have a prophetic voice in the public arena? There are those who prefer the church to be silent.

Bonhoeffer failed to convince his church to stand by the Jews, failed to rouse the Allies on behalf of the German resistance and failed to topple Hitler. He died broken on the gallows, yet Doblmeier presents the execution as a Christ-like sacrifice. Bonhoeffer’s life speaks of a costly, lived discipleship that makes him a compelling figure nearly 60 years after his death. 

Jo Dirks SSS is the Australian Provincial of the Blessed Sacrament Congregation, a member of the Council of YTU in Melbourne and board member of the Christian Media Trust. Bonhoeffer will be released nationally on DVD/VHS by Ronin Films on 1 February, (02) 6248 0851.



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