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Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy – Review by Carl Schouls

Category Book Reviews
Date August 7, 2012

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

By Eric Metaxas
Nottingham: Thomas Nelson, April 2010
608 pages, hardcover, list $29.99
ISBN: 978 1 59555 138 2


Having recently had some time off in keeping with my new ‘semi-emeritus’ status, (and having been given an e-reader) I was able to read a few books of a genre which normally I would not get to, the above being the first. Although sometimes thick with detail and lengthy German names, I could hardly put it down, so captivating a story this is. Eric Metaxas is a best-selling American author whose biographies, children’s books, and works of popular apologetics have been translated into many languages. I assume neither his name nor that of his subject is a household word amongst us.

If the Bonhoeffer name is known at all amongst modern Reformed people and, perhaps even pastors, it probably does not have the best reputation for orthodoxy. He is often linked with Karl Barth (1886-1968), the great Swiss theologian, who in turn was influential in the thoughts of various Reformed Dutch theologians of the post WWII era, sometimes with devastating results. Whether this was always Barth’s doing or that of his disciples is a question; however, Bonhoeffer has also been approached with suspicion. This is a pity! If others have reacted as I did, my knowledge of him had been most superficial: I heard and read about him in seminary but never read him.

Early Life

The story Metaxas lays out takes place on various levels and he does a masterful job weaving these strands together, to their inevitable and dismal conclusion (from an earthly viewpoint). It was an eye opener at each of these levels.

There is the story of Dietrich’s family: upper class, highly educated and professional Germans. His father Karl was a leading professor of neurology and psychiatry; his mother Paula was the granddaughter of a distinguished church historian. His father’s neutrality about matters of faith and his mother’s lack of vibrant piety left them ill prepared for his decision to heed the call to the ministry rather than to follow his father into medical studies; nevertheless, all the members of the family showed deep respect, support and love for him and for each other. The extended family is marked by that truly upper class trait of noblesse oblige (noble ancestry constrains to honourable behaviour).

In such a noble setting we meet various leaders of society and of the old German army: men with a profound sense of duty, honour and patriotism, a patriotism flawed by excessive loyalty to country and leadership. This is placed in the setting of a nation barely 50 years old (united under Otto von Bismarck in 1871) and reeling under the vicious and demeaning terms imposed upon them by the Versailles Treaty which had ended WWI. As often is the case, the victors are declared fully righteous, losers fully evil – an assessment which might have better fit after WW II. This blow to national self-esteem, coupled with the stress of the Great Depression, became the foetid breeding ground for the National Socialist movement.

Church Life in Nazi Germany

The Nazis, led by Hitler, who in the early days made flattering noises about ‘Church’ and ‘Providence’ were seen by many as the heaven-sent saviours of Germany. Bonhoeffer saw through this lie from the start; many in the Lutheran Church in which he had a peculiar pastorate, moving through various stages, did not. The author goes into some depths exploring Bonhoeffer’s view of the church, his role in the efforts to preserve some semblance of Christianity in the German Protestant churches after they had fallen into the hands of Nazi orientated leaders and had become the German Evangelical Church or the Reichskirche. Sad to note that the rival Evangelical church, an umbrella organization sheltering Christians protesting Hitler’s (leader) fuhrer-ship of the churches, was eventually pressed into nothingness.

During the 1930s Bonhoeffer made various ecclesiastical contacts through his visits to Britain and the United States. These contacts provided invaluable conduits during the war years. Some of them gave him access to the highest levels of the British government; however, these links did little for the German plotters’ efforts to get rid of Hitler and, later on, to cut short the war. Winston Churchill refused contact with German anti-Nazi plotters for political reasons: the anti-German feelings in Britain were so strong at the time that reaching out to any German, Nazi or Christian, would have been political suicide. Had Churchill done so, it most likely would have shortened the war significantly and would have radically altered the appearance of post-war Europe. Also in these things the Lord God is sovereign and follows his own counsel.

In 1930, Bonhoeffer spent time in Harlem, N.Y. where he was impressed and refreshed by powerful gospel preaching in African-American churches. This was in sharp contrast with the appalling liberalism he found at Union Seminary. These experiences, both positive and negative, made a lasting impression on him and his views of the church. He briefly returned to the U.S. in 1939 but left again almost immediately. To his American associate, Reinhold Niebuhr, he wrote:

I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people . . . Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.

He returned to Germany on the last scheduled steamer to cross the Atlantic (from Wikipedia).

Plot to Assassinate Hitler

Inevitably Bonhoeffer’s principles led him to actions, which seem most unbecoming to a Christian: he joined a plot to murder the leader of his nation. As a result of a recent film and various books, many people may know of the ‘Valkyrie’ plot which failed on July 20, 1944 and which led to the torture and death of thousands of German people. (Apparently, the film makes no mention of the role of Bonhoeffer – Hollywood’s anti-Christian bias? Google: ‘Valkyrie’s Forgotten Man: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’). This was not the first, nor the only plot to assassinate Hitler. I urge especially young readers who, it is to be feared, are not taught much of these events, to search out this and other books for more detail and not to rely on film for historical knowledge.

Before this plot unravelled, Bonhoeffer had already been imprisoned. For a year and a half, he was kept in a military prison, awaiting trial. Ever the evangelist, he continued his work in religious outreach among his fellow prisoners and guards. Sympathetic guards helped smuggle his letters out of prison and these uncensored letters were posthumously published in Letters and Papers from Prison. One guard even offered to help him escape from the prison and ‘disappear’ with him, and plans were made for that end. But Bonhoeffer declined, fearing Nazi retribution on his family.

Discovered and Hanged

After the failure of the plot on Hitler’s life in 1944 and the discovery in September 1944 of secret Abwehr (German military intelligence) documents relating to the conspiracy, Bonhoeffer’s connection with the conspirators was discovered. He was transferred from the military prison in Berlin, where he had been held for eighteen months, to the detention cellar of the Gestapo’s high-security prison. In February 1945, he was secretly moved to Buchenwald concentration camp, and finally to Flossenburg concentration camp.

On April 4, 1945, the diaries of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr and longtime secret opponent of Hitler, were discovered, and in a rage upon reading them, Hitler ordered that the Abwehr conspirators be destroyed. Bonhoeffer was condemned to death on April 8, 1945 (a Sunday!) by SS judge Otto Thorbeck at a drumhead court-martial without witnesses, records of proceedings, or a defence, in Flossenburg concentration camp. Following this mock trial, Bonhoeffer was led away just as he concluded his final Sunday service and asked an English prisoner to remember him to his friend Bishop George Bell of Chichester if he should ever reach his home: ‘This is the end – for me the beginning of life’ were his final words to his friend. He was executed by hanging at dawn the following day, just two weeks before soldiers from the United States 90th and 97th Infantry Divisions liberated the camp, three weeks before the Soviet capture of Berlin and a month before the capitulation of Nazi Germany. Like other executions associated with the July 20 Plot, the execution was particularly brutal.

Hanged with Bonhoeffer were fellow conspirators Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, Canaris’ deputy General Hans Oster, military jurist General Karl Sack, General Friedrich von Rabenau, businessman Theodor Strunck, and German resistance fighter Ludwig Gehre. Bonhoeffer’s brother, Klaus Bonhoeffer, his brothers-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi and Rudiger Schleicher, were executed elsewhere later in the month.

The camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote:

I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer . . . kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.

Bonhoeffer died as he had lived: focused on God.


I will leave an evaluation of Bonhoeffer’s impact on theology to men better equipped than this reviewer. His efforts to consider the Jews as equals in the face of such opposition and persecution as then prevailed is heroic and plainly Christian. His associations with men and organizations which later proved to be theologically liberal (Willem Visser ‘t Hooft and the World Council of Churches come to mind) can hardly be judged by post-war developments of such. Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the need for ecumenicity, but he was constrained, perhaps at times even blinded, by the disastrous events surrounding him. No doubt these events may also have limited his development of a sound ecclesiology (doctrine about the church): he was submerged in the battle for the preservation of the national church which, in his day, was Lutheran/German with all that this implied.

Various powerful thoughts pressed in upon me after reading the book (and even now, writing this review). There was a sense of disgust and rage at the vileness, the absolute wickedness of Nazi-ism and at the vile, ignorant latter day perpetrators who would restore this evil system. There was a sense of wonder at Bonhoeffer’s clarity of principle and action, no matter what the current thought and the likely results. And, to mention just one more – but many more could be expressed – there was a deep sadness in considering what happened to his beloved Maria von Wedemeyer after the war. A bachelor at 37 falling in love with a 17-year-old teenager may raise eyebrows – but read the book or read his Love Letters From Cell 92 (edited by Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and Ulrich Kabitz, Abingdon Press, 368 pp., $24.95, hardcover) and weep at the pain which wars continue to bring forth long after the peace treaties have been signed and the victory parades have ended.

Heartily recommended and a ‘must read’ for anyone interested in modern and church history!

Rev. Carl A. Schouls is emeritus pastor and serves the Brantford Free Reformed Church on a limited basis.

Taken with permission from The Messenger, July/August 2012.

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