BOOK REVIEW: Life of an unlikely coup plotter
@$:Visit Berlin today and most of the symbols of Nazism have been erased. But the memories live on, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who joined the resistance against Adolf Hitler. A pastor and theologian, he made an unlikely coup plotter. Yet his life is a model of Christian resistance to great evil.
Bonhoeffer’s upbringing was pleasantly upper-middle class. His parents were both loving and accomplished. Like most German families, however, the Bonhoeffers suffered during World War I, losing one son. Bonhoeffer’s father was a psychiatrist and his parents were not particularly religious. Yet his decision to study theology came early, at age 14.
Writes Mr. Metaxas: “It took a bold and courageous person to announce such a thing in the Bonhoeffer family. His father might treat it with respect and cordiality, even if he disagreed with it, but his brothers and sisters and their friends would not. They were a formidable group, all highly intelligent, and most of them openly and often mockingly opposed their cocky young brother’s ideas.”
Bonhoeffer received a good and interesting education that included friendly contact with many Jews. But Germany was edging toward the abyss. What would have been the course of Bonhoeffer’s life had there been no Nazi machtuebernahme, or takeover of power? Principled, intelligent and devout, he likely would have been a noted churchman and theologian.
He was committed to orthodoxy. He lived in the United States in 1930 and 1931 and was frustrated by the flabby theology of mainline churches. He felt drawn to black congregations and was appalled by segregation. Notes Mr. Metaxas:”Bonhoeffer’s experiences with the African American community underscored an idea that was developing in his mind: the only real piety and power that he had seen in the American church seemed to be in the churches where there was a present reality and a past history of suffering.”
When he turned down an appointment at Harvard he unknowingly ensured that he would be part of a church that suffered. He later entered the political realm, ultimately providing a dramatic witness for many people outside of the church.
Still, Bonhoeffer was a churchman first. He lectured in theology, pastored a church, ran a seminary and wrote theology books. He even had time to fall in love and get engaged, though his arrest and execution prevented marriage.
He appeared to grasp his radical calling early during the Nazis’ reign. Mr. Metaxas observes: “In the spring of 1933, Bonhoeffer was declaring it the duty of the church to stand up for the Jews. This would have seemed radical to even staunch allies, especially since the Jews had not begun to suffer the horrors they would suffer in a few years. Bonhoeffer’s three conclusions - that the church must question the state, help the state’s victims, and work against the state, if necessary - were too much for almost everyone. But for him they were inescapable. In time, he would do all three.”
Bonhoeffer helped create the “Confessing Church” in opposition to establishment clerics who wanted to accommodate the Nazis and “German Christians” who sought to strip Christian theology of its Jewishness. His activities placed him in conflict with ecclesiastical colleagues and authorities.
More importantly, the government banned him from speaking or writing. The coming of war made it even easier for the regime to strike at the Confessing Church, arresting some ministers and drafting others off to combat. Yet Bonhoeffer persisted. He was invited to the United States as a sanctuary in 1939, but quickly returned to Germany, explaining to an American friend: “I am enjoying a few weeks of freedom, but on the other hand, I feel, I must go back to the ‘trenches.’ “
His most fateful decision was to link himself with a diverse group of conspirators against Hitler. “It’s impossible to say when Bonhoeffer joined the conspiracy, mainly because he was always in the midst of it, even before it could have been called a conspiracy,” notes Mr. Metaxas. Bonhoeffer’s older brother Klaus, an attorney for Lufthansa, was also involved. In 1940, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was employed by the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency headed by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, a fellow conspirator.
For three years, Bonhoeffer used Abwehr as cover to promote the resistance in Germany and abroad. He was arrested in April 1943 as part of an investigation into currency smuggling by an Abwehr colleague.
What the Gestapo did not know is that both men were deeply involved in the conspiracy. Bonhoeffer thought he might beat the charges or, better yet, that the coup would intervene, rendering the prosecution moot. But the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, failed. The Nazis then discovered Bonhoeffer’s involvement.
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