The Common Good
January 2014

Brothers in Faith and Defiance

by Anne Colamosca | January 2014

No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State. New York Review Books.

NO ORDINARY MEN: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State is a tightly woven story framed by the sophisticated historical analysis of its two authors, former senior Farrar, Straus, and Giroux editor Elisabeth Sifton (daughter of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr) and Columbia University professor emeritus Fritz Stern, a famed German scholar. The book profiles two brave young men—Bonhoeffer, a theologian and minister deeply involved in fighting the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches, and Dohnanyi, a brilliant lawyer (son of Hungarian composer Ernst Dohnanyi) working in the German Ministry of Justice, who used his key position to methodically collect evidence against the Nazi regime.

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Sifton and Stern portray Dohnanyi in detail as a leader in the small but high-powered German resistance movement. Brig. Gen. Hans Oster, a resistance member, hired Dohnanyi away from the Ministry of Justice ostensibly to help run the Abwehr, a German military intelligence organization that was also the center of the anti-Hitler resistance, in 1939. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was then recruited by Dohnanyi to be part of this team. Dohnanyi’s wife, Christine (Bonhoeffer’s sister), is also revealed as a significant influence on and aide to her husband.

The slim, 157-page volume is an important new historical work in the growing field of research on the German resistance movement during World War II. It is a penetrating look at Dohnanyi’s dangerous operations against the Nazis with historical perspective that other books on him and Bonhoeffer lack. Earlier biographies, written mainly by church people, more or less emphasized Bonheoffer as a singular hero fighting Hitler. Bonhoeffer was indeed very brave and traveled thousands of miles abroad while working as an agent for the Abwehr, but he was just one of a circle of resisters.

The authors are well-suited to intelligently tell this story. Stern, like Bonhoeffer, was born in Breslau, and their families—both in the medical profession—were well acquainted. Sifton’s father worked tirelessly in the ecumenical church movement to inform the world what was going on in Germany during the 12 years that the Nazis held power.

“Most members of the high professional elite ... either succumbed to the temptation of National Socialism—or clung to the illusion that in the Third Reich one could be ‘unpolitical,’ playing it safe,” write the authors. Bonhoeffer worked with pastor Martin Niemöller and others in 1933 to organize the Confessing Church in resistance to the Nazis. More than 2,000 pastors joined, but this was still little more than 10 percent of Germany’s Protestant ministers. Stern notes that the Protestant ministers he personally knew—Confessing Church members—“were shadowed everywhere and they knew that every sermon could land them in prison or a concentration camp.”

Dohnanyi often worked closely with Bonhoeffer and other members of the Confessing Church to help those targeted by the Gestapo to flee the country. Dohnanyi also kept information on Nazi actions, known as the “Zossen Files,” in a safe on an Army base 20 miles outside of Berlin. He planned to use this evidence to convict Hitler’s top ministers when the war ended.

One famously successful and very dangerous Dohnanyi plan—dubbed “Operation 7”—involved helping 14 Jews escape deportation and death by appointing them as Abwehr agents on their way to Switzerland. Dohnanyi was also involved in two failed plots to assassinate Hitler.

Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested in April 1943. Both, separately, were interrogated for two years. Finally, an Abwehr chauffeur told the Gestapo where to find the evidence it had been seeking for years: the “Zossen Files.” Dohnanyi, the Gestapo asserted, “was the spiritual head of the conspiracy” to eliminate Hitler. In April 1945, both men were hanged, just weeks before the Third Reich ended. They were essentially two gentle, loving family men who could not close their eyes, as so many did, to the evil around them. They, and their families, paid the ultimate price for their bravery. 

Anne Colamosca is a former staff writer at Business Week and has written for many national magazines and newspapers.

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