Book Note: Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters against Hitler in Church and State

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

Book Note: Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern, No Ordinary Men. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters against Hitler in Church and State (New York: New York Review Books, 2013), Pp. 157, ISBN 978-1-59017-681-3.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

The latest addition to the Bonhoeffer corpus of writings is a double-headed tribute to both Dietrich and his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi, written by Fritz Stern, a distinguished historian of Germany at Columbia University, New York, and by Elisabeth Sifton, the daughter of the noted American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. Their aim, in this short book, is to refresh and uphold the heroic picture of these men’s lives and tragic deaths as already formulated seventy years ago by British and American liberal churchmen, such as Bishop George Bell and Reinhold Niebuhr.   According to this interpretation, their participation in the resistance movement in Germany was motivated by their high ethical ideals and by their moral revulsion against the Nazis’ aggressive and violent persecution of their opponents, particularly the Jews. Their account of the careers of both Bonhoeffer and von Dohnanyi clearly follows that given by Eberhard Bethge, since they too later got to  know the surviving members of both families.  In essence, however, they bring no new insights to the political or theological controversies about the resistance movement, its motives or tactics.  Instead they repeat the now familiar themes of earlier biographies. They honour the inherent decency and courage of these intrepid witnesses to a “better” Germany. They deplore the readiness of other Germans, even years afterwards, to regard these men as traitors to the nation for seeking to overthrow the established government.  They still regret the British government’s refusal to offer the resisters any gestures of support. They are dismayed at the leniency extended to former Nazis in post-war West Germany.  In short, although well aware of the dangers of hagiography, especially in Bonhoeffer’s case–for all the wrong reasons–these authors nevertheless seek to affirm that “the Third Reich had no greater, more courageous and more admirable enemies” than these men who so steadfastly expressed their moral and political revolt against horrendous injustice and immeasurable cruelty.  But they leave unexplored the many questions which historians and theologians still have about the complexities of the German resistance movement, and the historical conditions which led these men to follow the path of heroic self-sacrifice and eventual death as witnesses to their beliefs. 

Curiously, in the appended footnotes, the references to the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Collected Works are all drawn from the German, rather than the now completed English edition.