Book Review of BONHOEFFER by Eric Metaxas

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Thomas Nelson: 2010), 544 pages plus Foreward by Timothy Keller, 20 pages of Notes, 3 pages of Bibliography, 12 pages of Index, 15 pages of Reading Group Guide which altogether puts the number of pages of this book at 608.

It took me two years to read this book.  Mostly because I started it one summer, then became involved in a volunteer position with adults and small children which takes a lot of my time and energy during the school year.  If you enjoy reading and are less encumbered, then you can probably read this book much faster.

Bonhoeffer is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor who lived in Germany from 2/4/1906 – 7/27/1945.  Hitler, personally, ordered his execution one week before taking his own life and ending WWII.  Hitler wanted Dietrich Bonhoeffer executed because Bonhoeffer was from a wealthy, prominent German family –what Hitler considered the super race—and yet Bonhoeffer and many of his family and friends had worked together for years to remove Hitler from office and restore Germany to a free and democratic state not a socialist, Nazi regime.  Bonhoeffer personified Hitler’s ubermensch, his superman.  Dietrich was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, young, strong, healthy, wealthy, intelligent and well-connected.  The problem for Hitler is that Bonhoeffer rejected Hitler.  Bonhoeffer, his family and friends rejected Hitler from the beginning.  Dietrich and his family went so far in their rejection to plot to assassinate Hitler.  Bonhoeffer also talked to Heads of State in England and Switzerland about Germany’s place in the world if it was not ruled by Hitler and no longer a Nazi regime.  Hitler wanted to create a master race.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a poster boy for that master race, but he could not submit to Hitler and Nazi Germany.

Bonhoeffer’s Sermon the Day Hitler Took Office:

“He began by explaining why Germany was looking for a Fuhrer.  The First War and the subsequent depression and turmoil had brought about a crisis in which the younger generation, especially, had lost all confidence in the traditional authority of the Kaiser and the church.  The German notion of the Fuhrer arose out of this generation and its search for meaning and guidance out of its troubles.  The difference between real leadership and the false leadership of the Leader was this: real leadership derived its authority from God, the source of all goodness. Thus parents have legitimate authority because they are submitted to the legitimate authority of a good God. But the authority of the Fuhrer was submitted to nothing. It was self-derived and autocratic and therefore had a messianic aspect.

“The good leader serves others and leads others to maturity.  He puts them above himself, as a good parent does a child, wishing to lead that child to someday be a good parent.  Another word for this is discipleship.  He continued:

‘Only when a man sees that office is a penultimate authority in the face of an ultimate, indescribable authority, in the face of the authority of God, has the real situation been reached.  And before this Authority the individual knows himself to be completely alone. The individual is responsible before God.  And this solitude of man’s position before God, this subjection to an ultimate authority, is destroyed when the authority of the Leader or of the office is seen as ultimate authority.…Alone before God, man become what he is, free and committed in responsibility at the same time.

“Forty-eight hours had passed since Hitler’s election, but with Bonhoeffer’s speech the battle lines were drawn.  According to Bonhoeffer, the God of the Bible stood behind true authority and benevolent leadership, but opposed the Fuhrer Principle and its advocate Adolf Hitler.  Of course Hitler never publicly denounced God.  He knew well that there were many churchgoers in Germany who had some vague idea that real authority should come from their God, but unlike Bonhoeffer, they had no idea what this actually meant.  To embody the kind of leadership that rejected this idea of submission to God’s authority, one must at least give lip service to that God, else one would not last very long.  Hitler was ultimately a practical man, and as all truly practical men, he was a cynical man.

Hitler’s Speech the Day He Took Office:

“So Hitler gave a speech that day too.  He was just forty-three and had already toiled in the political wilderness half his life.  Ten years had passed since the Bierhall Putsch that landed him in prison.  Now he was the chancellor of Germany.  The original come-back kid had triumphed over his enemies.  But to convince his followers that his authority was legitimate, he must say the necessary things.  Thus the opening words of his speech that day were: ‘We are determined, as leaders of the nation, to fulfill as a national government the task which has been given to us, swearing fidelity only to God, our conscience, and our Volk.’  If his conscience was not already a corpse, it might have felt a twinge as he spoke.  Hitler then declared that his government, which was a lie, instantly annulled itself.  He ended with another appeal to the God he did not believe in, but whose Jewish and Christian followers he would thenceforward persecute and kill: ‘May God Almighty take our work into his grace, give true form to our will, bless our insight, and endow us with the trust of our Volk!’

Karl Bonhoeffer’s [Dietrich’s Father] Thoughts on Hitler:

“‘From the start, we regarded the victory of National Socialism in 1933 and Hitler’s appointment as Reichkanzler as a misfortune—the entire family agreed on this.  In my own case, I disliked and mistrusted Hitler because of his demagogic propagandistic speeches…his habit of driving about the country carrying a riding crop, his choice of colleagues—with whose qualities, incidentally, we in Berlin were better acquainted than people elsewhere—and finally because of what I heard from professional colleagues about his psychopathic symptoms.’

“The Bonhoeffer’s saw through Hitler from the beginning, but no one believed his reign would last as long as it did.  Surely the Nazis would have their moment, perhaps even a long moment, but then it would be gone.  It was all a terrible nightmare that, come morning, would disappear.  But morning never seemed to come.”  (pp. 140-144)

From the start, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his father Karl Bonhoeffer and many of their family and friends saw Hitler for the problem that he was.  This book explores an aspect to Nazi Germany that I had not considered before—religion.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor.  He was born into a noteworthy German family.  He recognized Hitler and the Nazis as bad for Germany, so what would he do?  How would he reconcile being a Christian pastor under a government that hated Christians?

“Bonhoeffer went on to say that to ‘confess Christ’ meant to do so to Jews as well as to Gentiles.  He declared it vital for the church to attempt to bring the Messiah of the Jews to the Jewish people who did not yet know him.  If Hitler’s laws were adopted this would be impossible.  His dramatic and somewhat shocking conclusion was that not only should the church allow Jews to be a part of the church, but that this was precisely what the church was: it was the place where Jews and Germans stand together.  ‘What is at stake,’ he said, ‘is by no means the question whether our German members of congregations can still tolerate church fellowship with the Jews.  It is rather the task of Christian preaching to say; here is the church, where Jew and German stand together under the Word of God; here is the proof whether a church is still the church or not’.”  (pp. 153-155)

It was one matter to theoretically understand the situation Germany was facing under Hitler.  It was another matter to act on those principles while still remaining alive and not being killed by Nazis.  While Bonhoeffer was thinking deeply about the church’s role in Germany, the Nazis were busy inventing their own new religion.

“Hitler seems to have believed that Nietzsche had prophesied his coming and rise to power.  In The Will to Power, Nietzsche prophesied the coming of a race of rulers, ‘a particularly strong kind of man, most highly gifted in intellect and will.’  Hitler believed the Aryan race was this ‘race of rulers.’  Nietzsche referred to these men as ‘lords of the earth.’ William Shirer said that Nietzsche’s rantings along these lines met with Hitler’s approval: ‘[They] must have struck a responsive chord in Hitler’s littered mind.  At any rate he appropriated them for his own—not only the thoughts but…often his very words.  ‘Lords of the Earth’ is a familiar expression in Mein Kampf.  That in the end Hitler considered himself the superman of Nietzsche’s prophecy can not be doubted.’  (Page 168)

“Since Hitler had no religion other than himself, his opposition to Christianity and the church was less ideological than practical.  That was not the case for many leaders of the Third Reich.  Alfred Rosenberg, Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, and others were bitterly anti-Christian and were ideologically opposed to Christianity, and wanted to replace it with a religion of their own devising.  Under their leadership, said Shirer, ‘the Nazi regime intended eventually to destroy Christianity in Germany, if it could, and substitute the old paganism of the early tribal Germanic gods and the new paganism of the Nazi extremists.’

“Hitler wouldn’t let them do this at first, hence his constant battle to rein them in.  But he was not opposed to their doing it when the time was right.  He couldn’t take it very seriously, but he thought that  the neopagan stew that Himmler was cooking up would probably be far more useful than Christianity because it would advocate such ‘virtues’ as would be useful to the Third Reich.” (pp. 168-171)

The new Nazi religion wanted to replace the cross with the swastika, replace the Bible with Mein Kampf, and replace Jesus Christ with Adolph Hitler.  Nazi Germany was an unfriendly place for Christian pastors.

The draft was calling many young German men to fight for the Fatherland—Nazi Germany—and that included Christian pastors.  Bonhoeffer first considered being a conscientious objector and not fighting at all.  Eventually he decided that was unfair to other young Christian pastors who were fighting and that he would be turning his back on the greater problems Germans were facing.  So, he decided to join the Abwehr to be a spy.  As a German spy he was involved in several plots to assassinate Hitler.

Abwehr:

“On February 24, the Abwehr sent Bonhoeffer to Geneva.  His main purpose was to make contact with Protestant leaders outside Germany, let them know about the conspiracy, and put out feelers about peace terms with the government that would take over.  Muller was having similar conversations at the Vatican with Catholic leaders.  But at first, Bonhoeffer couldn’t even get into Switzerland.  The Swiss border police insisted that someone inside Switzerland vouch for him as his guarantor.  Bonhoeffer named Karl Barth, who was called, and assented, but not without some misgivings.

“Like others at the time, Barth was perplexed about Bonhoeffer’s mission.  How could a Confessing Church pastor come to Switzerland in the midst of war?  It seemed to him that Bonhoeffer must have somehow made peace with the Nazis.  This was one of the casualties of the war, that trust itself seemed to die a thousand deaths.

“Such doubts and questions from others would plague Bonhoeffer, but he certainly wasn’t free to explain what he was doing to those outside his inner circle.  This represented another ‘death’ to self for him because he had to surrender his reputation in the church.  People wondered how he escaped the fate of the rest of his generation.  He was writing and traveling, meeting with this one and that one, going to movies and restaurants, and living a life of relative privilege and freedom while others were suffering and dying and being put in excruciating positions of moral compromise.

“Even if Bonhoeffer could have explained that he was in fact working against Hitler, many in the Confessing Church would still have been confused, and others would have been outraged.  For a pastor to be involved in a plot whose linchpin was the assassination of the head of state during a time of war, when brothers and sons and fathers were giving their lives for the country, was unthinkable.  Bonhoeffer had come to a place where he was in many ways very much alone.  God had driven him to this place, though, and he was not about to look for a way out any more than Jeremiah had done.  It was the fate he had embraced, and it was obedience to God, and he could rejoice in it, and did.”  (pp. 376-377)

Bonhoeffer was very much alone as a spy.  The aloneness caused him to surrender his life even more fully to God.

Spy:

“In light of the events in Germany at that time, everyone was trapped in a situation of ethical impossibilities.  In light of the monstrous evils being committed all around, what could one do and what should one do?  In letters from his ordinands, we read of how tortured they were in knowing when to protest and when to accede when to go to war, even if they knew it was unjust, and when to take a stand.  One of them wrote to Bonhoeffer about having to kill prisoners and was obviously torn up about it, knowing that if he didn’t comply, he would himself be killed.  This sort of thing had become commonplace.  Who could fathom the horrors of the concentration camps where Jews, hoping to preserve their own lives, were forced to do unspeakable things to other Jews?  The utter evilness of evil now showed itself clearly, and it showed up the bankruptcy of man’s so-called ethical attempts to deal with it.  The problem of evil is too much for us.  We are all tainted by it and cannot escape being tainted by it.

“The solution is to do the will of God, to do it radically and courageously and joyfully.  To try to explain ‘right’ and ‘wrong’—to talk about ethics—outside of God and obedience to his will is impossible: ‘Principles are only tools in the hands of God; they will soon be thrown away when they are no longer useful.’  We must look only at God, and in him we are reconciled to our situation in the world.  If we look only to principles and rules, we are in a fallen realm where our reality is divided from God:”  (pp. 468-471)

Bonhoeffer was an intelligent, educated, cultured, connected and privileged man with family and friends scattered throughout the world who decided to surrender his life to Jesus Christ.  Dietrich’s father was a prominent atheist.  Dietrich’s mother was a Christian.  Dietrich felt God called him to himself at a young age.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer attempted to lead a life of excellence, surrendered to Christ Jesus.  During the course of his life, Adolf Hitler came to power and created Nazi Germany.  Largely this fact forced Bonhoeffer to think deeply about God, the Bible and Jesus Christ and what it all meant to be a Christian pastor at that time and in that place.  The more deeply he thought, the more bold and surrendered his claims became. This biography follows that journey for Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together, The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics.

This book review originally appeared on jaynechaseloseke.com on June 27, 2017.  You can find out more about Eric Metaxas at his website at http://ericmetaxas.com/.  His books include:

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