In The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler
, author and illustrator John Hendrix presents a graphic biography
about the life and adventures of a celebrated German theologian who tried to stop Adolf Hitler's murderous regime. Published by Amulet Books in 2018, it is not just the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but an account of the larger German resistance movement that actively worked to bring down Hitler and restore order to a battered Europe. The Faithful Spy
is appropriate for readers ten and older. The Society of Illustrators awarded it a Gold Medal in 2018.
The book opens with an introduction that serves as a warning to the reader, letting us know that the following is about Bonhoeffer and the German resistance, and cautioning us against assuming that all Germans were, by default, Nazis during the reign of Hitler. "We should be careful before we condemn all of Germany along with Hitler's devils," Hendrix writes. Case in point: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the first to suspect Hitler and his regime of their genocide against the Jewish people.
Hendrix offers a snapshot of the Germany that gave rise to Hitler in the first place. Broken and devastated by World War I, Germans needed a leader to give them some sense of hope. Hitler, like "a diabolical Pied Piper," emerged with a message of fervent nationalism, and Germans were soon swept up in the frenzy he created. Bonhoeffer was one of the hundreds of truly
patriotic Germans who did not fall for Hitler's rhetoric, seeing the new guard for what it really was.
The reasons for Bonhoeffer's resistance have their roots deep in his Christian faith. The Faithful Spy
begins as Bonhoeffer, at eighteen, is already beginning his training in theology. It is a natural progression from a youth filled with faith and music. Born on February 6, 1906, Bonhoeffer first dreams of becoming a pianist, establishing himself as something of a piano virtuoso. Nevertheless, it is in Christianity that he finds his true calling. From an early age, he and his twin sister, Sabine, wonder about the nature of eternity and what heaven must be like. Bible stories captivate him, and at fourteen, he announces that he is a theologian. While a faithful bunch, his family members—which includes seven brothers and sisters—are all more interested in academics such as science, math, and the law. Young Dietrich stands out, and his siblings tease him, but his large family supports his ambitions nonetheless.
It isn't just his proximity to Christianity that shapes Bonhoeffer's faith. After his brother dies in World War I, Bonhoeffer grapples with the notion of how a seemingly benevolent God could allow such suffering. Eventually, questions like these don't drive him from the church; they bring him closer to it. Seeking answers, he commits himself to finding them in the church. He yearns for something beyond knowledge.
At this point in the narrative, Hendrix discusses Hitler's ascension and how everyday Germans were swayed by Hitler's wild and dangerous misinterpretations of Christianity. Playing on the nation's war-ravaged spirit and Protestant ideals, Hitler identifies an enemy that he feels is the same enemy of Christians everywhere: the Jewish people.
Bonhoeffer receives his bachelor's and master's degrees at the University of Tübingen before getting his doctorate at Berlin University. He completes further schooling at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. New York, especially Harlem and the poverty and struggle he witnesses there, awakens Bonhoeffer's social consciousness. From then on, he links his understanding of Christianity with a championing of racial, ethnic, and economic equality. After becoming a lecturer at the University of Berlin, the church ordains Bonhoeffer.
Two years later, just days after Hitler takes the chancellorship, Bonhoeffer begins speaking out about the Fuhrer and the inherent dangers of following such a man. Even in the face of mounting opposition, Bonhoeffer doesn't give up. He continues speaking out, especially when Nazis infiltrate the church, winning coveted leadership positions. Soon, Bonhoeffer becomes a key figure in the formation of the Confessing Church, a denomination that recognizes Christ—not Adolf Hitler—as the leader of the church. In the meantime, Bonhoeffer remains with the German Protestant church in which he was ordained, eventually taking an appointment at two German-speaking London parishes. As he ministers to his new parishioners in London, he maintains regular communications with other founders of the still-forming Confessing Church back home.
In 1935, Bonhoeffer returns to Germany. The University of Berlin fires him for his political positions. For the next three years, he operates underground seminaries, traveling between multiple German cities, in which he helps train pastors for the Confessing Church. However, in 1938, the Gestapo bars him from entering Berlin. From there, he first encounters members of the German resistance. With war looming, he returns to the United States at the invitation of his alma mater, Union Theological Seminary. However, his guilt over leaving his native Germany consumes him, and he returns—on the last Germany-bound steamer before the outbreak of World War II.
In 1941, Bonhoeffer joins a German military intelligence group and learns the full scale of Nazi atrocities. Afforded much protection by his membership in the group, he relays messages for the German resistance and rallies support for the cause. The narrative delves into the group's failed plot to assassinate Hitler. Nazis uncover Bonhoeffer's secret work and arrest him, but only later do they learn of his involvement with the would-be assassins in the 20 July Plot. It is then that they order his execution. After two long years of imprisonment, during which Bonhoeffer provides religious and spiritual support to his fellow prisoners, the Nazis hang him on April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp. Bonhoeffer's last recorded words are: "This is the end—for me the beginning of life."