Theologians who make an impact on society don’t really exist anymore. If you were forced to name any that were significant, you might need to reach back to the days of Augustine or Thomas Aquinas. But in our modern era there lived a theologian who had an impact, not just on church thought, but also on an entire nation. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the eponymous star of Eric Metaxas’ 2010 biography, impacted modern Germany both through his exegetical prowess and because of his willingness to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer relates the complete biography of the modern church reformer, from his birth in 1906, to his execution on the gallows at one of Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentration camps. And when I say complete, I really mean “complete.” The book is detailed to the point of irritation, right down to identifying the time of day that his parents left their hotel to see the college-aged Dietrich off at the docks for his first trip to America. (8:30am local time, in case you were interested.) This exhaustive coverage seems unnecessary, especially for Bonhoeffer’s younger days. But it does given important insights into a man who was transformed in parallel with his nation.
Germany between the wars was a mess. Gone was the glorious empire of Wilhelm II and Otto von Bismarck; the Treaty of Versailles made sure of that. In this time of financial collapse and national embarrassment, Hitler rose with the promise of a new, powerful Fatherland based on the superiority of the Aryan peoples, the scapegoating of the Jews and the Communists, and—most important from Bonhoeffer’s perspective—the acquiescence a church that had redefined God as a local, manageable deity. Bonhoeffer insisted instead that the Christian church was universal. God didn’t belong to Germany; Germany belonged to God—at His instigation—as did Rome and even the Jews, an idea that the state church was soon legally required to reject.
The book follows both Bonhoeffer’s and Hitler’s progression from bit players to major forces on a world stage. Bonhoeffer was not the yang for Hitler’s yin, but he was as Type-A as the Führer, and his actions delayed the complete domination of all German Christendom for a while. Yet Hitler had the power of the state, and as his plans for the extermination of both the Jews and the weak became evident, Bonhoeffer realized that obedience to God meant getting your hands dirty, “sinning boldly” in the Lutheran vernacular. In his case, dirty hands meant pretending to be a Nazi intelligence agent, engaging in traitorous communications with associates of Churchill and the Allies, and plotting the murder of Hitler.
Bonhoeffer helped perpetrate Operation Flash, a plot to blow up Hitler’s plane. A faulty detonator foiled that plan, and when Hitler survived the July 1944 “Valkyrie” briefcase bomb assassination attempt, Bonhoeffer was identified, arrested, and imprisoned as one of the conspirators. The last years leading up to his execution play out like a suspense movie, with his near escape and eventual hanging on Hitler’s personal directive carried out just two weeks before American troops liberated the death camp, and three weeks before Hitler’s own suicide.
Bonhoeffer is more than a biography. It’s also a call to worship, something that can’t be avoided given the lengthy excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s books and letters. Metaxas is clearly enamored with the church leader, especially in the first quarter of the book where, frankly, not much of interest has yet happened in Bonhoeffer’s short life. But this fan-boy approach gives the text a rich depth that a mere documentarian might miss. And his presentation of Nazi Germany from the perspective of the breakaway Confessional Church provides details only briefly touched on in William Shirer’s otherwise comprehensive Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
Despite his strong ethics, Bonhoeffer was willing to pursue the destruction of Hitler because he foresaw a Germany ruined and millions killed by the evils of the Third Reich. Hitler outlived the theologian, but Bonhoeffer would not have seen this as a failure. He knew that God sought not success, but obedience from his followers. “One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman.” As Metaxas communicates quite well, in giving up his own success in obedience to his God, Bonhoeffer managed to succeed far beyond Germany’s maniacal dictator.