24 June 2013

Bonhoeffer - The Saint of Forest Hill

By Jacob Phillips, PhD student at King's College London, and resident of Forest Hill. He is also one of the founding members of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Centre London: http://dbcl.jimdo.com

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Nazi-resister, an influential writer, a renowned theologian, and a Christian pastor. He was also a resident of Forest Hill for some 18-months, between October 1933 and April 1935, when he was 27. He lived at 2 Manor Mount, and there is today a Lewisham council plaque on the house to honour his memory. His short period here in Forest Hill was important in his life, and for the political activities of resistance to Nazi tyranny which he embarked on when he returned to his native Germany. This important figure is someone who continues to fascinate many people, and the modern-day community of Forest Hill would benefit from engaging with his life story and his legacy. Indeed, some would go so far as to say he something of a saint – and he is perhaps unique as the only modern-day saint connected with this area: ‘The saint of Forest Hill’.

Bonhoeffer’s primary concern in Forest Hill was being a pastor to a German Lutheran Church. This stood on Dacres Road, and was originally a rather beautiful 19th century neo-gothic building, built in 1883. Ironically enough, this building was hit by a stray German bomb during the War. It was rebuilt in 1959, and named the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Church. It is still a place of German and English language Lutheran worship. Older residents of Forest Hill still call the little footbridge behind the Church ‘the German bridge’, which is clearly a consequence of there being a German church on this site for many years. But Bonhoeffer’s time in Forest Hill had ramifications which went well beyond SE23.

Bonhoeffer arrived here on October 17th 1933, under something of a black cloud. He wrote to a friend eight-days after his arrival that he left his home in Berlin because he felt the need to ‘retreat’ and ‘go into the wilderness’. The Forest Hill of today is certainly not what many of us would think of as a ‘wilderness’, and nor was it then, as 1930s London was a vast metropolis. So what Bonhoeffer seemed to have in mind, was a need to retreat from the difficulties which were ravaging Germany, as he tried to discern how best to react to the dark developments in his homeland.

Adolf Hitler had been appointed Chancellor in January 1933. For various reasons, Bonhoeffer was markedly immune to the various factors which tempted normally rational and sober Germans to entrust their fate to the Nazi party. Most enemies of the Nazis were direct victims. They were victims on racial grounds (mostly Jewish), or political grounds (mostly Social Democrats or Communists). Bonhoeffer, however, came from a highly-esteemed Prussian lineage and was in many ways an archetypal upper-middle class cultured German. Yet, he was deeply disturbed by the growth of Nazism from long before Hitler’s takeover of power.

Things came to a head in the weeks following January 1933, when Hitler’s henchmen began transforming Germany into the totalitarian Third Reich. A key aspect to this was a policy called ‘harmonisation’, or ‘synchronisation’. This involved synchronising all aspects of German society to Nazism – so every facet of life was in line with the will of the Führer. One of these facets of life directly impacted on Bonhoeffer himself: German Protestantism. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor, and theology lecturer at the Berlin University. The Nazis wanted to bring the churches into line with the totalitarian state, and so they sought to get the churches under the control of a group calling themselves the ‘German Christians’. This organisation tried to blend Nazi ideology with the protestant religion; they would give Nazi salutes at services, dress church altars with swastikas, deny Christianity’s Jewish origins, and even refute Jesus’ own Jewish ethnicity.

For people like Bonhoeffer this was utterly unacceptable. Many pastors joined together to resist the attempt to turn churches into organs of the Nazi state. Unfortunately, the first few months of this struggle were rather unsuccessful. Through various underhand machinations, the Nazis were able to ensure the German Christians performed well in church elections in July 1933, and soon after this a deeply dejected Bonhoeffer came to London, perhaps to lick his wounds.

Bonhoeffer’s immediate duties as a pastor in Forest Hill did not lead to a retreat from the struggle with Nazism. He fought virulently to ensure that the German congregations in Britain were kept free from Nazi control. He also campaigned with his comrades in the struggle back home – firing off countless telegrams, and spending many hours on the telephone. All his telephone calls were made at the Forest Hill Post Office. It is recorded that the staff at the PO took pity on the friendly and polite young German when they saw his astronomical phone-bill, and gave him a 50% discount as a good will gesture.

He also underwent considerable soul-searching about how he should respond more broadly to the evil of Nazism. While in London he was preoccupied with the figure of Mahatma Gandhi, who was then a thorn in the side of the Imperial British. Bonhoeffer was a pacifist, who believed that his Christian faith forbade him from violence against other human beings. Gandhi’s methods of non-violent resistance to the British authorities were fascinating to Bonhoeffer, and he made concrete plans to visit Gandhi, and received an invitation to stay with him in an Indian ashram. Although this never materialised, it provides us with one of many examples in which we see how highly unique Dietrich Bonhoeffer was. Most of the Nazi-resisters in the protestant churches were conservatives, who opposed certain ideas associated with the German Christians on theological grounds, such as believing it is necessary to preserve the Jewish Scriptures (or the Old Testament), as part of the Christian Bible. Bonhoeffer was rather different, in that although broadly speaking quite conservative, he clearly saw Nazism itself as an utterly evil ideology in its entirety, and well-beyond merely the attempt to synchronise the churches.

One way in which this uniqueness is apparent, is that his letters from London show him planning to found to community, a sort-of Christian monastery, practising some aspects of Gandhi’s pacifist resistance, to oppose the Nazi regime. In July 1934, the Nazi resisting pastors back in Germany had decided they wanted to start some training colleges for their ministers, as an alternative to the training which was under Nazi control. Bonhoeffer was offered the position of directing one such college, and he accepted in September. One reason his stay in Forest Hill is rather important in his own personal development, is that he decided when he was here to make this training college into the monastic community he had been planning for some time. This was a moment of great personal significance for Bonhoeffer, and he wrote to his brother in January 1935, that ‘I often feel quite happy’, as ‘for the first time in my life I feel I am on the right track’. He went on a tour of some of the English theological colleges in Spring 1935 to conduct research for his new endeavour, spending some time at colleges in Oxford, Mirfield and Kelham. He left Britain to found his own college in April of that year.

When one reads Bonhoeffer’s work from before his time in Forest Hill, and his time afterwards, one is struck by the difference in tone and style. After his return, he spoke with a new frankness and confidence. The young pastor seems to have found his voice while living in the Manor Mount parsonage, and to have undergone an important, personal change – seeing his calling in life to be full-blown opposition to Nazi ideology in all its forms. This change was to have consequences in Bonhoeffer’s life which are now very well-known. Some years later, around 1940, he decided that, notwithstanding his pacifist convictions, he would try and help end the Nazi regime by any means necessary, even violence. He became involved in a group which were plotting to kill Hitler, and then hoping to broker a deal with the Allies for a German surrender. This group’s attempts were unsuccessful, and as a consequence, Bonhoeffer himself was implicated to the authorities. For this reason, he was executed at the Flossenbürg Concentration Camp, on April 8th 1945, aged 39.

This is indeed a desolate scene, dying on the gallows of a Nazi concentration camp in some of the darkest and most chaotic days of the 20th Century. But Bonhoeffer continues to fascinate and inspire many people across the globe to this day. His theological and spiritual writings are widely read and studied, and there is a statue of him amongst other 20th Christian martyrs at Westminster Abbey. He is also, arguably, one of Forest Hill’s most important historical residents. There are many reasons why those of us who live here today would do well to engage with his message and seek to continue his legacy, in this little pocket of South London which is significant for his life story. In Dietrich Bonhoeffer we see a blend of genuine and heartfelt conviction, inspiring and poignant religious faith, a deep respect for the dignity of human beings of all races and creeds, a highly sophisticated and culturally literate intellect, and an innate humanity, which not only had a powerful effect on those who knew him back then – but looks likely to continue to affect people well into the 21st Century. For these reasons we would do well to celebrate and perpetuate the legacy of this saint of Forest Hill.

Other Bonhoeffer resources:


Anonymous said...

Great write up of a fascinating man.

As a resident of the 'Bonhoeffer House' I just wanted to correct one point, it was 2 Manor Mount where he lived.

Michael Abrahams said...

Thank you for that correction. The article has been updated.