I’ve been very moved by a recent, very readable, biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
He holds great fascination for me, and personifies a combination of two interests: theology and the Third Reich.
My interest in the first is perhaps explained by my vocation. The second is helped by its linkage with my father’s early life.
Today would have been Dad’s 90th birthday. It’s also the fourth anniversary of his funeral.
He actually had a tiny link to a momentous moment in history:
Geert Hein was born in Holland in 1922, and left school very early to become a hairdresser.
Soon after the outbreak of war he became involved in the black market, bringing cigarettes and other products across the border, making a lot of money.
Once Holland was invaded and surrendered, he was given the option of joining the German Army or being sent to Germany to work. He chose the latter, and managed to make his way south to a small town called Ebingen.
Dad spent the rest of the war there, gaining work as a hairdresser in the main street, and living with a woman, Ellen, whose husband was away in the army, and her little daughter. Her parents lived in the country, and Sunday afternoons they would head out on their bikes to collect extra food.
A very strange relationship.
Amidst the regular bombings, he managed to earn extra money buying cigarettes from German soldiers, exchanging them for perfume in the nearby French prison camps, and using that to befriend and obtain quality food and other rare products from the local girls.
Dad actually spoke of this time as something of a good life as far as they could understand it.
He also spoke of trains heading past, full of prisoners.
Just outside of Ebingen is Stauffenberg Castle, the dwelling of Claus Von Stauffenberg and his family. Stauffenberg was a Colonel in the German Army, but also a Roman Catholic with many misgivings about Hitler’s policies, and treatment of the Jews.
My father became Staffenberg’s hairdresser, and those being the days when men went for a regular shave, Dad knew him quite well.
Towards the end of the war, Stauffenberg became involved in the famous plot to assassinate Hitler, an action planned by a network of resistance which included, among others, Dietrich Bonheoffer – although by then Bonhoeffer himself was already locked in Tebel Prison for suspected undermining of Nazi policy towards Jews.
On 20 July 1944, Stauffenberg secretly carried two bombs in a suitcase into a room near Hitler’s bunker at Wolf’s Lair. He was only able to arm one of the bombs, and with the suitcase kicked under a heavy table, the subsequent explosion managed only to injure Hitler.
The plot uncovered, Stauffenberg along with some 200 other suspected conspirators were hunted down and shot by firing squad. In 2008, the story was made into the film Valkerie, with Stauffenberg played by Tom Cruise.
It’s a fascinating little link to such a huge moment in history. I asked Dad about it many times, and though he was reluctant to talk about the war, he shared many personal things.
Dad had made a personal confession of faith just prior to the war at a Salvation Army church. But while in Ebingen he attended weekly Mass with his Catholic girlfriend, the same church attended by Stauffenberg and his family, where the Colonel’s deep morality and sense of justice had been cultivated.
The complexity of life, faith and ethics – especially in war – is exemplified in this tale.
My father, living a somewhat serene and comfortable exile, doing quite well, in love, shaving a Nazi customer who is now recognised globally for his brave attempt to end Hitler’s tyranny.
And all around, the most horrendous acts of inhumanity were occurring on battlefields and camps across Europe.
We often forget Hitler came to power with enormous popularity. We might remember that when we reflect on the complacency of so many, including many churches who were appeased.
And yet it was Christians such as Bonhoeffer, Stauffenberg and others who were willing to stand against the tidal wave in their own nation. What is good and right is often profoundly unpopular. And Christianity itself will draw attempts to be both appeased and dismissed by popular opinion.
Dad carried deep regrets about his early life. He found it difficult to reconcile the complexity of life and it’s circumstances.
It took decades for him to wrestle with some issues. I remember often walking into his office at home as a child and finding him on his knees, with the Bible open in front of him, crying as he prayed.
He knew he had darkness. He was well aware of his brokenness, though was not very articulate about it. He knew he needed grace.
He had lived a life with much complexity. Dad needed a real gospel, from a real Jesus Christ, and found great redemption there.
The Father I knew was a man profoundly strident in his faith in God and desire to proclaim it to everyone. He knew how reliant we are on that grace for everything, prompting honesty before God.
I strongly recommend the biography of Bonhoeffer for a full account of this whole moment in history. And for a full reminder about the ways, large and small, resistance and goodness are often profoundly unpopular and costly – but not as costly as the alternative.