Review of Victoria J. Barnett, ed., “After Ten Years”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Our Times

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 24, Number 2 (June 2018)

Review of Victoria J. Barnett, ed., “After Ten Years”: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Our Times (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017). Pp. 48. ISBN: 9781506433387.

By Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University

In this slim volume, Victoria J. Barnett, general editor (2004-2014) of the celebrated Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works English Edition (DBWE), has contextualized one of Bonhoeffer’s most famous writings and applied it to our tumultuous contemporary political environment. The book is comprised of two parts: Barnett’s introduction, entitled “Reading Bonhoeffer’s ‘After Ten Years’ in Our Times,” and the English translation of Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years: An Account at the Turn of the Year 1942-1943” produced by Martin and Barbara Rumscheidt for the DBWE Letters and Papers from Prison, published in 2009 (to which Barnett has introduced a few slight revisions).

In her introductory chapter, Barnett begins with three italicized paragraphs in which she locates her reading of Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years.” On the one hand, she notes, “one must be cautious about drawing simplistic historical analogies,” especially with respect to Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust. “Nationalism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and populism have played a role in different historical periods and national contexts” (1). The grievances and resentments associated with these political movements always emerge out of specific social and cultural contexts. What is left unwritten is that the United States—indeed, the wider Western world—is currently threatened by the resurgence of just these sorts of antagonisms. Barnett continues, noting how important it is that citizens and institutions respond to such threats. Toleration of or compromise with ideologies of hatred will undermine and even destroy Western liberal political cultures. She suggests that this is a very real danger, given the fragility of ethical veneers and social conventions. Living in a time when accepted values and political norms are upended creates crises for individuals, religious bodies, and institutions of civil society, all of which struggle to adapt to or resist to these challenges. Barnett explains that these are the themes Bonhoeffer was addressing in his famous essay. As she writes, “his observations about what happens to human decency and courage when a political culture disintegrates continue to resonate around the world today” (2). This “introduction to the introduction” is very important, because it connects Bonhoeffer’s reflections about Nazi Germany to the upheaval of contemporary politics in the Age of Trump, even as it recognizes that this connection must take place in thoughtful, nuanced ways.

The balance of the introductory chapter considers the historical context of “After Ten Years,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own history, and the main ideas of his important essay. Here Barnett brings her considerable expertise to bear, writing efficiently about Bonhoeffer’s family influences, his early criticisms of the Nazi regime, his experiences in England and the United States, his return to Germany in 1939 and his connection to leading members of the German Resistance. She explains how Bonhoeffer wrote “After Ten Years” to his brother-in-law, Hans Dohnanyi, his close friend Eberhard Bethge, and his military associate in the Resistance, Major General Hans Oster, as a synthesis of themes he had been thinking and talking about for some time, during a period in which the Nazi conduct of war was growing increasingly destructive and prospects for an overthrow of Hitler were becoming increasingly bleak. “After Ten Years,” Barnett notes, “was not so much an assessment of where they stood in 1942 but of how they had gotten there” (5).

She then delves more deeply into Bonhoeffer’s responses to Nazism, beginning with his February 1933 essay “The Führer and the Individual in the Younger Generation” and his April 1933 essay “The Church and the Jewish Question.” Bonhoeffer was quickly critical of the Nazi regime, not least because of its persecution of Jews. Even as Bonhoeffer urged the church to stand with persecuted Jews, however, he maintained elements of the theological anti-Judaism of his day and age. And when it came to the question of what to do about the moral and political crisis created by Nazi rule, Bonhoeffer was actually quite cautious. He participated in the Confessing Church struggle against the nazification of the churches, but did not speak out against the regime—even after the November 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom. This equivocation is captured in “After Ten Years.” As Barnett notes, “even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Hans von Dohnanyi, and Eberhard Bethge—men of conscience who had seen through National Socialism from the beginning—could not completely extricate themselves from what was unfolding around them” (9). This is a key point that many general readers of Bonhoeffer miss: his insistence that he and his society were in various ways complicit with the Hitler regime under which they lived, not morally pure opponents completely set apart from National Socialism. The resistance that led to Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment and eventual execution emerged only after 1939.

Barnett describes “After Ten Years” as “a series of seventeen aphorisms and meditations that build upon each other” (11). She explains the way Bonhoeffer drew on his writing in Ethics to explore the extent to which “National Socialism had subverted traditional moral and ethical standards” (11). Even as he called for more individual responsibility, he explained how civil courage had declined, how National Socialism had seduced Germans, and how a widespread collective “stupidity” had taken hold. In response, he encouraged a kind of inner liberation, worried about the growth of contempt in German society, believed in the guarantee of eventual divine justice, and advocated a kind of nobility that grew out of the traditions of the Christian humanist culture in which he had been raised. He closed with a call to restore trust and sympathy among the opponents of Nazism and the recognition of the impact of suffering, the search for a responsibility towards the future, and the admission of weakness and vulnerability—even the possibility of death.

Barnett is careful to note that Bonhoeffer was not writing out of a confidence in an approaching victory of goodness or out of his own heroism. Rather, he “was reflecting on what happens to good people, what happens to the soul, the human sense of morality and responsibility, when evil has become so embedded in a political culture that it is part of the very fabric of daily life, and it becomes impossible even for good people to remain untouched by it” (14-15). All of this, she explains, arose out of his Christian faith, “characterized by personal faith and prayer, a commitment to the community of the church, and a deep responsibility toward others” (15). In this way, Bonhoeffer’s “After Ten Years” speaks to fundamental issues:

the human capacity in all ages for decency, for courage, and for an engagement in political culture that affirms these values and honors human integrity. In whatever particular historical moment we find ourselves, we are summoned to determine what our place in history will be, to think and act beyond our self-interest for the sake of a common good: not just the common good of the moment, our particular political group, or even our society, but of our times—to act, as Bonhoeffer put it, on behalf of history itself and for the sake of future generations and the kind of society we would wish for them. (16)

Rereading “After Ten Years” itself, one is struck by the power of Bonhoeffer’s analysis of his compromised position—conclusions he reached after living for a decade under Hitler’s rule. He began by noting the difficulty of the situation in which he and his friends and colleagues found themselves—decent Christians and Germans living under Nazism: “Have there ever been people in history who in their time, like us, had so little ground under their feet, people to whom every possible alternative open to them at the time appeared equally unbearable, senseless, and contrary to life?” (18). Bonhoeffer was grappling with the moral and ethical upheaval of his society—unsure where it might lead but aware of its evil and of the inability of reason, principles, conscience, freedom, or virtue to serve as a basis from which to respond to it. “Only the one who is prepared to sacrifice all of these when, in faith and in relationship to God alone, he is called to obedient and responsible action. Such a person is the responsible one, whose life is to be nothing but a response to God’s question and call” (20).

Bonhoeffer went on to describe the lack of civil courage among Germans, particularly in light of the problem they now faced: that political success had been achieved by evil means. Here the question Bonhoeffer faced was how to react to these conditions out of a sense of responsibility to future generations who would inherit these conditions. In an especially powerful section, he noted how people could easily become collectively stupid under the influence—the pressure—of an upsurge of power:

It seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances. … In conversation with [the stupid person], one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him. He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. (23)

It is not hard to see how Bonhoeffer became so gripped with the importance of achieving a kind of inner liberation—an independent sense of responsibility towards the world and the future. At this point, Bonhoeffer turned to address issues like the growing contempt for humanity, the uncertainty of immanent justice, and the certainty of an eventual setting right of things, as the abiding, God-given laws of human communal life “strike dead” those who try to establish some alternative, aberrant order of society (25).

The essay then shifts, as Bonhoeffer affirms his belief “that God can and will let good come out of everything, even the greatest evil” (25). But for that to happen, God would need good people ready to live in faith and trust in God. To that end, Bonhoeffer wrote about the importance of establishing trust between people, of pursuing a genuine spirit of nobility of character, of cultivating sympathy for the suffering of others, and of embracing suffering, should it come to them. There would be no certainty about the future. “To think and to act with an eye on the coming generation and to be ready to move on without fear and worry—that is the course that has, in practice, been forced upon us. To hold it courageously is not easy but necessary” (29). Genuine optimism means working for a better future until that becomes impossible. As he considered both the uncertainty of the future and the necessity of responsible action in the world, Bonhoeffer pondered the potential of death, noting of it that “deep down we seem to feel that we are his already and that each new day is a miracle” (29).

It was here that Bonhoeffer penned his most famous question: “Are we still of any use?” (30). Could he and others around him become the kind of simple, uncomplicated, honest people living out of the inner strength which would make resistance possible? Key to this, he believed, was their experience of becoming marginalized—cast out and oppressed. Looking beyond these conditions, Bonhoeffer concluded “After Ten Years” with a call to live “out of a higher satisfaction … grounded beyond what is below and above” and thus to “do justice to life in all its dimensions and in this way to affirm it” (31).

Together, this stand-alone publication of “After Ten Years” and Barnett’s thoughtful introduction make for a powerful reminder of Bonhoeffer’s ongoing relevance as a theological and political thinker. This volume will serve well as a companion text in many university and seminary courses, and as a reading to serve as the basis for discussion among Christians and others keen to understand how to live in our contemporary political and cultural environment.