Realistically, what can I say of Dietrich Bonhoeffer without sounding trite? Because any description I give you in words will not stack up to the life he lived. I just finished Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy by Eric Metaxas. My belief in God has been invigorated, and yet, I have also been reminded—not only does Satan exist, but he is a very present force on earth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany. He was also an aristocrat, born into a wealthy family, bred for success. Imagine his father’s surprise (psychologist Karl Bonhoeffer) when his son studied religion! Bonhoeffer went on to become a much-loved theologian and mentor. He could have grown old, serving the Lord; instead, a guy named Adolf Hitler showed up and Bonhoeffer’s calling changed.
I studied World War II in high school and college. I’ve seen The King’s Speech (an interesting refresher on Hitler), but Bonhoeffer is a look at the odious Third Reich from the inside, through the eyes of a stunningly intelligent Christian who knew Hitler was a madman from the start.
As a writer, the following passage made me ill:
“That spring  the German Students Association planned to celebrate an ‘Action against the un-German Spirit.’ … At midnight the whole thing roared to grand effect in a great [cleansing] where huge bonfires were lit and into which the students hurled thousands of books. Thus Germany would be ‘purged’ of the pernicious ‘un-German’ thoughts of authors such as Helen Keller, Jack London, and H.G. Wells.”
One of the most prophetic quotes I’ve ever heard followed this horrible scene. Heinrich Heine said, “Where books are burned, they will, in the end, burn people, too.”
Hitler didn’t only attack books; he violently attacked the German church, too. Although he played the part of dedicated Christian for the newspapers, Hitler was an atheist. He hated God; he wanted to replace God with his own image. Over time, he succeeded; the Bible was removed from churches, pictures of Christ were removed, and pastors replaced “God” with “Heir Fuhrer.”
Bonhoeffer wouldn’t stand for it. It was suggested that he try and infiltrate the church and take it over from the inside. In response, he said, “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.” Instead, he would protect the church head-on, with no concern for his own life, and by the late 1930s, he was a deeply involved member of the conspiracy against Hitler.
Things got worse … “In August 1939 every doctor and midwife in the country was notified that they must register all children born with genetic defects. In September, when the war began, the killing of these ‘defectives’ began. In the next few years five thousand small children were killed.” I suppose you know the rest: yellow stars, concentration camps, and mass homicide.
As I read what Bonhoeffer (and Germany) observed in the 1930s and 40s, I could not understand how this happened. How did Hitler do it? He was a funny looking vegetarian from Austria! How did the government let Hitler revoke what we know as First Amendment rights? How did the Jews let him put yellow stars on their chests? How did so many assassination attempts on Hitler fail? This is where Satan comes into play. Bonhoeffer knew it wasn’t always God who made bad things happen; the devil has a hand in things, too, and for me, Hitler’s survival proves it without a shadow of a doubt.
Bonhoeffer and his compatriots went to battle, and he wasn’t quiet:
“There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security. To demand guarantees is to want to protect one-self. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross.”
I suppose you know how the biography ends. I’m not ruining the ending by telling you Bonhoeffer doesn’t make it out alive. You know this from page one. When the death sentence came down (purportedly from Hitler himself), Bonhoeffer turned to his cellmate and said, “This is the end … For me the beginning of life.”
I cannot give a higher recommendation to this book. It was interesting (and horrible) to read about the rise of Hitler and how no one said a word to stop him. I am happy to be well-informed on how things played out, because I hope that if another Hitler shows up, I will be ready to fight back.
It was more interesting, though, to make the acquaintance of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. No, I’m not as strong as Bonhoeffer. I’m not as trusting in God’s providence (although I should be). But Bonhoeffer was not a superhuman. He was just a man.
He believed in the beauty of this life. His “theology had always leaned toward the incarnational view that did not eschew ‘the world,’ but saw it as God’s good creation to be enjoyed and celebrated, not merely transcended.” He suffered from the occasional bought of depression; knowing this made him more approachable, as I, too, am familiar with what Bonhoeffer called his “darkness.” Yet, his view of things—in the light of God—can be summed up in a letter he wrote to his beloved fiancé while in prison: “You mustn’t think I’m unhappy. Anyway, what do happiness and unhappiness mean? They depend so little on circumstances and so much more on what goes on inside us.”
The spirit of God was inside this man. I can only hope that as I grow I become more like Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a Christian who knew his beliefs, knew his Lord, and knew when enough was enough in a time when so many Germans turned a blind eye to the atrocious monster, Adolf Hitler.