The Third Reich was the twentieth century’s most popular tyranny. After Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, most of Germany’s civil servants and professional elite collaborated with the Nazis or else tried to remain “unpolitical,” to retreat into “inner emigration.” Those who resisted were intimidated and silenced, often through terror and murder. To oppose the regime was rare and dangerous; to do so to protect the sanctity of law and faith was rarer still.
But nonetheless some did. Claus von Stauffenberg, who was at the center of the conspiracy that attempted to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944, is only the best-known member of the German resistance. No Ordinary Men is the story of two of the Nazi regime’s most courageous and admirable opponents: the pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his close friend and brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi. Bonhoeffer opposed Nazi racial thought and fought the Nazis’ efforts to control the German Protestant churches. Dohnanyi, a lawyer working in the Wehrmacht’s counterintelligence section, kept records of Nazi crimes to be used as evidence once the regime fell, helped victims, tried to sabotage Nazi policies, and conspired to assassinate Hitler. Both were arrested in April 1943 and interrogated about their resistance activities, and both were executed, after terrible suffering, in April 1945 as the Third Reich was collapsing.
Bonhoeffer’s writings were collected after the war; his Letters and Papers from Prison found a wide audience, and both his theological ideas and his resistance activities attracted much interest. Dohnanyi was less well known but his work in opposing the Nazis—and that of other members of their family—was intimately bound up with Bonhoeffer’s.
In No Ordinary Men, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern demonstrate that the resistance to the Nazi regime was a larger and more complicated drama than is usually depicted. Among those opposed to Hitler’s rule, their growing outrage about the treatment of the Jews was what motivated their decision to resist and to try to remove him, for they knew it was a barbarism that would be a burden of guilt for their nation ever after.
Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi embodied qualities all too rare among their countrymen at the time: integrity and hard work, selflessness, and remarkable bravery. Sifton and Stern honor both Bonhoeffer’s human decency and his theological legacy, as well as Dohnanyi’s preservation of the highest standard of civic virtue in an utterly corrupted state. Dohnanyi remarked that they had simply taken “the path that a decent person inevitably takes.” Their story expands our understanding of the responses to the Nazi regime and exemplifies how morality can endure in the face of depravity and horror.
About the Authors
Elisabeth Sifton is the author of The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, about the background to the famous prayer written by her father, Reinhold Niebuhr.
Fritz Stern is University Professor Emeritus and the former provost of Columbia University. His books include The Politics of Cultural Despair (1963), Gold and Iron: Bismarck, Bleichröder, and the Building of the German Empire (1977), andFive Germanys I Have Known (2006).