In some ways this book is tangential to the military history I usually read. Yet the epic of World War II influenced, shaped or ruined people from all walks of life. In that sense it isn’t too far afield to talk about one of the great theologians of the 20th Century who lived through most of the Nazi era in Germany.
Join me for a brief look at a fascinating biography.
I need to start with the qualifier that biography isn’t usually quite my preference. I’ve read enough childhood and coming of age stories to not get too excited about another. This particular book is short at only 205 pages (a plus from my perspective) and gets to the meat of the story pretty quickly.
For those not familiar with the subject, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is best known for writing The Cost of Discipleship and his leadership in the “Confessing Church” movement that stood in opposition to the German Lutheran Church. Then known as “The Reich Church”, this denomination had adopted an “Aryan Clause” that rated people groups for their worthiness before God, and excluded the Old Testiment from all church teaching. Bonhoeffer objected to this strongly. As the Nazis and Reich Church grew in power and influence, he found himself shouted down and pushed aside in an academic environment. He responded by writing, traveling and establishing a seminary for the Confessing Church.
The seminary was shut down by the Gestapo after a single year which left Bonhoeffer unemployed on the eve of war (and eligible for the draft). What all he stood for is fairly involved, but I think this book does a reasonable job of explaining it for us laymen. Apart from the obvious anti-semitism, the Reich Church was guilty of several sorts of heresy. Perhaps the biggest was placing the State ahead of Jesus Christ. Literally, the Reich Church taught to be good Germans first, Christians second.
Bonhoeffer himself had become a pacifist after a visit to the United States where he was challenged by a French seminary student that the bonds of Christian faith were greater than their ties to country. After war broke out, Bonhoeffer’s pacifism led to some interesting choices. The biggest surprise to me was that he joined the Abwehr. That is, German military intelligence. Of course this exempted him from other military service, but more to the point; the Abwehr under Admiral Canaris was a bastion of anti-Nazism within the Third Reich.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s main duty with the Abwehr was travel to Switzerland, Sweden and Italy for “intelligence gathering”, that mostly consisted of smuggling Jews out of Germany. He also became involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Another surprising fact to me, quite an interesting pacifist! He firmly believed that after all avenues of peaceful resistance had failed it was appropriate to “put a stick in the spokes”.
By 1943 his scheming reached an end, in April he was arrested by the Gestapo. Over the next two years he continued to write; both a new book, Ethics, and a large number of letters to friends and family (so, another collection of prison epistles!). In April of 1945, with only a few weeks left in the war, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred.
This short biography is not only a fast read, it is interesting and devastatingly powerful. I only wish it had a little more epilogue, mainly to know the fate of many of the supporting characters (I happen to know Admiral Canaris was executed at the same time and place as Bonhoeffer, but the book fails to mention this). But I suppose that’s what Wikipedia is for…