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Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is useful background on Bonhoeffer and Barth

I would recommend Erik Larson's #1 New York Times Best Seller (Hardcover Nonfiction for June 4, 2011) In the Garden of Beasts for those interested in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth.  Below I note a few explicit connections between the events and people named by Larson and Bonhoeffer as well as briefly noting some of the major events in Bonhoeffer and Barth's lives in Germany in 1933 and 1934.

Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. New York: Crown, 2011.

I listened to the audio version through Overdrive downloadable audio through my public library. 

The book is a relatively quick-moving and engaging historical account of the first two years (1933-1934) of William Dodd's tenure as United States ambassador to Germany.  Dodd (1869-1940) moved to Germany soon after Hitler's rise to power in January 1933.  By the end of 1934, Dodd had begun to see the true nature of Hitler's regime.  Dodd's daughter Martha (1908-1990), (two years younger than Bonhoeffer) is also prominently featured in the book because while her father was doing official duties, she was busy sleeping with Nazi officials, a Russian spy, and American cultural elite including Carl Sandburg. 

See also the reviews in the New York Times

Perched in Berlin With Hitler Rising
Published: May 19, 2011

Sleeping With the Gestapo
Published: June 10, 2011


Connections with Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Berlin in 1933

Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) in particular had significant connections in Berlin. 

  • His father was the leading psychiatrist at the University of Berlin and evaluated the defendant Marinus van der Lubbe who was accused of starting the Reichstag fire (Bethge 264-265, Schlingensiepen 124-125).  The trial is described in Larson's book.  (In an unimpressive section Metaxas 146-147 restates Bethge's account using many of the same phrases Bethge uses).
  • Bonhoeffer also communicated with the American Rabbi Stephen Wise who Bonhoeffer had met in New York in 1930-1931 (Bethge 267; good work here by Metaxas 115-116, 158).  Wise appears a number of times in Larson's account.
  • Rudolph Diels, head of the Gestapo, in 1933 who is a significant and partly sympathetic character in Larson's account, also appears even-handed in his interaction with Bonhoeffer--returning some leaflets that his men had confiscated (Bethge 295-296, mentioned barely in Schlingensiepen 133). 

Bonhoeffer was not slow to understand the situation in Germany.  On March 1, 1933 he gave a radio talk against "The Führer Principle;" in April wrote an article "The Church and the Jewish Question;"  in the summer lectured on Christology which would become what was called in English Christ the Center; and in August wrote against "The Aryan Clause in the Church."  "The year 1933 was the most hectic Bonhoeffer ever experienced, either before or afterwards" (Schlingensiepen 114).

He spent much of 1934 in London, England serving as a pastor there. 


Chapter 7 "Berlin 1933" pp. 257-323 of Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Man for His Times; a Biography. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Berlin: 1932-1933. Volume 12 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.

Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy: A Righteous Gentile Vs. The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.

Schlingensiepen, Ferdinand. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.


Karl Barth in 1933-1934

Though less connected with Berlin and Larson's narrative, Barth experienced some of the tightening of Hitler's grip on Germany especially in 1934.  

In 1933, Karl Barth (1886-1968) was teaching in Bonn, Germany on subjects such as: Book III of Calvin's Institutes, the material that would become Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century, the material that would appear in Homiletics, and the book of John. He also led studies of Luther's Greater Catechism and Emil Brunner's Ethics.    

In March of 1933, he began to address the political situation in his address "The First Commandment as a Theological Axiom" but most directly in Theological Existence Today which appeared in June 1933. On July 1st, he sent Hitler a copy.  A second edition had to be printed July 8, 1933.  It was banned a year later on July 28, 1934.

In May 1934, the Barmen Declaration, drafted by Barth, was a brief moment when there was united opposition to "the German Christians" (those willing to subsume the church under the Nazi regime). 

In 1933-1934, Barth refused to resign from an opposing political party to National Socialism and refused to do the Hitler salute in his classes--both of which drew the attention of Nazi authorities.  

In September and October 1934, Barth composed his Nein! (No!) against Emil Brunner. 

In November 1934, Barth refused to sign the oath of loyalty to Hitler, faced a disciplinary hearing, and was dismissed from his teaching position. In March 1935 he received a total ban from speaking in public in Germany.


Busch, Eberhard. Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976: 219-262. 


See my categories:

Karl Barth


Dietrich Bonhoeffer


Reviews of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas

My new book review of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas is posted online at Books & Culture

Book review of Karl Barth biography by Eberhard Busch