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Psalm 74:8 and November 1938: rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Kristallnacht annotation in its interpretive context

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2018

David A. R. Clark*
Toronto School of Theology, Wycliffe College, Toronto, ON M5S


Following Kristallnacht, Dietrich Bonhoeffer marked the date of the pogrom beside Psalm 74:8 in his personal Bible. This annotation has been frequently cited; however, though scholars have recognised historical implications of associating this psalm text with Kristallnacht, the discourse has yet to examine this annotation thoroughly in the context of Bonhoeffer's figural interpretation of the Psalms during this period. This article will establish the context of Bonhoeffer's figural approach to the Psalter in order to address this question: by connecting Psalm 74:8 with Kristallnacht, what theological claim might Bonhoeffer have been making about the events of November 1938?

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

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1 Steinweis, Alan E. notes that though controversy has surrounded usage of the term ‘Kristallnacht’, especially in German-language scholarship, it remains the standard nomenclature in English writing. See his Kristallnacht 1938 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 12CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Bethge, Eberhard, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer: One of the Silent Bystanders?’, European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe 25/1 (Spring 1992), p. 35Google Scholar. See also Bethge's ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer unter den Verstummten? Vortrag 1990 über Bonhoeffers Situation am 9. November 1938’, in Erstes Gebot und Zeitgeschichte: Aufsätze und Reden, 1980–1990 (Munich: Chr. Kaiser Verlag, 1991), pp. 100–11.

3 Schulz, Dirk, ‘Editor's Afterword to the German Edition’, in Theological Education Underground: 1937–1940, DBWE 15, ed. Barnett, Victoria J. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p. 572Google Scholar.

4 Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 34. See also Bethge's Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, rev. edn (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 607.

5 According to Bethge, students’ notes show that ‘Bonhoeffer made these pencil marks and wrote the date at that time . . . in the midst of the realization . . . of the first dreadful news’, as opposed to it being ‘a note added later as a result of reflection’ (Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 36).

6 This annotation appears in Bonhoeffer's personal Bible, which I have consulted: Die Bibel oder die ganze Heilige Schrift des Alten und Neuen Testaments nach der deutschen Übersetzung D. Martin Luthers, Durchgesehen im Auftrag der Deutschen Evangelischen Kirchenkonferenz, Mitteloktav-Ausgabe (Stuttgart, 1911), located in the Nachlass Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (NL-Bibl. 1 A 6).

7 In Bonhoeffer's edition, Psalm 74:8 reads: Sie sprechen in ihrem Herzen: „Laßt uns sie plündern!” Sie verbrennen alle Häuser Gottes im Lande. The annotation ‘9.11.38’ is adjacent to the second part of the verse (‘They burn all the houses of God in the land’), which is underlined in Bonhoeffer's hand. Verses 9–10 are also marked by a vertical line in the margin, accompanied by an exclamation mark; however, only v. 8 – and specifically v. 8b – is explicitly annotated with the date of Kristallnacht.

8 Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 36.

9 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘To the Finkenwalde Brothers’, DBWE 15, p. 84.

10 I adopt Barry Harvey's description of figural interpretation as it applies to Bonhoeffer's work: a practice that ‘posits an intrinsic relation between what might otherwise seem as unrelated persons, practices, or events, but which in actuality constitute concrete moments in the single divine utterance in and of history’ (Taking Hold of the Real: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Profound Worldliness of Christianity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015), p. 218). For consistency in describing Bonhoeffer's interpretive work, particularly as it relates to the Kristallnacht annotation, I employ the terms ‘figural interpretation’ or ‘figural exegesis’ as a broader classification, while the terms ‘typology’ and ‘allegory’ will appear in quotations.

11 Such assignments can make dubious sources, as students may adjust their positions in order to cater to a professorial constituency; however, since in this essay Bonhoeffer was willing to make claims likely to offend his professor, Reinhold Seeberg, the document seems a reliably frank statement of his own position (Bonhoeffer, ‘Paper on the Historical and Pneumatological Interpretation of Scripture’, in The Young Bonhoeffer: 1918–1927, in DBWE 9, p. 294, n. 72).

12 Ibid., p. 288.

13 Ibid.

14 Bonhoeffer, ‘Lecture on Contemporizing New Testament Texts’, in Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935–1937, in DBWE 14, p. 428.

15 Ibid., pp. 428–9 (original emphasis).

16 Bonhoeffer stipulates: ‘The decisive element and only criterion is whether something other than Christ is disclosed here – hence the issue is (1) the What! the content of the allegorical and symbolic and typological exposition; (2) that only to the word of Scripture itself can this power to witness allegorically, symbolically, etc. to Christ, this transparency, be attributed’ (ibid., p. 429, original emphasis).

17 When Bonhoeffer cites Luther in this paper, he highlights his inconsistent treatment of allegory: ‘Luther emphatically insisted on the unequivocal meaning of Scripture over against the four- or sevenfold meaning of Scripture – unanimity, truth . . . – he himself allegorized in his own lecture on the Psalms!’ (‘Lecture on Contemporizing New Testament Texts’, p. 428, original emphasis). Parallels with Vischer in Bonhoeffer's exegetical work led Walter Harrelson to conclude that Bonhoeffer ‘interprets the Old Testament much in the manner of Wilhelm Vischer’ (‘Bonhoeffer and the Bible’, in The Place of Bonhoeffer: Problems and Possibilities in His Thought, ed. Martin E. Marty (New York: Association Press, 1962), p. 118). However, it may be that seeming traces of Vischer's approach in Bonhoeffer's work comprise coincidence rather than influence. Martin Kuske notes that the chronology of Vischer's publications led Bethge to infer ‘that Bonhoeffer was not influenced by Vischer, but rather thought parallel to him’ (The Old Testament as the Book of Christ: An Appraisal of Bonhoeffer's Interpretation, trans. S. T. Kimbrough, Jr. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), p. 17).

18 Bonhoeffer, ‘Lecture on Contemporizing New Testament Texts’, p. 428 (original emphasis).

19 According to Bonhoeffer, the function of holy scripture in bearing witness to Christ applies equally to both testaments. As Kuske explains, ‘Bonhoeffer reads all Holy Scripture as the book of Christ, therefore the Old Testament as well’ (Kuske, Old Testament, p. 32, original emphasis).

20 Cf. Harvey's observation that figural approaches were necessitated by Bonhoeffer's broader theological outlook: ‘Bonhoeffer's reclamation of typological interpretation is consistent with his overall theological approach with respect to the Bible, as his rejection of principles and ideals as the primary mode of theological ethics, when taken together with his emphasis on participating in the revelatory action of God in Christ, makes something like this approach necessary’ (Harvey, Taking Hold of the Real, p. 225).

21 Bonhoeffer, ‘Lecture on Christ in the Psalms’, in DBWE 14, p. 387.

22 Ibid., pp. 387–8.

23 Ibid., p. 389.

24 Westerholm, Stephen and Westerholm, Martin, Reading Sacred Scripture: Voices from the History of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016), p. 397 (original emphasis)Google Scholar.

25 Bonhoeffer, ‘Lecture on Christ in the Psalms’, p. 389.

26 Ibid.

27 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, in DBWE 5, pp. 54–5.

28 Bonhoeffer, ‘Lecture on Christ in the Psalms’, p. 392.

29 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 54.

30 Ibid., pp. 56–7.

31 Miller, Patrick D., ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Psalms’, The Princeton Seminary Bulletin 15/3 (1994), p. 280Google Scholar.

32 Bonhoeffer, Prayerbook of the Bible: An Introduction to the Psalms, in DBWE 5, p. 160.

33 Ibid., p. 157.

34 Bonhoeffer classifies psalms according to the categories of ‘creation, law, the history of salvation, the Messiah, the church, life, suffering, guilt, enemies, the end’. Ibid., p. 162.

35 Ibid., p. 169.

36 Ibid., p. 160.

37 Ibid., p. 166.

38 Ibid., p. 170.

39 Ibid.

40 Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 36.

41 Miller, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Psalms’, p. 281.

42 Rumscheidt, Martin, ‘The View from Below: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Reflections and Actions on Racism’, Toronto Journal of Theology 24, suppl. 1 (2008), p. 69CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Rumscheidt's excellent discussion requires, however, a technical correction, when he describes the Kristallnacht annotation as follows: ‘In the margin Bonhoeffer put a large X with his pencil at verse 7 – ‘They set your sanctuary on fire’ – and next to it: 9 November 1938’ (ibid.). In fact, v. 7, including the text Rumscheidt cites (Sie verbrennen dein Heiligtum), is unmarked in Bonhoeffer's Bible.

43 Gracie, David McI., ‘Our Need for God's Word’, in Gracie, David McI. (ed.), Meditating on the Word (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986), p. 6Google Scholar. Cf. Geffrey B. Kelly's comment on Bonhoeffer's 20 Nov. 1938 letter to former Finkenwalde students (which, like the marginalia, invokes Psalm 74 in connection with Kristallnacht): ‘It is important to note that Bonhoeffer had taught these seminarians that they were to pray these psalms with Jesus Christ, who, in this case, was being brutalised anew in the person of the Jewish victims of Nazi ideology’ (Geffrey B. Kelly, ‘Editor's Introduction to the English Edition’, Prayerbook of the Bible, in DBWE 5, p. 148).

44 Ohly, Friedrich, Sensus Spiritualis: Studies in Medieval Significs and the Philology of Culture, ed. Jaffe, Samuel P. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 40Google Scholar.

45 Harvey, Taking Hold of the Real, p. 227.

46 Worthen, Jeremy, ‘Praying the Psalms and the Challenges of Christian-Jewish Relations’, Studies in Christian-Jewish Relations 9/1 (2014), p. 11CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

47 Kelly, , ‘Bonhoeffer and the Jews: Implications for Jewish-Christian Reconciliation’, in Kelly, Geffrey B. and Weborg, C. John (eds), Reflections on Bonhoeffer: Essays in Honor of F. Burton Nelson (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1999), p. 162Google Scholar.

48 Bethge argues, for instance, that Bonhoeffer's annotation reveals ‘the decisive impetus of his life’ (Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 40). Dickson, Ann L. also discusses the annotation in the context of a turning-point in Bonhoeffer's life. See her Bonhoeffer on Freedom: Courageously Grasping Reality (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), pp. 120–2Google Scholar.

49 For discussions of the annotation in the context of Bonhoeffer and the Bible, see Clements, Keith W., ‘How I Love Your Law: Bonhoeffer and the Old Testament’, in What Freedom? The Persistent Challenge of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bristol: Bristol Baptist College Press, 1990), p. 137Google Scholar; and Plant, Stephen, ‘God's Dangerous Gift: Bonhoeffer, Luther and Bach on the Role of Reason in Reading Scripture’, in Wüstenberg, Ralf K. and Zimmermann, Jens (eds), God Speaks to Us: Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Biblical Hermeneutics (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2013), pp. 42–3Google Scholar. For discussions of the annotation in the context of Bonhoeffer in relation to Jews, Judaism, and Nazi antisemitism, see Barnes, Kenneth C., ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hitler's Persecution of the Jews’, in Ericksen, Robert P. and Heschel, Susannah (eds), Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999), p. 123Google Scholar; Bethge, ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Jews’, in Ethical Responsibility: Bonhoeffer's Legacy to the Churches (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1981), pp. 74–6; Clements, ‘The Mutual Contributions of Church History and Systematic Theology: The Holocaust and Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a Case Study’, Pacifica 20 (June 2007), p. 172; Nelson, F. Burton, ‘The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’, in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), p. 38Google Scholar; and Jane Pejsa, ‘“. . . they burned all the meeting places of God in the land”’, in Reflections on Bonhoeffer, pp. 129–32. For a rare discussion of the annotation from a Jewish perspective, see Fackenheim, Emil L., The Jewish Bible After the Holocaust: A Re-reading (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1990), pp. 24–5Google Scholar.

50 A member of the Canadian Theological Society, hearing an earlier version of this article, questioned whether the annotation could entail a kind of ‘supersession of Kristallnacht’. This respondent's concern suggests how the Kristallnacht annotation could, when understood within the context of Bonhoeffer's figural approach to the Psalms, raise challenging new questions for the place of Bonhoeffer in Jewish-Christian relations.

51 Haynes, Stephen R., The Bonhoeffer Legacy: Post-Holocaust Perspectives (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 92Google Scholar, quoting Gerlach, Wolfgang, And the Witnesses were Silent: The Confessing Church and the Persecution of the Jews, trans. Victoria J. Barnett (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), p. 147Google Scholar.

52 Bethge, ‘Silent Bystanders?’, p. 33.

53 I wish to thank the staff of the Handschriftenabteilung at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin for their patient assistance. I also wish gratefully to acknowledge funding from the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto, which supported my work through a Research and Travel Grant.