Monday, January 24, 2011

Review of Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas

I just finished reading Bonhoeffer, Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. I couldn't put this big fat (580 pages) book down. My arm is sore! It is very well written, but quirky*.
Read this book! This is a book for adults, WW II buffs, Christians, non-Christians and social scientists.
I'm not sure if anyone of our generation can fully understand how an entire modern nation of educated people can allow a segment of their own society (Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals, Communists) to be reduced to the status of cattle, and worse. Even if Germans didn't know about the death camps, they saw their neighbours gradually lose their jobs, status, dwellings and savings and get shipped away somewhere, jammed into boxcars. Sitting in comfortable Canada I can't really understand how this can happen, but this book helps me get a bit closer.
Bonhoeffer was an unlikely hero. He was an aristocratic type, born into high German society and educated at the best schools. A gifted student of theology, he could travel and live and work where he liked as a lecturer or pastor and for a while he did, visiting England and the USA as a guest lecturer in Universities there. But soon he began to fight what was happening to Germany at the rise of Hitler. This book shows how Bonhoeffer and some of his associates were actively working against the change in moral thinking in Germany while Hitler's hold on German society was still very shaky. It is amazing to see how the state-supported Lutheran church began to make moral compromises early on in the 1930s. Slowly and with all sorts of clever logic and reasoning, intelligent and well-educated men began to make compromises about previously established rules regarding treatment of your fellow man. These compromises received state sanction. Lack of moral leadership on these basic issues helped the fascists control a whole country. When evil comes gradually, it seems, we are more likely to accept it.

One of Bonhoeffer's contemporaries, Martin Neimöller, wrote the following poem in 1944

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Jew

And then they came for me –

And there was no one left to speak for me.”

Bonhoeffer, born to privilege and connected or related to many in the German government, first led a group of Pastors and theologians to publicly dispute the slipping Christian standards of the state-supported Lutheran Church. Later, as Hitler and the National Socialists became more established and didn't self-destruct as they predicted, Bonhoeffer joined a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and some of his top henchmen. For several years they plotted and twice used bombs planted with chemical timers to do the deed. The first bomb failed to ignite on Hitler's plane and the second went off but Hitler was mostly uninjured because a massive table leg protected him from the blast. Bonhoeffer's work in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler was discovered and it landed him in prison, and just weeks before the war ended, execution.

* The quirky part of the book is many sentences in the translated material have that strange German word order where they put the modifier on the wrong side of the verb, or the verb at the very end of the sentence. Many sentences read like this one I pulled at random from the middle of the book : "Perhaps the worst thing of all is the military oath which I should have to swear." Read it as if a speaker has German accent and it will make sense to you.
Metaxas is of German descent and speaks the language well. He has written many books in English, but perhaps he was thinking in German when he wrote some of this. I don't know. Just a guess.

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