Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer Gay?

by Matthew Sitman

Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a new biography of the German theologian and pastor killed by the Nazis and a hero to many conservative evangelicals in America, has reviewers asking the question. I can’t say if he meant for this to be a wink and a nod or not, but Timothy Larsen begins by noting Bonhoeffer’s rather fastidious attention to what he wore:

You could illustrate almost every momentous turning point in his life with sartorial commentary. When he takes a pastoral internship in Spain, he bombards the senior minister with written inquiries regarding the proper formal wear for dinner parties. The poor, overworked man eventually remarked sarcastically that the new intern should bring his preaching robe.

Bonhoeffer was thrilled by the writings of Barth, but his confidence in the brilliant theologian was shaken when he first met him and observed that he lacked dress sense. When Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer’s student and close friend, arrived at his underground seminary, Bonhoeffer was identified as “the sporty dresser.” He even arranged to get his favorite brown suit delivered to him in prison.

About that “close friend”:

Marsh makes a convincing case that Bonhoeffer harbored feelings for Bethge that extended beyond friendship. Those feelings were unrequited, and Bonhoeffer probably did not consciously acknowledge them. Still, Marsh notes, he was possessive and smothering in his attention. He created a joint bank account and sent Christmas cards signed, “Dietrich and Eberhard.”
This turns into a major, recurring theme in Strange Glory. It fascinated me at first, but I grew tired of Marsh directing the camera angle of every scene so as to rather heavy-handedly keep it in view. Particularly regrettable is his decision to describe this relationship using words from Emily Dickinson—”The heart wants what the heart wants”—given the association between the quotation and Woody Allen’s use of it to justify unsavory behavior.

Bonhoeffer, by contrast, was so sexually innocent that I would not assume Athanasius himself surpassed him in this regard. Any such possible desires for Bethge appear sublimated and regulated. Even Bonhoeffer’s physical relationship with his fiancée, Maria—whom Marsh says Bonhoeffer was “smitten” by—comprised only a solitary occasion when, as a prisoner, he kissed her on the cheek in the presence of the public prosecutor. In a late prison letter, Bonhoeffer observed that he had lived a full life even though he would die a virgin.

In a review of the book we flagged last month, John Stackhouse Jr. picked up on the theme as well, remarking, “Marsh defends the chastity of the two men, but one wonders if Marsh might usefully have hinted less and ruminated more.” Meanwhile, after reading Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison – which partly consists of the correspondence between Bonhoeffer and Bethge – Wesley Hill argued last month that the relationship between desire and friendship can be complicated:

What struck me in reading [the Bonhoeffer-Bethge letters], perhaps in contrast to Marsh and Stackhouse’s views, was how unwieldy our categories are—either “homosexual” or “just friends”—when it comes to classifying a relationship as profound as Bonhoeffer and Bethge’s was.

Years after their exchange of letters, and after Bonhoeffer’s death, Bethge fielded a question from a member of an audience who had gathered to hear him speak about his old friend. Surely, the questioner said, “it must [have been] a homosexual partnership” that existed between you and Bonhoeffer—after all, what else could Bonhoeffer’s impassioned letters have signaled? Bethge responded by saying, no, he and Bonhoeffer were “quite normal.” But perhaps an even better response would have been to query that idea of “normal.” Better, perhaps, for Bethge to have explored whether friendship and erotic love might be (in the words of Rowan Williams) “different forms of one passion—the passion for life-giving interconnection.” Pursuing this line of thought might not give us a “celibate gay” Bonhoeffer, but it also might not yield a “just-friends-with-no-hint-of-eros” Bonhoeffer.

Previous Dish on Bonhoeffer here, here and here.