Book Review: Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Eric Metaxas – Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy  (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010)

Who was Dietrich Bonhoeffer? He was a German pastor who became a prominent resistor to Hitler’s Third Reich. He helped people to escape Germany, was part of a group that plotted to assassinate Hitler, and died in a concentration camp.

This book would have been about two thirds shorter if it had stuck to its subject. Instead, much of the book is theological discourse. A hero’s courageous life story was regularly interrupted with digressions on obscure theological interpretations and debates—including an out-of-nowhere rant about abortion during a chapter on Bonoeffer’s time in Tegel prison.

Even while listening to the Audible narration at 2.25x speed, there was a great deal of tedium, and not enough about the remarkable man whose name is in the book’s title. There are occasional flashes of (possibly unintentional?) humor, as in Hitler’s description as an “irascible vegetarian.” These moments are few, though.

Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a prosperous, intellectual household with several siblings, including a twin sister. His childhood was happy, his parents raised him right, and Bonhoeffer showed high character from the start. He also had enough musical talent to seriously consider becoming a professional musician.

He instead decided to become a pastor. He received his doctorate at age 21, and was ordained at 25. Though protestant, he was tolerant of other denominations, including Catholics, making friends and attending their services. Bonhoeffer’s ecumenicism made him stand out as a little bit of a liberal hippie type by the standards of the day, though a straight-laced one.

The young Bonhoeffer also had an adventurous spirit. He traveled to Rome and Spain, though he spent much of those trips attending church services and in theological study. He was also able to spend a great deal of time studying his favorite sculpture, Laocoön and His Sons, located in the Vatican.

While on a trip to America, Bonhoeffer took a 4,000-mile road trip from New York to Mexico. Bonhoeffer did not know how to drive, and failed a driving test right before the trip. He drove anyway, though with a friend, and essentially taught himself on America’s highways.

During this period he read Erich Maria Remarque’s anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front and saw its movie adaptation. To that point, it was the 20th century’s best-selling novel. Bonhoeffer lost an older brother during World War I, and Remarque’s frank depictions of things his older brother experienced, and the way he humanized the soldiers, helped to turn Bonhoeffer into a pacifist.

Bonhoeffer and his similarly liberal-minded family were disturbed by Hitler’s rise from well before he took power, but didn’t take him very seriously until it was too late. But the problems were far larger than one man.

A German Christian movement arose in Germany, embracing the trendy new nationalism and supporting Hitler. Bonhoeffer denounced the movement—which did not come naturally to the inclusive Bonhoeffer—and began to earn a higher profile, and the attention of the authorities. In a theological distinction that actually mattered, Bonhoeffer argued that Hitler was converting the German Christians, not the other way around.

He also struggled with depression, starting around the mid-1930s. In 1939, before the war started in September, Bonhoeffer managed to escape Germany and return to America. But he was restless and unhappy, because he knew that he could help the resistance. So he ended up going back to Germany. He would not survive the war.

He joined the Abwehr, an underground resistance group that ultimately aimed to assassinate Hitler. They nearly succeeded several times, most famously in the failed Valkyrie plot. They also whisked away Jews and others to safety outside Germany, and tried to communicate clandestinely with Allied governments.

Bonhoeffer took seven trips over the Swiss border and back helping the Abwehr cause. He was imprisoned in 1943, just seven miles from his parents’ house. He also became engaged to an 18-year old, though he was 36 at this point. They wrote each other frequently, but saw each other in person a total of 17 times during his imprisonment. As the tide of the war turned against Germany, they both believed Bonhoeffer would spend a year in prison at most.

They were not far off. In February 1945, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the Buchenwald concentration camp, site of some of the Nazis’ worst medical experiment atrocities. He was hanged on April 9, 1945. Allied forces liberated the camp two days later. He was 39. Bonhoeffer’s Letters from Prison were published posthumously, and remain in print today.

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