Having finished Metaxas major biography of Bonhoeffer the other day, lots of things have jostled around my mind. I confess I skimmed bits of it (it is nearly 600pp including notes); I found the style a bit jarring at times (especially when he allows his inner satirist to get the better of him when describing Hitler’s Nazis; or when there is a sudden interruption of an incongruous colloquialism, such as the moment when Bonhoeffer ‘delivered an unrelenting homiletic bummer’ – p209!!); and I wasn’t too comfortable with some of the assumptions, or even appropriations, of his churchmanship (there has been quite a blogosphere debate about quite how evangelical it is possible to claim Bonhoeffer was).
But I learned a great deal – especially when Bonhoeffer is allowed to speak for himself, through his writings, letters and papers. This is a substantial book about an exceptional and challenging life. It is definitely worth investing time in.
However, one section blew me away – in the course of his discussion of the Nazi’s infamous book-burning orgy of May 1933, Metaxas quotes the poet Heinrich Heine at a couple of points…
Thus Germany would be ‘purged’ of the pernicious ‘un-German’ thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and HGWells. Of course Erich Maria Remarque’s books were included, as were those of many others, including Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. In 1821, in his play Almansor, the German poet Heinrich Heine wrote the chilling words: “Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”
Heine was a German Jew who converted to Christianity, and his words were a grim prophecy, meaning “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too”. That night across Germany his books were among those thrown into the crackling flames. Sigmund Freud, whose books were also burned that night, made a similar remark. ‘Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.’ (p162)
But then Metaxas ends this chapter with these words:
Heinrich Heine’s famous words about the book burnings are often quoted and today are inscribed at the Opernplatz as a memorial of the ghastly ritual. But another passage from Heine’s works is perhaps more eerily prophetic of what would take place in Germany a century hence. They are the concluding words of his 1834 book, Religion and Philosophy in Germany:
Christianity – and this is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated the brutal German love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes, and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals… Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder… [W]hen you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the german thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar, the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll. (p163)
Breathtaking, but terrifying, prescience.