Thursday, October 18, 2018

Was Dietrich Bonhoeffer Gay? Diane Reynolds' The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the Biographical-Theological Evidence

Diane Reynolds, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016)

When I reported to you (and here) a month ago regarding Charles Marsh's biography of theological Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (NY: Knopf, 2014), I mentioned to you that, as Marsh does, another recent biographer, Diane Reynolds, sees Bonhoeffer as a gay man in love with his colleague Eberhard Bethge. Reynolds' biography of Bonhoeffer, The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Women, Sexuality, and Nazi Germany (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016), proposes that as a man aware that his erotic inclinations moved in a forbidden direction in the savagely homophobic culture of Nazi Germany, Bonhoeffer lived a double life, often pretending to be who and what he was not (p. 4) — while he began to develop, especially in the latter part of his tragically truncated life, a "nascent queer theology":

I will openly argue, however, that Bonhoeffer went beyond emotional friendship with Bethge and was in love with him—and that Bonhoeffer’s fiancée knew it. And while the physicality, though not the orientation of the Bethge/Bonhoeffer relationship is largely irrelevant to my project, the book will weigh the evidence as to celibacy. It will, as well, explore the seeds of a nascent queer theology in Bonhoeffer’s writing (p. 6).

Reynolds thinks that Bonhoeffer's cousin Gerhard Vibrans glimpsed the nature of his and Bethge's relationship in an August 1936 trip he made with the two of them, in which Bonhoeffer clearly resented Vibrans' presence and treated him coldly. In correspondence with Bonhoeffer after the trip, Vibrans speaks of the relationship as a "unique relationship" (pp. 139-140). Reynolds observes, "Vibrans's words about a special or unique friendship echo codes used for gay relationships in Weimar Germany" (p. 141).

In this early period of their friendship, Bethge tried to sidestep the friendship's deeper implications, Reynolds thinks. He viewed it in one light, Bonhoeffer in another (ibid.). She thinks that Bethge was the third party who encouraged Bonhoeffer to pursue Elisabeth Zinn, a relationship Bonhoeffer ended, instead, due to his growing focus on Bethge (p. 142). 

Later (p. 429), Reynolds notes that Vibrans compared Dietrich's relationship with Eberhard to Vibrans' own desire for a woman. She concludes, citing again Vibrans' statement that Dietrich and Eberhard had a "unique relationship": "These statements suggest that at least one close friend of Eberhard's understood the Dietrich/Eberhard relationship to be more than a good friendship" (p. 429).

To appreciate its significance, Reynolds thinks that we have to place the Dietrich-Eberhard story against the backdrop of the rigid (and intensely homophobic) gender culture of Nazi Germany: "Dietrich lived outside of mainstream German gender norms for his times — for either the Nazi world or the pre-World War I culture he idealized" (p. 144). Friends and family made persistent attempts to connect him with a suitable woman, but there is no evidence he ever responded positively to any of these overtures, and when he finally did get engaged, it was to a woman eighteen years younger from far outside his close Berlin circle into which his siblings married (ibid.). Reynolds points to all of this explicitly to repudiate the attempt of scholar after scholar "to place him unequivocally into a narrative of heterosexual performativity — against the evidence" (p. 143).

As she stresses, the Nazi world "took nineteenth-century patriarchal norms to extremes" (p. 144). "Restoring the family to its rightful place" was a Nazi battle cry, according to Richard Grunberger’s The Twelve-Year Reich: A Social History of Nazi Germany: A Social History of Nazi Germany (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1971)— and this meant a male-centered authoritarian notion of family (ibid., citing Grunberger, p. 234). By the late 1930s, the concern with procreation in Nazi Germany reached "ludicrous proportions" according to Grunberger, and the average age for marriages dropped by several years. But despite these pressures, Bonhoeffer did not marry (ibid.). 

In an appendix to her book, Reynolds summarizes her case for concluding that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a gay man in love with Eberhard Bethge. Here's that section of her book and the case she makes in it: 

P. 428

P. 429a

P. 429b

P. 430a

P. 430b

P. 431a

P. 431b

P. 432a

P. 432b

P. 433a

P. 433b

P. 434a

P. 434b

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