Monday, February 19, 2018

The Cost

I'm still thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer a lot. My dad recently recommended "Saints and Villains", a novelized biography by Denise Giardina, which I have greatly enjoyed reading. The writing is fine, and the story is excellent: his life is incredibly compelling to begin with, and she helps make it even more accessible and moving, portraying a believable inner life for him and exploring the moral struggles he faced while opposing the Nazi government.

I was struck by... well, a lot, but two things in particular stood out to me: Dietrich's consistency and his evolution. The first was exemplified by his steadfast and unwavering resistance to the racism and totalitarianism of Hitler's government. Even when the Nazi party was a fringe movement that nobody in his social circle was taking seriously, Bonhoeffer warned loudly and emphatically about the threat they posed. And he continued to fight against them: not only when those actions threatened his life and the lives of his loved ones, but even when he thought that his actions risked damning his eternal soul. (Giardina includes many lines from Bonhoeffer's own speeches and writings within the text, but I was reminded of one that doesn't appear here, "When a man takes guilt upon himself in responsibility, he imputes his guilt to himself... Before other men he is justified by dire necessity; before himself he is acquitted by his conscience, but before God he hopes only for grace".)

But while he was politically constant, he was personally and theologically in flux. He wasn't an especially committed or passionate believer early in life: he decided to study theology because its intellectual rigor appealed to him, not because it spoke to his innermost feelings. Well into his adult life, he didn't think of himself as an especially religious person. As shown here, and backed up by his biography, he had a sort of spiritual awakening during his time in Manhattan and Harlem: first by connecting with the African-American church, and then through seeing how his fellow-seminarians were engaging with the world around him to combat poverty, injustice, and bigotry. Suddenly, theology was not merely an abstract system to analyze: it was an urgent call to action, a clear demand for how Christians should behave in this world.

This is one area where the novel takes a few liberties, coloring in details that (to the best of my knowledge) aren't supported by his biography but are in keeping with what we know of his thoughts and actions. Dietrich did explore America, borrowing a car and driving with friends to Mexico and back. In the novel, this includes a longish interlude in Appalachia, where he witnesses an even more brutal form of the anti-black racism that already appalled him in Manhattan. These incidents don't occur in a vacuum: Giardina portrays the systems of wealth and power that benefit from such oppression, and throughout the novel sympathetically portrays the socialist activists who seek to dismantle those systems, whether in the Old World or the new. Dietrich doesn't directly join their ranks, but is moved by all they show him, and evolves his scholarship to accommodate the wider world he finds.

It's very tempting for Americans to point with horror at all that occurred in the Third Reich, and Giardina doesn't shy away from that horror, but I'm really glad that she shows how the United States actually influenced Nazi racial policy. At the time of Dietrich's visit to America, our own laws were far crueler than anything he had seen: from the codified white supremacy of Jim Crow to the genocide of Native Americans, we were much more discriminatory and hateful to our own citizens than the vaguely multicultural Weimar Republic. It's very believable that Dietrich's witnessing of our strict segregation primed him to be alert when those ideas began to be espoused by the fascists: when everyone else dismissed Hitler as a loudmouth who didn't mean what he said, Dietrich clearly and forcefully denounced the ideology and where it was heading.

Bonhoeffer does admirable things, but, contrary to what you might think from the title, he isn't a saint. I loved how Giardina focused on his humanity, showing the many imperfections of the man. He came from a very privileged life, had the luxury to pursue whatever career interested him, and throughout his life was attached to his comforts: his cigarettes, fine food, classical and jazz music. He wasn't a revolutionary by nature, and wasn't especially brave, but I think that makes it all the more impressive that he did the right thing. Someone who feels intense fear and has a lot to lose, but still does it anyways, can be more compelling than someone who is afraid of nothing and has nothing left to lose.

His romantic involvements are another element that might raise an eyebrow. On paper, I was a bit skeptical of the invention of Elisabeth: it sounded like it was trying to give a more personal reason for Dietrich to oppose anti-Semitism and eventually help smuggle Jewish victims out of Germany, instead of just doing it because it was right. As the story unfolded, though, I was happy with how their relationship ended up. Elisabeth is ultimately more important for the window she opens on the Jewish experience, not for her influence on Dietrich. He lives in a more rarefied social circle and, apart from his brother-in-law, doesn't have much insight into the gradually intensifying prejudice faced by this group. Elisabeth shows how insidious and gradual the growth of anti-Semitic policy was, and also how... almost banal it could be. She doesn't even consider herself Jewish at the start of the novel, since her family converted to Christianity generations ago, and those who meet her don't question her identity. By the end, the Nazi obsession with racial purity has her wearing a yellow star and hiding out in a nearly-abandoned apartment building. She helps turn the abstract into the concrete, connecting Dietrich's moral principles to a physical reality.

The real-life situation with Maria seemed to be handled well. Giardina doesn't wave away or excuse the oddness of this situation, where Dietrich became engaged to (but apparently was never physical with) a woman half his age. Again, she focuses on the humanity of the people involved. Dietrich comes off as a bit smitten, a bit confused, a bit cerebral, and, near the end, a little desperate. Maria is young, vulnerable, romantic, optimistic, trusting, and, near the end, filled with pity. I thought it was a very good choice to focus on Maria. She's one of the very few viewpoint characters in this story, and, though that special insight, we can track her own evolution of feeling and the brave decisions she makes as the novel nears its end.


It's clear for some time that Alois Bauer will be involved in Dietrich's inevitable death. I don't think I ever quite clicked with what Bauer was doing or who he was supposed to be. Given his chapter titles, it seems that he's intended to be Bonhoeffer's doppelganger, but I'm not sure what that means. They have different backgrounds: Bonhoeffer is aristocratic, Bauer bourgeois. They have different personalities: Dietrich is generally quiet and thoughtful, Bauer more impassioned and assertive. They have vastly different outlooks on life: Dietrich is a Christian with a deep belief in God that guides his actions, Bauer is an agnostic and motivated by his self-interest. Their roles, of course, diverge tremendously, with Bonhoeffer diligently trying to bring down the Third Reich with any means at his disposal while Bauer, until the end, works tirelessly to strengthen and spread it. Anyways, given all that, and the fact that they don't seem to look alike, I'm curious what aspect would make them seem to be doppelgangers.

I'm also not sure what to make of Bauer's love of Mozart, which seems to be very significant given the section titles and his recurring obsession with the manuscript. It does make for a somewhat interesting contrast with Bonhoeffer's love of Bach, especially if you look towards their originators: Mozart is more remembered for breaking norms and advancing himself, while Bach focused more on praising the divine. Anyways... was the music intended to humanize Bauer, to emphasize that Nazis were also people with passions of their own and not just mindless murdering robots? Is it just supposed to define him more as a character, give him a quirk to differentiate him from the various other less-important Nazis? Or what?

Even knowing how the story must end, I thought the plotting near the end was done extremely well. You can't help but hope that the assassination attempts against Hitler will succeed, even knowing that they failed. There's an agonizingly long lull as Bonhoeffer languishes in Tegel prison. And, as Bauer closes in on him, it seems to move in one direction, and then lurches in another, with a cruel promise of escape for Dietrich right before the conclusion.

I was surprised by just how emotional I felt at the end. I'd enjoyed reading the book and revisiting the story, but also felt a certain distance. The last page, though, hit me really hard, and it's still kind of reverberating for me.


Difficult times reveal just how extraordinary people can be. If Bonhoeffer had been around before the Great War or after the Marshall Plan, he would have written some good theology (maybe more than he did, thanks to a much longer life) and spoken out against injustice. But because evil was so strong and so visible in his lifetime, he had the opportunity to make a far bigger impact. And so he did: not because it was in his nature, but because he felt compelled to do so, and pursued his mission wholeheartedly. This book reinforces Bonhoeffer's status as one of my heroes, and I'm glad to have a perspective that breathes new life into the man and his story.

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