Review: No Ordinary Men, Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Hans von Dohnanyi

Stern and Sifton Bonhoeffer and Dohnanyi No Ordinary MenElisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern’s, 2013 publication, ‘No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi,’ is, to loosely apply the cliché, an appeal to the sublime.

Their primary goal is to raise awareness of Hans von Dohnanyi, a lawyer in the Abwehr (German Army Intelligence), who played an important role in the German anti-Nazi movement.

Sifton and Stern do an outstanding job of briefly paralleling the stories of Dohnanyi with that of Bonhoeffer’s, showing that a nexus did exist between the narratives of both men.

For instance there is some discussion about whether or not, Dohnanyi, in attempting to save Bonhoeffer’s life, actually only ended up unintentonally instigating his eventual death at the hands of the S.S. [i]

Two chief reasons for this exist,

Firstly, it was Dohnanyi who stopped the authorities from conscripting Bonhoeffer into the army, like they did to a large amount of Confessing Church theologians. It was Dohnanyi who ‘decisively turned Bonhoeffer from church opposition to state resistance.’[ii]

Secondly, it was Dohnanyi who helped to set ‘Operation Valkyrie in motion’[iii], bravely compiled the damning dossier of Nazi atrocities, (The ‘Zossen Files’), and it was Dohnanyi who was regarded by the Gestapo as being the ‘‘Spiritual head of the conspiracy to eliminate Hitler”[iv], not Bonhoeffer; making Dohnanyi a vital player, right at the heart of the resistance movement.

One fair criticism raised by Sifton and Stern is that Bonhoeffer’s biographers (Ebherhard Bethge, Ferdinand Schlingensiepen and the much derided Eric Metaxas) tend to not make a clear enough distinction between the roles both men played in the small, but considerable German Anti-Nazi resistance movement.

These facts lead Sifton and Stern to claim that Bonhoeffer’s biographers have ignorantly overlooked and as a result, overshadowed Dohnanyi, by over-emphasising Bonhoeffer’s role in the German anti-Nazi resistance movement.

They argue that it is ‘historically wrong and morally unjust to Dohnanyi, to play down his role in the resistance movement.’[v] This is because the ‘Third Reich had no greater, more courageous and more admirable enemies than they; both men’s lives offer lasting moral instruction[vi], therefore, Dohnanyi and Bonhoeffer deserve to be remembered together.’[vii]

From another angle, ‘No Ordinary Men’ is also a counter balance to rhetoric which attaches itself to the icon[viii] that Sifton and Stern think Bonhoeffer has become.

‘After the war, many German pastors wanted to emphasize his church work and disassociate their fallen colleague  from any tyrannicidal activity, of which they strongly disapproved; others were happy to do the opposite, emphasising his participation in the anti-Hitler plots and averting their eyes from the sorry record of their churches’ collusion with the dictator. It was convenient to simply transform Bonhoeffer into an icon of heroic German Protestantism; that one could call him a martyr made it even better.’[ix]

Unfortunately, the brilliance of ‘No Ordinary Men’ is itself dwarfed by some of its more jarring conclusions.

Ambiguity and generalisations exist within Sifton and Stern’s criticisms. Each is found in a list of concerns they voice about the qualifications and agenda of Bonhoeffer’s key biographers[x].

For example, they are more forgiving to Bethge and even Ferdinand Schlingensiepen in their short critique, than they are towards Eric Metaxas, who they charge as

‘trying to capture Bonhoeffer for the cause of fundamentalist evangelicalism, consequently blurring’ Bonhoeffer’s story.’[xi]

That Metaxas or even Bethge overreach in rhetoric at times, for the sake of readability, is not in dispute.

What is questionable though is Sifton and Stern’s own conclusions about Metaxas.

I have Schlingensiepen’s German edition and am finding my way slowly through Bethge’s monumental work on Bonhoeffer. I’ve also read the unabridged version of Metaxas’ work, and find myself in disagreement with Sifton and Stern.

For this reason, whether they want to or not, Sifton and Stern, appear to propagate a war-like suspicion. One that assumes the “right” is actively employing a conspiracy against the “left.”[xii]

Moreover, their final criticisms make them appear petty; it’s as if they only unveil an appeal to a ‘fundamentalist cause’ of their own.

From an Australian perspective, this only serves to be yet another example of the burgeoning, dangerous and conceited cold civil war between left and right American academia. An ideological, theological and cultural war that is continuing to cripple respectful debate, academic impartiality, and respect for diversity of thought.

Sifton and Stern appear unable to understand that Metaxas has made the historical context, details of Bonhoeffer’s life, and the life of those around him, including Hans von Dohnanyi, more accessible to the less-than privileged majority. Bonhoeffer’s story is available and affordable reading for those who will never have a tenured chance to read Bethge’s monumental and costly version; or who neither have the time nor the privilege of patronage that will enable them to study the primary documents at the highest level of empirical accuracy.

One begins to wonder, whether, if at some point, a form of hypocrisy exists in their appeal to popular criticisms of Metaxas. This raises questions about whether or not these popular criticisms hand out the message that no one knows, or can know, write or speak about Bonhoeffer unless they align to a particular theological position or a particular political, intellectual class?

The tentative conclusion is that Sifton and Stern are guilty of tu quoque, implying that Bonhoeffer’s biographers have created some sort of hagiography, then inferring that those biographers have defiled some sort of saintly subject.

In the end, however, the reader is still left with a positive impression. The Church must not forget that Bonhoeffer did not act alone.‘No Ordinary Men’ is not so much about calling for a total re-reading of the historical Bonheoffer as it is a call to rescue the historical Dohnanyi from the fog of history.

It brings the life of Dohnanyi into focus. By setting Dohnanyi alongside the life of Bonheoffer and the long history of the German anti-Nazi movement, Sifton and Stern, bring Hans von Dohnanyi’s brave efforts against Nazism further into the light.

Despite some let-downs, ‘No Ordinary Men’ is worth taking the time to read. It’s an informative, well-written, honest attempt to raise Hans von Dohnanyi up to his rightful place in history.

Sifton and Stern do this and, for the most part, they do it well.


[i] Sifton and Stern point out that Dohnanyi wrestled with this as well.

[ii] Sifton, E. & Stern, F. 2013 No Ordinary Men: Resisters Against Hitler in Church & State New York Review of Books,  (p.141)

[iii] Ibid, p.118

[iv] Ibid, p.126

[v]  Ibid, p.141

[vi] Ibid, p.141 & 142

[vii] Ibid, p.142

[viii] ‘the elevation of Bonhoeffer to iconic martyrdom occluded the larger, more significant German historical drama in which he played such an important part’ (ibid, p.141)

[ix] Ibid, p.140

[x] This is laid out in the appendix

[xi] Ibid, p.147

[xii] Which is interesting, because hasn’t this group, themselves, laid quiet claim to Bonhoeffer over the years?

[The title of this post is borrowed from page 141 of Sifton and Stern’s ‘No Ordinary Men’]

2 thoughts on “Review: No Ordinary Men, Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Hans von Dohnanyi

  1. Corbin McNabb says:

    Bonhoeffer had opposed the Nazis on a smaller scale before his brother in law enlisted him into the resistance. It is somewhat interesting that DB wasn’t already arrested.
    Neither man was without flaws and sometimes questionable judgments.
    But both were honorable men, deserving of respect.



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