At a recent dinner party at our home in Brussels, my husband and I invited a variety of guests from different countries to dine together, many of us meeting for the first time. Following what is called a Jefferson dinner format, we prepared a casual meal and asked our guests to come having considered the following prompt: “Tell us about a hero of yours.”
As the meal got underway, we were surprised when one of the guests, a German woman, broke the ice. “I found this question difficult,” she said, plainly and directly. “It is one that we”—here, she motioned to her husband, also German—“do not ask casually. To speak of a hero focuses attention upon a single human being, which is problematic given our history.” She continued, “I would feel more comfortable saying what qualities I admire or respect in people, like honesty, frugality, and hard work. My parents have best modelled these virtues to me. But I am not comfortable using the word ‘hero’ to describe them.”
It was a humbling moment. Though our family had lived in Germany for three years, neither my husband nor I had anticipated how problematic the framing of that question—and its underlying narrative—might be. Our German guest approached the question from within her history, even from “under” it, and responded to it as responsibly as she could from there. She didn’t have to explain why.
When the Senseless Reorients
The long years of the Nazi regime, the dramatic events of World War II, and the Holocaust’s horrors still mesmerize us, and rightly so. It was an era of massive moral, civic, and political failure, casting doubt on nearly every supposed civilizing buttress within a nation that saw itself as embodying the heights of Christian Western culture. That this supposed powerhouse not only stumbled but also fell, taking human life in such organized and ruthless ways as it did, called its entire identity into question.
It also cast aspersions on God, for where was he? Did he not hear the prayers? Could he not have lifted a finger for the sake of each human life, and for the world drawn into war? The era represented a true break from all the sense-making jigs in human history. The ground not only shifted; it seemed to have been washed away.
The collective journey since—the exhausting labours of sifting truth from lies, rescuing facts from oblivion, and translating memories and personal experiences into a navigable, somewhat coherent whole—has uncovered even more complicated realities of how to make sense of it rightly, how to speak of it responsibly. The work of imagining and trying to understand how human beings behaved as they did to one another during those years is like tiptoeing around a black hole. We do not want to fall in again.
We in the liberal democratic West attend to that era as an orienting moral touchstone, and the cultural output from engaging with the era’s villains and heroes is prodigious. In his Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, Alec Ryrie suggests that Adolf Hitler has replaced Jesus Christ as the “most potent moral figure in Western culture,” a clear anti-hero against which to weigh our moral mettle. Fiction and film demonstrate how “Nazism has crossed the barrier separating historical events from timeless truths [in] the way it has permeated the modern age’s most popular myths.”
Hitler is perhaps the lowest bar against which to calibrate our common moral reasoning, but a low bar is better than the roaring moral vacuum that we in a largely secularized West fear looms beyond him. Downstream from that hard break in humanity’s understanding of itself, we are afraid there isn’t much left to anchor or bind us together anymore. But then again, Ryrie says, “the stirrings of authoritarian nationalism around the world suggest” that the “anti-Nazi narrative” to which we collectively cling may not be enough of a moral sandbag.
Searching for the Light Source
I’ll admit that something pre-critical, arguably mythic, compelled me to schedule a family visit to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s house in the autumn of 2016, four months after we had moved to Berlin for my husband’s next diplomatic assignment. The foundations I’d long taken for granted in the world seemed to be shifting in a way that worried me, much of it unearthed by the 2016 US presidential election. I thought a family pilgrimage to the Bonhoeffer-Haus might offer wisdom in our turbulent times.
I came to the house knowing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a hero of the Christian faith. He had been a man of the church who was prepared to commit actions he considered sinful in the fight against Hitler, because to do nothing would have been, to his conscience, more sinful. He was martyred by the Nazis for doing so, and in this most basic retelling, was an easy hero to admire.
But the story we heard at Bonhoeffer’s family home offered much more texture. The German guide that morning told us a story that put human flesh on the hero’s bones and set the singular individual in a more relational—even civic—frame. Here, we met Bonhoeffer the son, the brother, the friend and neighbour, even the citizen. We saw how these fragile threads of relationship—unarmed, organized in and by love, and maintained through practices of committed belonging—not only significantly shaped his life and its trajectory but also offered a moral counter-witness of their own. When Nazi ideology and policy quickly poisoned the civic and political well, these ties of belonging, seemingly weak in comparison to the jackbooted thuggery gaining steam around them, proved sustaining.
It would be too strong to say that what we learned at his memorialized home decentralized Bonhoeffer from the narrative, nor was doubt cast on the force of his clarity and courage. But I was struck by the difference in emphasis from the narrative told at the Haus versus the lone-hero impression I had been taught to admire. It turns out his life story was not one of a self-made man leaping from strength to strength. Rather, like all of us, Bonhoeffer was formed in the small, mysterious, slow, even weak places of life—home, family, friends. Somehow, behind the foreground of dramatic moral heroism, I was given hope.
After that first visit, I returned many times to the Bonhoeffer-Haus. Each time, I learned something new about Bonhoeffer, often by seeing his life from a new angle, or from a different horizon of cultural knowledge. Surprisingly, I began to see myself in a new light as well, which was odd given how little Dietrich Bonhoeffer, an early twentieth-century theologian and Nazi resister, and I, a twenty-first-century American housewife, really had in common.
After many visits, I asked if I could serve as a volunteer guide at the Bonhoeffer-Haus. To my surprise and delight, I was welcomed to do so by the Germans who serve there. As I studied his life more diligently and practiced narrating it to others, I paid particular attention to the questions I had wanted his life to answer for me, and to see better how I might reframe my questions and answer them in my own life rather than trying to figure out how he answered them for me.
I had come to the Haus searching for a hero of unassailable strength, failing to see how in Bonhoeffer the strength in his life was born out of the vulnerable and loving constraints of committed relationships. Here was the real correspondence between us: relationships of trust and love, and the lived practices of belonging with others. These relationships matter in my life as much as they did in Bonhoeffer’s. They matter to neighbourhoods and nations, although they feel fragile and insignificant when the noisy claims of the powerful—and armed—overwhelm and frighten.
On the inaugural opening of the Bonhoeffer-Haus on June 1, 1987, Bonhoeffer’s best friend, Eberhard Bethge, addressed those gathered at this newly dedicated place of remembrance by comparing it to the newly memorialized ruins of the SS headquarters downtown. (Both places were set aside in 1987 as memorial sites, the same year Berlin celebrated the 750th anniversary of its founding.) These two places, Bethge said, were “fatefully interrelated despite their asymmetry,” and each offered a witness in the “unequal” struggle for the soul of the German nation.
The Reichssicherheitshauptamt—the main office of the Reich state security—represented one of the powerful centres of those dark years, and preserving its witness was also critical to telling the truth. It was known as a place of “intensified interrogation,” or torture, and Bonhoeffer was imprisoned there for seven months when his role in the July 20 conspiracy network became known. He was one of many who saw the inside of that terrifying building and experienced its cruel practices.
The SS headquarters existed “to assure the security of the Third Reich,” Bethge said, armed with “every available means for the official exercise of [its] power.” Its ability to project power into people’s homes, even into their minds and hearts, appeared totalizing and impenetrable for many years. Its apparent strength was its beguiling appeal; the fantastical claims of the Führer were ones that Germans largely welcomed as political and economic salvation. Hitler embodied a false messianic hope that promised deliverance from Germany’s shameful national weaknesses, which he blamed on their perceived enemies—primarily the Jews but also any others who threatened the Aryan myth.
Notably, Bethge did not call that awful place “strong,” but he did call the Bonhoeffer-Haus “weak,” in a way. The house was, he said, “one of the weak centres for the destabilization of the Third Reich.” The witness of that weak centre was also in danger of being forgotten or distorted. It was important that others be able to walk inside it, peer into its rooms, and hear the stories of the place, its people, their culture, and their sacrifices. Thus the home was preserved in service to history and memory.
Bethge’s framing the house as a “weak centre” was critical to my better understanding Bonhoeffer’s life, although with that lens, the weak centres of his life suddenly stood out plainly. At face value, the Bonhoeffer family was swimming in strengths, each member uncommonly gifted, privileged in education, cultural connections, and (quite) secure in their own sense of family pedigree, an identity they scrupulously anchored to responsibility and civic duty. Their home was porous, intellectually engaged, and hospitable. Dietrich’s mother was known for organizing parties full of lively music, poetry recitations, even puppet shows. Their lively family singing and music-making included neighbours and friends, a common-grace extension of the inner workings of their home. These affectionate bonds proved especially valuable when the currency of trust grew scarce.
At the heart of the Bonhoeffer-Haus was another “weak centre”: the marriage of Bonhoeffer’s parents. Their remarkable relationship was one of loving respect and intimacy between individuals with divergent worldviews. His mother had strong opinions, a vibrant personality, and was a devout Christian who instructed their eight children in faith, Scripture, and prayer. A man of science who matched her strength with his, Dietrich’s father did not share his wife’s faith, but respected it. He taught their children to use words with precision, economy, and truth, an expectation that sometimes left them tongue-tied but also made them suspicious of bombastic rhetoric and lies. Together, his parents cultivated a family culture in the best of the Christian and liberal humanistic traditions. They expected their children to care for people and to know their duties of service to public life. As their granddaughter Renate Bethge wrote, they wanted their children to remember always to respect “the rights and wishes of [others,] especially of anyone in a weaker position. This was for [her] a Christian concern, for [him] a humanitarian one.” The family’s memory preserved this distinction: despite their differences in faith, they were allied in what was important in life.
That care for others shows up in another often-overlooked “weak centre” in Bonhoeffer’s life: friendship. Dietrich’s ability to make and keep friends is not emphasized in the popular, heroic narrative of his life, but he had, as his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer-Weller described in a reflection after his death, “the great gift of putting a person utterly at ease . . . with sincerity and commitment.” His primary value to the conspiratorial network that he joined when he became an Abwehr (military intelligence) agent was his ability to make friends, especially outside of his own culture. For years, Dietrich had participated in ecumenical conferences, forming relationships with people from other countries and churches. He was able to form and maintain bonds of trust with others, a critical asset to the conspiracy as it sought to find ways of communicating to the Allied powers. Although Bonhoeffer engaged in subterfuge and was willing, certainly, to support violence against Hitler, his most significant contributions to the conspiracy were in this “soft” skill of friendship.
Far from centres of power, where the Gestapo surveillance networks were relatively weak, Bonhoeffer cultivated a weak centre of his own in his seminary at Finkenwalde. There, he trained seminarians in prayer and the demanding commitments of Christian belonging. His was not a camp of holy warriors, ready to battle the Nazi idolaters, nor a place of retreat to avoid the spiritual decay and chaos around them. Barely an institution, this experiment in Christian community was a place to cultivate the inner workings of Christian life, where God’s strength can be made perfect in human weakness. Here, Bonhoeffer formed young pastors in Christian pastoral practices that equipped them all to serve better as pastors in prisons and on battlefields.
The Chorus of Weak Centres
Today, in Berlin, another memorial to the powerful witness of the weak centres stands right in the heart of a historically strong one: the German Resistance Museum is located in the formidable building of the Bendlerblock. In the Nazi era the Bendlerblock housed the Abwehr offices and served briefly as the location of the attempted coup after the failed assassination attempt, both led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The museum there honours the conspirators along with the many individuals and groups that refused to obey the claims and clamors of the Reich.
Visitors learn of Jewish resistance groups, the coordinated efforts of artists, intellectuals, and members of labour unions, and of other groups like the Kreisau Circle, the pamphleteers of the White Rose, the Red Orchestra, as well as resistance methods of young people, the Roma and Sinti, and various Catholic and Protestant groups. Bonhoeffer’s name and face are there too, but one among many names and faces that, really, we all would do better to know. I do not know each of them well, for there are thousands of names to learn. But together, they represent a chorus of weak centres, allies in what was most important in life. They refused to let the organizing principles of the Reich reorganize them, but to say it like that would miss what was beneath that refusal, what girded and grounded it and gave them their destabilizing force: simple forms of belonging, rooted in authoritative traditions and practices; values and virtues; a love of others and God. This chorus of weak centres memorialized at the German Resistance Museum gives witness to the hidden strengths that we are often reluctant to acknowledge in our official histories.
As we sense a shift in the sands—the growing doubts about the capacities of liberal democratic institutions to serve our complicated common life, the rise of authoritarian and nationalist ideas and practices around the world—it is important that we not grow spiritually or intellectually disoriented with fear, nor mindlessly clamour for heroes to offer easy rescue. The witness of the weak centres is one, I believe, of great hope for us ordinary folk, even in the midst of tectonic challenges and turbulence. Not all of us hail from families like Bonhoeffer’s, but in our own way, we can create that culture of welcome and belonging to others at shared meals, through neighbourhood potlucks, over cups of coffee, or by singing to one another from windows across the street.
Many accomplished social and political scientists have described our American civic bonds as frayed. The news articles we read about the growing problems of loneliness, alienation, and even despair among our neighbours merely documents, I think, something we all have to face as a lived reality. Our family has just crossed the six-month mark in our new home in Brussels, Belgium. We have to keep finding ways of connecting with others—of being willing to be a weak centre for others as much as for ourselves. Technology eases some of the burdens of belonging but exacerbates others. I’m grateful for all the ways I can stay connected to my family and friends back in the United States or elsewhere. But it fails in other ways. In the simple action of showing up to our places of belonging—to church, to neighbours, to friends—as imperfect as it often is, we maintain what is most important in life.
Bonhoeffer’s times are not our times, and we face different, unequal struggles. But in all the ways that mattered, his human life was not so different from ours. Bonhoeffer drew real strength from relatively weak places, and we can too. Yes, he provided leadership at a critical time to his church and his country, and in that simple narration, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is indeed a kind of hero. But to see the hero without human flesh and human belonging is to miss the roots under the mighty tree. It is to miss the witness of the weak centres—the witness of love and committed belonging, which sustains and preserves this world.