I am so pleased today to have the opportunity to talk with my good friend Diane Reynolds about her new book, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany:
Those who read my blog regularly have often seen Diane’s name, invariably in the context of some aspect of Jane Austen’s writing and/or biography as to which Diane and I are in agreement. Indeed, Diane and I have become friends over the past 7 years in no small part via our continuing shared fascination and love for Jane Austen’s writing, and our belief that the real Jane Austen, two centuries after her death, has still not really been seen by her large worldwide readership and fanbase.
Diane and I have spurred each other on, in the quest for a clearer understanding of the real lives and characters of Austen and other women in her era, via Austen’s fiction and her letters---and along the way, we’ve been helping each other debunk aspects of the Myth of Jane Austen that has been obscuring that truth for two centuries.
I’m so glad that Diane has now taken a similar approach to demystifying the life of this extraordinary man, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with particular emphasis on the women in his life, about whom I knew nothing before hearing about, and that I’ve finally gotten to read Diane’s engrossing book. And let me also add, Diane has the extraordinary gift of expressing deep and complex ideas without even a hint of jargon or ego, which is extremely rare in scholarly writing.
One of the things that piqued my curiosity about Diane’s book is that connection between the obscurity surrounding Austen (who tragically died at 41 in 1817), and the mystery surrounding the relationship of Bonhoeffer (who tragically died at 39 in 1945) with the women in his life. However, in Bonhoeffer’s case, the situation is flipped, because he’s the famous person, and it’s the women close to him who’ve been ignored, whereas with Austen she’s the famous person who nonetheless (and ironically) has not been accurately portrayed in much of the scholarly and popular writing about her.
With that brief introduction, then, here’s a transcript of our chat the other day:
A: Diane, did studying Austen lead you to studying Bonhoeffer, or vice versa, or no connection?
D: Austen and Bonhoeffer have been two separate tracks, but mystery links both figures. In Austen, I was tantalized at something I sensed dancing behind her texts, just out of view. Likewise, I found myself entangled in Bonhoeffer because women seemed inexplicably erased from his life story. I wanted in both cases to know what was going on. I found both compelling figures in their own rights: both are artists. I loved Austen's six novels and I loved Bonhoeffer's Letters and Papers from Prison, but it was the mystery that pulled me in. Then with Bonhoeffer, I found myself wanting to get in the skin of his times, to try to understand what he and the women might be thinking.
A: In the case of Austen, you and I know that there were key figures in Austen family history who decisively shaped that exclusionary version of her life --was that the case in Bonhoeffer's biography as well? For example, did his sister or any other woman in his life ever write their version of things?
D: Bonhoeffer’s biographer and best friend, Eberhard Bethge, cannily devised Bonhoeffer’s life story in a huge biography that floods the reader with details but says almost nothing about the women--it really distorts and it is a labyrinth--deliberately. Bonhoeffer’s sister, his twin, with whom he was very close, Sabine, left a memoir, and she cooperated with the first bio of Bonhoeffer, before Bethge's. She steered the story, but left clues. It was Bethge who deliberately obscured things. Sabine, like many in the Austen family, was concerned with image, but was an honest person too.
A: And then all subsequent biographers ignored her memoir? Were you able to read it?
D: People don't look much at her memoir. I read it multiple times. People will lean into Sabine for childhood stories. They lose how close the two were all their lives.
A: Can you give an example or two of the kind of insight she provided, that has been missing from other male-oriented bios?
D: She emphasizes that Bonhoeffer was no saint. I think of James Edward Austen Leigh’s (JEAL) saintly portrait of his Aunt Jane Austen, but Sabine wouldn't go there: she paints a positive picture, but notes that he wasn't perfect and brings up that German males were basically chauvinist pigs. She says it more politely than that. She says Bonhoeffer “was no pillar saint."
Bethge, like the Austens, basically didn't want people to know things, such as that Bonhoeffer was same sex oriented and that he, Bethge, schemed for years to marry Bonhoeffer's niece, Renate.
A: As you know, I’ve written a lot about the many ways that JEAL sneakily but systematically distorted the picture of his aunt: both metaphorically, but also literally, in that he commissioned a revision of JA’s sister’s authentic sketch of JA when JA was 35, and turned a no-nonsense glaring countrywoman into a placid cow-like smiler.
And JEAL wasn’t the first, Bethge also sounds a lot like Jane’s brother Henry Austen in his Bio Notice of Jane Austen, published the year after her death, which kicked off what I call the Myth of Jane Austen that is still going strong two centuries later.
So, getting back to Bonhoeffer, from what you gathered from Sabine’s Memoir, what do you speculate Sabine would think of your book, if she were able to read it today- would she say, "Thank God someone has really gotten the complexity of my brother’s life?”
D: I think she would have mixed feelings. She wanted to protect the family franchise, but she would have, I think, not been altogether unhappy. Yes, Bethge could be likened to Henry Austen. One good thing about the Bonhoeffers--they didn't destroy letters wholesale. We can get a more complete story. Some key letters got "lost" but that is different from whole packets consigned to the flames. I am still hopeful that more Austen letters will show up.
A: Me too as to those Austen letters! I sometimes wonder some still exist, but are being deliberately concealed by family who don't want something "dark" (such as, e.g., her support for radical feminist causes or her complicated personal sexual preference) about Jane Austen to be made public.
…I meant to ask about Dietrich's attitude but I am glad you responded re the sister's...
D: I wonder sometimes how both Austen and Bonhoeffer would have felt about their true stories being told. I don't know that either would have liked it. I don't think Bonhoeffer would have. What do you think about Austen?
A: Contrary to the near universal belief that Austen shunned public attention, I believe she was desperate for her true life to be known, most of all in regard to her complicated sexuality, and also her desire to be an inspiration to women to become conscious of their oppressed status. I see her last poem (“But behold me immortal!”) as a literal last gasp shaking her fist at all the forces squelching her voice.
D: I am more inclined to think Austen wanted to be put her story out there--and yes, the final poem supports that. I think DB would have been more reticent--but I don't know. He died in another time and place.
A: Do his theological writings in any way shed light on his personal self?
D: For him the personal was always the theological and vice versa, so yes, they do. I wonder how he would have been, say, post Stonewall. In his time and place, he wasn't going to say he was same-sex oriented.
A: Makes sense - gay liberation was not even a possibility then, so he opted instead for the struggle against Hitler.
D: He definitely comes from a more privileged location than Austen too--he was a male, had money, autonomy, voice--his twin sister, Sabine, is more of a cognate to Austen, and more likely to appreciate her full story being told.
A: Which leads to my next question -- can you glean any sense of how his theology was influenced by her?
D: As a woman married to a Jew in Nazi Germany, she was more silenced the way Austen may have been--she just couldn't speak her mind.
A: Did she marry a Jew before Hitler's rise?
D: Yes, she married a Jew in 1926--even then the family was worried, but supported her.
A: Did she support his decision to become a man of the cloth?
D: Sabine was Bonhoeffer’s first theological partner and his theology, his absolute desire to oppose Hitler and Hitler's church-based anti-Semitism was driven by great worry about her and her husband and their two daughters. It was personal. And yes, she supported him in becoming a pastor.
A: So interesting -- as I read your 2014 blog post about Austen and Bonhoeffer, I was reminded of Edward Ferrars's and Edmund Bertram's decisions to become clergymen.
D: Yes. And Austen supported her brothers too.
D: I am sure Bonhoeffer never wavered in his opposition to any kind of anti-Semitism because of her, and also because of his brother in law, who was also Jewish, though Hitler absolved him of that "stain" in 1940. It was personal.
A: So...are you suggesting that if his sister had not married a Jew, Bonhoeffer might not have followed his anti-Hitler path as he did?
D: The entire family was completely opposed to National Socialism, but yes, I think Bonhoeffer was human and Jewish persecution might not have been as urgent, as pressing to him, without her. What I am saying is yes, the opposition is driven not only by abstract theology, but by a need to protect his sister and her husband. They are in grave danger and can't speak for themselves. Jews just couldn't.
A: I’m reminded of Jane Austen’s shadow stories there – I think that she saw herself as giving a voice to what English women were afraid to even think, let alone speak out loud. The best example is the high incidence of death in childbirth that combined with serial pregnancy to generate a very high death rate for young married English gentlewomen. While JA could not express her outrage publicly, her surviving letters are filled with sarcastic comments about wives caught in this insidious trap literally for decades, and I believe Northanger Abbey’s shadow story is at its heart concerned with this plague on English wives, whom, I believe, JA wished to inspire to start talking about this domestic Gothic horror.
D: I think they both had to say what they meant in veiled ways.
A: Did you find evidence of him and his sister talking about Nazism through a Christian lens?
D: Well, I am not sure what you mean. They both abhorred the attempt to hijack the Christian Church and turn it Aryan. They wished more Christians would stand up to Hitler but unfortunately that didn't happen.
A: I was just wondering if she and he conversed at any point in theological language -- was that an intellectual realm that she entered too? Or did she influence his theological stance in other modalities?
D: Really we don't have a record of that, except a few oblique hints. It's largely a blank, although they surely discussed theology. She does mention that they talked over his pacifism in 1939--and in Nazi Germany, there was no CO option--if you declared as a pacifist, they basically shot you. He was able to talk this over with her and she understood and supported him--most of his theological partners in Germany couldn't comprehend being a pacifist. It was just not something they could wrap their brains around and she could, completely. And his close friend Ruth, understood, but advised him to lay low, as she knew what kind of trouble he could get into. She was right. The women he was closest to did understand the pacifist stance in a way German men in that era couldn't.
A: Same as in the time of Aeschylus and in the time of Trump.
D: Yes. Warfare is still tied up with masculinity.
A: Apropos the ignoring of women close to a “great man”, I have a quick aside I think you will enjoy. Laurie Anderson the performance artist/poet, put out something sharply ironic in that regard about 20 years ago. When you first told me the premise for your book about telling the untold female story, I was immediately reminded of one particular part of Anderson’s great music/spoken word album "Stories from the Nerve Bible" Here is the text of it:
"the only sadder cemetery I saw was last summer in Switzerland. And I was dragged there by a Hermann Hesse fanatic, who had never recovered from reading Steppenwolf, and one hot August morning when the sky was quiet, we made a pilgrimage to the cemetery; we brought a lot of flowers and we finally found his grave. It was marked with a huge fir tree and a mammoth stone that said "Hesse" in huge Helvetica bold letters. It looked more like a marquee than a tombstone. And around the corner was this tiny stone for his wife, Nina, and on it was one word: "Auslander" foreigner. And this made me so sad and so mad that I was sorry I'd brought the flowers. Anyway, I decided to leave the flowers, along with a mean note, and it read: Even though you're not my favorite writer, by long shots, I leave these flowers on your resting spot."
Sadly, it sounds like women being relegated to the shadows is a common denominator in the realm of the arts and theology just as much as in other fields. It also makes me wonder whether Jane’s oldest brother James, the “golden child” of the family, had the idea that books would be written about him, but then little sister Jane did not get the memo, and became the famous one in the family instead.
D: Yes interesting. Nobody in the Austen expected Jane to be their claim to fame and nobody in the Bonhoeffer family expected it to be Dietrich. They thought he had thrown his life away by studying theology. One thing too I think is a backdrop common to both Bonhoeffer and Austen is the high level of censorship--we KNOW that about Nazi Germany, but also England is in the Napoleonic Wars--the last great war until the 20th century, and the leadership is seriously worried and writers can't say what they want, certainly nothing republican or even semi radical. There never was a First Amendment in England. I think we forget how severely Austen was curtailed. It’s very interesting, because her Regency English culture is much closer to Nazi German culture than either one are to American culture. We find it so surprising, for instance, that both cultures thought Republics were dangerous: to us, being a Republic is ingrained.
A: Yes, and especially if the writer was a woman who wanted to blow the whistle on everything about life in England that was bad for women.
D: Yeah--and as Ellen [Moody] has been saying about Charlotte Smith--they buried her novels because she said too much that was too uncomfortable to hear and the Austens weren't going to let Austen do that. The kind of hierarchy that both Regency England and Nazi Germany upheld kept women constrained, as it did gays or anyone likely to step out of line.
A: Nosiree Jane.
D: And so both these figures are severely censored--I think much of the interest lies in that and pulling that out as a reality for Austen.
A: As we've been posting, Austen made sure to weave Smith's overt stories into her own shadow stories.
D: Yes. I find that very interesting--just the fact that she alluded to Smith at all speaks volumes.
A: My next question is re Bonhoeffer's irony -how did he go about being ironical? You and I both know how Jane Austen did it, but I am curious to hear how he did it in his writings
D: Well that's a complicated question--he uses terms ironically, like a "world come of age." He talks about a mis-fuhrer or misleader of the people--he can be sardonic about Hitler as the emperor with no clothes ... I don't know how much you want to go here, as his theology gets complicated.
A: Whatever you found most interesting--what made you smile the way we smile at Austen's irony?
D: Well he is not ironic in the same way. Think of the reams of words it would take to even explain the irony in the speech by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey about every Englishman being a spy. When everyone was arguing that you had to join the Nazis to combat them, Dietrich said that if the train is heading for a crash and you had climbed on it and are running in the opposite direction of the crash through the cars, you are still going to crash. I think he realized the Nazis were pea brains and bullies. But it gets to a point when its not funny that these morons are in charge
A: No, just as I can no longer laugh at Trump. It reminds me of Elizabeth Bennet’s great putdown of Darcy: “My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever."
"That is a failing indeed!" cried Elizabeth. "Implacable resentment is a shade in a character. But you have chosen your fault well. I really cannot laugh at it. You are safe from me."
D: I am sure it was hard for Austen too to deal with the tin-plated bullies like her Aunt Leigh-Perrot.
A: For sure---and part of the way she coped was to skewer those bullies in the shadow stories of her novels. And speaking of Trump, that prompts another segue --- What can we in America today learn from Bonhoeffer's writings that can better equip us to combat this current dangerous flirtation with fascism that seems to have infatuated way too many Americans?
D: Absolutely don't fall for it. Stay in community. Resist it. Recognize that Trump is a fraud. When solutions to problems --this is what Bonhoeffer would say and you can agree or not--go out of what the Old Testament and New Testament would say are legitimate responses to problems--not where people in the Bible went crazy and did things wrong--but when the core Torah/Jesus beliefs are being turned on their heads, head for the hills, say no—instead, base your life in a sane reading of those texts. What happened when people tried to build the tower of Babel--is that like building a wall to keep out Mexicans? He would keep bringing it back to that--maybe that is old fashioned to our ears, but maybe it's good advice.
He would say, treat people decently—that means don’t kill people, don’t deport people, you don't nuke people, you don't do this sort of thing to them. It's pretty basic.
A: Funny that we are not hearing any prominent American theologians speaking out about Trump, especially today of all days, when Trump has perhaps gone too far even for him.
D: We need to hear more.
A: Many of them are compromised -- they are so hung up on abortion, that they won't openly criticize a Trump who promises to give them SC justices to do their bidding.
D: History repeats itself. And in Germany--Jews thought they could keep quiet and ride it out and Christians got diverted by promises to restore some mythic pre-Weimar moral golden age.
A: I was just thinking about Austen vis a vis what you said above--- I realized, in her era, there was no real “Resistance” she could be part of --- And that’s one big difference --- in her time, it wasn't horrific Nazis who were perpetrating horrific evil that was obvious to everyone sane. It was everybody - even the Edmund Bertrams, country clergymen who believed they were on a higher moral plane than big city folks, were part of the oppression.
D: Yes. People believed in it, thought it was how society had to be. And Hitler wanted to restore that. He loved patriarchy.
A: Is there any other topic I did not bring up, that you'd like us to talk about before we conclude?
D: I would like to emphasize how relevant both figures are to the world of today--we are facing the same issues. Basically, Austen and Bonhoeffer are fighting similar ideological battles. We don’t like to compare Regency England to Hitler’s Germany, but the ideological similarities—extreme belief in patriarchy, hierarchy, militarism, violent punishment, colonialism, the inferiority of certain “races,” fear of the other –are uncomfortably similar.
A: Amen. Thank again, Diane, for answering my questions, and congratulations on a book of great interest to Janeites and all other thinking people as well!