Author: Patricia McCormick
Publisher: Balzer + Bray
Publication Date: September 13, 2016
Audience: Ages 8 – 13
Summary: The Gestapo arrived and Dietrich Bonhoeffer arranged his files, left his diary with fake information on his desk, said goodbye to his parents, put his Bible under his arm and left with the officers. He was being arrested because of work that he had done to get Jews, among them his twin sister and her husband, into Switzerland. But he left behind in the rafters, proof in his own handwriting of his part in a plot to kill Hitler. What led this pastor and son of wealth and education to this place in life? The book goes back to his boyhood in a large, privileged family of 8 children; to his decision at 14 to be a minister rather than a musician; to the death of his brother, Walter, in the 1st World War; to his outstanding academic career. He took two trips that had profound impact on him: to the Vatican where he caught a glimpse of the universal church and to the United States where he worshiped and taught Sunday school at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. While Bonhoeffer was growing into a vision of the church that takes action for justice, Hitler was rising to power in Germany. As the Nazi party gained complete power, Bonhoeffer tried to rally the clergy of the Lutheran church to oppose its program of exterminating Jews and replacing the cross with the swastika. Dietrich gained limited support from the clergy but a Confessing Church with a seminary was established, though eventually closed by the Nazis. He had an opportunity to spend a year with Gandhi, whose pacifism inspired him, and to return to New York and Union Seminary where he would escape the inevitable conflict with Nazi rule. But he chose to stay in Germany, to suffer with his people, and to become a part of the plot to expose Hitler to the world and eventually to assassinate him. The plot involved his brother and two brothers-in-law as well as several others. And it involved deep soul searching on Dietrich’s part as he struggled to live with what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. During the time he was travelling for the conspiracy and informing the world of Hitler’s plans, he fell in love and became engaged. Almost immediately, he was arrested. He spent two years in prison, writing letters, holding services, counseling fellow prisoners. He was hanged without trial for treason at Flossenburg two weeks before the Allies arrived.
Literary elements at work in the story: This is exciting history, told clearly with every aid to fill the gaps in a late elementary and middle schooler’s knowledge of the 2nd World War. The cast of characters is large and it is listed and identified before the story begins. Boxed insets offer definitions and summaries of events. There’s a timeline, an index, pictures, and a bibliography. The chapters are short, four pages the maximum, making the plot move more rapidly than it actually did. (The conspirators were active for over six years ) A concluding note by the author sums up the continuing influence of Bonhoeffer and his writing.
How does the perspective on gender/race/culture/economics/ability make a difference to the story? Race is a major theme as Jews are targeted as enemies of Germany, deprived of jobs, and eventually sent to concentrations camps. Bonhoeffer was the first to warn the West of these plans. His experience with racial discrimination in the USA influenced his thinking about the church’s responsibility for the oppressed. The Bonhoeffer family was wealthy, educated, gifted, and had high social status. Dietrich’s uncle was the warden of the prison where he was first confined and this connection protected him from the harshest treatment. .
Theological Conversation Partners: Anyone who has met Bonhoeffer through his letters from prison or his books will find this story a somewhat one dimensional portrait of the pastor. The author is focusing on one aspect of Bonhoeffer’s life, the undercover work that he did. Books about Bonhoeffer as a theologian, as a church leader and pastor, as a devout disciple of prayer, could be and have been written. McCormick is primarily concerned with his stand for social justice, not the relationship with God that called him to take this stand. The questions which challenged Dietrich are still questions for Christian disciples: Can we see evil and not oppose it without being complicit in the evil ourselves? Can a state church be free to speak the truth against the state? What is the meaning of discipleship?
Faith Talk Questions:
- What effect do you think the death of Walter had on Dietrich’s decision to become a theologian?
- In what way did World War I give birth to World War II? Can we ever get even?
- What impact did Dietrich’s trip to Rome have on his understanding of the church? How do you think it made a difference in his experience in America?
- How did Dietrich’s time in America changes his ideas about the church?
- Hitler took control of the church to make it support his programs. Can you think of a time in the history of the American church when the church supported programs or policies that are contrary to the way of Christ?
- Bonhoeffer was a pacifist who felt that all killing was wrong. How did he justify joining the assassination plot?
- The Confessing Church which Bonhoeffer and others established in opposition to Hitler’s control of the church wrote a creed, a statement of faith, called the Barmen Declaration. It is part of the confessional statements of many denominations today and can easily be found on line.
- “Silence in the face of evils is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Do you think Bonhoeffer’s statement is true? Are there places where we should be speaking and acting today?
This review is written by regular contributor and Union Presbyterian Seminary alumna Virginia Thomas.
The Plot to Kill Hitler by Storypath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.