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‘Agent of Grace’
A theologian in Nazi Germany


Six months ago, when the historians searched their bookshelves and consciences for the central meaning of the millennium and the century coming to an end, attention focused most on World War II. Who was where when Hitler came to power?

Those of us who remember the 1930s and 1940s remember that there were houses on the street with gold stars in the windows and others with healthy young men still inexplicably at home in 1943. And the best movie of 1941 was Gary Cooper in “Sergeant York,” the story of a World War I hillbilly sharpshooter who overcame his religious scruples in time to kill a lot of Germans.

For a number of reasons, recent film and TV dramas on World War II and moral responsibility have centered on the Holocaust, but to do so too narrowly can miss other aspects of Fascist malevolence, like the struggles within Christian churches over how much liberty -- really integrity -- they were willing to surrender in order to get along with the state.

With this in mind, “Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace,” the story of the young German Lutheran theologian executed for his role in the plot to assassinate Hitler, is a welcome and challenging TV event.

Welcome particularly because Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship (1937) and Letters and Papers from Prison (1951), as interpreted by influential theologians such as Harvey Cox in The Secular City (1965) and John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God (1963), were at the heart of the New Theology of the 1960s. Somehow Bonhoeffer’s critical -- but fragmentary -- rethinking of basic Christian principles in the face of the Nazi regime inspired American ’60s activists in their confrontations with authorities both secular and sacred during Vatican II and the Vietnam War.

Born in 1906, son of a psychiatry professor at the University of Berlin and a mother whose grandfather had been chaplain to the emperor until he disagreed with his majesty, Dietrich was raised in a big family of three brothers, a twin sister and three other sisters. As a student at Tübingen and Berlin, he was influenced by both historian Adolph vonHarnack and theologian Karl Barth. From the beginning his theological outlook was pastoral, ecumenical and international. He was an assistant pastor in Spain and London and an exchange student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he enjoyed his forays into Harlem, a few blocks east, and learned to play and sing Negro spirituals.

The TV Bonhoeffer story opens in 1939 on the last days of his visit to the United States: His friends, including theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, warn him that if he returns to Germany he will be arrested because of his ideas. But he is a patriot, too, and knows where he is most needed.

From his return to Germany until his arrest in 1943, Bonhoeffer was a leader of what was called the Confessional church, those German Protestants opposed to the Nazi regime. Philosophically, he objected that Hitler had usurped the authority that belongs only to the individual human conscience -- symbolized by the oath of loyalty to the führer all subjects were obliged to take. Personally, through his family, he became deeply involved in the clandestine movement to overthrow the regime. (One brother-in-law was Jewish; another a conspirator.) To avoid the draft, he became a member of the Abwehr, a branch of military intelligence whose leaders were plotting to remove Hitler.

So certainly the last five years of Bonhoeffer’s life have the makings of an excellent film or TV docudrama. For six years a combination of American Public TV, British writers, a Canadian director, German production company and a German cast, starring Ulrich Tukur in the title role, have labored to bring this story to the public. They have even advertised in the New York subway.

To what effect? It depends partly on what a viewer brings to the viewing. Lutheran and seminary discussion groups who might have read Letters from Prison will profit most. I’ve read Letters a couple of times, parts of Discipleship and three biographies, but even your well-informed standard PBS viewers will be asking themselves, as I did, Who are these people? What year is this? Where are we now? Since all these people in this truck were executed, how do we know what they talked about? In Sweden, Dietrich visits a wise old man dressed in black to discuss Hitler’s assassination. Who is this man? Did this happen?

The writers frame much of the story as a conflict between Bonhoeffer and his nemesis, Manfred Roeder, a Gestapo leader who has forbidden him to speak and publish and who, following the first attempt on Hitler’s life, imprisons Bonhoeffer in Berlin and interrogates him continually, matching wits, even attempting crude theological arguments to ensnare him.

According to the script, but news to me, the Gestapo allowed Dietrich’s 17-year-old fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, to visit him in prison, but only in the presence of Roeder, who would write down and interrupt their conversations. The relationship between Bonhoeffer and Maria, a former pupil 20 years younger than he, the granddaughter of a family friend, remains a mystery. In one scene she picks up the manuscript of his Ethics and reads off epigrams as if they were song lyrics -- “It is better to do evil than be evil” -- and gushes, “Do you really mean that? You never told us that in Confirmation class.” On TV, however, better a love interest that makes no sense than no love interest at all.

The greatest challenge to the filmmakers, however, is to relate the events in the central character’s life to the changes in his ideas. Bonhoeffer’s decisions to oppose Hitler and help Jews are not hard to comprehend; the decision to move from pacifism to being an accomplice in Hitler’s murder is a more radical leap. How he justifies it we do not see. In one scene Bonhoeffer watches three conspirators plan the first assassination attempt; and the soldier involved, who must blow himself up to kill Hitler, asks him for a blessing. Bonhoeffer hesitates, then quotes John’s gospel: “Greater love than this no man has than to lay down his life for his friends.”

True, but does that make a suicide-assassination right?

In an earlier scene, Bonhoeffer’s coworkers have somehow obtained passports through the Gestapo to help a group of Jews leave the country. An older Jewish woman objects to using Nazi documents to gain her freedom; something must be wrong here. Trust me, says Bonhoeffer. But she warns him, “Don’t win the war to lose your soul.” It’s a strange moment, and we don’t expect a Jew to paraphrase Jesus to a Lutheran. But it’s the only minute in the film’s 85 minutes to suggest that Bonhoeffer’s ethical system might have some holes in it.

Of course Bonhoeffer’s ecclesiology and Christology, developed in some of the later letters from prison, are even harder to portray in a TV drama. Bonhoeffer had come to believe that Christians were using institutional religion, with its excessively metaphysical theology, as a “stopgap” to fill in the intellectual gaps left by the advancement of science. Christians must rediscover God, thought Bonhoeffer, by putting Jesus at the center and becoming “men for others.”

We see Bonhoeffer deliver these thoughts in an impromptu homily right before the Gestapo reappear with new evidence of his guilt, to take him to his execution.

On April 9, 1945, he stands alone in the courtyard of Flossenburg prison. Roeder arrives and orders him to strip. He shivers, and Roeder asks if he is afraid. No, he is cold.

“So, this is the end,” says Roeder.

“No,” says Bonhoeffer. He walks nude to the scaffold and climbs the steps. “Father,” he prays, “give us the peace the world cannot give.” The camera focuses on his bare feet. A fly lights on his heel.

“Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace” was to premier June 14 on PBS. The distributor of the video is Aid Association for Lutherans.

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J.

National Catholic Reporter, June 16, 2000