By Denise Giardina
New York: Fawcett Books, 1998
ISBN # 0-449-00427-9
487 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
May 2010

Writing comments on a novel about an historical person is a special difficulty for me. I can never make up my mind about what such a novel SHOULD be, so how do I judge it? How much exact history; how much novelistic creation should I expect? I’ve known of the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer for many years, and while I had read a few articles about his work and some short mentions of him here and there, I had never done any more systematic study of his work or his life as a whole. Now I have read Denise Giardina’s novel, been utterly gripped by it, moved by it, and even though I’ve known for 30 years or more that he died in a Nazi prison camp, I still cried in the last page when he was executed. But, is Denise Giardina’s Bonhoeffer the real Dietrich Bonhoeffer? In historical fiction does it matter?

Of course one asks the same accuracy questions of a biography. Did the biographer get it right? However, the problematic is more serious with a novel since one expects the novelist will take liberties. Once I finished the novel, there was a short “afterword” and it was sort of a question answer session between Giardina and an interlocutor. The author herself deals with the Bonhoeffer she “created” from her knowledge of his life and her skills and abilities as a writer of fiction:

Q: Was it difficult to make the heroic and martyred Bonhoeffer a multi-dimensional, flawed, and complex human being?

G: No, because I can’t believe in such things as paragons of virtue or evil monsters. I never saw him as a paragon of virtue; I am predisposed to see complexity. I saw the flaws and was more interested in the complexities and layers that made him a real human being. As you begin to read about and get to know someone, you find the strange, quirky stuff that makes them distinct and interesting as individuals. Whether your subject is St. Francis of Assisi or Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, you don’t have to dig too deep to find the flaws, those are the things that interest readers and make people tick. Reading about a man such as Bonhoeffer being depressed and having trouble sleeping are details that make him human and interest me as a reader and writer.

I was most happy to read her assessment since I had been rather surprised that he was presented as such a “multi-dimensional, flawed, and complex human being” as he was. I happened to have liked that Bonhoeffer and was wondering was he really as “un-saintly” as all that, or more like he had been presented in my early shorter readings of his life, sort of a heroic, larger-than-life saint.

But the Bonhoeffer of this novel is a marvelous character. In his younger days he decided he would become a theologian, despite the expectation he would follow his father into medicine or some other “practical” work. When his family challenged him, surprised that he wanted to do such a thing as theology since he even rarely went to church, nor did his family, he indicates that he isn’t as much interested in become a pastor, as he is in becoming a theologian. The notion was much more like he wanted to be a philosopher (which I can relate to, having spent 36 years as a professor of philosophy), but that he would focus primarily on the intellectual questions of humans’ relationship with God.

At least that’s how he started out. He studied and worried about extremely esoteric questions, most not much related to any everyday questions which most people would tend to ask about God. Giardina even presents his dreams of the ideal world and being such a private person, mainly shut off from the world of everydayness.

He longed to be a scholar hidden away in a dormered attic room lined on all sides with books, so that no matter which way he swiveled in his chair – and of course the chair must swivel – he would see thick volumes of theology. He wanted to emerge from this room groggy from his studies and wander to Berlin University, where he would deliver lectures of such density his students would not be able to look up from their note-taking. They would whisper about him afterward, shake their heads and wonder what sort of life he must lead. He would enjoy the speculation. He wanted to be wildly, luxuriously eccentric, instead of what he was becoming – practical, organized, and a writer only of pamphlets.”

This view of the world was first challenged by the coming power of the Nazis in Germany, especially the leadership of the young Hitler, and then, trying to escape the troubling questions that were arising because of the world around him, Bonhoeffer went off to Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1931 and studied with Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr is presented, properly I believe, as someone about the opposite of Bonhoeffer’s dream world, and as an activist clergyman, deeply involved in the everyday issues of social justice for the ordinary person, especially race and class problems in the U.S.

Further, in both the historical and fictional characters he meets at Union, the challenge to Bonhoeffer’s ivory tower vision of life is signicent. He meets the historical Jean Lasserre, just a bit older than Bonhoeffer, who revealed that he wanted to be a saint and had something in mind like a cross between St. Francis and Karl Marx. He also meets the fictional composite of Fred Bishop, a young black man with a social conscience who challenged Bonhoeffer to confront the position of black people and the working underclass in America.

Back in Germany by 1932 he meets another critical fictional character in the novel, the Jewish activist Elizabeth Hildebrandt. Since she is presented as having studied with Karl Barth and liking the work of Martin Buber, more connections are made for Bonhoeffer toward a much more activist concept of theology, though Giardina’s Bonhoeffer remains deeply divided all his life between the tremendous pull toward esoteric theological speculation and the activist role of a caring pastor.

Late in the novel a (fictional) atheistic SS interrogator mocks Bonhoeffer’s work as a pastor, Bauer accuses him of not being able to comfort parishioners because he is so obsessed with theoretical theology . Bonhoeffer agrees and reveals that he doesn’t believe in a God for COMFORT. Rather, God has called human beings to the hard path of living and that faith in God is to embrace a demanding life of personal responsibility:

Bauer threw up his hands. “You’re an odd sort of pastor. How could you comfort anyone? With you, there is nothing final, nothing certain.” He snapped his briefcase shut and turned to go.

“Wait,” Dietrich said. “I have somewhat of an answer for you. I do not know which of us God loves best. But I hope it is you. However, I warn you, the love of God burns like fire. You will not be able to stand in the face of it.”

Another historical character brought into the novel is Bishop George Bell, an English clergyman and central figure in opposition to Hitler in England. (I note that Bell did even write an short forward to the 1937 Bonhoeffer book, THE COST OF DISCIPLESHIP. And, in a fictional meeting though Bell, Bonhoeffer is given a meeting with T. S. Eliot, in England as Bell’s guest while writing Murder in the Cathedral. Giardina indicated that it was simply useful to create this meeting and not at all unlikely that they met even though it is not historically documented.

It is because of contacts with Bell in England and later in Sweden that Bonhoeffer is moved more and more into a plot against the life of Hitler.

Bonhoeffer wrestles with the morality of war, and with the much broader questions of what is it to be moral at all. It’s not so much following a set of God’s rules for Bonhoeffer, but coming to live a full life of profound commitment to a concept of goodness and justice. At one point in the novel he is trying to convince a medical orderly of the inhumanity of BOTH sides of the war and of human’s inhumanity to other humans in general. The British are bombing Berlin on Christmas Eve and Kranz, the orderly is bitterly denouncing them.

“We’ve done the same to them,” Dietrich says without looking up from bandaging a head wound. “Done it first.”

Kranz is unconvinced, continues to complain as if Dietrich has not even spoken. Kranz does not care what has been done first to the English. And even Dietrich, who cares very much, believes it indeed to be a monstrous time for anyone to bomb a city on Christmas Eve, whoever bears the original blame. But also monstrous to say so if one is German and burning Jews every day of the year. There is no place to escape the hideousness of humanity, he thinks as he works, unless one is God, who seems to have managed the feat quite well.

The role of God is a troubling issue for Bonhoeffer. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, Bonhoeffer doesn’t fully understand God, but God is God and humans just have to deal with it.

Alois Bauer, a fictional SS officer who doesn’t believe in God is arguing with Bonhoeffer: Bauer has said that if what the Nazis were doing was so bad God could have stopped it, and thus he avoids any moral responsibility for what he is doing:

“How was God supposed to stop it? You’re a free man, Alois. There are no invisible strings connecting you to God, directing your every move.”

“But if God is all-powerful, God could intervene. God could find a way.”

“And because God didn’t intervene, it was all right.”


“Too had you don’t believe in God, then. You’ve lost your excuse.”

Bauer blinked. He looked away. “Perhaps I do believe in God,” he said.

“Oh yes,” Dietrich said. “God makes a convenient scapegoat. Or people always think God is absent when things are going bad for them. Things go better and God is back, Well, I want to live in the world as if there were no God. That is the only way God can truly be with any of us. You, on the other hand, want a God you can blame for everything you’ve done. Oh yes, you will believe anything you must to exonerate yourself.”

Giardina also has Bonhoeffer declare himself on the question of freedom of humans and their relationship to God. This section harks back to the objections which are raised in Dostoyevsky’s THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV.
Kokorin is a Russian atheist in the prison camp. In discussion Bonhoeffer has cited Jesus’ coming to redeem human kind as an act to free people for their own choices. Kokorin, using arguments right out of Dostoyevsky replies:

“Is freedom so important” Kokorin asks. “Ask any man who is hungry or who watches his children starve. Ask any woman who sees her children die or who lives in constant fear. Do they want freedom? No, no, no. Humanity does not care for freedom. Humanity wants to be delivered from suffering.”

Yes, as Giardina said in a passage I cited early on, the Dietrich Bonhoeffer she creates is a very complex and troubled man. He deeply believes in God, but sees God as sort of abandoning humans to their own freedom, and that the humans, including himself, do not handle that freedom as well as God would like. Bonhoeffer sees human responsibility as a harsh burden and thus relating to God is very difficult, none the less, God is God and man’s duty is man’s duty. That duty is not to nation state, not to people, not even to the self. That duty is to God.

I found this to be a simply gripping novel. It was somewhat odd knowing so much of the outcome. Of course I knew who would win the war, when and how. I knew some of the details of Bonhoeffer’s life and certainly his ending. I knew about most of the historical characters introduced. (I had never heard of Jean Lasserre, but I may well look into his life.) Fortunately I didn’t know too much detail of Bonhoeffer’s life so it was easy for Giardina, with her compelling story, to create THAT Bonhoeffer, or HER Bonhoeffer in my head. I really like that Bonhoeffer and hope, as I now read more about the historical Bonhoeffer, he turns out to be much like her vision of him.

One surprise I had was that what I had always thought was Bonhoeffer’s most famous quote did not appear in the novel. I kept expecting it. When the novel ended I decided to see if I was in error about the quote. I discovered I was in error, Bonhoeffer seems not to have been the author of the quote I had in mind, but it seems I wasn’t the only one with that view. More was said on-line about the confusion as to whose quote it was. The view seems to be that it was one of Bonhoeffer’s mentors, the German pastor, Martin Niemoller, also a member of the plot against Hitler and also put to death. It seems Niemoller didn’t publish the quote but used it at the end of most of his sermons. Yet the quote has always been closely associated with Bonhoeffer. I hope to learn more about this issue when I read more about the historical Bonhoeffer.

I’ll close with that powerful and challenging quote:

First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out.

Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out.

And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me
Bob Corbett


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