Friday, September 2, 2016

Reflections: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

What would I have done, said, wrote, and believed if I were there?  That question remained in my mind nearly the entire time I read the biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  The era of Nazism in Germany is one of the most harrowing, disgusting, and fascinating epochs I have ever read about it.  Bonhoeffer's biography by Eric Metaxas is a competent biography, albeit not a great one, about a man who existed in a world gone mad and did what he could to push back against the darkness.

When writing about personalities who lived during consequential moments in history, there must be a compulsion for authors to try and link that personality's life with the events  as much as possible.  I feel this biography tried to oversell Bonhoeffer's participation in historic events or didn't make it clear enough how his life was interconnected with those events.  Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis for his seditious actions, but the author seemed to stretch his direct involvement in certain assassination plots.  Regardless, Bonhoeffer was a man of courage and confidence who demands the highest level of admiration.  When so many voices were crying for compromise, he made the case for conviction. 

As an influential theologian, he saw the evil of Nazi Germany through the prism of his Christian faith.  Of the many biographies and non-fiction books written about or related to the era of Nazism and World War 2, the spiritual and faith-centered aspects of this book are perhaps the most unique.  Was Christianity an impetus for Nazi ideology or was it corrupted by it?  Why did so many religious people support Hitler?  Why did ecclesiastical leaders do the same?  There is a clear warning and tragic lesson to be learned.  Metaxas gives significant time in this biography to let the theological debate rage, which was enthralling and troubling.  Through it all, I queried myself, as a devoutly religious person, what would I have done?  On which side of the line would I have stood?

Although Bonhoeffer is a wonderful subject for a biography, the most fascinating elements of this book are the details related to the rise of Nazi Germany.  (I added The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich to my Amazon wish list while reading Bonhoeffer).  This book proves the historical point made by Barbara W. Tuchman: "No single characteristic ever overtakes an entire society."  Bonhoeffer and others like him, such as his family, show that sanity prevailed in some pockets, however small, of the German population.  Not everyone became bloodthirsty, sadistic, depraved automatons goose-stepping in loyal obeisance to Adolf Hitler.  Many individuals gave their lives trying to stop evil from completely strangling their beloved homeland.  In many respects, they failed; however, their efforts, heralded in a book like Bonhoeffer, show that moral degeneration is not universal, even when it takes hold of the majority.  (After reading Bonhoeffer, I'd really like to re-watch Valkyrie, which I enjoyed but feel I would appreciate it quite a bit more now). 

The conclusion of Bonhoeffer is predictably heart-breaking but no less affecting.  It is staggering to comprehend how much evil was perpetuated and how much human suffering was caused by Nazi Germany.  Yet, it is also moving to learn of the men and women who refused to break under the burden of popular opinion or government coercion.  I  am nonplussed by how iniquitous mankind can be, but a book like Bonhoeffer gives me hope that I, as well as others, can still choose to be saintly.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The March of Folly
Reflections: The Culture of Disbelief
Reflections: The Lessons of History

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