The Sexuality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If you grow up Christian, you hear about the hero of the faith who was executed, in 1945, for trying to assassinate Hitler.
He’s called the “patron saint” of Evangelicalism—even as Dietrich Bonhoeffer seems like an odd fit for the religion. He wasn’t too keen on “family values.” He died at age 39, unmarried, childless.
The subject of Bonhoeffer’s sexuality has been—sensitive?
Christians didn’t know much about him.
After World War II, there was a few photos of him, and a narrative: Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who became a ‘martyr’ by opposing Nazism — daringly trying to stop World War II by killing Hitler!
A subtext was not always clear. In opposing Hitler, Bonhoeffer had been unusual for a Christian. As the historian Christopher J. Probst writes:
“The name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is perhaps so widely known today because of a deeply ironic fact — that so few of his fellow German Protestants, even within the generally Nazi-wary Confessing Church wing, spoke out on their [Jews] behalf.”
In anointing the religious hero, much was overlooked. Bonhoeffer didn’t read as traditionally Christian. “We are approaching a religionless age; people as they are now simply cannot be religious anymore.” Line by line, it can be startling.
And Bonhoeffer’s talk of sex was — unusual? “Sexuality is nothing but the ultimate possible realization of belonging to each other,” he writes.
It took awhile to notice. “His final perspective on gender and representation might be more advanced than expected,” notes Ulrike Auga in Feminist Theology in 2015.
Bonhoeffer’s letters had been collected by his good friend, Eberhard Bethge.
They seemed a model of upstanding Christian friendship. But apparently early on, the two were read as a gay couple. Bethge recalls so in 1994:
“During a large student conference in snowy New Hampshire 1957/58, i.e., when the first edition of Letters and Papers from Prison did not yet reveal the names of those involved, I was asked if anybody knew who the recipient of the letters was. It was felt that the correspondence must have been between homosexuals. Otherwise such an intensive correspondence was hardly imaginable.”
Bethge adds: “No, we were all quite ordinary. We know today that no same-sex friendship is without varying degrees of homoeroticism.”
The denial was odd?
Bonhoeffer’s The Letters and Papers from Prison had identified Bethge as the recipient from the start. In 1957–58, Bethge had been a visiting professor at Harvard.
The “varying degrees of homoeroticism” in their bond seem not to have come up in Bethge’s celebrated 1966 biography of Bonhoeffer. But then, the book wouldn’t have been celebrated. This was a drama playing out in a Christian culture that couldn’t allow, or even see, sexual difference.
In a narrative that hasn’t been explained publicly, Bethge keeps being asked the “gay question.” It happens publicly around 1985, as related by the scholar Charles Marsh:
“Three decades after Bonhoeffer’s death, the question of his sexual orientation was posed to Bethge at an academic gathering; and he answered it without any sign of defensiveness. Bethge said he could not say for sure, that while their relationship had not been sexual, he understood why people might ask such questions.”
Bethge died in 2000 without saying more.
A 2005 biography of Bethge hinted that Bonhoeffer was — emotionally homosexual?
In John W. de Gruchy, Daring, Trusting Spirit: Bonhoeffer’s Friend Eberhard Bethge, ended up being rather suggestive about the “special friendship.”
In 2014, de Gruchy addressed the matter in an interview:
“Bonhoeffer might well have been attracted to other males, but there is also no evidence at all that would suggest anything more than attraction.”
The scholars involved in the discussion, of course, had no record of writing about gender. They were Christian men accustomed to writing about ‘theology’—tasked unexpectedly with parsing the feelings of a nebulously homosexual hero.
And also, their readers would be Evangelical Christians.
With a 2014 biography, the debate went public.
In Strange Glory: The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Charles Marsh had more about the two men seeming to live together as a couple.
“They’d been giving Christmas presents as a pair for several years, paying for them out of their bank account. At first, the practice created some awkwardness with some members of the Bonhoeffer’s family (these relating mostly to the logistics of reciprocity now that ‘Mr. Bethge’ was on the list of recipients), but by 1940, Christmas presents from ‘Dietrich and Eberhard’ had become a family tradition. Bethge kept the ‘household’ accounts and paid their taxes, whereas Bonhoeffer decided how to spend the money…”
Marsh describes this as a “spiritual partnership” that Bonhoeffer, especially, seemed to long for — in anticipation of being able, after death, to “worship together for eternity.”
A reviewer for the Washington Post leaped to the question that Marsh had avoided: “Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer gay?”
Reviewing the book for The Gospel Coalition, Michael Littell called it “reprehensible,” “unnerving,” and hoped people wouldn’t read it.
Bonhoeffer seems to have lived in a state of yearning and muffled self-disclosure.
As Marsh narrates scenes, the subject is unmet desire:
“They could sleep by the fire, read books aloud to each other, and play the piano at all hours. They could rise late and cross-country ski, if the weather turned clear (it would). A trail ran along the mountain side from Ettal to Oberammergau, but there were many options. Bonhoeffer was ecstatic when Bethge said yes. ‘So we will be together as before!’ he said.”
It was an unexpected portrait of a Christian hero:
“On a trip to Switzerland, he had shopped for silk underwear in a Geneva haberdashery. Later he allowed to his friend Eberhard how nice it would be to stroll along the Promenade de Luc in nothing but the golden briefs.”
Marsh avoids any effort to classify Bonhoeffer, but writes that the relationship “strained toward the achievement of a romantic love, one ever chaste but complete in its complex aspirations.”
The biography that Evangelicals preferred was published in 2010 by Eric Metaxas.
Also known as a right-wing political commentator, Metaxas lamented Marsh’s biography, which he found:
“…portraying Bonhoeffer as a lavender swell mincing and vogue-ing his way through the corridors of the Third Reich; and even at one point swanning down the Champs Ellysses in shimmering golden underwear.”
A gross mischaracterization, but Metaxas was in a tricky position. He’d written a biography that now seemed to have omitted evidence that suggested a very different presentation of the ‘hero’.
Doubling down, he writes:
“This lamentable distortion of Bonhoeffer is such an injustice to the memory of one of the bravest — and genuinely manliest — Christians of the last century…”
The eminent Christian scholar Scot McNight pondered the matter.
He applied the usual Christian test for determining homosexuality in historical figures who look very gay: is there explicit evidence of anal sex?
He reassures the faithful: fear not!
“There are suggestions according to Marsh: they shared a bank account, they shared Christmas presents, they spent constant time together, Bonhoeffer’s (not Bethge’s) endearing language in letters, Bonhoeffer’s getting engaged not long after Bethge got engaged, and Bonhoeffer’s obsessiveness with Bethge. OK, but it’s all suggestion, and this is complicated by Bonhoeffer’s obsession with clothing and appearance.”
Diane Reynolds was more willing to “go there.”
A noted journalist and university teacher in literature, she had a MDiv degree, and seemed better able to put a queer Christian story together with codings that had been present all along.
In a 2016 book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, she notes “the pattern of missing letters and pieces of letters just at moments where there’s apparently an uncomfortable discussion of love or sexuality.”
She points to scenes where Bonhoeffer seems to all but ‘out’ himself. He reads George Santayana’s homoerotic novel The Last Puritan. “I have sometimes recognized myself in Oliver,” he writes to Bethge. “Do you understand that?”
Looking over the evidence of the relationship, she finds that “Bonhoeffer went beyond emotional friendship and was in love with him…”
And she notes Bonhoeffer’s very unusual talk about sex and marriage.
Over and over, discussing human sexuality, it seems that for him gender and childbearing are downplayed, or disappear.
“Sexuality,” he writes in his Ethics, “is not only a means of procreation, but, independent of this purpose, embodies joy within marriage in the love of two people for each other. As all this indicates, the meaning of bodily life never revolves around being a means to an end, but is fulfilled only by its intrinsic claim to joy.”
Reynolds calls it a nascent “queer theology, defined as a space for all those pieces of life that didn’t fit a rigid grid.”
Her book was received well by scholars, and ignored by Evangelicals.
The Bonhoeffer scholar John H. McCabe writes in a review:
“The field of Bonhoeffer scholarship is introduced through this work to a character one always sensed was there, but never quite had the courage (and evidence) to acknowledge.”
He wonders: “has Bonhoeffer biography turned from the phraseological to the real?”
But in absence of the explicit, Bonhoeffer may remain a man who wasn’t anything. As in his poetry, he’s left contemplating his difference.
“Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptible woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army
Fleeing in disorder from victory already achieved?”
If he did say more—the man he loved didn’t want anyone to know. 🔶