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Dec. 18, 2013 6:42 p.m. ET
Though the Nazis never won an outright majority in the parliament of the decaying Weimar Republic, they received nearly 44% of the vote in the critical election of March 1933—a mandate that enabled Adolf Hitler’s anointment as supreme leader. To some, however, the evil character of the Nazi regime was visible from the start. Among them were the young Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, the subjects of Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s “No Ordinary Men.” In this concise, engaging account, Ms. Sifton, an eminent book editor, and Mr. Stern, a distinguished historian of Germany, trace Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s evolution from partaking in small acts of opposition to playing leading roles in the anti-Hitler resistance.

Bonhoeffer, a pastor, fought Nazi efforts to meld Protestant churches into a single “Reich Church.” Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the military intelligence service, used his position to document Nazi crimes and save Jews while joining several plots to kill Hitler. Their paths of resistance intertwined when Dohnanyi recruited Bonhoeffer to the anti-Hitler conspiracy.

Born in 1906, Bonhoeffer received a strong moral and intellectual upbringing from his father, Karl, an eminent Berlin psychiatrist, and his devout mother, Paula. The family had a notable independent streak; Paula chose to home-school their eight children in their early years. (“Germans,” she observed, “have their backbones broken twice in life: first in the schools, secondly in the military.”) One morning in 1922, Dietrich was in school when he heard “a strange crackling” from the street. It was the assassination of Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walter Rathenau, a crime the Bonhoeffers recognized as an omen. “Only think of the trouble we shall have later with these people,” Bonhoeffer’s brother Klaus wrote


No Ordinary Men

By Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern
(New York Review Books, 157 pages, $19.95)

Dohnanyi, the son of a famous Hungarian composer, was childhood friends with the Bonhoeffers and later married one of Dietrich’s sisters. While Hans began a brilliant career as a lawyer in the German civil service, Dietrich gained renown as a young theologian. Influenced by the Swiss master Karl Barth, who rejected the historicism of much academic theology and emphasized the transcendence of God across time and culture, Bonhoeffer sought to develop an account of how the Christian church could exercise leadership in an increasingly chaotic society. He finished his dissertation at 25, studied with the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr during a year abroad in America, and began lecturing at the University of Berlin in 1931.

Two years later, Hitler barred “non-Aryans” from holding positions in the civil service, the academy or the clergy. While most church leaders dithered, the 27-year-old Dietrich published an important essay, “The Church and the Jewish Question,” that subtly challenged the legitimacy of Nazi rule and argued that the church must not only help “those who have fallen beneath the wheel” but “at times halt the wheel itself.”

Over the next few years, Ms. Sifton and Mr. Stern write, “virtually everything he did”—co-founding a league of anti-Nazi churches, developing relationships with Jewish and Catholic communities abroad—”set him against the Nazifying church authorities.” By 1936 he was banned from lecturing at the University of Berlin. He retreated to the country estate of Finkenwalde, where he continued to mentor young pastors in secret and wrote a pointed tract called “The Cost of Discipleship.” Two years later Finkenwalde was shut down on Heinrich Himmler’s orders.

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January 2014
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