We all know history is written and it’s no use wishing for some other outcome when reading a biography or history book. Yet reading this book I felt a terrible suspense. I knew Bonhoeffer was a goner - still I bit my nails, I dreaded, I cried, I hoped, and for a while I even engaged in magical thinking, imagining if I boycotted the last 20 pages Bonhoeffer would not die!
The sense of tragedy is heightened because the end of the war almost
let Bonhoeffer escape his stupid fate, death coming just two weeks before the Third Reich was brought to its knees. I had to force myself through the last pages. Ugh, what a waste.
Just to note: I’m an atheist. And I’m no student of church history but I really enjoyed the theological insights of this book. For as much as Bonhoeffer sometimes seemed an arrogant fussbudget, at least when he was younger, I’m glad he existed, with his confidence in the Christian god, and his dedication to following his sense of what is right (doing what he felt was God’s will, for example, despite its being a ‘sin’). The world needs more like him.
How can you not admire someone who in 1935 said, “Only he who cries out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chants.”
Bonhoeffer really wins you over. But for all my admiration and respect, I couldn’t help but be frustrated with him and all of noble, high-bred and fine-feeling aristocratic Germany, which couldn’t get off its collective Arsch
and assassinate Hitler, despite their outrage and chagrin. Being on the side of the right was surely a way to feel good about yourself, but accomplished zilch.
And just like I hoped against all reason and reality that Bonhoeffer wouldn’t die, I hoped to be reassured that there were good Germans out and about in the ’40’s. But the conclusion is there were hardly enough, and certainly not enough willing to sacrifice themselves for the country they’d been proud of.
As one conspirator says, “God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found in the city, and so I hope that for our sake God will not destroy Germany.”
But history makes it seem you could count the good-when-it-mattered-most men on two hands. And the war not only destroyed Germany’s future but also obliterated its past. That is, it will never be remembered for its poets and thinkers; whoever thinks of Germany now thinks first of the maniac with the little mustache and genocide. And while those who think of Sodom might think about Lot, no one thinks about Bonhoeffer or von Stauffenberg.
Biography is a good way to understand history, and I found this book illuminating in its picture of an age. Living in Germany, it’s an era I hear about day-in day-out. You can’t live here without reading something about WWII every day, and guaranteed there is a documentary on some channel or other every evening, too. But it’s often big-picture stuff, or some military campaign, or just fleeting reference, and this biography was right there with its details of a particular life in a particular place. It was heartening to read about Germans who protested against the Nazis, who found the Gestapo and the SS reprehensible, even if they failed to bring change.