Review of "The Faithful Spy: A True Story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler" by John Hendrix. New York, NY: Abrams Amulet, 2018 [For ages 10+]. Please visit the Lesson Plan link and scroll to The Faithful Spy for lesson and discussion suggestions and links for additional related teaching resources.
“The great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts. For evil to appear disguised as light, charity, historical necessity or social justice is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who bases his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” Letters and Papers from Prison (1967; 1997)
The Faithful Spy is the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor/theologian and staunch German patriot who grows increasingly uncomfortable with Hitler's agenda of genocide and hatred. It is a story of Bonhoeffer's struggle with how his faith and ethics conflict with his patriotism and love of Germany. And while it is a story of World War II from the German perspective, it also a story of how Bonhoeffer finds strength (from like-minded colleagues in Germany and from friends in Harlem, New York, and the deep Jim-Crow South ) to eventually realize that Hitler must be stopped, knowing he is willing to sacrifice everything to do so.
What's so interesting about this book, aside from its riveting story is how Hendrix tells it.
Hendrix brilliantly integrates prose and images as well as graphic novel panels - all told in either red (depicting Hitler's story) or blue (depicting Bonhoeffer's story). This varied integration of text, image, color, and design gives Hendrix tremendous story-telling flexibility allowing him to seamlessly integrate maps and statistics with his images and prose to explain Hitler’s rise to power and his military strategies, as Bonhoeffer's story is told. Furthermore, as each page is uniquely designed graphically, they grab our attention at each glance while being chock-full of facts - constantly engaging the reader. We feel and understand Bonhoeffer's conflict and pain, and weigh his options along with him.
The book opens with Hendrix exquisitely explaining how Hitler, using fear and intimidation, rose to power. It then intertwines Hitler's evil plot against humanity with Bonhoeffer's struggle with his identity, ethics, and whether to support the Germany he loves. It is also a story of incredible courage and inner strength that spans not only what happened in Germany, but that takes us (in the 1930s) through Harlem, New York and the Jim-Crow South. It's his trip to the U.S. that helps Bonhoeffer sort through his options as he sees how Blacks in Harlem and the Jim-Crow South dealt with hatred and racial violence and sees how evil Hitler's plan to exterminate Jews really is.
In 1930 as Hitler is rising to power, Bonhoeffer is in New York City studying at the Union Theological Seminary. There, he befriends a young black student, Frank Fisher, and a Frenchman, Jean Lasserre who greatly influence Dietrich's thoughts and convictions.
Fisher (from Alabama and son of a pastor in the Jim-Crow era) takes Dietrich to Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem where Dr. Adam Clayton Powell's service was "shot through with radical urgency. It was intoxicating!" Dietrich comments as Powell booms: “Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!”
Fisher then takes Dietrich to Washington, D.C. and then the deep South, where Dietrich learns about the history of slavery and racism in America. Seeing how Dietrich is repulsed by the segregation and hatred he sees, Frank Fisher asks his friend how German churches respond to the prejudice, genocide and hatred they see against Jews. This is the first giant wedge in Bonhoeffer's growing inner struggle, as the German Lutheran churches did nothing but pray and support Hitler and his regime. It was here that Dietrich learned, "a real faith demanded action or it was no faith at all and that a church unwilling to stand up for suffering Jews would eventually stand for nothing."
Lasserre, a strong pacifist spent hours with Dietrich debating one's duty to God versus one's duty to country. Then, after seeing the movie, "All's Quiet on the Western Front" (based on a famous German book about World War I), they discuss the nature of war, whether there is ever a "good" war, and the nature of patriotism, free will, and the role of church.
After this visit to the U.S. and another one a few years later (when Dietrich - through family connections - is allowed to defer military service for one year to continue his studies at the Union Theological Seminary), Dietrich begins to speak out against Hitler and his actions. He gives speeches over the radio (speeches that were often cut off by), and publishes papers cautioning others on following false leaders and on how the church should respond to the "Jewish Question." He quickly finds himself to be on outsider but he holds to his convictions and begins preparing/teaching others how to preach without Nazi censorship. He soon finds himself at the forefront of anti-Nazi resistance and eventually agrees to join a few others to assassinate Hitler in order to save Germany and the world from Hitler's genocidal plans.
Hendrix tells this story in such a way that we too must debate and ask these question, and we deeply feel for Bonhoeffer. That's what makes this such an outstanding read for all. Aside from being wonderfully engaging it is a wonderful example of showing the moral, ethical, and patriotic/nationalistic issues of war. I highly recommend this book.
This is a story about:
World War II: How Hitler rose to power and remained unopposed when committing unconscionable genocide;
Bonhoeffer's struggle between his identity as 'staunch patriot' and ethical follower of God;
When to speak up for others and how best to do it;
Learning when one must address the needs of the many- as opposed to one's personal needs during dire times;
Questioning the role of the church - does it stop being place of God if it doesn't protect and value ALL life;
Incredible courage and inner strength that spans Germany, but that takes us (in the 1930s) to England; Harlem, New York; Washington, D.C., and the Jim-Crow South.
How people from such different cultures, backgrounds and locations can actually have serious impact on others' lives; and
Evaluating and coming to terms Clayton Powell's words," Obeying God means challenging injustice! You don’t just think about God. … You act!”
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