Opposing Hitler: The Extraordinary Stories of Two Men

A concise biography of two men who resisted the Third Reich testifies to the mixed records - and jumble of attitudes - of even the bravest of the regime's opponents.

Steven Silber
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in London, 1939 (L) and Hans von Dohnanyi, 1940.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer in London, 1939 (L) and Hans von Dohnanyi, 1940.Credit: Rotraut Forberg/Art Resource, NY
Steven Silber

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, 160 pages, $19.95

In the spring of 1933, just a few months after they took power, the Nazis summarily removed Jewish judges, lawyers and professors from their posts. But, as Fritz Stern and Elisabeth Sifton note in “No Ordinary Men,” their profile of two resisters – one celebrated, one unsung – to the Hitler regime, “there were hardly any protests anywhere.”

There were hardly any protests for the next 12 years – even from groups that might have been expected to speak out. The liberal wing of the country’s Protestant Church, for example, was keener to protect Christians with Jewish roots than Jews per se. The Catholic Church, which spearheaded the opposition to the Nazis’ killing of the severely handicapped, failed to speak out for the Jews.

Thus the efforts of Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the two unordinary men in the book’s title, have made him to many “an icon of heroic German Protestantism,” as Stern and Sifton put it. Bonhoeffer ramped up his opposition to the Nazis – first by helping lead the Protestant Church’s liberal wing, the Confessing Church, which opposed the pro-Nazi German Christians – until he was arrested for his links to the resisters who went on to plot the July 1944 assassination attempt on Hitler.

For the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer taught divinity students, especially in rural Pomerania northeast of Berlin. In the meantime, his theological writings included “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937), which provided a theoretical underpinning for resistance. Eventually, Nazi bans prevented him from publishing and public speaking.

Bonhoeffer’s brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, the other hero of “No Ordinary Men,” was a Justice Ministry official and military intelligence analyst who secretly documented the regime’s transgressions for posterity. Dohnanyi was rare for his generation – a young lawyer who had deeply believed in the Weimar Republic’s democratic values. Both men were imprisoned for two years and hanged in April 1945, one month before the war ended. Bonhoeffer was 39, Dohnanyi 43.

Bonhoeffer had made a mark early in Hitler’s rule by contending that the Lutheran Church had an “unconditional obligation toward the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian community,” as the cleric wrote in a 1933 essay. The Church, he added, must even “at times halt the wheel” of the state. This rare public condemnation of the Nazis contradicted standard Lutheran theology, which stressed obeisance to the state.

Still, Bonhoeffer hasn’t been spared criticism – for allegedly focusing his sympathy on Christians with Jewish roots rather than Jews per se, and for furthering the notion that Jews’ suffering reflected divine punishment and that Jews should convert to Christianity.

As American historian Kenneth C. Barnes put it in a 1999 article, “For each argument for church action [Bonhoeffer] presented a counter-argument… While in April 1933 he aimed to focus attention on injustices perpetrated against Jews and rally support for Christian Jews, his views smacked of the very attitudes and prejudices that made the Nazi Party successful and the Holocaust possible.”

Barnes’ quote comes from his article in the book “Betrayal: German Churches and the Holocaust,” edited by Robert P. Ericksen and Susannah Heschel. The authors of “No Ordinary Men” rightly note that there was far more to Bonhoeffer than the possible prejudice expressed in a single essay early in his career, but unfortunately they don’t rebut in detail the positions taken by critics like Barnes.

‘Serenity Prayer’

Sifton, a longtime editor and publisher, is the author of “The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War” (2004), on the background to the influential prayer written by her father, American Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Stern is a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.

The two writers, a husband-and-wife team, launched “No Ordinary Men” after being asked to expand on an article they wrote for The New York Review of Books last year; in the event, they’ve provided as short a book as possible.

It’s a shame, because Stern has devoted his life to 19th- and 20th-century German and Jewish history, in works that include his memoir “Five Germanys I Have Known” (2006). Stern lived in both the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s Reich, which he left for New York when he was 12; his Jewish paternal grandparents had converted to Christianity, while his Jewish maternal grandparents had had his mother baptized. Granted, the book is short, though one could say the effort was heroic – Stern is 87.

Despite its brevity, “No Ordinary Men” is particularly strong when conveying the atmosphere before and after the Nazi period; Stern and Sifton put the reader on the streets of Bonhoeffer’s genteel Grunewald neighborhood in Berlin around the time of World War I, when history would increasingly intrude on everyday life. At school in 1922, 16-year-old Dietrich could hear the shots when 300 meters away far-rightists assassinated Germany’s Jewish foreign minister, Walther Rathenau.

Jews were no strangers to Bonhoeffer, if one takes into consideration the following percentages for the community around World War I: Germany: 0.9 percent; Berlin: 4.3 percent; Grunewald: 13.5 percent; Bonhoeffer’s high school graduating class: four out of 10. (These statistics are provided by Barnes, citing a German-language work by historian Christine Ruth-Muller.)

Bomb that didn’t go off

Dohnanyi also came from a privileged background; his father was Hungarian composer Erno von Dohnanyi. In October 1934, as chief assistant to the conservative but non-Nazi justice minister, Dohnanyi began storing his records of the regime’s iniquities in a safe at a military base outside Berlin. As a key collaborator with the generals plotting against Hitler, it was Dohnanyi who in February 1943 hid a bomb on a plane carrying the Fuhrer to occupied Smolensk, Russia, where it was handed off for placement on board another plane during Hitler’s return trip west. It didn’t go off.

That episode is mentioned by Stern and Sifton, but somehow the cloak-and-dagger is missing. Maybe the suspense can be found in the 2002 German-language biography of Dohnanyi and his sister by theologian Marijke Smid, whose “outstanding work has not been translated,” Stern and Sifton note.

Still, “No Ordinary Men” probably represents the most accessible and evenhanded entry into the life of its main protagonist; Barnes charged that “Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography,” the 1,000-plus-page work first published in English in 1970, is marred by “attempts to heroize.” The author, Eberhard Bethge, was a close friend, student and relative by marriage of Bonhoeffer. Stern and Sifton note their own full disclosure: Sifton’s father Niebuhr taught Bonhoeffer in 1930-31, and both she and Stern are friends of one of Dohnanyi’s sons, a former Hamburg mayor. These are just two of many links.

In late 1940, with the help of Dohnanyi and other conspirators, Bonhoeffer took up a post as a military intelligence liaison based in Munich. In one key assignment, Bonhoeffer was sent to Norway, ostensibly to monitor the resistance led by the Norwegian Lutheran Church. Covertly, as an anti-Nazi resister himself, his task was to inform the Norwegian freedom fighters that they had kindred spirits in Germany.

Also, because he was in military intelligence, Bonhoeffer no longer had to worry about being drafted and could make contact abroad – ostensibly for the benefit of the German government – with British clergymen who had links to Churchill’s government. In this role he also reported on the deportation of Jews.

But Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer were arrested in April 1943, even before sufficient evidence had been collected against them – the Gestapo and SS had long been suspicious of the non-Nazis in military intelligence, some of whom, in fact, had been plotting against Hitler as early as 1938. Only in September 1944, two months after the July 20 assassination attempt on Hitler, was Dohnanyi’s secret trove of documents found, after he was betrayed by a military intelligence chauffeur. Maybe this was inevitable. As Stern and Sifton paraphrase Dohnanyi telling an anti-Nazi doctor in the weeks before he was hanged, “Only intrepid workers and disciplined Socialists of the sort Dohnanyi met in Sachsenhausen had it in them to be effective resisters.”

Disciplined socialists – social democrats – would once again play a role in a democratic (western) Germany weeks after Dohnanyi made these remarks, but justice proved elusive – Stern and Sifton deftly describe the country’s mixed success in coming to grips with its Nazi past.

“The Bonhoeffers and other survivors of the resistance faced pervasive calumny in defeated Germany… Surviving resisters to the Nazi regime and surviving families of murdered resisters were often treated more badly and more dishonorably than surviving Nazi officials,” they write. Only in the 1960s were Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi’s death sentences legally annulled in West Germany.

Stern and Sifton note the example of lawyer and SS officer Walter Huppenkothen, who interrogated Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi and served as the prosecutor in their SS trials. Huppenkothen worked as an informant for U.S. counterintelligence after the war; Communist infiltration was the fear of the day. “The West German public and West German justice seemed almost eager to exonerate Nazi officials and to vilify or traduce the resisters,” Stern and Sifton write. So many Germans still considered them traitors.

Only in 2002, the 100th anniversary of Dohnanyi’s birth, did the then-president of the German supreme court declare that the 1956 decisions acquitting Huppenkothen of murder “make one ashamed …. [I]n the Federal Republic hardly any judges or prosecutors involved in the thousands of judicial crimes of the Third Reich were convicted,” Justice Gunter Hirsch said at a ceremony.

There’s even tardiness here by the Israelis; only in 2003 did Yad Vashem declare Dohnanyi a member of the Righteous Among the Nations for his role in planning the successful escape to Switzerland of 13 Jews and Germans with Jewish roots.

In the end, Stern and Sifton admit that Bonhoeffer, Dohnanyi and the entire German resistance deserve further study. There were certainly enough complex characters in the resistance to back up that assertion. As the authors note, Martin Niemoller, the Protestant pastor and theologian who became famous for the statement “First they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out …,” was himself “an anti-Semite and an anti-Nazi, a not unusual combination.” Stern and Sifton appear right when they declare: “Resistance during Germany’s darkest time was a larger, deeper, and more complicated drama than is usually depicted.”

Steven Silber is an editor at Haaretz English Edition.

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