Review: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
On 30 January 1933 Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the Nazi Third Reich was born. Two days later the radio station in Berlin’s Potsdammerstrasse broadcast a talk by a 26-year-old theologian. The address had the dry title of “The Younger Generation’s Altered Concept of Leadership” but it was political dynamite because it dealt with the so-called Führer principle. It was an idea, popular in Germany since the end of the First World War, that what the country needed was a new, strong leader to guide it back to greatness. The young theologian explained how such a leader inevitably becomes an idol and a “mis-leader”. Before he could finish, the speech was cut off.
Whether there had been some kind of technical mix-up or the speech was censored by the Nazis is not known. What is a fact, however, is that 12 years later in April 1945 the young theologian, whose name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, would be executed by hanging at Flossenbürg concentration camp just weeks before the Nazis were finally defeated. His crime had been to get involved with the German resistance and its attempts to assassinate Hitler.
At the time of the broadcast Bonhoeffer was certainly an anti-Nazi, but he would have some way to go before crossing the Rubicon and moving from opposition in principle to resistance in practice. Eric Metaxas’ lengthy biography explains the developments in Bonhoeffer’s thinking and activity, both before and after Hitler came to power.
What emerges is the story of a man driven by his Christian beliefs, but that simple statement is not enough to characterise Bonhoeffer. There were many Germans who claimed to be driven by Christian beliefs but had nothing to do with opposing Hitler. Indeed, as Metaxas describes, many in the mainstream Lutheran church were fairly active supporters of the Third Reich, or at least were prepared to go along with it. So what made Bonhoeffer different?
The answer contains some surprising and paradoxical elements. Bonhoeffer did not come from a particularly religious family. He decided to become a theologian and a pastor of his own volition. He was a serious thinker, deeply interested in exploring questions of ethics and belief. He was an orthodox theologian in many respects, even a fundamentalist in the sense of taking his stance from the word of the Bible. At the same time he was highly critical of what might be called pious church-goers and even to an extent of organised religion itself.
Bonhoeffer’s explorations into the Bible made him look outward to the world. Faith, in his view, should relate to and be reflected in everyday practice, not relegated simply to Sunday worship. That looking outward took him beyond the boundaries of conventional denominations, which meant Bonhoeffer was a great ecumenist, finding common ground with Anglicans and Roman Catholics, and even with non-Christians. Though he never made it, he once planned a trip to India to meet Mahatma Gandhi.
God before state
Crucially, Bonhoeffer’s theology rejected all forms of anti-Semitism. In fact it embraced the Jews as full members of God’s family. That put him some distance from the thinking of Martin Luther, the founder of German Protestantism, who, as the author of this work documents, was no friend, to put it mildly, of the Jews.
Hitler’s attitude towards and treatment of the Jews, the Poles, the infirm, the mentally disabled and all those regarded as “other” was anathema to Bonhoeffer. They were all God’s children and for him allegiance to Christ, the son of God, was more important than allegiance to the state – another aspect which put him at odds with many in German society, which traditionally exhibited strong patriotic, if not nationalistic, sentiments. Bonhoeffer didn’t believe you could be a true Christian and a nationalist – it’s an issue that still has resonance in many parts of the world today.
As the political situation in Germany deteriorated during the 1930s and anti-Semitic attacks were clothed in legal forms, and then when the war broke out and news trickled through about atrocities committed in Poland and elsewhere, a number of outraged German army officers communicated in secret and planned a coup to rid the country of Hitler by assassinating him. Bonhoeffer got involved through family and other personal contacts. He wasn’t one of the bomb-makers or planters of explosive devices but he worked in the background on what might be called the information and propaganda front. In the end all the plots failed and the plotters were executed.
How a Christian pastor could come to condone the deliberate killing of another person, however evil, is one of the themes of Eric Metaxa’s story. It is a heroic tale but a tragic one, given the nature of its ending. The author’s own Christian beliefs are clearly reflected in his work but this “ideology” is not rammed down your throat. Indeed, whether you agree with his assertions and nuances or not, he provides a good insight into the contradictions of what often comes under just one umbrella, labelled “Christianity”.
Buy the book
Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy
by Eric Metaxas
Paperback, 591 pages, illustrated
Thomas Nelson, 2010. USD 29.99