Author studies German slain for targeting Hitler
METAXAS The “dizzying complexities” of World War II were made simpler for Dietrich Bonhoeffer by a single maxim: following the will of God. The hard part was figuring out what the almighty’s will was — and that required a lot of prayer, according to Eric Metaxas’ cinematic biography, “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy.”
The book explores the life of the German pastor and intellectual, who was hung at age 39 for trying to help assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Mr. Metaxas, who lives with his wife and daughter on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and will visit Southwest Florida next week, became fascinated with Mr. Bonhoeffer’s story and writings in 1988, when he was 24 years old. It led to his conversion to Christianity. He had graduated from Yale University with plans to write fiction not unlike some of the authors he admired, such as John Cheever, William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Thomas Pynchon.
“I was living with my parents and trying to figure out what I was doing with the rest of my life,” Mr. Metaxas said. “I had a menial job as a proofreader in Bainbridge, Conn., which was my hometown, and writing on the side. I was totally confused.”
A friend ended up giving him a copy of one of Mr. Bonhoeffer’s books. Now 47, Mr. Metaxas returned to his fascination with Mr. Bonhoeffer, writing this New York Times bestselling biography about him.
The story opens with a lush description of Mr. Bonhoeffer’s privileged childhood, the son of Germany’s most prominent psychiatrist. All of his big family opposed Hitler from beginning to end, and various members were also involved in attempts to kill him.
Educated by the world’s giants of theology at Berlin University, Mr. Bonhoeffer became a passionate theologian who spoke out about Hitler’s dangerous rhetoric. But at that time not so many people were listening, including Christian churches in Germany.
“They didn’t really take the Nazis at their word, here and in Germany,” Mr. Metaxas said. “They let them make much more progress than they might have and then it was to late to do anything about it.”
Later, Mr. Bonhoeffer was drawn into a “vast conspiracy” that included German intelligence and military leaders who wanted to assassinate Hitler. The conspiracy, involving “thousands” of people, waxed and waned during the war, until it ended in April 1945.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent. He traveled in Europe pretending to work for German military intelligence, for instance, when in fact he was spreading news of the conspiracy to Allied leaders. Some of Mr. Bonhoeffer’s thinking about whether it is “ethical” to kill an evil dictator speak to the discomfort some felt with the celebratory mood following Osama Bin
“In the case of the Nazis and Al Qaeda, you’re not doing it (assassinating their leader) for revenge,” Mr. Metaxas said. “There are people who look at it that way and they’re wrong. I think there’s a calculation to it. Bonhoeffer didn’t take the moral difficulty of this lightly, and we should not take it lightly.”
He adds, “That to me is what makes Bonhoeffer so attractive. He’s a model for complex thinking about difficult subjects. He’s a Hamlet that moves beyond dithering, who thinks things through, but actually takes action.”
Florida Weekly talked with Mr. Metaxas about his book over the telephone, and given the weighty subject matter he writes about, he is much funnier than you might expect. Matt Damon is a favorite to play Mr. Bonhoeffer in the movie version, he said, but he also thinks Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt would do a good job. “Whether we can get someone like that is another story, but we’re definitely talking to some folks about a movie,” Mr. Metaxas said.
Mr. Metaxas will appear at the Naples Town Hall Distinguished Speaker Series at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 6, at Summit Church Auditorium in Estero. Tickets are $25 per person for general seating. Call 659-6524 or visit www.naplestownhall.org. The church is at 19601 Ben Hill Griffin Parkway in Estero, about 1.5 miles north of Corkscrew Road and east of I-75. ¦