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March 7, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Filed under: Germany, Holocaust — Tags: , , — furtherglory @ 10:10 am

I am reading the new book by Eric Metaxas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with the sub-title: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich.  The book might be difficult for some people to understand if they are not well-versed in what went on in Germany in the 1930s. In my opinion, Metaxas does not explain everything adequately, but the book is so rich in the details of Bonhoeffer’s early life that readers can easily understand what made Bonhoeffer into the man that he became.

My first impression was that this biography would make a great movie, and I fully expect that it will be made into a movie. I have some ideas for a movie about Bonhoeffer:  The early scenes should show his childhood, as told by Metaxas in the book, but there should be scenes of Hitler’s childhood interspersed with Bonhoeffer’s childhood, so that people can understand that Hitler and Bonhoeffer lived in two different worlds, based on their family history.

The book starts out with a long detailed section about Bonhoeffer’s illustrious ancestry on both sides of his family.  He came from a long line of upper class Germans on his mother’s side; his father’s side was originally Dutch.  In 1531, Caspar van den Boenhoff left the Netherlands and settled in Germany, where the family name became Boenhoffer, which means “bean farmer.”  By 1800, the family had dropped the umlaut from the first syllable of their name and changed it to Bonhoeffer.

The maiden name of Bonhoeffer’s mother was Paula von Hase.  The Germans who had a von in their names were like minor royalty that did not associate with the lower class Germans who didn’t have a von in their name.  (Metaxas didn’t explain that in his book, but I know this from reading books by Thomas Mann.)

Both sides of Bonhoeffer’s family had been rich professional people for centuries.  They were the complete opposite of Hitler’s low-class family.  In an interview with Glenn Beck last year, Metaxas referred to Hitler as “vulgar.”  I immediately concluded that Metaxas is upper-class, in the same social class as the Bonhoeffer family.

A movie about Bonhoeffer should first establish the great divide between Hitler and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Hitler was a “man of the people” while Bonhoeffer was an upper class intellectual who had many Jewish friends.  The only Jew that Hitler ever met in his childhood was the doctor who treated his mother when she was sick. As a young man, Bonhoeffer lived in Berlin in a rich neighborhood where he socialized with his Jewish neighbors; his best friend was a Jew named Franz Hildebrandt.

One thing that Hitler did was to bring all the Germans together and make the lower class people feel that they were equal to the upper class Germans.  The two classes of Germans were working side by side in the work projects that all Germans were required to do.  There were Germans marching, with shovels on their shoulders, alongside the German soldiers at the Nazi rallies.  The reason that the German people worshiped Hitler was that he instilled pride in all the Germans and made them feel good about themselves.  All this was lost on the Bonhoeffers who were against Hitler from the very beginning.

In his book, Metaxas includes a photo of one of the homes where Bonhoeffer lived as a child; the house is still standing, but it has been converted into EIGHT APARTMENTS.  In other words, Bonhoeffer lived in a house big enough for 8 families.  According to the book, the Bonhoeffer family had “a governess, a nursemaid, a housemaid, a parlor maid, and a cook.”  The girls in the family had a dollhouse — which was an entire room in the house.  Another room in the house was a classroom where the mother home-schooled the children for their first years. The dining room table could seat 20 people.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea: the Bonhoeffers were rich and upper class. Besides their huge home, they also had a summer home where they stayed for the entire summer, with their servants in attendance, of course.

When the family moved to Berlin, they lived in the Grunewald section where they socialized with their Jewish neighbors and the Bonhoeffer children went to the best schools where they never came into contact with vulgar, low class people like Hitler.  The way Metaxas tells it, the Bonhoeffer family did not suffer at all during the years following the first World War.  They did have a minor problem because food was scarce, but they didn’t go hungry; they had a huge estate where they could grow vegetables.

In his book, Metaxas wrote that “By November 1923 a dollar was worth about four billion marks” in Germany and that young Dietrich had to write home for money while he was a student at the University.  Dietrich was forced to spend one billion marks for every meal and he didn’t have enough money on hand because he had spent 6 billion for bread.  Not to worry — his father was a psychiatrist who had patients who paid in foreign currency.  Metaxas pointed out in his book that it was in November 1923 that Hitler attempted his Bierhall Putsch, but he didn’t mention how the lower class Germans, who didn’t have access to foreign currency, were suffering.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer didn’t have to worry about his future; he only had to decide if he wanted to be a doctor like his father, or a lawyer, or a musician.  At 14, he decided to become a minister; he didn’t have to worry about where he would get the money for college.

In 1924, while the whole country of Germany was in dire straits, 18-year-old Dietrich was off to Rome for the traditional upper class trip to broaden his knowledge in another country. It was at Mass in St. Peter’s Catholic church in Rome that Bonhoeffer had an epiphany about “What is the Church?” The idea of the “universality of the Church” came to him when he saw white, black, and yellow members of religious orders, all wearing clerical robes, united under the Church.  Metaxas wrote that in Rome, Bonhoeffer “saw a vivid illustration of the church’s transcendence over race and national identity.”

This quote from the book sums up how Bonhoeffer’s idea of “the Church” differed from Hitler’s ideas:

For him, ideas and beliefs were nothing if they did not relate to the world of reality outside one’s mind.  Indeed, his thoughts on the nature of the church would lead him into the ecumenical movement in Europe, causing him to link hands with Christians outside Germany, and therefore to see instantly the lie at the heart of the so-called of creation theology, which linked the idea of the church with the German Volk.  This idea of a church defined by racial identity and blood — which the Nazis would violently push and so many Germans tragically embrace — was anathema to the idea of the universal church.

Chapter 10 is probably the most important chapter in the book.  The title of this chapter is “The Church and the Jewish Question.”  Metaxas does not explain that the “Jewish Question” was “Should the Jews assimilate into German society, or should they have their own state or state-within-a-state?”  Bonhoeffer was clearly on the side of assimilation.  When this question was first discussed in Germany, the people who were on the side of assimilation were called “anti-Semites” because they were against the Jews having their own state.  That term means something completely different today.  On page 152, Metaxas used the expression “hate-filled anti-Semites.”  Back in the days when the Germans were discussing the “Jewish Question” the term “anti-Semite” meant a person who loved the Jews and did not want them to leave Germany and form their own state in Palestine.

In March 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote an essay entitled “The Church and the Jewish Question.”  This was only a few weeks after Hitler had been sworn in on January 30, 1933 as the Chancellor of Germany.  One of the Bonhoeffer girls was married to a lawyer who worked at the German Supreme Court, so the family had some inside information about the new regime.  They knew that the “Aryan Paragraph” would be put into effect on April 7, 1933.  This was a new law that would prevent Jews from having jobs in the German government.  Bonhoeffer anticipated that the new law would soon extend to the German church and that his Jewish friend, who wanted to be a Christian pastor, would be discriminated against.

In his famous essay on the Jewish Question, Bonhoeffer wrote that there are three ways that the Church should act, with regard to the laws of the state.  The first way was for the Church to question the legitimacy of the laws of the state.

The second way was for the Church “to aid the victims of the state action.”  Here, he had in mind aiding the Jews who would be victimized by not being allowed to participate in Christian churches.

The third way for the Church to act “is not just to bandage the victims under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel itself.”  By this, he meant that the Church should not just help the Jews who are being persecuted by the state, but the Church must also take action against the state to stop it from perpetrating the evil of discriminating against the Jews.

Bonhoeffer read his essay before an audience of German pastors and some of them walked out when he gave the second way that the Church should act.  They were gone before Bonhoeffer publicly hinted that the pastors should resort to treason, or even murder, to save the Jews from being persecuted by the state.

Hitler was not an “anti-Semite” in the original meaning of the word.  He wanted the Jews to have their own separate state rather than assimilate into German society. Hitler wanted the Jews to leave Germany.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped the Jews to leave, by sneaking them into Switzerland with fake passports.  The problem was that Switzerland didn’t want the Jews, so Bonhoeffer was committing a crime by bringing illegals into a country that had laws designed to keep them out.  Committing a crime in order to help his Jewish friends, or even participating in a plot to kill the leader of his country, did not bother Bonhoeffer.  He created his own laws when it came to helping the Jews.  That’s why he was executed for treason on April 9, 1945.


  1. Shera Valido

    I am reading the new book by Eric Metaxas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with the sub-title: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich.  The book might be difficult for some people to understand if they are not well-versed in what we…

    Trackback by Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy | Scrapbookpages Blog — August 7, 2016 @ 2:14 pm

  2. January Plauche

    I am reading the new book by Eric Metaxas, entitled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy with the sub-title: A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich.  The book might be difficult for some people to understand if they are not well-versed in what we…

    Trackback by Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy | Scrapbookpages Blog — August 6, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

  3. […] read here.  I also wrote two previous posts about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which you can read here and here.  Bonhoeffer was arrested because he was a traitor to his country, not because of his […]

    Pingback by Bill O’Reilly’s comments about Nazi Germany and religion | Scrapbookpages Blog — May 3, 2013 @ 10:23 am

  4. “He wanted the Jews to have their own separate state rather than assimilate into German society. Hitler wanted the Jews to leave Germany.” Please document this statement as it applies to Hitler. There may have been some Germans who desired Jews to live in “a state within a state” as you claim, but I have never seen evidence that Hitler honestly desired this. Even if Hitler of other high ranking Nazis made this claim, that extermination was his plan and goal for all persons of Jewish descent is evidenced by the steady stream of anti-Jewish laws, and the removal of Jews from conquered nations and territories to concentration camps for extermination. The Bonhoeffers were well aware of Hitler’s effect upon the German people; they understood, as well, that Hitler was playing to the peoples’ shame and struggle and resentment and fear. They were also aware of the cost of Nazi bigotry and brutality to their society and beyond. Nor was that resentment limited to the “Lower classes”. All strata of German society aligned themselves with Hitler, from the aristocracy to the “lower class”. And Pr. Bonhoeffer was not executed for creating “his own laws” to assist Jews, but for being part of a plot to assassinate Hitler. Your comment that Metaxas must be “upper-class” because he refers to Hitler as “vulgar” is an odd, even classist assumption. My family is firmly blue collar working class, and “vulgar” was among the epithets used of Hitler (My grandparents lived with us, and talk of WWII was common). Dietrich Bonhoeffer was deeply, deeply affected by his involvement in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. To kill a human being, even Hitler, was a sin. But was it not the greater sin to leave Hitler alive to continue murdering, torturing, destroying people and cultures across Europe?
    Were the Bonhoeffers a wealthy family with resources and status? Yes. They lost But when this wealthy, educated privileged you man has the chance to stay in safety in the US, he chose to return. When he could have had a place of power in Nazi Germany by betraying others, he chose to speak out. When others obeyed the Nazis’ vile anti-Semitic laws, even turning on neighbors, friends, relatives, Dietrich Bonhoeffer put his life on the line to save Jewish lives. The Bonhoeffers lost two sons (Dietrich and Klaus) and two sons-in-law (Hans von Dohnanyi and Rüdiger Schleicher)who stood up to the Nazi machine. It is a testament to their character, and their family’s. How does Bonhoeffer’s class, or Metaxis’ assumed class detract from the truth of Nazi brutality, or Bonhoeffer’s witness?

    Comment by Marie C — May 17, 2011 @ 10:17 pm

    • You asked for documentation for my statement that Hitler wanted the Jews to have their own separate state. Go to this website to read about “The Transfer Agreement”:
      “The Transfer Agreement” is the title of a book by Edwin Black.

      Here is the first paragraph on that web site:

      “During the first months of the Hitler regime, leaders of the Zionist movement concluded a controversial pact with the Third Reich which, in its various forms, transferred some 60,000 Jews and $100 million–almost $1.7 billion in 2009 dollars–to Jewish Palestine. In return, Zionists would halt the worldwide Jewish-led anti-nazi boycott that threatened to topple the Hitler regime in its first year. Ultimately, the Transfer Agreement saved lives, rescued assets, and seeded the infrastructure of the Jewish State to be.”

      This web site explains it from the Nazi point of view:

      Note that these web sites mention the anti-Nazi boycott which started as soon as Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. This boycott still goes on today as many Jews will not buy a German car.

      Comment by furtherglory — May 18, 2011 @ 6:32 am

  5. By the way.
    Did Eric Metaxas also described hanging with piano strings?

    Comment by Gasan — March 7, 2011 @ 3:48 pm

    • I am not quite finished reading the book yet, but I have searched through the entire book, doing some speed reading, and I have not found any mention of piano wire.
      P.S. I did read in the book that the camp doctor at Flossenbuerg told the Bonhoeffer family that he had died “in a few seconds” so this probably means that he was not hanged with piano wire.

      Comment by furtherglory — March 8, 2011 @ 6:52 am

  6. Great post!
    I think, that Metaxas is Greek last name and does not suggest that bearer of this name belongs to any part of German nobility. But I digress, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris (one of the Bonhoeffer’s co-consipirators) of had Greek last name as well.
    However, the entire attitude of “the elite” towards “vulgar persons” clearly explained in the “King’s Speech” movie, I happened to watch last weekend. It was shocking for me for the first time to listen to speech of His Majesty King George VI and I will tell you why:
    Here is the speech:
    “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my peoples, both at home and overseas, this message, spoken with the same depth of feeling for each one of you as if I were able to cross your threshold and speak to you myself.
    For the second time in the lives of most of us, we are at war.
    Over and over again, we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies; but it has been in vain.
    We have been forced into a conflict, for we are called, with our allies, to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world.
    It is a principle which permits a state, in the selfish pursuit of power, to disregard its treaties and its solemn pledges, which sanctions the use of force or threat of force against the sovereignty and independence of other states.
    Such a principle, stripped of all disguise, is surely the mere primitive doctrine that might is right, and if this principle were established through the world, the freedom of our own country and of the whole British Commonwealth of nations would be in danger.
    But far more than this, the peoples of the world would be kept in bondage of fear, and all hopes of settled peace and of the security, of justice and liberty, among nations, would be ended.
    This is the ultimate issue which confronts us. For the sake of all that we ourselves hold dear, and of the world order and peace, it is unthinkable that we should refuse to meet the challenge.
    It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own.
    I ask them to stand calm and firm and united in this time of trial.
    The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right, and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with God’s help, we shall prevail.
    May He bless and keep us all.”

    His Majesty, did not even bother to mention who are those enemies and why they became enemies all of the sudden. The speech was broadcast live all over the Empire, “where the sun never sets”. How would King George explain the objectives of the war to people of half of Africa, India (including modern Pakistan), Canada, Australia, New Zealand. How would he explain to indigenous people of South Africa and the Boers, why they need to defend Poland? Maybe he should tell people of South Africa and Rhodesia, that Adolf Hitler is a racist and Antisemite and that they live in free countries where apartheid does not exist.
    But he did not even bother with that. He just said that the whole empire is going to war “to meet the challenge of a principle which, if it were to prevail, would be fatal to any civilized order in the world”.
    Does it mean that colonial policies of Britain would qualify for “civilized order of the world”?
    Or, maybe apartheid systems in some of African colonies were civilized order of the world”?
    George VI was manipulated by Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, two servants of the banks of London. It is obvious that he didn’t really care. This king just declared a World War, where dozens of millions died, and he could not even explain why.
    “It is to this high purpose that I now call my people at home, and my peoples across the seas, who will make our cause their own.”
    How pathetic would that sound for those who lived in British colonies.

    Comment by Gasan — March 7, 2011 @ 3:45 pm

    • Metaxas dedicated his book to his maternal grandfather Eric Kraegen. I did not mean to imply in my blog post that Metaxas was descended from a member of the Germany aristocracy; I was trying to say that he is currently a member of the upper class in America. So far, in reading the book, I have not found any mention of what hard times the Germans had between the two world wars. The author seems to identify with the upper class Bonhoeffer family and is very much against the Nazis and Hitler.

      Comment by furtherglory — March 8, 2011 @ 8:49 am

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