- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 8, 2010

Sixty-five years ago at dawn on April 9, 1945, six men were marched naked to a gallows and hanged in the Flossenburg concentration camp in Bavaria.

One was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 39, a German Lutheran theologian who told his friends the day before, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

He could have been freed when the Allies liberated the camp on April 23 had it not been for Adolf Hitler, who, in one last fit of spite before he committed suicide on April 30, ordered the deaths of the men who plotted to kill him.

In this day of suicide bombers, it’s still odd to think of killing someone as a righteous act. But that was the moral conundrum faced by Bonhoeffer, who had every opportunity to escape to America but chose to remain in Germany, because God had called him there.

He published “The Cost of Discipleship” in 1937, a book known for this famous sentence: “When God calls a man, He bids him come and die.”

I was reminded of the impossible situation faced by German Christians when I picked up a book just out this week: “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.” It is by Eric Metaxas, 46, who is named after his grandfather, Erich, a German soldier who died in 1944. It is the first major biography on Bonhoeffer in 40 years.

“My grandfather absolutely did not want this war, but there was nothing he could do,” Mr. Metaxas told me. “My mother was 9 when he died. I have grown up in the shadow of World War II.

“This forced me to deal with what it is to be a German, to understand what my family went through, what all Germans went through. We ask: How did this happen and how did the Third Reich manage to destroy a great Christian civilization? Ever since I became a believer in 1988, I have been haunted by the story of a man who stood up to the Nazis.”

His 591-page book dwells on how the plot to kill Hitler was an act of faith in God. It meant stepping out in freedom and not cringing from the possibility of something going wrong.

The idea that God wants his children to operate out of freedom and joy is an especially Lutheran one, summarized by Martin Luther, who wrote in 1521: “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.”

That is, the best way to live as a Christian was to take risks, even if it meant risking to be wrong. And to be willing to sacrifice your life if plans went awry, which they did. Hitler survived several assassination attempts.

“There was this level of desperation,” Mr. Metaxas told me. “Hitler was killing hundreds of thousands of people day by day. Bonhoeffer knew what was going on and he thought, ‘What kind of Christian am I if I don’t do something?’ ”

But what about the appalling personal cost? Bonhoeffer was engaged to Maria von Wedmeyer, who never recovered from his death. She eventually married and divorced twice, had two sons and died of cancer at the age of 52. What kind of happiness, posterity and academic honors could he have enjoyed had he simply kept his head down?

“I see Bonhoeffer as God’s light in the darkness,” added Mr. Metaxas, who will discuss his book Tuesday night at the National Press Club. “This man was obedient unto death so that Germans can look to him as a hero and hold their heads up and say there were some who were faithful.”

*Contact Julia Duin at jduin@washingtontimes.com. More about this book can be found at www.ericmetaxas.com.

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