Newsletter — February 2004— Vol. X, no. 2
Since this month marks the 98th anniversary of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer's birth, I vary our contents somewhat with a short
piece on the dilemmas of trying to translate one of his prison
poems. Do let me know if you approve this variation. My
address is firstname.lastname@example.org
1) Translators' Travails
2) Journal Update
3) Book review: Greschat, Evangelische Christenheit
4) Journal articles:
a) Rhonheimer, The Holocaust: what was not said.
1) Translators' Travails
On December 19th 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his bleak
underground prison cell, wrote a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria
von Wedemeyer which included a poem called Von guten Mächten. A
few days later he repeated the poem, "which has been running through
my head in the last few days". with a few minor changes, in a letter to
his parents. It consists of seven stanzas in rhyming couplets and iambic
pentameters, and is probably, after Christen und Heiden, the best
known of his prison poems. And indeed, because it comprises both a
statement of faith and a prayer, and is couched in a traditional
evangelical vocabulary, the poem has become widely popular in church
circles. Since his letters were carefully saved, and survived the war,
there is no question about the authenticity of the text. It has been
reproduced in numerous selections of Bonhoeffer's works, though not
all of these have drawn attention to the immediate setting and the
desperate circumstances of impending catastrophe in the 1944
Christmas season, when it was composed.
However, in the course of being translated into English, the
poem has undergone considerable transformation. Since each edition
or selection of Bonhoeffer's works has been made by different editors
or translators, there have now appeared a large number of differing,
variant and possibly even rival translations. Which of them should be
regarded as the most authentic? Since these various translators have
not gone on record as to the criteria they chose for their selection of
words, phrases or rhythms, the reader can only hazard a surmise. Was it
poetic style, rhythmic balance, linguistic accuracy, theological
interpretation or personal fancy which guided their choices?
Take for example, the seventh and final stanza. The original
runs as follows:
Von guten Mächten wunderbar geborgen
erwarten wir getrost, was kommen mag.
Gott ist mit uns am Abend und am Morgen
und ganz gewiss an jeden neuen Tag.
In the most recent issue of the International Bonhoeffer Society
Newsletter, number 83, Fall 2003, the text of these lines is printed on
p.9 under the title "By the Powers for Good":
The forces for good surround us in wonder,
They firm up our courage for what comes our way,
God's with us from dawn to the slumber of evening
The promise of love at the break of each day.
(Apparently the Editor borrowed this item for the Newsletter from the
recently published book by Elizabeth Raum, Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
called by God: a biography (New York 2002), who in turn took it
from A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings Of Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, ed. G.B.Kelly and F.B.Nelson, 1991 edition, with the
translation made by Geffrey Kelly.). The rhymes of lines 2 and 4 are
clearly meant to reflect the same in the original, but the tripping use of
dactylic metre gives this version a racy almost running speed, as though
the author was on horseback. Is this a suitable rhythm for such an
affirmation at a time of terrible disaster? The second line conveys
neither the idea of waiting/awaiting or of comfort. And does not the
conscious use of poetic terms such as dawn or the slumber of evening
give a too beautified impression?
By contrast, in the early paperback editions of Letters and
Papers from Prison, where Mr Geoffrey Winthrop Young is thanked
for the translation of the poem, the tone is much more sedate and
literal. The title is here given as New Year (1945), and the text -
surely deliberately - avoids wherever possible words of more than one
While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we'll face the future, be what it may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us
and oh, most surely on each new year's day!
The effect is however awkward, since the lines barely scan. Line 2
ends as though contrived, and line 4, with its unfortunate caesura seems
to try to reproduce the emphasis of ganz gewiss in a wholly artificial
manner. No explanation is provided why the translator has given the
poem the title of the New Year (1945) or changed the last line to fit this
attribution. Presumably this was due to the fact that Bonhoeffer was
explicitly writing a Christmas letter, though it is surely possible that his
thoughts were derived from his Advent meditations, with their moods
of penitence for the past and expectation for the future.
Interestingly, by the time the new greatly enlarged edition of
Letters and Papers from Prison was published in 1971, changes had
been made. The title is now "Powers of Good" and the second line has
been amended to read
boldly we'll face the future, come what may
which at least fits the iambic rhythm better. The fourth line is also
changed from new year's day to newborn day which is more literal
but again seems contrived.
The poem has also been set to music as a hymn. According to
one source, no less than 17 composers have provided a musical setting,
the most available of which is to be found in the ecumenical
hymnbook, published by the World Council of Churches, Cantate
Domino. Turning the poem into a hymn inevitably brought other
rhythmic constraints, even with the flexible tune provided by Joseph
Gelineau. The translator of the version in Cantate Domino is given as
F.Pratt Green and the date of 1972 is supplied:
By gracious powers so wonderfully shelter'd
And confidently waiting come what may
we know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day
No title is attached, and for singing purposes the last verse has been
transposed to be the first, while stanzas 1 and 5 of the original poem
have been omitted. The explanation for these changes is probably that
Mr Green was attempting to stress the universal, timeless character of
the hymn, and therefore omitted the personal and new year's
references. The result is a more sentimental and predictable version,
even if, at least in this stanza, the simplicity sticks closely to the
poem's intent. But, as Jürgen Henkys has pointed out, the omission of
the original first stanza makes the opening of the second awkward, and
Green has cut out any reference to the Christmas season or to the
terrifying predicament in which Bonhoeffer and his closest relatives
now found themselves. This hymn version therefore too often runs the
risk of being used as a form of spiritual band-aid, a piece of pietistic
A very different version is supplied in a more recent
publication, the exchange of letters between Maria and Dietrich,
translated by John Brownjohn, with the title Love Letters from Cell 92.
Here the poem is cited in the immediate context of Dietrich's letter to
Maria of December 19th, though without any title. "Here are another
few verses that have occurred to me in recent nights. They're my
Christmas greeting to you, my parents, and my brothers and sisters."
The final stanza now runs:
By kindly powers so wonderfully protected
we wait with confidence, befall what may.
We are with God at night and in the morning
and, just as certainly, on each new day.
The phrase kindly powers is repeated from the first stanza and also
from Bonhoeffer's accompanying letter where he speaks of kindly
unseen powers preserving him, as angels do. The attractiveness of this
wording certainly outweighs the more concrete image of the forces for
good. But does it do justice to the implied contrast with the forces for
evil, which were so brutally present in Bonhoeffer's life at that very
moment? Evidently here too the German phrase ganz gewiss has
baffled the translator, and led him to the literal but ugly and
unrhythmic alternative. And in the second line the idea of comfort is
not fully superseded by the notion of confidence. Nor is it clear why he
had to make the inversion of the third line, when Bonhoeffer clearly
and deliberately asserts that the initiative comes from God, not the
other way around.
The theological content of this stanza seems simple and clear -
the assurance of God's continuing daily presence. It stands perhaps in
contrast to the much more intense fervour of the prayer contained in
the earlier stanzas, with their strong overtones of Jesus' own prayer in
Gethsemane. The note of suffering is introduced already in stanza 2,
with the reference to the evil times which oppress our hearts. All the
more heartfelt then is the prayer:
Noch will das alte unsre Herzen quälen
noch drückt uns böser Tage schwere Last,
ach, Herr, gib unsern aufgescheuchten Seelen
das Heil, für das Du uns bereitet hast.
(Maria's version has the word aufgeschreckten in line three, and
geschaffen instead of bereitet in line four.)
Since, in the hymn version, Green altered the order of the stanzas, he is
also obliged to make a major change for the first line, and therefore
provides as his translation: Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented
still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
for which, O Lord, thou taught us to prepare.
Truer to the original intent is surely the LPP translation:
The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou has promised, the healing and the cure.
It is surely notable that Bonhoeffer inverts the usual expectation of a
joyous salvation prepared for the faithful by God, but insists instead
that God prepares the faithful for the kind of salvation to be granted to
the souls thou hast been chastening (LPP). The translators must have
struggled with the unusual German word aufgescheuchten which
surely requires a more forceful term than Brownjohn's troubled or
Green's frightened usage.
This leads directly to stanza 3, where the echoes of the Passion
Und reichst Du uns den schweren Kelch, den bittern
des Leids, gefüllt bis an den höchsten Rand,
so nehmen wir ihn dankbar ohne Zittern
aus Deiner guten und geliebten Hand.
Here Kelly gives a very literal translation which seems to catch the
atmosphere of reluctant acceptance of a tragic imminent fate:
But should you tend your cup of sorrow
To drink the bitter dregs at your command,
We accept with thanks and without trembling,
This offering from your gracious, loving hand.
But Brownjohn's more poetic translation surely captures the nuances
and accentuates the contrast between the flinching recipient and the
If thou shouldst offer us the cup of sorrow,
the bitter brimming chalice we'll withstand
and thankfully accept it, never flinching,
from out thy righteous and beloved hand.
We can only infer how prayer- and psalm-filled was the conscience of
one who so courageously faced, in the Gestapo's main prison, the
imminence of his own trial and execution, without flinching, and still
affirming God's goodness. Was this not a true example of how
Christen stehen bei Gott in seinem Leiden?
And this stanza can surely be seen as recalling the notable
passage from Bonhoeffer's letter written on July 21st, the day after the
failure of the plot, with all the consequences that he could well
envisage that the powers of evil would soon inflict.
This then leads us back to the guten Mächten. Contrary to what
the religious man expects from God - namely his own preservation
from the perils and dangers of this world - Bonhoeffer explicitly
suggests that the role of these powers of good is to enable and empower
men to share God's suffering at the hands of a godless alien society.
The message of the poem is not therefore to promote an other-worldly
pietistic escapism, but to call men and women to participate in the
sufferings of God in the secular life. As such it reflects and repeats the
sentiments expressed in the July 21st letter:
How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray,
when we share in God's suffering through a life of this kind? . . .
That I think is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a
man and a Christian. (LPP. 1971, p. 370)
This brief example, I believe, shows the difficulties faced by
translators seeking to remain faithful to the author's intentions. In the
case of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his rich spiritual sensibility and
adventurous hypotheses demand the utmost care in preserving the
nuances and profundity of one whose insights have made him one of
Germany's most influential theologians of the twentieth century. We
must remain grateful to all those who have attempted such a
formidable and challenging assignment.
P.S. A review of the new documentary-biography film, Bonhoeffer,
produced by Martin Doblmeier, follows in next month's Newsletter.
2) Journal Update.
The journal Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte, edited from
Dresden by Prof. Grehard Besier, is seeking to increase its readership
amongst English-speaking church historians. To this end, the current
issue, Vol. 16., no 1, has added an Anglicized version of its title,
Contemporary Church History, has the majority of its articles in
English, and is devoted to a theme of particular interest to this
audience, namely "Christian Teachings about Jews. National
Comparisons in the shadow of the Holocaust". These informative and
scholarly articles extend our range of knowledge about Christian
attitudes to Jews beyond the usual field of Germany. Here we are
given descriptions of the churches' teachings in Poland, Estonia,
Denmark and even Spain and Argentina, as well as a critical view of
how both anti-judaism and racist-tinged antisemitism were to be found
in the publications of the Vatican. These percipient but also
controversial discussions add to the value of this journal which
deserves to be more widely adopted, especially in North American
3) Book reviews:
Martin Greschat. Die evangelische Christenheit und
die deutsche Geschichte nach 1945. Weichenstellungen in der
Nachkriegszeit Stuttgart: Kohlhammer. 2002. 476pp.
(This review appeared first in German History, Vol 21, no 4, 2003)
Martin Greschat is possibly now the doyen of Protestant Church
historians in Germany. His many years of teaching have been
accompanied by a notable list of publications covering the period of the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But he has also been the champion
of a new style of church history writing, which seeks to get away from
the narrow blinkered concern solely with its own institutional record.
Instead Greschat has joined with others to try and overcome the highly
unfortunate division between Kirchengeschichte and Profangeschichte.
This leads to a blending of the church's activities into the wider
political and social picture, attempting to ensure that the church's
contribution to wider history is not overlooked in the general
historiography. This same goal is clearly evident in Greschat's new
synthesis of the first four post-war years, 1945-1949. This masterly, if
leisurely, account successfully surveys both the chief political
developments in Germany and the Protestant Church's reactions and
Greschat begins with an analysis of the occupation policies of
the four victorious Allies. All of them took a surprisingly positive view
of the churches, crediting them with having resisted Nazism, and
seeking to use them as a vehicle for re-educating the German people.
In the Protestant churches, a remarkable group of leaders emerged to
take advantage of this situation. Their first task was to purge the church
of the notorious pro-Nazi cadre of bishops and pastors. Instead, under
the leadership of the 77-year old Bishop Wurm of Wurttemberg, and
inspired by Pastor Martin Niemöller, the survivor of seven years in
concentration camps, these men, most of whom belonged to the
anti-Nazi Confessing Church, resolved on a new beginning. But first
they had to deal with the past. To their credit, and in contrast to the
Catholic hierarchy, they recognized the need to accept for themselves,
for the church, and for the nation, a declaration of guilt for the sins of
the Nazi era. This was issued at Stuttgart in October 1945.
Greschat gives an excellent account of the origins and the
results of this initiative, placing it in the wider context of German
society. These church leaders, as indeed their constituents, were deeply
divided by their past. A few were prepared to admit their inadequate
opposition to Nazism; others, especially in the laity, adamantly refused
to accept any notion of German collective guilt. For this reason, the
Allied-imposed denazification met with strong resistance. Niemöller's
incessant preaching of repentance fell on deaf ears. There was
virtually no sensibility to the feelings of the Nazis' victims. So too
there was a strong refusal to accept the verdict of the war, especially as
imposed by the Russians.
This reluctance, Greschat correctly points out, was due to the
ingrained conservative nationalism of the Protestant establishment.
Moreover they were led by a cohort of senior men, all of whom had
grown up under Kaiser Wilhelm, and had been influenced by the ideas
on nation-building, as well as antisemitism, of Adolf Stoecker.
Bishops Wurm and Dibelius of Berlin followed Stoecker in believing
that the Evangelical Church was the guardian of Germany's identity
and morality, in a way which Roman Catholics could never be.
Consequently, they took up this cause in the name of a
"re-Christianization" of German society, which soon enough differed
from either the western model of democratic secularism or the
Communist model in the east.
In particular, the Evangelical leaders sought to preserve the
unity of the nation, and hence were opposed to the divisions within the
victorious Allies which eventually led to the country's partition. Only
reluctantly did they accept Adenauer's Catholic-dominated Bonn
republic, and never granted legitimacy to the Marxist-led German
Democratic Republic. For several years after 1949, their leaders such
as Niemöller and Gustav Heinemann campaigned in vain for a
neutralized but united country bridging the Iron Curtain.
Greschat also succeeds in placing the reconstruction of the
Evangelical Church's national structures in the wider context. Here the
die-hards of Lutheran confessionalism sought to dismantle the
nineteenth century Prussian settlement and were only rebuffed by
vigorous opposition from those segments of the church who heeded
Karl Barth's call for a more open and democratic polity. These
quarrels were backed by the conviction on both sides that God and
history backed their interpretation. Only by forcing through a pragmatic
compromise could the national church be established.
Greschat shows very clearly that the church hierarchy followed
the same ambivalent path as other leaders after 1945 with regard to the
nation's past and future. Their conservative stances contributed to the
resulting stability of the Bonn Republic. But it was left to the next
generation to adopt new political options in the much changed
conditions of the 1960s.
4) Journal articles:
a) M.Rhonheimer, "The Holocaust: what was not
said" in First Things, November 2003.
The Nov. 2003 issue of First
Things contains an important article by the Swiss Opus Dei priest,
Martin Rhonheimer, professor of ethics and political philosophy at
Rome's Pontifical University of the Holy Cross: "The Holocaust: what
was not said" (pp. 18-27). This discusses "the astonishing fact that no
Church statement about Nazism [between 1933 and 1945] ever
mentioned Jews explicitly or defended them." R. rejects the arguments
of critics like John Cornwell and Daniel Goldhagen as "so devoid of
historical foun-dation that they range from the absurd to the
outrageous. ...The Church was indeed a powerful bulwark against Nazi
racism. Was it, however, also a bulwark against anti-Semitism?" In
addressing this question R. is conscious of a double loyalty: he is a
Catholic priest, but also a member of a three-quarters Jewish family,
pained both by unfair Jewish attacks on the Catholic Church, and
equally by a one-sided Catholic apologetic that minimizes the injustice
done by Christians to Jews in history.
Despite clear and repeated rejections of the Nazis' insane racial
theories by Church spokesmen, the same leaders repeatedly stated that
Jews exercised a harmful influence on society; and that measures
restricting their public role were not only lawful but mandatory, always
with the proviso that Jews must not be hated, persecuted, unjustly
expropriated, or killed. Church condemnations of racism defined
anti-Semitism thus very narrowly: as hatred (and only that) of "the
people once called by God" ˆ but now suffering because of their
rejection of Christ. In a day in which the Catholic Church promoted the
idea that Jews were a harmful influence on society, the Catholic
rejections of anti-Semitism cited by Church apologists today did not
have at all the broad significance we attach to them today. "That we
read [such statements] as condemnations of anti-Semitism in any form
is an indication of the distance we have traveled since the Second
Vatican Council, and especially during the pontificate of Pope John
Careful analysis of Church condemnations of racism, including the
1937 Encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, shows that they were defenses
not of Jews as such but of Church teaching, in particular Catholic
insistence that baptized Jews were no longer Jews but Christians (a
position never conceded by the Nazis). The principal author of Mit
brennender Sorge, Pius XII, confirmed on June 2, 1945, that its
purpose was the clarification of Church teaching. "Astonishingly, there
is not a single reference in this allocution, delivered a month after the
end of the war in Europe, to the slaughter of millions of Jews. Instead
the Pope, with his vision still limited to Catholics and Church concerns,
lamented the killing of thousands of priests, religious, and laypeople."
At the same time, this "in no way diminishes the fact that many
Catholics ˆ priests, religious, laity, and above all Pius XII ˆ helped
many Jews, sometimes at the risk of the rescuers' lives."
"Does this make Church leaders 'guilty'? We are not called today to
stand in judgment over the consciences of others ˆ especially when
they were subject to pressures we have never experienced." At issue is
not the guilt of individuals but "recognition that the Catholic Church
contributed in some measure to the developments that made the
Holocaust possible." The "official Church" was "certainly not one of
the causes of the Holocaust. And once the trains started rolling toward
Auschwitz, the Church was powerless to stop them. Yet neither can the
Church boast that it was among those who, from the start, tried to avert
Auschwitz by standing up publicly for its future victims. ... The real
problem is not the Church's relationship to National Socialism and
racism, but the Church's relationship to the Jews. ... The Catholic
Church's undeniable hostility to National Socialism and racism cannot
be use to justify its silence about the persecution of the Jews. It is one
thing to explain this silence historically and make it understandable. It
is quite another to use such explanations for apologetic purposes."
"Christians and Jews belong together," R. concludes. The "purification
of memory and conscience" which the Church urges today involves
"the ability to speak openly about past failures and shortcomings. This
is true, of course, for both sides. But in view of all that Christians have
done to Jews in history, it is Christians who should take the lead in the
purification of memory and conscience."
No summary can possibly do justice to the abundance of sources cited
by R. in support of his arguments. The article is especially noteworthy
coming, as it does, from a member of a far-right group in the Catholic
Church, whose members are not normally found among the critics of
NOTE: A longer German version of the article, with footnotes, is in the
new book: Andreas Laun (Hg.), Unterwegs nach Jerusalem. Die Kirche
auf der Suche nach ihren jüdischen Wurzeln (Eichstätt: Franz Sales
John Jay Hughes, St. Louis
With all good wishes