Monday, October 17, 2016

A Moral Dilemma

The Plot to Kill Hitler: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, pastor, spy, unlikely hero by Patricia McCormick tells an important and lesser known story about one of a group of men who risked their lives to assassinate one of the most diabolical dictators. A better known co-conspirator is Claus Schenk Graf Von Stauffenberg.

But this book focuses on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We learn about his life, of his privileged childhood from a large, loving German family, of being quiet and introspective from an early age and that eventually he was drawn to theology and ordained as a minister. His academic work about the role of the church in the lives of ordinary people as a force of good was well respected.  Experiences working with the poor and underprivileged children in Barcelona, Harlem, New York and Berlin became defining periods in his life.

While Dietrich Bonhoeffer was in New York he meet Martin Luther King Jr. and others who later became leaders in the American civil rights movement and became aware of segregation. He saw firsthand how “separate but equal” played out in the lives of African Americans.

When he returned to Berlin in 1931, support for the Nazi party was growing and Bonhoeffer could see parallels between the anti-Jewish sentiments of Nazi supporters and the Jim Crow laws in America. He was concerned enough to speak out against the Nazis. In 1933, after Hitler became chancellor, Bonhoeffer is told by his brother-in-law, Hans von Dohnanyi, the Nazis were about to increase and implement a more active exclusion of Jews from German society.

Bonhoeffer felt that the clergy had an obligation to help those in need including those being persecuted by the Nazis. He did not have the support of most of his fellow clergymen as the Nazis had already approached them with offers of political influence and standing in return for their allegiance to Hitler. To speak out against the Nazis and Hitler was treason.

During the mid-1930s he travelled to other European countries attempting to convince church leaders to try and protest against the Nazis with no takers. By the early 1940s, while working as a double agent, Bonhoeffer tries to get information out to Great Britain and other European countries about the atrocities perpetuated by the Nazis hoping to gain support for the conspiracy to kill Hitler.

In the author’s note, Patricia McCormick tells us of her interest in this story because of the paradox of a pacifist clergyman who would become involved in a conspiracy to kill.  She asks, “How could a man of faith justify murder?” This is an interesting element to the story. For Bonhoeffer and a few others involved in the conspiracy, it presented a moral dilemma. Is treason a sin? How does a person appease their conscience when they are about to commit a mortal sin?

This well researched biography helps us understand the path that led Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his decision to act against the state, Hitler, church and his own peace-loving beliefs. It includes a timeline, references, bibliography, index, photos and sidebars with supplemental materials. I recommend this for grades 6 and up.

This book would pair well with other books about others who resisted the Nazis and sought to aid those who were persecuted, such as

His Name was Raoul Wallenberg by Louise Borden – recommended for middle grades
The Boys Who Challenged Hitler by Phillip Hoose – recommended for grades 9 and up.
The Grand Mosque of Paris by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix] – for middle grades

In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke – recommended for grades 8-12


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