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No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State
No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State
By Fritz Stern, Elisabeth Sifton
New York Review Books, 2013, 160 pp.


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.


Both Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi opposed the Nazi regime from the start, but Bonhoeffer’s conflict with the Nazis was more public and is therefore better remembered today. Born to a prominent Berlin family, Bonhoeffer decided to pursue a career as a pastor when he was only 14. Sifton and Stern suggest that in addition to the influence of his mother’s side of the family (his maternal grand­father and great-grandfather were pastors), Bonhoeffer may have been attracted to a life of service in response to the “moral uncertainty” and “spiritual turmoil” that characterized the years following World War I. Later, Bonhoeffer studied for a year at the Union Theological Seminary in New York under the philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr (who happens to be Sifton’s father).

By 1933, the year Hitler was appointed Germany’s chancellor, Bonhoeffer was an ordained pastor who was already well known for his theological writings. At the time, the German Lutheran Church, to which he belonged, had no unified position on National Socialism. A strong faction within the church, whose members dubbed themselves “German Christians,” favored what it considered a Germanic version of Christianity, proclaiming an “Aryan Jesus” and supporting Nazi anti-Semitism. Most German pastors were not Nazi extremists, however, but nationalists, loyal to whatever government was in place. Bonhoeffer rejected both stances. Just two days after Hitler’s appointment, he delivered a radio address warning that if a strong leader (Führer) such as Hitler violated the trust of the people, he stood “in danger of becoming the great seducer” (Verführer). The Nazis, meanwhile, launched a major effort to assert control over the administration of the church and purge its clergy of “non-Aryans.”

The German People's Court.

Soon after his radio address, Bonhoeffer published “The Church and the Jewish Question,” an essay arguing that the German church had “an unconditional obligation toward the victims of any ordering of society.” Although the church’s role was “neither to praise nor censure the laws of the state,” he wrote, it should question whether its actions were justified. Moreover, the church might be obliged to not only “bind up the wounds of those who have fallen beneath the wheel . . . but at times halt the wheel itself” by taking direct political action. In the words of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth, the essay made Bonhoeffer “the first and almost only pastor to grasp and deal with the centrality of the Judenfrage [Jewish question].” Unable to abide what he considered the cowardice of the Lutheran Church in the face of Hitler’s efforts to control it, Bonhoeffer and his fellow pastor Martin Niemöller led a group of more than 2,000 pastors to form a new organization called the Confessing Church.

Bonhoeffer soon abandoned that group, as well, believing its members were still too timid to counteract the Nazi sympathizers and operatives who sought to control Germany’s churches. The Gestapo seemed to believe the Confessing Church nevertheless posed a threat and arrested some 800 of its pastors in 1937. Three years later, the Nazis forbade Bonhoeffer from preaching or speaking publicly at all.

While Bonhoeffer was testing the limits of opposition to the Nazis, Dohnanyi was working at the highest levels of the Nazi system. Dohnanyi, a son of the celebrated Hungarian composer Ernst von Dohnanyi (and eventually father of the acclaimed conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi), had grown up in Berlin and had known the Bonhoeffers from childhood. While working toward a doctorate in law at the University of Hamburg, he met Bonhoeffer’s sister Christine and married her in 1925. Four years later, the couple moved back to Berlin, where Dohnanyi entered the Justice Ministry and held a string of prestigious posts. In 1933, he became the chief assistant to the justice minister, Franz Gürtner. Deeply repulsed by the Nazis, Dohnanyi used this privileged position to begin keeping a record of their illegal acts. He later told his Nazi interrogators that it was “arbitrariness in matters of law, and National Socialist procedures in Jewish and church questions,” that had motivated him to resist.

But Dohnanyi also faced grave risks due to his own heritage: he had a Jewish grandfather. Like all civil servants, Dohnanyi was required to provide evidence of his Aryan descent. But Gürtner informed Hitler that his assistant was indispensable, and Hitler decreed that Dohnanyi was not to “suffer any disadvantage because of his racial origins.” To provide further assurance of Dohnanyi’s safety, Gürtner appointed him a judge on Germany’s supreme court, removing him from direct Gestapo surveillance.

The Nazis’ confidence in Dohnanyi was misplaced. As early as 1934, he had begun actively subverting the Nazi state: secretly assisting Jews whom he knew or who approached him and using his access to clandestinely collect and index copious records of official crimes. In 1939, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, chief of the Abwehr, the German military’s counterintelligence arm, recruited Dohnanyi to work as a specialist officer in his organization. Under Canaris, who was also a secret opponent of Hitler, Dohnanyi was able to continue assisting Jews, in some cases pulling strings to transfer them from a particular concentration camp to a less dangerous one. Dohnanyi also used his new position to help link various resisters throughout the German officer corps.

Meanwhile, Dohnanyi often sought the spiritual council of his brother-in-law Bonhoeffer; Dohnanyi’s continuing service to the criminal regime, even if it was only a front, troubled him deeply. But by 1939, both men had come around to the same point of view: rather than being true to one’s convictions and showing open disapproval of the regime’s policies, it was better to hold on to the most influential Nazi post available in order to undermine the regime from within.

Bonhoeffer faced his own dilemma. In 1940, he was likely to be drafted into the army, and he was profoundly troubled by the thought of having to serve Nazi criminals in a military uniform. But he considered conscientious objection to be virtual suicide, since those who refused to serve were typically executed. After Bonhoeffer’s request to serve as an army chaplain was rejected, Dohnanyi and his associates managed to get Bonhoeffer’s military service deferred by recruiting Bonhoeffer into the Abwehr as a civilian liaison. Bonhoeffer subsequently became a full-fledged member of an active anti-Nazi conspiracy in the Abwehr. Its members -- including Canaris; General Hans Oster, the second officer in command of the Abwehr; Ludwig Beck, the retired chief of the German general staff; and Helmuth James von Moltke, another Abwehr officer and a descendant of Bismarck’s famous field marshal Helmuth von Moltke -- were all appalled by Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. But like Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi, they had determined that the best chances of halting Hitler existed nearest to the levers of state power, requiring an involuntary complicity with the regime.

Perhaps the most significant scheme Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi hatched as officers in the Abwehr was an attempt to gain support for a coup from the United Kingdom. In May 1942, Bonhoeffer learned that George Bell, the bishop of Chichester and a member of the House of Lords, was visiting Sweden. Bonhoeffer knew Bell and flew to Stockholm to meet him. He told the bishop that a group of conspirators of some standing in Germany were ready to overthrow the Nazi regime. And he asked that the British government treat the potential coup seriously and refrain from taking military advantage of any instability that might result in Germany should the coup succeed.

Bell delivered the message to the United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Anthony Eden. But Eden refused to make any hypothetical commitments, and Bell got no further with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The German resistance had made similar appeals to other foreign governments, with the same result, so Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi had had no illusions about their chances of success. But they had felt that they had to attempt to secure some encouragement, if not the kind of material aid that the Allies were extending to every resistance movement in Europe except the German one.

Given the German public’s enduring support for Hitler, Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi also understood the risks that resistance carried for themselves and their families. As Sifton and Stern put it, they sacrificed “everything that was good in the private realm so as to combat evil in the public realm.”

It was in this spirit that Dohnanyi orchestrated the smuggling in 1942 of 14 Jews from Berlin to Switzerland, dis­guising them as intelligence agents, which allowed the group to cross the border with the approval of Heinrich Himmler, the SS chief. But the gambit ultimately proved to be Dohnanyi’s undoing: in April 1943, the Nazis arrested Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer on charges of currency violations connected with the funding of the Switzerland mission.

In the book’s final section, Sifton and Stern describe the two men’s imprisonment, which lasted nearly two years, noting their steadfast refusal to name any associates. The authors describe how in the face of grueling interrogations, Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi drew on their formidable dialectical and legal training in a final act of resistance, deflecting the Gestapo’s accusations, threats, and verbal abuse. Both were hanged in April 1945 -- just weeks before the Red Army took Berlin.


To be sure, not all German resisters counted Jewish persecution as their primary motivation. Other Nazi offenses were abhorrent enough: the suspension of Germany’s democratic constitution, the abrogation of civil rights, the unscrupulous sacrifice of millions of soldiers, the mass murder of Soviet prisoners of war. Over the course of the war, Henning von Tresckow, a senior military officer, planned and attempted several coups, all of which involved efforts to take Hitler’s life. None succeeded, and after the failed July 1944 “Operation Valkyrie” assassination attempt, Tresckow committed suicide. But a year before his death, Tresckow made clear to his trusted secretary that it was the mass murder of the Jews that had driven him and his coconspirators to seek Hitler’s death.

Claus von Stauffenberg, the colonel who planted the bomb intended to kill Hitler in the Valkyrie plot, also cited the murder of the Jews as a main motive. In April 1942, talking with a staff officer in the army high command, Stauffenberg expressed his outrage at the brutal treatment of the civilian population in German-occupied Russia, the mass murder of the Jews, and the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. In May, on receiving an eyewitness account of SS men rounding up Jews in a Ukrainian town, making them dig their own mass grave, and then shooting them, Stauffenberg determined that Hitler must be removed. “They are shooting Jews in masses,” he later told another officer. “These crimes must not be allowed to continue.”

Tresckow and Stauffenberg were not alone: surviving Gestapo records individually quote 15 of the several dozen resisters who tried to kill Hitler in July 1944 as telling their interrogators that they opposed the Nazi regime for its persecution of the Jews. After months of interrogating and torturing the conspirators, the Gestapo concluded that

the entire inner alienation from the ideas of National Socialism that characterized the men of the reactionary conspiratorial circle expresses itself above all in their position on the Jewish Question. . . . They stubbornly take the liberal position of granting to the Jews in principle the same status as to every German.

Why did the attempts on Hitler’s life between 1938 and 1944 consistently fail? A central reason was that the Nazis were unsparing in suppressing dissent inside Germany. Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis, using state-sanctioned procedures, executed some 77,000 Germans for political offenses and murdered innumerable domestic opponents in concentration camps without any semblance of due process. German courts-martial executed some 25,000 German soldiers. (By comparison, Allied courts-martial relating to World War II resulted in fewer than 300 death sentences.) Gestapo informers regularly thwarted attempts at forming coalitions. The radio was exclusively in government control; that left duplicating and spreading leaflets by hand, an inefficient method quickly detected and easily halted by the police.

And given how difficult it was just to distribute anti-Nazi leaflets, devising a plan to assassinate Hitler was far from simple. Several plots came close to succeeding, however, and most were frustrated by bad luck, technical malfunctions, or unpredictable changes in Hitler’s schedule. The Valkyrie plot, which hinged on the detonation of a briefcase bomb, was no exception. Stauffenberg, whose service in Tunisia had left him with one eye and just three fingers on a single hand, was the plot’s key orchestrator. On the morning of July 20, he arrived at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair headquarters, on the eastern front, and set about activating the fuses of two 1,000-gram packets of explosives -- a process that was interrupted by an orderly who asked Stauffenberg to hurry to a midday briefing with Hitler that had already begun. In immediate danger of being detected, Stauffenberg cut short the activation and went off to the briefing with only half the amount of explosives that he had planned to use. The bomb exploded, and Hitler might still have been killed if Stauffenberg’s briefcase had been placed -- or had remained -- close enough to Hitler. But Stauffenberg had departed the meeting (leaving his briefcase behind) to fly back to Berlin, where he was the only conspirator willing and able to run the next stage of the planned coup.

This points to the appalling fact that no one in Berlin except Stauffenberg could be relied on to set things in motion after the assassination attempt. Tresckow was fighting on the eastern front, and Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi were already in Nazi custody. As a result, Stauffenberg had an impossible double role -- managing two parts of the plot in two separate places, 350 miles apart. The fact that he was the only one with the will and the courage to go through with the entire undertaking is the deeper and more tragic reason for the plot’s failure.

In the weeks leading up to his execution, Dohnanyi offered a similar explanation for the resisters’ lack of success: “The obtuseness and cowardice of people of property and influence, and the stupidity of most officers, frustrated all efforts.” This kind of thinking, of course, was a common refrain of German resisters bemoaning the weakness of their own movement. “Since the conquest of Poland, three hundred thousand Jews in this land have been murdered in the most bestial manner,” read one 1942 leaflet distributed by the White Rose, a student resistance group at the University of Munich. “The German people are again sleeping on in obtuse, stupid sleep, giving these fascist criminals the temerity and opportunity to continue to rage -- and they are doing it. . . . Everyone is guilty, guilty, guilty!” (The group’s leaders, Hans Scholl and his sister Sophie Scholl, were beheaded the following year.)

Sifton and Stern conclude their book with a look at how even after the Nazis’ defeat, the Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi families faced public and official calumny for being relatives of traitors. In Germany today, of course, the two resisters are officially honored. But if the stories of the men and women who did oppose Nazi rule are still not widely known, it is in part because they shame those who did not resist, whether owing to a pre­occupation with survival, lack of opportunity, weakness of character, or active support for the Nazi regime. Sifton and Stern, then, have done an important service, exploring the lives of two men who took the path that, in Dohnanyi’s mind, “a decent person inevitably takes.”

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