Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer exemplified the characteristics of the man he worshipped.
Bonhoeffer was a leading Christian in Germany in the twenties and thirties. Metaxas has written an intimate portrait. His research is meticulous in this readable narrative, some of which is in Bonhoeffer’s own words.
Bonhoeffer’s involvement in key historical events is in riveting detail. This biography is a must-read for anyone interested in the Weimar and Nazi period.
Bonhoeffer’s statue of one of ten martyrs of the church in Westminster Abbey. One of his many admirers is the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd who wrote an essay about him.
One of Bonhoeffer’s cell-mates in his last days, wrote in a book: “he was a good and saintly man”. In a letter to Bonhoeffer’s family, he wrote: “In fact, my feeling was far stronger than those words imply. He was, without exception, the finest and most loveable man I have ever met”.
Metaxas’s admiration of Bonhoeffer is clear but the biography is no whitewash. Metaxas doesn’t shy away from Bonhoeffer’s faults. Exploration of inner conflicts and agonising, life-changing decisions are here. Bonhoeffer's doubts make him more human which encourages empathy. But he was no vacillator. He was resolute about his faith and opposition to Hitler.
Anti-Semitism had been rife throughout Europe for centuries. It permeated German society, including Christian churches. The Nazis entrenched this hatred of less than 0.75 percent of the German population in a series of laws. The introduction of the first of these was in April 1933. It was the start of the incremental dehumanising of the Jewish people.
1 April: the government staged a boycott of Jewish businesses.
11 April: a decree defined a non-Aryan as “anyone descended from non-Aryan, especially Jewish, parents or grandparents. One parent or grandparent classifies the descendant as non-Aryan ... especially if one parent or grandparent was of the Jewish faith”.
26 April: the Gestapo – secret police – was established. Among other things, it encouraged Germans to spy on each other and tell the Gestapo about “anti-government” or “anti-German” behaviour.
Also in April, Bonhoeffer published an essay The Church and the Jewish Question. He argued the regime contravened the tenets of Christianity. The churches had “an unconditional obligation” to help the victims of the state “even if they [the victims] do not belong to the Christian community”.
It was Christians’ duty to help the Jews; it was their ‘unconditional obligation’ to do so. Christians might not only have to “bandage the victims under the wheel” of oppression but “to put a spoke in the wheel itself”. Bonhoeffer did both.
He worked against the Nazis from the time Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. He put himself at risk of arrest or worse; the Nazis brooked no opposition. In the summer of 1940 the Nazi war machine conquered all before it in western Europe. Bonhoeffer became a double agent in the Abwehr, Nazi military intelligence.
In so doing, he joined the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. It was a courageous and extraordinary decision for a theologian. As Metaxas writes: “For a pastor to be involved in a plot whose linchpin was the assassination of the head of state during a time of war, when brothers and sons and fathers were giving their lives for their country, was unthinkable.”
Bonhoeffer spent the last year of his life incarcerated. He preached on his second last day. Others at the concentration camp heard about it and wanted him to do the same for them. He believed it was incumbent on all Christians to make sacrifices. He practised what he preached and on 9 April 1945, at the age of 39, the Nazis executed him. It was three weeks before the end of the war.