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Good story but worryingly bad history
on 2 October 2012
I must admit I nearly gave up almost straight away, some aspects of this book worry me. Historical truth matters, in a book that could be termed Christian, we need the truth.
Metaxas thesis is that the German's have been hard done to in the reporting of the war. Blamed for the first world war, all lumped together as evil in the second, he writes of German Christians and wants to raise our view of them. I understand the need for German heroes, and indeed in the White Rose organisation and in other places there existed. Metaxas particular bile is saved for the British.
The reason why the 1938 planned plots against Hitler failed was the appeasement of Chamberlain. The British hated the Germans. The German's are always shown as Christian people, while the British (other than Bell) are shown in a bad light, particularly Churchill. However, while appeasement obviously failed, this shows that the British did not want to fight Germany (though Chamberlain returned home and started preparing for a war that Britain was not ready for).
The problem is that confronted by facts Metaxas thesis unravels. He justifies the nationalism of the Germans during and after World War one, and treats the Nazi's as an aberration caused by the hated Versailles Treaty. However, the treatment of Poland and the targeting of civilians in the Second World War was not something new as Metaxas claims, the Germans shelled Scarborough and bombed civilians in London (killing around 700 Londoners) in the First World War. What was different in the WWII was the possibilities that the new mechanisation brought, possibilities that were not available in WW1. German Nationalism caused the rise of Hitler, and Hitler could only have achieved the death and destruction that he achieved because of the German Army. That some of those in the high command were Christians therefore is a reason for deep concern.
Bonhoeffer's attitude on some of this is escapist and at times bizarre, and there are wider concerns. We see German confessing Pastors going to fight against those who were trying to bring Hitler's regime to the end, and asking what they should do when asked to shoot prisoners or be shot themselves (as a Christian with simple theology the answers seems as straightforward as it is costly). Bonhoeffer seems afraid to speak out on this most important of all issues. One pastor heroically refuses to fight and is beheaded in what certainly was an act of Christian martydom, but Bonhoeffer (and Metaxas) seem afraid to call others to the true cost of discipleship.
The reason why the British did not support the assassination of Hitler, is twofold, firstly they feared that he would most probably be replaced by someone equally evil who might be a better tactician. Hitler's erratic behaviour led Germany to defeat. Secondly, the British believed after the Germans had led Europe into three major wars since 1870, and that the only solution was a German unconditional surrender that would allow the issues to be resolved. The British policy was proved right by history. Also it seems to have been the will of God, every attempt to kill Hitler failed. His final end was one of madness and cowardice in a Germany he led to its destruction. It was the right ending to the war. No one could claim Hitler was anything but a mad, evil and depraved failure.
The idea that the British should have parachuted their troops at great risk to themselves into the German camps to save members of the German army who had been fighting them is frankly ludicrous. One of the truths of history is that something that seem obvious with hindsight are not obvious at the time. The reason why the British were shocked after the war, was that they did not demonise the Germans to the extent where they expected to discover the level of evil that they did, with justice fast approaching the fact that the Nazi's continued to the bitter end in their evil is shocking. The reason why the British supported setting up courts of international justice, is so that the trials of crimes against humanity could be enshrined in international law, and people would know that there would be justice. The true heroes of the war were these troops who liberated Europe, so that as Churchill put it "all Europe could be free". He always included Germany in that, and British policy was clear that there would still be a place for Germany in the modern world. The German Christians should have done the right thing, even if the British would not respond to it in what they thought was the right way. Blaming Churchill for the failure of the German plots on Hitler abrogates the moral responsibility that we all have to oppose evil. Rewriting history to support your point, only undermines it.
The German resistance achieved very little, if anything, of any substance. The reason for Churchill's cynicism is that while the German's were successfully invading Europe and killing everyone, their Christian conscience seemed to allow them to go on - even when if it was not for the German Army then millions of Jews and others outside of Germany would have lived. Karl Barth was right, it was a just war for the enemies of Germany, and the German Christians who fought for Hitler were actively fighting for evil. The German resistance therefore should have fought against the German state, blowing up its apparatus to enable others to escape its grasp. They did not. By the time of the July plot Germany was month's away from defeat, it had clearly lost, and that was part of the motivation of the conspirators.
That is not to decry Bonhoeffer but I'm uncomfortable about calling him a prophet, and probably he could have done a lot more good if he had stayed in America and lived, rather than come back to Germany and died. Therefore, in many ways he was in some ways a pointless martyr, who might have done a lot more good for the Kingdom of God had he stayed out the war in America. His homesick return to Germany is open to interpretation. Indeed had he stayed and worked in America, with some of the material that later led to his death, that could have helped to bring America to the war earlier which could have shortened the war and reduced the suffering for everyone.
The issue is that there are lessons for us today from the danger of Christian nationalism, Metaxas's book thereby avoid a message that is very pertinent for today. I'm worried that the rehabilitation of German Nationalism has ramifications for today, particularly when written in an America where might and right can be confused.
While the story is good, with the issues that there are in the bits that I know about, and I could go on at length, it raises real questions about the reliability of the rest of the book. It is a good story, and I know that Metaxas's has written children's books and Veggie Tales, but when you are telling real stories, you need to tell the real story.