A review of Bonhoeffer Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy by Eric Metaxas

[1] Once in a while a nonfiction book comes along that captivates the attention of the reader on multiple levels. The book is vivid, moving, drawing in the reader in the fashion of a good drama, all the while based on profound historical details. In such rare occasions, emotion becomes integrated with fact. And if the author has done his job, the perception of the reader will be changed forever. Eric Metaxas has written such a book, a biography of the famed Christian writer and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy, one of the most recent works1 on this famous Christian martyr, reads like a breathtaking piece of fiction that one would hope will be made into a movie — as was Metaxas’ previous work on Wilberforce.

[2] Bonhoeffer’s life story, while familiar to most in the world-wide Lutheran community, is not necessarily well known to the non-Christian or even the broader Christian world. Metaxas’s book contains plenty of essential information for the novice to this genre as well as compelling insights for the well informed. In addition to being a Bonhoeffer Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy by Eric Metaxas Review by Christine Muir Shahansterling biography on Bonhoeffer, this book is also an insightful and robust history into life in Germany during the Third Reich, the evolution of the Confessing Church during that fateful era, and the resistance movement that loathed Hitler’s views — a movement of which Bonhoeffer was a part. On a more spiritual level, it is a study of good versus evil.

[3] Eric Metaxas brings energy and passion to this book that, in my view, surpasses other well-written biographies of Bonhoeffer. He uses and generously acknowledges material from these writers, especially Dietrich’s friend, Eberhard Bethge. But Metaxas has a deep personal interest in the subject matter of this book, which he dedicates to Erich Kraegen, his grandfather and a member of the German army during World War II. Like many of his countrymen, Kraegen was opposed to Hitler; and Metaxas is obviously personally invested in revealing this dimension of a horrendous world conflict. Metaxas’ intimate connection to this period of history fuels his desire to expose all sides of the German reality. Thus, he develops a theme not widely explored today: that thousands of Germans were opposed to Hitler and the Third Reich. So it is that Bonhoeffer was not one of a handful, but part of a rather large segment of German citizenry from all walks of life, who were passionately opposed to the Nazis. They were devastated by the events of the 1930s and 40s in their beloved homeland but saw national revival in a return to the Germany of the pre-Hitler days. One can sense Metaxas’ mission in getting this hugely important part of the story out there for people to read.

[4] Understanding Dietrich Bonhoeffer requires insight into the renowned and gifted Bonhoeffer clan, one of Germany’s leading families. He and his twin sister were the sixth and seventh of eight children born to Karl and Paula. His friend, Bethge, wrote “The rich world of his ancestors … gave him a certainty of judgment and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical heritage and intellectual tradition.” (p.5) On both his mother’s and father’s side of the family there were renowned physicians, theologians, artists, musicians, political officials and nobility. Karl Bonhoeffer, Dietrich’s father and the most respected psychiatrist in Germany, was the son of Julie Tafel Bonhoeffer, one of nineteenth century Germany’s leaders in promoting democracy. His mother, Paula von Hase Bonhoeffer, was the daughter of gifted musician Clara, who studied piano with Franz Liszt and Clara Schumann. Her grandfather, Karl August von Hase, was a leading theologian whose history of dogma had been taught in Germany for centuries. These are just a sampling of the accomplishments from the family members in Dietrich’s lineage. But, despite their status, Dietrich’s parents were remarkably down-to-earth, as demonstrated by the type of household they ran and the values they instilled in their children. They always welcomed their children’s friends regardless of background in what seemed like a revolving door of friends and relatives coming and going. It was an extremely active household but deeply loving and respectful. Values mattered. The Bonhoeffers stressed loyalty and duty; and they demonstrated bravery and resolve in the most frightening and saddest of circumstances.

[5] As unusual as it was in the early 20th century, Paula Bonhoeffer home-schooled her children for the first few years because of her concerns with the educational system. All of the children, including, Dietrich, excelled. They were very musical and most Saturday nights involved the family performing together, often with Dietrich as the accompanist. In fact, Dietrich was such an outstanding musician that he considered a career in the discipline. As the children grew up they included their friends in this Saturday night tradition.

[6] One of the most touching family scenes in the book is Karl’s seventy-fifth birthday. The year is 1943 after the resistance movement’s plot to kill Hitler has failed — a plot in which Dietrich was a main conspirator. But at the Bonhoeffer home in Berlin, family and friends detach from the pressing concerns to gather for a wonderful celebration that includes the singing of the cantata “Lobe den Herrn.” Dietrich is conductor and accompanist. Dietrich and two relatives know that at any minute they will be arrested for their role in the plot. They make it through rehearsals and a stellar performance with joy, grace and dignity only too aware of their fates. It is a grand seventy-fifth celebration for Karl and the family despite the tension of an uncertain future. Five days later the Gestapo arrive at the Bonhoeffer home to take Dietrich to the prison at Tegel. Other family members are imprisoned in other locations. The party several nights before would be the last where this remarkable family performed together after so many years of making a joyful noise. This juxtaposition of the best and most joyful of German faith, family, and culture with the absolute worst as represented by the Third Reich is a “truth stranger than fiction” account that makes for incredible reading.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 and during his thirty-nine years, he would live through vast changes in his family’s beloved homeland. His idyllic childhood included cavorting with his seven siblings in both country and city, as well as receiving a top tier education. When World War I came, the three eldest Bonhoeffer sons were called into service, one of whom, Walter, was killed in action. It was a devastating event for the family and one that had a lasting impact on Dietrich.

[8] At the age of 14, Dietrich declared that he would major in theology, an interesting choice given the intellectual slant of his family and the fact that the Bonhoeffers, though of a spiritual orientation, did not attend church. He spent the 1920s attending secondary school and then University at Tubingen and Berlin, completing a doctorate in theology at age twenty-one (1927) after studying with the finest theologians in the Protestant world. If one reads any of his work from this early period, whether from a diary or a theological paper, she is struck by his precocity and maturity of thought as a young adult. Here we see the beginnings of his profound theological insights as well as the early formation of a serious Christian.

[9] After completing his formal education in 1927, Bonhoeffer found himself led to a series of fascinating posts that took him to Berlin, Barcelona, London, and Union Seminary in New York (1931), vital experiences that enabled him to develop a strong, ecumenical network of Christian leaders who would be helpful during the Second World War.

[10] Nineteen thirty-three marked the beginnings of the Third Reich, a dark, twelve-year chapter in German history. It is amazing to reflect upon the fact that only days after the election, Bonhoeffer delivered a radio address followed soon after by a Sunday sermon, both of which expressed a prophetic warning about the dire political developments in Germany. Metaxas writes with meticulous detail of how Third Reich policies impacted the Church from the onset of the fascist regime. Aryan dogma stated that individuals with Jewish blood could no longer work in state jobs or as pastors since the church was essentially part of the state. So, right away, lines were drawn in the sand requiring church leaders to decide how they would respond.

[11] Some leaders felt the church needed to align itself with the Third Reich and create a strong national church. This group, labeling itself “German Christians,” eventually eliminated the Old Testament from the Bible and cleansed the New Testament of all Jewish references. Many basic theological principles were twisted and distorted to fit the ideology of the Third Reich. The result was a “religion” that could only be described as pagan and nationalistic — certainly not Christian. At times Hitler sounded conciliatory to Christians, a strategy designed to gain popularity among the populace. At other times the virulent hatred of Christianity embedded among Hitler’s most senior and high ranking officials manifested itself in overt efforts to wipe the faith off the map of Western Europe. Metaxas presents strong evidence that the Nazis eventually planned to replace the existing Church with a new one, which in turn, would replace the Bible with Mein Kampf. (p 171)

[12] Fortunately, not all Christians aligned themselves with Hitler and his devoted minions. Metaxas articulately writes in great detail about the efforts of courageous believers who rejected a “German Christianity” and who actively opposed Hitler. Some who will read this biography will be surprised to learn that thousands of Christians were in total disagreement with Hitler’s policies and were stunned by what was happening to their country. But it was also difficult to organize effectively against the Third Reich — as Bonhoeffer and his co-conspirators, extremely well connected men, would quickly discover. Christian opposition to Hitler eventually materialized as Bonhoeffer and his colleagues employed small and careful measures to impact the German Christians with regard to the woeful influence of Nazism upon Christian theology.

[13] But as these opposing church leaders would learn, even they could not come to consensus on how to deal with such evil, a reality that caused Bonhoeffer more than a little pain and trial of the spirit. Appease and get along was the name of the game. And this became a persistent dynamic throughout the Confessing Church (!), resulting in a disagreement among its leaders over “practicality” (let’s try to get along) versus principle (unaltered, unadulterated gospel). Even giants like Martin Niemoller initially fretted over a complete break with the German Church. Unbelievably, some pastors did not yet see the evil of the Nazi regime and actually believed they could reason with Hitler. Not, however, Bonhoeffer. “He had become convinced that a church that was not willing to stand up for the Jews in its midst was not the real church of Jesus Christ. On that, he was quite decided.” (p.186) During the year (1934-35) he spent in London serving as a pastor in a German-speaking congregation, he was able to work against Hitler’s regime by spreading accurate information on the Third Reich to his congregants and by influencing important London ecumenical contacts such as Bishop Bell of the Church of England.

[14] Even at this early stage of his career, Bonhoeffer was openly confrontational in his opposition to Nazi propaganda and policy whenever events allowed: in his preaching, in his dealings with the Confessing Church, or during a dramatic face-off in London between the clergy of German extraction there and Bishop Heckel of the Third Reich. He always clearly articulated the cause of the gospel and the need to stand opposed to the travesty of the Nazi heresy. His preaching in London was full of passion and intensity, reflecting his conviction that God was in charge of his destiny. Considering the richness of his experience in the greater church, his vast network of personal and professional contacts, his intellectual brilliance and deep spiritual insight, and the level of his influence within ecumenical Christianity, it is hard to grasp that Bonhoeffer was only 28 years old while filling this overseas post.

[15] Back in Germany, in late 1934, the Confessing Church was taking shape under the leadership of the Pastors Emergency League, an ecumenical assemblage of Lutheran, Reformed and United congregations opposed to the German Church and the Third Reich. Its chief document, the Barmen Declaration, was authored by Karl Barth. (Note: Bonhoeffer was in London at this time.) This document speaks in the voice of classical Christianity, and made the case that “the German church was not under the authority of the state; it repudiated the Anti-Semitism and other heresies of the German Christians and their official church led by [Third Reich Bishop] Mueller.” (p.222) It is a very strong statement that refutes the false premises of the new German state church and emphatically upholds the basic doctrines of the Christian Church.

[16] Many in the Confessing Church, and especially Bonhoeffer, understood themselves as commissioned to wear the mantle of the “real” church and “German Christianity” as an idolatrous sect. However, not everyone was in agreement. In the circle of high level ecumenical world leaders, of which Bonhoeffer was a part, some still saw the Third Reich Church as THE German church and wished the Confessing Church to call itself the second German church. For Bonhoeffer, this line of thinking was tantamount to false witness. This theme of fragmentation among the world churches and even among the leaders of the Confessing church was a pattern that would be reiterated throughout the Nazi reign and certainly weakened the cause of confessional Christianity. Metaxas is captivating in his narrative of the on-going struggle within the Christian Churches for the truth of the gospel. What could have been tedious reading about ecumenical meetings and the influence of various participants instead is a fascinating glimpse into the paradox of the church as both a divine and human reality.

[17] By 1939 Hitler had consolidated his destructive grip on Germany and embarked on a path of aggression which sparked the beginning of World War II. The direction of Bonhoeffer’s life greatly changed as this man of peace became part of the resistance movement. As he learned from extremely well-connected family members how horrific things were in Germany, far worse than he imagined, he came to understand that the only way to bring peace to Germany was to remove Hitler. After a very brief stay in America arranged by friends who sought his safety, Bonhoeffer returned to Germany convinced, in the words of his friend Bethge, “We were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance, and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with criminals.” (p. 361)

[18] In 1940, Bonhoeffer joined the “Abwehr” (the equivalent of the CIA) so that he could continue his pastoral work with less interference by the Gestapo. He would also have a cover for his growing involvement with the conspiracy. For the next few years, his life took on a “cloak and dagger” quality reminiscent of a great spy novel. During these years, he also experienced great joy when becoming engaged to Maria Von Wedemeyer, whose aristocratic and deeply Lutheran family was also involved in the resistance movement. Theirs was a very sweet and tender relationship, well-documented by their letters during his imprisonment and eventually published in Love Letters from Cell 92.

[19] When the 1943 plot to kill Hitler failed, the Bonhoeffer family knew that the Gestapo would close in on Dietrich and other loved ones. On April 5 Bonhoeffer, his sister, and a relative were arrested and taken to Tegel military prison. Bonhoeffer remained very optimistic about the chances of his release. He continued to perform numerous pastoral duties, wrote prolifically, and saw many visitors. He also remained connected to the conspiracy, finding ways to operate even from prison. But because of his work with the conspiracy, he was on Hitler’s short list of prisoners who were slated for execution. In spite of the hopefulness that pervades his letters from prison, Bonhoeffer intuited that he would not live past the camp internment.

[20] As the Allies became more entrenched in Germany and their victory appeared imminent, Hitler grew more desperate, especially after the failed assassination attempt in 1944. We know how this impacted Bonhoeffer’s last weeks through the writings and first hand accounts of others who were with him. In early April, 1945 sixteen prisoners were taken by their guards on a ride through the German countryside. They were carted from one location to another, uncertain if they would live out the day. This account makes for gripping reading; the reader knows how the story will end but the account is filled with twists, turns, and ironic mishaps. On April 8, Dietrich is taken to Flossenburg. The next day, he is executed and his body burned. “Bonhoeffer thought it the plain duty of the Christian — and a privilege and an honor — to suffer with those who suffered … he had the honor to be joined to the millions of other victims of the Third Reich.” (p.532)

[21] My background is in the social sciences, so I have focused this review on the biographical and historical aspects of this book. However, this exhaustive work should also be valued for its richness in Bonhoeffer’s profoundly Lutheran theology. And perhaps the most important thing for readers to take away from Metaxas’ treatment of this prophetic and heroic figure is how much this man loved the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer lived the reality that God was with him at all times in all situations. He devoutly conducted daily devotions and stressed this discipline with his seminarians. He was a robust singer of classic hymns and drew upon these in times of stress as well as joy. He had no tolerance for compromise when it came to keeping the faith, whether dealing with the Confessing Church or the Third Reich. He steadfastly continued writing and conducting his ministry even under the hardships of prison. His writings unfailingly display a genuine and unalloyed faith and confidence in God.

[22] Bonhoeffer learned in July, 1944 that the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler had failed. He was aware of the serious implications for anyone who had been involved in this plot, that it was unlikely he would make it out of the camps alive. Here is an excerpt of the exceptional and inspirational letter he wrote that very day to his dear friend Bethge on the Christian life:
…I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith…. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a righteous man or an unrighteous one, a sick man or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences, and perplexities. In doing so we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world — watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think is faith, . . And that is how one becomes a man and a Christian (cf. Jer. 45!). How can success make us arrogant, or failure lead us astray, when we share in God’s sufferings through a life of this kind?… May God in his mercy lead us through these times, but above all, may he lead us to himself. (pp. 484-5)

Christine Muir Shahan is recently retired from her executive search consulting firm, SHAHAN AND ASSOCIATES, after having served in the Wisconsin schools as a teacher, counselor and administrator. She is married to the JLE book review editor.

1. In August, 2010 the biography Dietrich Bonhoeffer 1906–1945: Martyr, Thinker, Man of Resistance was published by T & T Clark International. I did not have access to this book prior to writing this review.

Christine Muir Shahan

Christine Muir Shahan is recently retired from her executive search consulting firm, SHAHAN AND ASSOCIATES, after having served in the Wisconsin schools as a teacher, counselor and administrator. She is married to the JLE book review editor.