The Good Germans

Inside the Resistance to the Nazis

No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State. BY ELISABETH SIFTON AND FRITZ STERN. New York Review Books, 2013, 157 pp. $19.95.

When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Europeans had a long tradition of armed resistance to authority from which they could draw. In countries such as Denmark, France, and Poland, substantial movements emerged in opposition to Nazi occupation. Yet inside Germany itself, a comparatively small resistance struggled to gain traction and rarely posed a serious threat to Hitler’s rule.

Most Germans worried primarily about their own survival and thus, as information began to leak out about the deportation of Jews and other Nazi abuses, they kept any concerns they might have had to themselves. After all, mentioning such matters could carry the death penalty, as could listening to foreign radio stations and spreading rumors. The threat of harsh punishment largely worked: the Nazis effectively sealed off most Germans from outside information, and anyone who did learn the truth and was troubled by it risked a great deal by acting on such thoughts. The brave few who did join in resistance were painfully aware of their lack of internal or external support, but it came as no surprise to most of them.

Yet explanations of why so few Germans rose up against Hitler and why so many stuck with him to the bitter end have tended to leave little room for the stories of the men and women who did oppose Nazi rule. In No Ordinary Men, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern help fill this gap by chronicling the lives of two leading members of the German resistance: the noted theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his lesser-known brother-in-law the jurist Hans von Dohnanyi. In telling the stories of Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, the book offers a fascinating portrait of the anti-Nazi underground. Among its many insights, perhaps the most important is that, although those who opposed Hitler often had political and strategic motives unrelated to Nazi anti-Semitism, the most influential resisters were driven primarily (or at least in great part) by a shared sense of horror at the mass murder of Jews.


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