Reviewed by Marshall Hughes
Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas
"Even those not interested in Bonhoeffer will learn plenty of World War II history from this book."
In the first major biography
done on Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 40 years, Eric Metaxas leaves few stones
unturned in his quest to answer every question
readers might have about the life and times of the German “pastor,
martyr, prophet and spy” most famous for authoring “The Cost
There is certainly plenty to learn about Bonhoeffer and the Germany of the pre- and mid-World War II times in this tome. There is a good explanation of some of the main reasons for the rise of Adolph Hitler, which many historians peg to the handling of the German’s defeat in the wake of World War l.
There is also a good explanation of the disturbing connection between Hitler and the German church, especially in the early years of the war. Hitler pretended to be part of the church for as long as it was necessary to seize complete control of Germany. Bonhoeffer was a part of what was called the Confessing Church, which opposed the official state church of Germany. A shocking number of German Christians believed in Hitler until it was too late.
There are great quotes, mostly from Bonhoeffer, at the beginning of each chapter. Chapter 11, however, entitled “Nazi Theology,” begins with this quote from Hitler which shows his true feelings towards Christianity:
“It’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?”
At nearly 600 pages (including almost 40 pages of notes and index), this book is not to be taken lightly, no pun intended. Perhaps the book should come with its own dictionary as most readers will come across scores and scores of seldom-used words such as solipsistic, fumfering, oeuvre (misspelled in the book as ouevre), socle, mien, folderol, pensee etc. Some readers might find parts of the book a bit pleonastic (wordy and rambling).
The inside front cover promises to tell of Bonhoeffer’s role as one of “a small number of dissidents and saboteurs (who) worked to dismantle the Third Reich from the inside.” While there is plenty of well-documented research about Bonhoeffers’ early (privileged) life, his career as a pastor, his early understanding of just exactly what Hitler had in mind, his romances and plenty of other useful aspects of his life, the reader may be left wondering just exactly what Bonhoeffer did to try to bring Hitler down from the inside.
Bonhoeffer did manage to get himself into Abwehr, the German Military Intelligence, and it was from there that he worked for the ouster of Hitler. This also gave him time to spread the gospel as opposed to fighting on the front lines against the allies.
The Nazis eventually discovered what Bonhoeffer was doing to bring them down, and he was executed just three weeks before Hitler’s suicide and Germany’s surrender. While incarcerated, Bonhoeffer spent time at Buchenwald, one of Germany’s most notorious concentration camps. This is one of the more interesting parts of the book.
Even those not interested in Bonhoeffer will learn plenty of World War II history from this book. There are explanations of two attempts on Hitler’s life (Valkyrie and one other) that Bonhoeffer knew about. There is a fascinating explanation of Churchill’s reasoning for basically stonewalling Bonhoeffer and others working from the inside to take down Hitler.
There are short sections on Heinrich Heimmler and Reinhard Heydrich, among other notable war figures. Heydrich is the one who presented Hitler with “The Final Solution to the Jewish question.”
Finally, for those not interested at all in Bonhoeffer, Germany, world history in general or World War II and its politics in specific, there are always those scores of verbose prolixities to study.
Hughes is a former sports writer for the Honolulu
Advertiser. For most
of the past 22 years he has taught English in Japan. He has taught at the university
level in America, Japan and China. Among his hobbies are sports, traveling and
photography. He has been to 41 countries and is always hoping to go somewhere
new. He is an award-winning photographer in both Japan and America. His bi-lines
include The Washington Post, The Pacific Daily News (Guam), The
Times and several sports publications.