As Hitler and the Nazis seduced a nation, bullied a continent, and attempted to exterminate the Jews of Europe, a small number of dissidents and saboteurs worked to dismantle the Third Reich from the inside. Among them was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young pastor in his 20s. He, his brother, Jewish brother-in-law, and Jewish best friend were executed in 1945 in concentration camps for their part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. In “Bonhoeffer,” New York Times best-selling author Eric Metaxas takes both strands of Bonhoeffer’s life – the theologian and the spy – and draws them together to tell a story of extraordinary moral courage in the face of monstrous evil.
Metaxas, who lives in Danbury, will discuss his book on Wednesday, May 4 at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County, as part of the Frank Jacoby Foundation Jewish Lecture Series. He spoke with the Ledger about his motivation to explore Bonhoeffer’s life.
Q: What compelled you to write a biography of Bonhoeffer?
A: I’d heard the story of Bonhoeffer for the first time in the summer of 1988. I remember being absolutely stunned to hear that a German stood up for the Jews specifically because of his Christian faith. I remember wondering why I hadn’t heard this story before. I was amazed that he even went to his death in a concentration camp as a result of his actions, and I was particularly moved because my mother is German and grew up during this time. My family suffered in their own ways as a result of the Nazis and as a German I had always been haunted by this terrible, terrible period in history. Hearing the story of Bonhoeffer filled me with hope and encouragement and inspiration and I remember thinking that someone must tell this story!
Q: What particularly surprised or impressed you as you learned about Bonhoeffer?
A: Many people have wrongly gotten the impression that toward the end of his life, Bonhoeffer’s faith turned somewhat away from God and became a kind of “post-Christian humanism.” He has even been hailed by the so-called “God is Dead” movement in the ‘60s and recently by atheists such as Christopher Hitchens. What shocked me was that when you really study Bonhoeffer as I have, you see that these people have gotten him completely, tragically wrong. At first I couldn’t believe it, but the more research I did, the more I realized they were entirely and almost laughably mistaken. Bonhoeffer was a true believer all the way to the very end when he went to the gallows. He did everything he did out of a deep faith in the God of the Bible. There can no longer be any question of that. Anyone who reads my book will see that all of the evidence is very, very clear on this. I’m glad that simply by laying out the facts people can see the true Bonhoeffer. The wrong ideas about him have circulated for 50 years and it’s about time the truth was presented for readers so they can see for themselves. History must reflect the truth and the facts, and I’m glad at last the history of his life and his faith has been cleared up. I’m surprised I was the one to do it, believe me. But I’m grateful, very grateful.
Q: From what you learned, to what do you attribute his and his cohorts’ willingness to risk their lives to the extent that they did?
A: In many cases it really was simply because they were true Christians who understood that the Nazis were evil. I tell many other stories besides Bonhoeffer’s story in my book. These were people who knew enough to see the truth and who knew that they really MUST do something. Not everyone involved was motivated by faith, but I was amazed at the number of his colleagues who were motivated by faith. So many Germans were fooled, but Bonhoeffer and his colleagues were not fooled, and I thank God for them. Their stories are so inspiring and encouraging and we need to know these stories. In the midst of all of this evil there were some who stood up for what was right, who knew where God was in the midst of all of this suffering and who stood up for what they knew was the right thing.
“A Righteous Gentile vs. The Third Reich” with Eric Metaxas, author of “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy,” will be presented at the JCC of Eastern Fairfield County on Wednesday, May 4, 7:30 p.m.
Q&A and book-signing follow presentation. Admission: $5/person advance; $10/person at the door | RSVP/info: Vivian Rockmacher, (203) 372-6567, ext..127 / firstname.lastname@example.org