Thoughts On Eric Metaxas’ Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

By Roy Hanu Hart, M.D., aka Doctor Faith on July 21, 2011


When, at the age of 15, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) announced that he planned to become a theologian, his scientist brother Karl-Friedrich, who would later work with Albert Einstein and Max Planck (developer of quantum theory), expressed strong disapproval. As Eric Metaxas writes in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010), “He felt Dietrich was turning his back on scientifically verifiable reality and escaping into the fog of metaphysics.”

The clear-minded, faith-driven Dietrich was never diverted by any fog of doubt as to his calling. He united himself with the core of Jesus’ teaching and found his  reality in “the plain duty of the Christian…to suffer with those who suffered.”   

Dietrich’s life as a theologian would be intertwined with Germany’s Jews right down to the family level. His twin sister Sabine married Gerhard Leibholz, a lawyer who was Jewish (and baptised as a child). Franz Hildebrandt, his closest friend, was Jewish on his mother’s side.

Before proceeding further, I should mention that there is a second line to Eric Metaxas’ subtitle  —  A Righteous Gentile vs. the Third Reich. Righteous Gentile is a title bestowed on non-Jews who, during the Holocaust, assisted Jews despite danger to themselves, such as Oskar Schindler, immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.

In Yiddish, Bonhoeffer, the man of God who became an anti-Nazi activist, would be considered a Mensch, a man of honor and integrity. Like the “Seraphic Doctor,” Saint Bonaventure, Bonhoeffer thought and acted as God would have him do. In the end, he was a martyr to his Christ. A martyr in Hebrew is called a kadosh, one who is holy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a kadosh. (Actually, there is no word in Hebrew for martyr; an approximation would be kadosh me’uneh, literally, “answering saint.”)

In July 1939, with war on the horizon , Bonhoeffer wrote to Reinhold Niebuhr (remembered today primarily for The Serenity Prayer).  One sentence from his letter stood out for me: “Christians in Germany will face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive, or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying our civilization.”

His spiritual mentor was the Calvinist Karl Barth, described by Pope Pius XII as the most important theologian since Thomas Aquinas. Called the father of neo-orthodoxy, Barth shocked the liberal theological world of his time, the early 1920s, by affirming that God actually exists. In a nutshell, he preached that the God of the universe  is transcendent and unknowable except through revelation. His disciple carried on from there.

Bonhoeffer worked tirelessly to try to preserve true Christianity in Germany through the Confessing Church [from Matthew 10:32: "Whosover therefore shall confess (that is, acknowledge)  me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven"], opposed by the Nazified Reich church created by Hitler. As for the Fuhrer [from fuhr, to lead], Metaxas adds that he “had no other religion than himself.”

Metaxas does a superb job of taking the reader  through the course of the Nazification of Germany. The reorganization of German society to conform to the National Socialist (Nazi) plan, or Gleischaltung (synchronization), began immediately following Adolf Hitler’s assumption of power on January 30, 1933. Already by April 7, the Arierparagraph  (Aryan Paragraph), which stipulated that government employees had to be of  “Aryan stock,” was in effect. The travail of the  Jews  was beginning.   

The Aryan Paragraph wasn’t enough to get Germany’s Jews thinking about packing their belongings. But the Sauberung (cleansing), the country-wide book burning frenzy that occurred a month later, moved more than a few German Jews to dust off their luggage and locate their passports. 

The most glaring of the libricides on that night of May 20 took place in Berlin.  Members of the SS (Shutzstaffel, Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit) and SA (Sturmabteilung, stormtroopers or brownshirts), along with university students and Hitler Youth groups, congregated in the Opernplatz (a landmark public square) and torched some  20,000 books, including those of Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque, Albert Einstein, et cetera. That was a message all German Jews could understand.   

Sigmund Freud, whose works were included in that night’s unholy biblioclasm, commented, “Only our books? In earlier times they would have burned us with them.” Freud died in September 1939, before millions of his fellow Jews  would be consumed in Hitler’s ovens.  

Next came the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which proclaimed that “the purity of German blood [was] essential to the further existence of the German people.” It stripped Jews, for one thing, of their citizenship. What designated a Jew was defined specifically. If you had 3 or 4 Jewish grandparents, you were Jewish. With 1 or 2, you were classified as a Mischling, a crossbreed. Conversion was no longer an option. (The Jews in  Germany, incidentally, numbered about 500,000 in 1930, or less that 1% of the population of 65 million.)

In October 1938,  18,000 of  the more than 50,000 Polish Jews living in Germany were deported back to Poland, which refused  them re-entry, and they wound up living in  Tobacco Road quarters between the two countries. On November 7, Hershl Grynszpan (Anglicized to Greenspan), a 17-year-old Polish youth, whose parents were among the deportees, shot Ernst vom Rath, a German official, in Paris, out of frustration over his parents’ plight. (Hershl mistook vom Rath for the German ambassador.) 

The incident played into the hands of  Reinhard  “The Hangman” Heydrich, head of the Reich Main Security Office and Heinrich Himmler’s second in command at the SS. On the night of November  9-10, he   initiated what history would remember as Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”), aptly named for the thousands of windows broken throughout Germany and Austria during the pogrom (violent riot; mob attack; organized massacre of an ethnic group) that took place.

It was a night to remember. More than 1300 synagogues were burnt to the ground; over 90 Jews were killed; 30,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps, where they were beaten, starved, and many died;  thousands of businesses were destroyed and countless homes ransacked. To add insult to injury, the German Jewish community was fined 1 billion Deutsche Marks to pay for the damages! 

The renowned Rabbi Leo Baeck, who survived the Holocaust at Theresienstadt concentration camp, said, in summary, that “the thousand-year history of the Jews in Germany had come to an end.”

Hitler, in his Berchtesgaden lair, was ecstatic. He now knew he had the German populace behind him in his plans to rid Germany of its Jews. Judenrein (G., “free of Jews”), which started out as a policy of  excluding Jews from organizations within the Third Reich, would culminate in a master plan to wipe out European Jewry.

With the events of Kristallnacht, Germany’s Jews realized it was definitely time to leave. Soon my paternal grandparents left Mannheim for New York.   

 Although the emphasis here has been on Hitler’s design for a Germany, and then Europe, that was  “free of Jews,”  the Fuhrer also had it in for gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and those with chronic disabilities. Already in 1933, he had plans for a genocide to rid the Fatherland of those he considered “useless eaters” and “life unworthy of life.”

From the foregoing, it can be seen that I am not at all sentimental about Deutschland. In fact, I would have been happy had the Allies adopted the Morgenthau Plan, which would have converted post-war Germany into an agricultural and pastoral country.  

Eric Metaxas, on the other hand, is germanophilic. Not that I find fault with him for being so, but  throughout the nearly 550 pages of  Bonhoeffer, he extols the efforts of anti-Nazi Germans, especially a coterie of army generals, with their plans to rid their country of the satanic Adolf Schicklgruber, and in doing so creates the impression, a false impression, that Germany was really full of “good Germans.”

Here’s one example to illustrate my point. In a letter (dated July 25, 1942) to British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden,  Bonhoeffer’s friend in England Bishop (of Chichester) George Bell tried to make the case that there was “a sharp distinction between the Nazis as such and a very large body of other Germans“ [my italics]. 

Anthony Eden replied to the bishop on August 4, pointing out “that the opposition in Germany…have so far given little evidence of their existence.” He wanted to see Germans “follow the example of the oppressed peoples of Europe in running risks and taking active steps to oppose and overthrow the Nazi rule of terror,” before Britain would assist a German resistance movement. Mextasas repeatedly speaks of the “Resistance” (spelling it in upper case), but there was no active German underground movement in existence during the war.

Eden concluded by stating that “the longer the German people tolerate the Nazi regime, the greater becomes their [my italics] responsibility for the crimes which that regime is committing in their name.”

Without doubt, there were stalwart Germans who stood against the evil regime, but they did not number so many as to be considered many.

When Metaxas speaks of the “German Resistance,” he is not describing, as I have already indicated, an armed underground movement within the borders of Germany, but rather conspiratorial plots to bring down one man, the Fuhrer, such as the plot code-named Operation Flash.

On March 13, 1943, Fabian von Schlabrendorff, aide-de-camp to General Henning von Tresckow, succeeded in planting a bomb on Hitler’s plane in Smolensk, where the arch villain was visiting troops on the eastern front. However, the bomb failed to detonate.  

Quite a few high-ranking military men were involved in plots to get rid of Hitler, with the Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, coming close. For the various men who were involved in the conspiracies to depose Hitler, I have immense admiration. To this day, I remember the devout Catholic Stauffenburg’s last words before being executed: “Long live sacred Germany!”

The anti-Nazi officers were mostly from the old Prussian tradition and despised the World War I ill-tempered and ill-bred corporal who had managed to become absolute ruler over the Fatherland. But they were wary, super-cautious, when it came to high-risk action against the people’s demigod. 

Metaxas’ research of his subject is quite thorough, but some of his insights are misleading. For instance, he makes the statement that “Germany was not ready to wage war” in September 1938 during the Sudetenland crisis and would have been defeated by the western powers had he tried to march into Czechoslovakia.

The Sudetenland was the name for those border areas of Czechoslovakia populated mainly by ethnic Germans. At a conference held in Munich in late September 1938, France’s Edouard Daladier, Britain’s Neville Chamberlain, Italy’s Benito Mussolini, and Germany’s Adolf Hitler (Czechoslovakia had not been invited) signed the Munich Pact, which ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. Czecho-Slovakia, as the country was renamed, lost 3.5 million citizens, vast resources, and defensible borders.

Not to be overlooked, Chamberlain got Hitler to sign a peace treaty between the United Kingdom and Nazi Germany. Upon returning to London, he waved his copy of the treaty as he delivered his “peace for [sic!] our time” speech to a cheering crowd. Chamberlain was borrowing from Benjamin Disraeli, who upon his return from the Congress of Berlin in 1878 (which reorganized the countries of the Balkans), stated, “I have returned from Germany with peace in our time.” The original wording, from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, is: “Give peace in our time, O Lord.”

To address Metaxas’ point, Movietone News in those days supplied us every week with  images of Hitler’s powerful war machine. We would leave the movie theater feeling anguished — the term today is anxiety-ridden. In reality, it was Britain and France that were not prepared for war. France, which had a mutual military assistance treaty with Czechoslovakia, declined to challenge Hitler. Less than two years later, the Wehrmacht would conquer France in six weeks.

At the time of the Czechoslovakia crisis, we would also hear what relatives and friends of friends who had managed to make it from Germany to New York were relaying about Hitler’s massive military poised for war.

Hitler unleashed his war machine against Russia on June 22, 1941, ignobly ignoring the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, or the Treaty of Non-Aggression between Germany and the Soviet Union. 

He had already issued his infamous Commissar Order: the army was to shoot and kill all captured Red Army officers. The Einsatzgruppen (SS paramilitary death squads) had done the slaughtering of civilians, mainly Jews, in Poland, not the army. Now his front-line troops were being ordered to engage in fiendish butchery in addition to their soldiering.

Hitler justified his diabolical order with the explanation that the Red Army leaders had instituted “barbaric Asian methods of warfare.” When he unleashed the SSEinsatzgruppen during his invasion of Poland in 1939, he shrugged and said: “You can’t wage warfare with Salvation Army methods.”

With the failure of the Valkyrie plot of June 20, 1944, heads rolled. On February 7, 1945, as Bonhoeffer was being transferred from the Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht Strasse in Berlin to Buchenwald, his friend and fellow conspirator Dr. Joseph Muller said, “Let us go calmly to the gallows as Christians.”

Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, at Flossenburg concentration camp for his part in the conspiracy, three weeks before Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin underground bunker, with the Russians closing in on him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was 39.

In his most famous book The Cost of Discipleship, he had written, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer had done the biding of God, and he went to his death as the early martyrs of the church had done.

The dignified General Henning von Tresckow took his own life so as not to reveal names of other Valkyrie conspirators under torture.

It was Hitler’s Commissar Order that snapped him out of the moral torpor that had gripped Germany since 1933 and had him exclaim: “The German people will be burdened with a guilt the world will not forget in a hundred years.”

People’s memories are short. Guilt, like shame, is out of season. As Omar Khayyam lyricized: “The Moving Finger writes, and having writ moves on….” The world has moved on.

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