Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer biography, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, has been widely praised as an introduction to Bonhoeffer’s life. I appreciated the book, with qualifications of course.

  • It is written for a popular audience, but is not carelessly written. It’s not clear how much original research Metaxas did for the book, though it’s possible he did quite a bit. What is lacking is the careful and reasoned judgments that one appreciates so much in a proper academic biography.
  • Metaxas errs on the side of hagiography, certainly. A really proper moral consideration of Bonhoeffer’s life would have to grapple with the question of whether Bonhoeffer was not simply the privileged scion of an established Berlin family, whose family connections protected him from even much inconvenience, and worked to his advantage right up to the last months before his execution. I wouldn’t prejudge the conclusion, but it’s an issue that Metaxas never even acknowledges.
  • Something I found to be particularly valuable in the book is the way that Metaxas explains the various groups and factions in Germany in the 30s and 40s.
  • It’s impossible to dislike a book which preserves this critique of early 20th century liberal protestant theology: “[The Union students] talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria . . . They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level.”
  • Metaxas’s credentials, aside from having also written a book about another evangelical hero (Amazing Grace, about William Wilberforce) are all in comedic writing. This informs his style somewhat, but I mention it mostly as a curiosity.
  • A matter of taste: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy would have been a better title. One assumes they considered all the permutations, though.

The book is written for evangelicals, but Metaxas was not thinking of me when he was writing this book, and I need to be careful to evaluate the book on its own terms, and not merely whine about how I would have written it differently. If the last word in the subtitle didn’t give it away, the audience is intended to be thrilled and excited by Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the conspiracy to kill Hitler. There’s usually not a lot of suspense and adventure in being an evangelical Christian, but we can live vicariously through Bonhoeffer at least. And if someone were to claim that Metaxas is in places stoking an evangelical persecution complex which is really not in need of stoking, I wouldn’t disagree immediately.

Incidentally, if that last paragraph seemed to assume that Bonhoeffer was an evangelical Christian, that is representative of the book. There is precious little there about Bonhoeffer’s actual theological beliefs. I would say he was a probably an identifiably conservative member of a thoroughly liberal state church, with leanings toward monastic practices that would make both evangelicals and Lutherans uncomfortable.

So for me, a pacifist to whom Miroslav Volf seems somewhat vindictive, the big question is how to reconcile Bonhoeffer’s commitment to the Sermon on the Mount on the one hand, with his (apparently) unquestioning acceptance of, and participation in, a plot to kill Hitler. (This is not a question Metaxas is interested in, and I don’t necessary claim that he should be, given typical evangelical commitments.)

At least one quote from Bonhoeffer suggests, curiously enough, that he was not a very deliberative decision-maker.

It is remarkable how I am never quite clear about the motives for any of my decisions. Is that a sign of confusion, of inner dishonesty, or is it a sign that we are guided without our knowing, or is it both? …. The reasons one gives for an action to others and to one’s self are certainly inadequate. In the last resort one acts from a level which remains hidden from us. So one can only ask God to judge us and to forgive us. (pg. 336, according to the Kindle edition)

With that sort of quote in hand, one would have to consider the possibility that Bonhoeffer slouched into participation in the conspiracy. After all, family members were involved. His social station alone entailed a certain opposition to Hitler, quite apart from his faith. In many decisions, he was either indecisive or delayed making a decision. (Metaxas is not able to give a point at which he began involvement; whether this is because he didn’t do his research well, or because it isn’t actually clear from the evidence, I am not certain.) I don’t believe there’s enough evidence to conclude that this is how it happened, though I count it as a serious possibility.

Next we could ask to what extent Bonhoeffer’s involvement in the plot was a result of his religion. Should we think of the plot as a primarily Christian endeavor? And how does Bonhoeffer’s enthusiasm with the Sermon on the Mount interface with his decision to become involved? On this point Metaxas defers to Bonhoeffer friend and biographer Bethge, who restates the problem without addressing it:

Bonhoeffer introduced us in 1935 to the problem of what we today call political resistance. The levels of confession and of resistance could no longer be kept neatly apart. The escalating persecution of the Jews generated an increasingly intolerable situation, especially for Bonhoeffer himself. We now realized that mere confession, no matter how courageous, inescapably meant complicity with the murderers, even though there would always be new acts of refusing to be co-opted and even though we would preach “Christ alone” Sunday after Sunday. During the whole time the Nazi state never considered it necessary to prohibit such preaching. Why should it? Thus we were approaching the borderline between confession and resistance; and if we did not cross this border, our confession was going to be no better than cooperation with the criminals. And so it became clear where the problem lay for the Confessing Church: we were resisting by way of confession, but we were not confessing by way of resistance. [Bethge, as quoted by Metaxas]

But the point is not that Hitler should be resisted. That much is clear. But should one try to kill him? Should one become involved in domestic politics? Should one become involved in international politics? Should one subvert Hitler’s aims by smuggling Jews (and others) out of the country? These are options that neither Metaxas nor (apparently) Bonhoeffer consider.

On the whole, the picture one gets of the German aristocracy and military leadership of the 1930s and 1940s is one of weakness and confusion of patriotic and moral imperatives. Dozens of powerful conspirators were opposed to Hitler, and achieved what? Two or three creditable assassination attempts, right at the end of the war. The reason, as Metaxas explains, was an extremely cautious approach from all those involved, who wanted to make sure that Germany was quickly freed from the war. They wanted to avoid another Versailles, and if possible to keep some of the gains they had made since the first Versailles. Churchill & co. were understandably unimpressed with these offers, and were unwilling to encourage them with any promises of political concessions. So the Germans waited, and largely let the war run its course. The result is to create an eery emotional response for the reader: the one actor of the drama who shows real courage and commitment to his goals no matter the cost, is the one that you certainly don’t want to be cheering for.

One wishes for greater moral clarity, especially in regard to the relationship between patriotic duty and moral behavior. Bonhoeffer was aware of atrocities committed by the SS in the invasion of Poland, and one assumes, of the fate of the Jews. Indeed, he was helping to preserve a record of these atrocities for posterity. But none of this knowledge ever lead him to suggest conscientious non-participation in the war effort. Something like two thirds of his seminary students were killed in the fighting, presumably after having done some killing themselves. Bonhoeffer refrained from counseling these people, apparently wanting them to make up their own minds. Conscientious objectors were subject to capital punishment (literally, with beheading), and that seemed to have made up most people’s minds.

None of this comes together for me in a terribly cohesive way. We have Bonhoeffer the idealist, and Bonhoeffer the conspirator. He identified the danger of Nazism almost immediately, but in concrete terms did very little to subvert Nazism. He was entirely convinced that Hitler was a lunatic who had to be stopped, but did not from that conviction draw the conclusion that it was immoral to participate in the war effort, as a general principle. And yet he supported, in principle and to an extent in practice, the assassination of the democratically elected leader of Germany.

The final confession: both The Cost of Discipleship and Ethics are sitting on the shelf. I read the former probably ten years ago, but have never finished the latter. Certainly, the answers to some of my questions will be addressed there, and I would feel obligated to read them first, were this a proper book review, and not just a silly blog post.