No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State (New York Review Books Collections)
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During the twelve years of Hitler’s Third Reich, very few Germans took the risk of actively opposing his tyranny and terror, and fewer still did so to protect the sanctity of law and faith. In No Ordinary Men, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern focus on two remarkable, courageous men who did—the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his close friend and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi—and offer new insights into the fearsome difficulties that resistance entailed. (Not forgotten is Christine Bonhoeffer Dohnanyi, Hans’s wife and Dietrich’s sister, who was indispensable to them both.)
From the start Bonhoeffer opposed the Nazi efforts to bend Germany’s Protestant churches to Hitler’s will, while Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the Justice Ministry and then in the Wehrmacht’s counterintelligence section, helped victims, kept records of Nazi crimes to be used as evidence once the regime fell, and was an important figure in the various conspiracies to assassinate Hitler. The strength of their shared commitment to these undertakings—and to the people they were helping—endured even after their arrest in April 1943 and until, after great suffering, they were executed on Hitler’s express orders in April 1945, just weeks before the Third Reich collapsed.
Bonhoeffer’s posthumously published Letters and Papers from Prison and other writings found a wide international audience, but Dohnanyi’s work is scarcely known, though it was crucial to the resistance and he was the one who drew Bonhoeffer into the anti-Hitler plots. Sifton and Stern offer dramatic new details and interpretations in their account of the extraordinary efforts in which the two jointly engaged. No Ordinary Men honors both Bonhoeffer’s human decency and his theological legacy, as well as Dohnanyi’s preservation of the highest standard of civic virtue in an utterly corrupted state.
neurosis” (there being no German equivalent in word or thought for “shell shock”). True to his empirical methods and based on his own clinical observations near Verdun in 1916 where he visited German hospitals and Allied prisoner-of-war camps, he concluded that the symptoms among the wounded German soldiers were hysterical, brought on by fears of returning to the front; Allied prisoners of war did not seem to have these fears or symptoms. This fit into his general view that will was a decisive
delegates must acknowledge that “the time is very near when we shall have to decide between National Socialism and Christianity.”39 Dietrich made an unforgettable impression on the international crowd of theology students when he preached in his compelling manner on a text he loved, Psalm 85: “I will hear what God the Lord will speak: for he will speak peace unto his people, and to his saints: but let them not turn again to folly. Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him; that glory may
ecumenical meeting at about this time, and he managed to fly to Stockholm to see him. He asked Bell, who was stunned to see him in Sweden at this point in the war, if he and his colleagues might win some reassurance from Churchill’s government about what its response would be if an anti-Hitler coup were to succeed in Berlin. Bell drew up a memo for the Foreign Office and Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden summarizing his conversations with Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer’s purpose, it said, had been to inform
incarceration was the beginning of unspeakable suffering; everything he had abhorred about the regime for ten dreadful years he now had to experience for himself—the Nazis’ boundless criminality, their contempt for even basic decency, and their sadistic determination to destroy a person by threats and humiliation before actual extinction. And though like Dietrich he was spared physical torture, they both knew there was no immunity from it. Once Christine was released on April 30, she could give
matured in thought and in independence during the 1930s, and posthumously he is celebrated for the eloquence with which he expressed his credo. But he wasn’t there yet. When he returned to Germany in 1931 he couldn’t settle down anymore than he had in America. His parents hoped he would join them, but instead he rushed off to Bonn to meet with Barth, stopping on his way in Frankfurt to see his brother Karl-Friedrich, who had just been made head of his own scientific institute, and who was