While scholarly literature about the Holocaust is vast and continually expanding, writings about the members (admittedly very few in number) of the resistance are still quite rare. Men and women familiar to scholars, like Gertrud Luckner, John M. Oesterreicher, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri de Lubac are often viewed as isolated heroes, presciently calling into the void alone.
Two extraordinary new books do much to complicate this view and enrich our understanding of this topic. On the one hand, they indeed confirm how rare acts of resistance to Nazism actually were. During the 12 years after Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany in 1933 until the end of the war in 1945, very, very few Europeans took the path they chose. On the other hand, two new books counteract the stereotype of the lonely hero acting in splendid isolation. Although the titles—No Ordinary Men and Not I—emphasize what set them apart from other human beings, both books plunge their protagonists into the world of their intimate relationships, particularly their families. These resisters cannot be extracted from the personal bonds from which they drew support and garnered political goods like clandestine information, but these same bonds also suffered immensely under their unwavering commitment to principles.
The first title, No Ordinary Men, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans Von Dohnányi: Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, explores the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, already well-known to many readers, but situates him in relation to his brother-in-law, the lawyer Hans von Dohnányi, who is almost completely unknown in the English-speaking world. Dohnányi began his career as an aid to the state secretary in Germany and eventually became assistant to the minister of justice, which gave him access to secret information about the Hitler regime. Very early on, Dohnányi was aware of the dangers and recorded Nazi crimes. Along with his wife Christine and Christine’s brother, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dohnányi helped some victims escape Germany and eventually planned Hitler’s assassination.
The authors are superb storytellers. For example, they explain in heart-breaking detail the failed initial attempt, in which Dohnányi and his cohort disguised a bomb in two gift bottles of liquor and successfully placed them on Hitler’s airplane. But it never detonated as planned (imagine how devastating that must have been). Hans, Dietrich and Christine were all eventually imprisoned, though Christine was released after a week. While in prison, Hans decided his only escape from death would be severe illness, which would transfer him to a hospital prison. The “unflinching Christine” brought poisoned food to her husband, which successfully infected him with diphtheria, partially paralyzed him and earned him a transfer to a hospital prison, which extended, though did not save, his life. Both he and Dietrich were executed in prison one month before the Allied forces arrived.
One of the authors of No Ordinary Men is Elisabeth Sifton, Reinhold Niebuhr’s daughter (Niebuhr was a mentor to Bonhoeffer), and the other is Fritz Stern, her spouse, an eminent historian of Nazi Germany and emeritus professor at Columbia University. The book is beautifully written, concise and a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. It is impossible to think of Bonhoeffer in isolation any longer, outside this family circle, and we see how unusually courageous the actions of this extraordinary community were.
The second book, Not I, Memoirs of a German Childhood, is the powerful memoir of the eminent historian and journalist of Nazi Germany, Joachim Fest (1926-2006). The book first appeared in Germany in 2006 as Ich Nicht and was widely celebrated. Although Fest wrote the book at age 79, toward the end of his productive life, he pulled up his earliest memories of childhood and youth growing up in a Catholic family in the outskirts of Berlin, to tell his life’s story. Here too familial relationships are the book’s center of gravity, particularly Fest’s relationship with his father, Johannes Fest.
Johannes was a critic of Nazism from 1933 onward and never wavered. This cost him his job as early as 1933, and he dedicated much of his energy to learning about Nazi crimes and refusing to cooperate with the state. Joachim was brought into the orbit of his father’s resistance as a young boy, and was included in the nightly “second supper” with his parents and older brother, where the regime was spoken about openly, out of earshot of his younger sisters, asleep nearby. His father took his children to see the scorched remains of the Reichstag and explained, in clear terms, what had happened. Fest paints his mother much less heroically than his father; she only reluctantly went along with her husband throughout the ordeal of resistance, terrified for her children’s safety throughout, begging her husband to compromise. Any parent reading cannot but be moved by the mother’s almost paralyzing fears.
Fest describes his father as an otherwise rather conservative individual, a Catholic active in the conservative Zentrum political party and a member of the Bildungsbürgertum, the German middle-class cultural elite who savored Geothe, Mozart and Schiller. (Incidentally, Bonhoeffer’s own childhood family was one similarly immersed more in music and elite culture than anything else.) Fest’s father gave them coins for each poem they memorized perfectly, even in the midst of the escalating violence. Indeed, part of Fest’s point is to show the quiet dignity of his father, who maintained his disobedience to the state even under the constant threat of danger, and managed to instill in his children love of learning, the virtue of always asking questions rather than having answers to them and not being afraid to go against the grain. But nothing obvious set him up for this role.
Hence the story complicates our assumptions of the different political paths Catholic conservative and liberal sensibilities took from 1933 until 1945. As Fest’s father insisted, there was no way to really predict how morally people would act in moments of crisis. Both books are extraordinarily humane additions to our understanding of those who acted heroically not alone, but alongside a few intimates, together facing into the void.