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The Plot to Kill Hitler; Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Spy, Unlikely Hero by Patricia McCormick; HarperCollins, 192 pages, $18.99. Ages 8 and up.

28594377Patricia McCormick, a two-time National Book Award finalist, tells the fascinating true story of the German pastor and theologian who was executed for his role in the plot to kill Hitler in this suspenseful, beautifully written and meticulously researched book. McCormick paints a vivid picture of “a big rambunctious family,” a happy household of eight children, in a home in Breslau, the family’s pet goat with free run of the house. Dietrich was the dreamer in a family of overachievers (his father was a psychiatrist, his oldest brother a genius at physics).

The death of his brother Walter in World War I was the driving force in Dietrich’s interest in theology and big questions about Christianity and the meaning of life. McCormick offers a clear explanation of Bonhoeffer’s theology and his belief that the church was not a building or a dead institution but a living force for good in the world, a belief that would later involve him – despite his pacifist beliefs – in the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

McCormick brilliantly combines the “big picture” historic and political backdrop with the anecdotal, as Bonhoeffer struggles in vain to convince his fellow Lutheran pastors of the threat posed by Adolf Hitler and then his role in establishing the breakaway Confessing Church. A particularly interesting chapter documents Bonhoeffer’s study at Union Theological Seminary in New York and his friendship with African-American classmate Frank Fisher, who took the young German to the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. (McCormick notes that Winston Churchill, alerted to the possibility of an effective plot against Hitler, dismissed Bonhoeffer with “I see no reason whatever to encourage this pestilent priest.”)

For the rest of the review…

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“Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a  Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life should be and try to realize it. But God’s grace  speedily shatters such dreams.” 

Dietrich BonhoefferLife Together26.

By present-day standards the Bonhoeffer household was conducted on an inconceivably lavish scale; but, at the same time, the parents strongly disliked personal boasting or pretension. Money was never discussed in front of the children. The country house in Wolfelsgrund was spacious and airy, but its furnishings were Spartan; later, after they have moved to Berlin, the family’s summer home in Friedrichsbrunn was wired for electricity only in autumn of 1943.  If one of the children dropped a toy on the dirty floor of the railway compartment on the way to the country, their mother was capable was dropping it straight out of the window, but suggestions for improving amenities in the country were ignored. There was never any question of fashionable extravagance, either in dress or in the home.   

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 16.

(Father) Karl Bonhoeffer was not often in the forefront of his children’s lives. His study and consulting room were out of bounds to them. Despite the many demands on him as a university teacher and consulting physician, however, he never missed the family meals. These were rather ceremonial occasions. The children’s table manners were strictly supervised, and they were expected to speak only when asked about the events of the day. It was generally their mother who decided which situations in their lives should be brought to their father’s notice. 

Eberhard BethgeDietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 15.

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The rich world of  his ancestors set the standards for Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s own life. It gave him a certainty of judgement and manner that cannot be acquired in a single generation. He grew up in a family that believed that the essence of learning lay not in a formal education but in the deeply rooted obligation to be guardians of a great historical obligation and intellectual tradition. To Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this meant learning to understand and respect the ideas and experiences of earlier generations It could also lead him to decisions and actions that conflicted with those of his ancestors–and, precisely  in this way, to honor them. Ultimately, it might even mean voluntarily accepting history’s inevitable judgement on the world of his ancestors–while not allowing this to distract from delight in its amicable representatives.   

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 13.

Julie Tafel (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother)…had inherited the alert critical sensibilities of  her ancestors. She actively participated in discussions on women’s issues and devoted herself to practical and organizational matters, like establishing a home for older women or vocational centers for girls.   

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 12.

Friedrich Bonhoeffer’s wife Julie (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Grandmother) was the direct link between a long history and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life. Born on 21 August 1842, she could talk about the days of Eduard Mörike and Justinus Kerner. But it was just as characteristic of her that, at the age of ninety-one, she marched past the S.A. (Nazi Storm Troppers) cordons promoting the boycott of Jewish businesses on 1 April 1933, to shop at the Jewish-owned “Kaufhaus des Westens” on Tauentzienstrasse in Berlin.  

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 10-11.

Politically, (grandfather) Friedrich Bonhoeffer was conservative, but he disdained the local Württemberg patriotism. In 1862 he already wagered that Germany would be united under Prussian leadership.  

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 10.

The Bonhoeffers had immigrated from Holland (van den Boenhoff from Nimwegen) in 1513 and settled as goldsmiths in Schwäbisch Hall. After the seventeenth century they became pastors, doctors, city council members and mayors. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 9.

The great-grandfather (Karl August von Hase) was a very successful theological teacher and writer; his books went through many edition. Hutterus Redivivus, a textbook on the history of dogma, was still a respected examination aid during Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time as a student. 

~ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography (Revised Edition); Chapter 1: Childhood and Youth: 1906-1923, 6.

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